‘Nothing is real until it happens’: Stacey Walker on being a ‘foot soldier’ for racial justice reform

Witching Hour 2020

Oct. 30 and 31 —

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker speaks at a Bernie Sanders rally on the Iowa City Ped Mall, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

A month out from the 2020 Witching Hour festival, presenter Stacey Walker isn’t exactly sure what he will say to attendees. But that’s not for lack of something to say.

“As a Black man, as an elected official, as a person who has been involved in racial justice politics for my entire life, I know that I have a lot to say,” Walker told Little Village. “I know that my perspective will be just one of many different perspectives about what’s happening, and I really, really want to get into what I think is next and where we ought to head with this movement not just here in Iowa, but where we should be headed as a national — now international — movement.”

The Linn County Supervisor is one of the headliners for this year’s Witching Hour festival, which is being held virtually from Oct. 30 to Oct. 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival, which is presented by the Englert Theatre and Little Village, is dedicated to exploring the unknown and presenting work from individuals who are pushing boundaries.

Writer Danez Smith, artist Beatrice Thomas and musician Black Belt Eagle Scout are among some of the other presenters who will engage audiences during the two-day event.

“It’s incredibly interesting, and it has this quality about it that really allows the imagination to sort of take off and take you to weird, interesting, stimulating places,” Walker said of Witching Hour.

Despite not knowing exactly where his presentation will go, Walker has ideas on how he wants to tell the story of Black liberation. He envisions a presentation set to music, photos and videos, with him being the narrator.

Walker said he’s drawing inspiration from the end of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X that pairs Ossie Davis’s eulogy for the civil rights icon with various clips and photos. Another video Walker is looking at is’s “Yes We Can” that features different artists singing parts of Barack Obama’s concession speech in the New Hampshire presidential primary in 2008.

“This is not a definitive story nor will it be able to encompass all that Black liberation is,” Walker said. “Instead, it will be one more story out of many that deserve to be told.”

Among the topics Walker wants to discuss are dog whistle politics, white privilege and why addressing racism is difficult.

“You have the president of the United States, quite frankly, stoking the fire saying there are good people on both sides of this debate. You have all of these things working against the intellectual arguments of the Black liberation movement,” Walker said. “I want to talk about that and talk about why something that should be easy — addressing racism should be easy. I think most reasonable people would say, yeah, racism is bad. But that is why it’s hard. You have all these forces working against them, distorting the argument in the work.”

As an elected official of color in Linn County, Walker isn’t immune to racism. Walker said he’s become a target because of how public and outspoken he is about his opinions and his willingness to call out other politicians, even if they’re in his own party.

“I have no problem challenging people when I think they’re wrong and when I think their belief system is going to harm vulnerable people, people of color,” Walker said.

Walker previously told Little Village that he would get calls from state leaders and political consultants telling him he was “becoming radioactive” because of his public comments about race, criticism of other Democrats and support of Bernie Sanders. (Walker was Sanders’ Iowa campaign co-chair.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, Saturday, Oct 25, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Like Sanders, Walker hasn’t been afraid to criticize the Democratic Party establishment. Last year, Walker voiced his frustration with the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee getting involved in the Iowa Democratic Senate race by endorsing Theresa Greenfield just three days after she announced her candidacy; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer went so far as to say “we don’t need a primary” to nominate a challenger to Joni Ernst. Walker, a supporter of the more progressive candidate Kimberly Graham, called out the DSCC, saying they’d engineered “a primary contest that was already heavily skewed in favor of one candidate.”

Walker often uses his social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook to draw attention to these various issues and criticisms.

“Some days it feels like the heat is turned up because I am so visible,” Walker said. “I think people are placing me in a position as a leader in this Black liberation movement here in the state — a position I don’t take lightly, I’m humbled by it — but you know, there’s some, there’s some negativity that comes with that.”

“It’s difficult but I feel grounded. I feel very supported by friends and loved ones, and I feel supported knowing that I am another foot soldier in this long struggle that existed well before I got here and will exist well after I’m gone, and it’s an honor to know that.”

Walker plans to close out his Witching Hour presentation by addressing the questions of “Where are we headed?” and “What’s next for the movement?”

Predicting what’s next is tricky, he added, because part of being a politician is “making sure people can hold on to hope as we navigate these tricky times” — but he also knows the road ahead is going to be difficult.

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker was the first speaker introduced during the Advocates for Social Justice protest, which began at Greene Square Park in Cedar Rapids, June 6, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“I know the work is not going to be finished probably in my lifetime. I’m a relatively young guy in the movement, but that’s how it’s always been, since the first people of color arrived on the slave ships to the New World, although there were people of color who were already here. Every generation since we’ve had to pick up where the other generation left off, and we’re still in it. We’re still in it, and I’m hopeful that we’re gonna get to a better place, but it’s gonna take time.”

On the local level, the Cedar Rapids City Council is continuing to move forward with the seven demands presented to the city by the grassroots group Advocates for Social Justice, which Walker has been involved with since the beginning.

The council unanimously backed the group’s seven demands for reform in June. The main focus has been on establishing an independent citizens review board. Council is scheduled to receive updates on how that process is going at the two October meetings.

During the council’s Sept. 22 meeting, councilmembers received an update on three demands that city staff did more research on, including decriminalizing minor marijuana crimes and other low-level offenses.

Supervisor Stacey Walker and Rob Poggenklass, a senior staff attorney from Iowa Legal Aid, have been working to provide Iowans with information on expungement and other resources to help with re-entry. There was an expungement clinic in Cedar Rapids in February. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Police Chief Wayne Jerman and councilmembers expressed their support for lessening the charge of marijuana possession from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor. The change would “eliminate taking the individual into custody and permit that the subject be issued a citation instead,” Jerman said during the meeting, adding that the authority to make this change lies with the Iowa Legislature.

“The city is committed to working with our legislators, as directed by the City Council, to encourage legislation which is consistent with the views of our community,” Jerman said.

Iowa has some of the worst racial disparities for marijuana arrests in the country, an ACLU report found earlier this year. A Black person in Iowa is 7.26 times more likely to be arrested than someone who is white.

That disparity is even larger in Linn County, where someone who is Black is 9.65 times more likely to be arrested.

ASJ co-founder Tamara Marcus and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker speak during the panel discussion organized by ASJ on July 18, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The fact that the city council is even discussing decriminalization, Walker said, is something he wouldn’t have thought would happen, which speaks to the power of grassroots organizing.

“At the end of the day, nothing is real until it happens, and so I’d like to think that their word means something. I think right now, the movement here in Cedar Rapids is just at a position where we are encouraged, but we’re waiting. We’re waiting to see if they pull the trigger on a lot of this stuff.”

Being an elected official himself, Walker said he knows how slowly government works, which is why it’s a victory that conversations about racial justice are being held.

“People like me and most others involved in the racial justice movement want sweeping change, and it can’t come soon enough—that’s our standard, that’s our mission, but we’ll take these little victories as they come,” Walker said.

California Sen. Kamala Harris is seen with Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker on Sept. 19 during Cedar Rapids town hall. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Izabela Zaluska is a staff writer at Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 287.

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