Iowa City leaders weigh truth, justice and hurt feelings as TRC chair Amel Ali is suspended over offensive comments

Video still of Amel Ali addressing the Iowa City Council during its Aug. 4, 2022 special session.

Iowa City’s Ad Hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) voted 7-0 to temporarily remove Amel Ali as its chair during the commission’s regular meeting on Thursday night. The vote to suspend Ali as chair came the same day the Iowa City Council held a special session to consider removing Ali from the TRC. Council members voted to defer the matter until their Aug. 16 formal meeting.

The actions by both the TRC and city council were in response to comments Ali made on two podcasts in June. Speaking on Rock Hard Caucus, Ali disparaged Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter and other members of the Black Voices Project (BVP). An anonymous letter sent to Porter said Ali had called them “coons.” The Daily Iowan reported on Thursday a different version what was said on the podcast, stating “Ali called Porter and other members of her organization ‘coony.'”

The word, either as a noun or adjective, has a long history as a racist slur in the United States. But speaking to the Press-Citizen, Ali pointed to a different way “coon” has been used more recently as “slang by members of the Black community to refer to other Black people who put down their own racial communities and act like white or European people to gain favor in those cultures instead of their own,” according to the paper’s summary of her remarks.

Ali made derogatory comments about others during the two podcast episodes, “Sluggin’ with Amel” and “The Tumultuous TRC,” including one of Porter’s daughters. The episodes, which were behind a paywall and only available to subscribers, have since been taken down by Rock Hard Caucus. (Disclosure: Rock Hard Caucus producer Justin Comer works on a contract basis for Little Village doing magazine distribution.)

Porter learned of Ali’s comments from the anonymous letter she received. The letter was accompanied by a USB flash drive with snippets of the episodes.

The letter read, “Iowa City TRC Chair Amel Ali says very offensive things about you and other community leaders, calling you coons, describes getting intoxicated before meetings, insults your daughter’s business, and describes inappropriate personal conduct” that Ali attributed to Porter’s daughter Staci.

During its special session on Thursday, the city council played one brief segment of one of the podcast episodes. In it, Ali talked about the relationship between the BVP, which has worked on civil rights and social justice issues in Johnson County since 2014, and the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR), the social justice advocates who have led most of the protests in Iowa City following the murder of George Floyd. She also made dismissive remarks about Orville Townsend, who has been active in the community for decades and is a founding member of BVP.

“[BVP is] so offended by everything IFR did and how they went about it. And the ‘disrespect to the elders’ and all of this shit. They’re obviously old farts,” she said in the podcast. “That’s the disrespectful thing to me, is like you think we’re being disrespectful in the way we’re engaging in our activism, but you are all telling us that you had it worse, so we need to shut the fuck up and learn how to do things your way. And I don’t think that’s fucking fair, and like, they all suck.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Ali is one of the original members of the TRC, as was Porter. The commission was created by the 17-point resolution the city council passed in June 2020, in response to social justice protests led by the Iowa Freedom Riders. The TRC is supposed to document systemic racism in Iowa City, and develop processes for overcoming divisions among residents. The TRC began meeting in December 2020, and members elected Royceann Porter as its first chairperson.

The early months of the commission were marked by a series of strong disagreements, ranging from the TRC’s mission statement and how to structure meetings to the proper qualifications for a facilitator to assist the commission in its work. The disputes usually pitted Porter and Commissioner Raneem Hamad, an Iowa Freedom Riders member, against each other.

In March 2021, commission members moved to remove Porter as chair, citing confrontational language she used speaking to people outside TRC meetings regarding the commission work. Porter resigned before a vote took place. Vice Chair T’Shailyn Harrington became chair, but was quickly voted out. Mohamed Traore was elected chair, and Ali was elected vice chair. Several other commissioners, including Harrington, resigned after the meeting. Hamad resigned later, and helped found the People’s Truth and Reckoning Commission, an independent group that suspended its activities after a few months.

Following the resignations of Porter and the others, the city council temporarily suspended the TRC. After a month, the suspension was lifted and new members were appointed by the city council to fill the vacancies on the commission.

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As the TRC resumed its work, disagreements between it and the city council continued. In September 2021, the TRC proposed hiring a California-based consulting firm with experience working with public commission examining justice issues as its facilitator. At the city council meeting where the contract was considered, BVP urged council to hire a local facilitator instead of an outside organization. The city council rejected the proposed contract for the facilitator in a 4-3 vote.

