“Happy Juneteenth,” the crowd of about 150 people chanted on Friday as they marched from Cedar Rapids City Hall to the African American Museum of Iowa in light rain. June 19 — Juneteenth — is the anniversary of the day in 1865 when the news that slavery had been abolished reached formerly enslaved people in Texas.
Friday’s event was the third one this month organized by the grassroots group Advocates for Social Justice. About an hour before it began, the group posted an update on Facebook saying it would be a “celebratory march rather than a protest.”
There was free food, and various tents were set up outside the museum. In addition to a tent where people could register to vote — voter registration tables were set up at the previous two events, both of which stressed the importance of voting — there were also stations set up that highlighted work from black artists and business owners.
Earlier that day, the Cedar Rapids City Council held a special council meeting via Zoom to discuss the seven demands the grassroots group has been calling for. Organizers have been meeting with city officials for about two weeks, and they set Juneteenth as the deadline to hear from city councilmembers on whether or not they support each of the seven demands.
“Cedar Rapids council wants our community to know that we as a council — along with our city manager, our police department and the entire city team — are united and fully committed to addressing the list of priorities provided by citizens involved in the Black Lives Matter movement,” Mayor Brad Hart said at the start of the meeting.
The resolution introduced on Friday addressed all priorities listed by Advocates for Social Justice. Councilmember Tyler Olson introduced an amendment to the resolution adding language that cited efforts the city and CRPD have already started to meet four of the priorities, and requiring a report from city staff to the council within two months on the council’s legal authority to meet the other three. Those three are decriminalizing marijuana and other low-level offenses; making negotiations between law enforcement and municipal representatives public; and abolishing qualified immunity.
“We’ve watched as people gathered, marched, knelt and laid down in our community’s streets. We have listened to the hurt, the anger, the chants of ‘black lives matter,’ the cries of ‘I can’t breathe’ and the hope that this time is different and will result in meaningful change,” Olson said.
“It’s not enough to say we’re committed to addressing the seven issues when we’ve acted on four, and I think we could at least get a process in place to start dealing with the other three,” Olson said about the amendment. “I think we’re all committed to addressing the other three and putting a process in motion now to determine what our authority and what our options are within existing state and federal law.”
Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman and Hart announced last week that the city is working on establishing an independent citizens review board. While specific details still need to be worked out, Jerman said he hopes that whatever is decided will be presented to the city council and become part of the city code.
The police department’s use of force policy already banned chokeholds and other vascular restraints, but language has been added to specify that knee-to-neck maneuvers are banned, Jerman said. The resolution also recognizes that the city has and will continue to increase investments in diversity, equity and inclusion with implicit bias training, investing money to implement Safe and Equitable Task Force recommendations, hiring an additional mental health liaison to work with police officers and establishing a crisis intervention team.
All Cedar Rapids Police Department officers are equipped with and trained to use body cameras. The body cameras turn on automatically when a cruiser’s emergency lights are activated, and the CRPD’s body camera policy received “an almost perfect score” from the ACLU and U.S. Department of Justice, according to the resolution’s text.
All the members of the city council expressed a commitment to enacting real change to meet the demands from the protesters.
“I want to let the community know that we are certainly committed to getting this done, and our word is our bond,” Councilmember Dale Todd said. “This is not going to be a report or recommendations that sit on a shelf somewhere in the Development Department. There will be action items, there will be timelines.”
“I know the times seem dark, and yeah, they are. But I really look at this as an opportunity for all of us to engage with the community, the department, everyone to make progress on this issue.”
Right before the vote, Hart said if the resolution passes, he will “firmly advocate that we have as much citizen involvement in these efforts as we possibly can.”
The council voted unanimously in favor of the resolution supporting the seven demands the Advocates for Social Justice presented.
“I think that this is a momentous first step, but it is just that — a first step,” organizer Tamara Marcus told the crowd in front of the African American Museum Friday evening. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we need to keep the pressure on our city leaders to really work for us and make sure that though they agreed to these demands that it’s not just talk. We’re gonna keep at it as long as it takes, and we’re gonna make sure that the demands and our police reform is exactly how our community wants it.”
The organizers also brought up news from the week that CRPD officer Lucas Jones was fired on Thursday. Jones was involved in two shootings as a CRPD officer, including shooting Jerime “Danky” Mitchell. “Justice for Danky” signs have been prominent at the Cedar Rapids protests.
Jones had been on administrative leave since May 4, due to a departmental investigation that began in February. CRPD did not provide details about why Jones was fired, but in interviews with news outlets, Jones said he was accused of lying to internal affairs during an investigation. Jones said he took a polygraph test four times to show he did not lie.
Jones told the Gazette that he believes Chief Jerman caved to “political pressure” to fire him. Jones said he plans to appeal his termination and hopes to be able to return to law enforcement.
“This is something that should have happened years ago,” organizer Leslie Neely said about Jones being fired. “… We are also aware that he does plan to appeal his decision, and we’re not gonna let that go through. We’re going to keep protesting. We’re going to keep being out in the streets, so they know that the city of Cedar Rapids does not agree with him being a police officer here or anywhere else.”
“This is not the end. This is just the beginning,” organizer Chuck Crawley said.