Porter, speaking as president of BVP, asked council to suspend and reorganize the TRC. Mayor Bruce Teague indicated his support for restructuring the TRC, but city council did not take up the matter.

Since November 2021, Ali has taken a more active role in TRC meetings, acting as the leader in the search for a new facilitator. Traore resigned as chair during a TRC work session on July 8, citing personal family and work commitments, but chose to remain on the commission. TRC members unanimously voted for Ali as the new chair and Commissioner Chastity Dillard as vice chair during the commission’s July 21 meeting.

‘They were ill considered’: Ali addresses her comments

After Porter received the anonymous letter and learned about Ali’s comments, she paid for a podcast subscription and listened to the full episodes. The BVP leadership team subsequently emailed the city council demanding Ali’s removal from the TRC. Porter read the statement BVP sent during the public comment period at the city council’s formal meeting Tuesday night.

“[Ali] has verbally attacked a whole swath of our local community leaders, a choice wholly inconsistent with the charge of the commission she’s supposed to be leading,” Porter said. “Her choice to speak this way clearly demonstrates that she is not capable of leading us towards reconciliation.”

Ali also spoke during the public comment period via Zoom. She apologized for her comments, referenced past trauma and the challenges of her new role. She said the recording was sent to BVP as a deliberate attempt to disrupt the TRC’s work.

“My words and comments contained in the released recording were wrong. They were ill considered, and most of all, they were hurtful. And for all of that, I’m deeply sorry,” Ali said. “The recording with my comments was released, in my view, or at least in part, to disrupt our important work.”

The episodes were publicly available, although accessing them required paying for a subscription to the podcast. Ali told the city council she would not resign from the TRC, but instead suggested a restorative justice process to heal any harm caused by her comments.

“Despite the call by the mayor and others to have me resign, I can’t walk away and turn my back on the trust, hope and responsibilities entrusted to all of us on this commission,” Ali said. “I truly believe in the notion that forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”

A special meeting for Ali’s removal

The city council originally planned to address Ali’s role on the TRC and whether to remove her during its next formal meeting on Aug. 16. But after Ali’s statement, Mayor Bruce Teague decided to call a special meeting with Ali as its sole subject.

During the public comment period at the special meeting, Porter’s daughter Staci defended her mother and herself.

“The things that she expressed was very inappropriate. You say you’re not into body shaming and then you bring my business into it?” Staci said. “In my opinion, if you want to be a leader, then you have to act as such.”

The majority of public speakers at the special meetings supported Ali. Among the speakers were Natalie Harwood, who hosted the podcast episodes featuring Ali, and Rock Hard Caucus producer Justin Comer.

Supervisor Royceann Porter asks Rock Hard Caucus podcast member Justin Comer for copies of two episodes featuring Amel Ali. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“The way Amel’s comments have been characterized are completely inaccurate,” Harwood told the council. “This is someone who has been traumatized, this is a fighter for the community, and she’s angry. And she’s rightful angry.”

Harwood said the recordings were mailed to Porter in an attempt to destabilize the TRC and was “an act of interpersonal misogynistic violence” targeting Ali. Comer, the podcast’s producer, said that Ali has a right to hold local officials and leaders accountable.

“We were aware that we were taking a risk by releasing this recording, paywalled or not,” Comer said. “But I was presented with a decision when I was given this recorded conversation to either allow a hardworking young Black woman to speak her mind and say what she feels needs to be said, or to hide it and suppress her truth. You all are now presented with a similar decision.”

After the meeting ended, Porter asked Comer why the episodes had been removed. He said they were asked to take them down. On Twitter, Harwood said the podcast “stood by everything that we said,” but won’t make the episodes available.

Ali was the final speaker during the public comment period at the special session. She said the city council has held the TRC to a different standard than other commissions, and criticized the council for not prioritizing other issues.

“I’m a little embarrassed to be here because this is the first emergency meeting that you guys have held since protesters where teargassed,” she said. “So, this feels weird. And I feel for folks from the Excluded Workers Fund who have been pleading and begging for just having your ears, but God forbid, you know, I hurt someone’s feelings, and I took accountability for it.”

‘There’s a third way’

Council members Laura Bergus, John Thomas and Janice Weiner expressed support for Ali, although they were critical of her podcast comments, during the council’s discussion. Mayor Bruce Teague, Mayor Pro Tem Megan Alter, and councilmembers Shawn Harmsen and Pauline Taylor were more sharply critical.

Bergus argued that this was an opportunity to let the TRC engage in a reconciliation process to foster healing of the divisions resulting from the situation. Removing Ali was the wrong choice, Bergus said, especially before the TRC had a chance to discuss Ali’s leadership. The TRC meets twice a month, and its first meeting after Ali’s comment became widely known was Thursday night.

“What’s before us today is an up or down vote, yes or no, to remove a motivated, strong, young, willful person from public service,” Bergus said. “It doesn’t have to be that choice. We can find another way.”

Thomas said that although Ali’s comments were “really hurtful,” the city council should break from the cycle of punishment that typifies politics. He pointed to the commission’s recent progress in crafting a facilitator proposal.

“This just seems rushed in a time where deliberation is really necessary,” Thomas said.

Weiner focused on a “fair process” and an individual’s First Amendment right to political speech. She said tabling the matter until the next meeting would allow for a cooling off period, a chance for the TRC to respond and for the community to take stock, and time for the restorative justice process. At the end of her statement, Weiner grew emotional and her voice began to break.

“Is this regrettable? Yes. Is this new? No. Is this a crime? No. And I ask myself, who are we to sit in judgment?” she said. “What actually moves us forward? … I think there’s a third way.”

Mayor Teague spoke about private conversations he has had with Ali. Teague told his fellow council members that during those conversations Ali made disparaging comments about other TRC members. Ali’s removal, the mayor said, would allow the “optimal opportunity” for forgiveness, healing and restoration.

“It rocked me, some of the things that you were saying about your fellow commissioners,” Teague said. “Being on the TRC at this time is not appropriate.”

Mayor Pro Tem Alter said she wasn’t concerned with interpersonal issues between Ali and Porter but thinks allowing Ali to remains as chair would send the wrong message, especially when she hasn’t exemplified reconciliation. Ali comments disrupted the TRC’s mission, according to Alter.

“I find it highly ironic that the opportunity for healing has to once again occur within the commission, rather than being able to move forward,” Alter said.

TRC Commissioner Amel Ali speaks to Iowa City Council during the special meeting on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Harmsen reflected on private conversations he’s had with Ali over the past year. He said Ali had gained his trust by talking passionately about the need to build bridges within the community. Harmsen said Ali had expressed her frustrations that other TRC members would vent personal grudges. He added he admired her focus on the TRC’s mission, and the podcast comments had surprised him.

“I was sad and disappointed listening to those comments … It’s really almost heartbreaking to hear,” Harmsen said. “To so casually dismiss the life experiences of an entire generation of civil rights activists, and to so casually dismiss a group like Black Voices Project, and it was exactly the stuff that we’d had conversations about.”

Harmsen said he believes restorative justice should take place, but that didn’t require Ali to be on the commission. He acknowledged he, like many others, hadn’t heard the entire podcast episodes, and said that if her comments were taken out of context, by now people would’ve shared the whole episodes to demonstrate that.

“The silence has been deafening,” Harmsen said. “I don’t like to be in this position. I don’t like making this vote. I feel disappointed and sad that we’re here.”

Taylor said this discussion is not about the TRC, it’s about Ali’s inappropriate comments. Taylor said she’s open to exploring a third option or allowing Ali to remain on the commission, but didn’t think Ali should remain in a leadership position.

“I wouldn’t want my granddaughter to hear this offensive profanity that was in this podcast,” she said. “We shouldn’t encourage that kind of behavior.”

Bergus, in an emotional plea near the end of the council’s discussion, asked members to give Ali grace for a “moment of poor decision-making.”

“As if any of us on this dais have not misstepped, insulted, made poor choices, had moments of failure,” she said.

But Teague reiterated that a restorative justice process and Ali’s removal are not mutually exclusive, and that the TRC’s growth would be stunted without her removal.

“This moment of poor decision-making was not a moment,” he said. “There were months of these discussions.”

Alter made a motion to table the motion to remove Ali until the council’s next formal meeting. Weiner seconded the motion. It passed 6 to 1, with Teague as the sole dissenting vote.

‘My trust is gone for Amel’: TRC reactions

As TRC members took their regular seats in the city council chamber at the meeting on Thursday night, there was one notable absence: Amel Ali. Vice Chair Dillard relayed a message for Ali to the commission. Ali said she needed space to process what was going on and asked the TRC not to act on her status until she was present.

Commissioner Cliff Johnson immediately took issue with Ali’s absence. He said the TRC should exhibit a higher standard of professionalism and build bridges, not burn them. Johnson said he hadn’t heard the full podcast episodes, but the clips that had been released were “completely unacceptable,” and enough to jeopardize the TRC’s work.

“She’s a grown woman, and she’s had every opportunity to be here,” Johnson said about Ali. “To me that’s more of a coward’s way of doing something.”

Commissioner Eric Harris said his phone has been buzzing non-stop, and even his children are asking him about it. He said Ali’s comments about fellow TRC members were a “betrayal” and that her comments on the podcast will never be forgotten.

“My trust is gone for Amel,” Harris said, after taking a pause. “If you’re a person of color as well, and you’re calling people ‘coons,’ do you know the history of that? It’s terrible. It’s so terrible I don’t even want to discuss it.”

Former TRC Chair Mohamed Traore sits on the ground following city council’s vote. Orville Townsend speaks with Traore. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Commissioner Traore said he’s thought about the podcast constantly for the past week. Traore has known Ali since they were 5 years old. They went to school together from kindergarten through high school. He said that restorative justice can include removing her as chair. Traore said that if the commission cannot be honest with each other and the public, then it is “doomed.” He urged his fellow commissioners to make a decision about Ali before the city council took action.

“To me it’s about integrity,” Traore said. “I don’t think this community can truly move forward and accept the recommendations from this commission unless we ourselves are willing to go on record and take a vote.”

Commissioner Kevo Rivera said he had not heard Ali’s full comments, but he believed Porter’s account. Rivera indicated his support for suspending Ali as chair, but wanted a pathway for possible reinstatement included as part the process.

Ali suspended as TRC chair

Other commissioners said they wanted more time and information, before making a decision. Commissioner Wangui Gathua wanted to know what the restorative justice process would look like, and said without the full podcast episodes, any discussion of Ali’s comments is based on “hearsay.”

Commissioner Sikowis Nobiss couldn’t decide without first hearing the podcast. She told commissioners to look at the larger picture of the TRC’s relationship with local organizations, and that the snippet could be looked at from “many different perspectives.”

“It’s kinda ridiculous to be sitting here and talking about things that we’ve only heard through gossip basically,” Nobiss said. “I feel silly right now. Like, this is embarrassing.”

Dillard said she first heard about the podcast six days after becoming vice chair, and since then her thoughts about it have focused on the restorative justice process. She repeated Gathua and Nobiss’s call for considering the full context.

“How can I make a decision about anything without hearing the full podcast? That’s not fair,” she said. “We don’t have to move in haste … Let’s seek to understand.”

Although Ali did not attend the TRC meeting, she was watching online. When Royceann Porter was addressing the commission during the public comment period, Ali texted at least one member, Eric Harris, telling him to ignore Porter’s statement. After public comment ended and discussion among TRC members began, Harris informed his fellow commissioners about the texts.

“That is cowardice,” Harris said, of Ali skipping the meeting but texting to try to discredit a speaker. “I’m sorry to say that.”

Porter had wanted to play a segment of Ali’s comments. Commissioner Daphney Daniel asked to enter into a closed session, and Nobiss said the TRC members need to hear the recording, not the public. A motion to listen to audio quickly failed. Dillard argued that they didn’t need to play it in this forum.

As the commissioners’ discussion proceeded to a vote, Johnson said Ali could continue to serve the commission and work towards its goals without needing a title.

“This title thing sounds like a power trip. It sounds like ego,” he said.

Traore made a motion to suspend Ali as chair, which the TRC passed in a 7-0 vote. The votes, however, came with several caveats. Rivera thought a suspension would give them more time, and Nobiss said they shouldn’t consider the suspension a punishment. Dillard abstained from the vote, citing the need for more information.

The commission plans to schedule another meeting to discuss TRC leadership before city council’s next meeting on Aug. 16.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published to include the Daily Iowan’s report of the word used by Ali to describe members of the Black Voices Project. Because the podcast episodes are not available to review, it is not possible for Little Village to independently verify the language that was used.