“It’s time we get into some ‘good trouble’ … and this is good trouble today,” Advocates for Social Justice (ASJ) member Jorel Robinson said at the start of Saturday’s protest in Cedar Rapids. Robinson was referencing the words of John Lewis, a civil rights leader and Georgia congressman who died on Friday.
“We’ve come here today because we will not be silenced,” Robinson said. “We are going to do our best to continue to use our voices and our leadership in this community to bring people together and make real change.”
Saturday’s event at Greene Square Park was the fifth event organized by the grassroots group. ASJ’s first protest following the killing of George Floyd was on June 6, also at Greene Square Park. The “We won’t be silenced” protest was announced after Mayor Brad Hart emailed the group saying he, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, Police Chief Wayne Jerman and Councilmember Dale Todd “do not plan to be part of any additional negotiation meetings.”
ASJ members had been meeting with city officials to discuss their seven demands for police reform, including forming an independent citizens review board. The Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously backed the seven demands during a special meeting on June 19.
Hart told Little Village last week that the intent of the meetings was to understand the demands and share information. He added that the city “didn’t halt or call off negotiations.”
“We’ve been meeting with members of ASJ to fully understand the seven demands, and to let them know in cases what we were already doing,” Hart said. “We’ve now done that. We’ve met … three or four times. We understand their demands. Several of them have been or are being handled, and we’ve told them what we’re doing with the rest of them, so there’s nothing really more to negotiate right now.”
ASJ members expressed feeling silenced and left out of the process of forming a citizens review board, which is one of the group’s most important demands. At first, there were plans to have a task force to provide input and research, which was discussed during a contentious June 26 meeting between ASJ and the city, but now the process is going to be open to the public.
Saturday’s event had various speakers, including Kennedy High School students Rahma and Raafa Elsheikh, who read a poem they wrote. Earlier in the week, the sisters brought a list of Black Lives Matter demands to the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Board of Education.
“How do you explain being a target and a threat, knowing your death day has already been set,” Rahma and Raafa read. “Being alive and Black is torture, always having to be wary of your last breath. I am Black. I should be dead, the thought that continues to marinate in my head.”
“Because when we say Black lives matter, you better say it back. Hood over my head, hands up, held high. Shoot me, I’m Black. But just remember I had a dream, too.”
A panel discussion was also held before the group started marching. ASJ co-founder Tamara Marcus and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker were joined by Councilmember Ashley Vanorny.
ASJ said they invited all Cedar Rapids City Council members, including Hart. Hart initially said he would join but ended up declining the invitation, according to business owner and ASJ supporter Steve Shriver, who moderated the panel. Hart could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Vanorny, who has been part of the meetings between ASJ and city officials, was asked about the city’s plans to get public feedback on the citizens review board. There is currently an online form residents can fill out with their input, as well as plans for meetings, focus groups and surveys. Hart said last week that by opening the process up to the public, it allows more people to participate.
“But we don’t need to hear from all the people in the community because, unfortunately, police brutality disproportionately affects brown and Black people,” Vanorny said on Saturday. “We don’t need to hear from all the white people — I hear from them plenty. If the white people in my district don’t feel safe by what we spend over 60 percent of our budget on, I need them to speak up because when I explained that back to my councilmembers, I said, ‘I’m not hearing from them saying that I’m doing something wrong or that they don’t want me to keep pushing for this.’”
“What I have tried to do in my support of ASJ and the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity and We Are CR — because there’s so many tangential groups that are working in coordination with everybody — but what I have tried to do is be unapologetically supportive. I hope that you have seen that. If that’s not the case yet, if you don’t know that all yet, I will continue to make that abundantly clear.”
Presentations to the city council are planned during the July 28, Aug. 25 and Sept. 22 meetings, Vanorny said. She encouraged people who wish to speak to sign up for the public comment period and to “keep the pressure on” elected officials, including herself.
Even though most of the focus recently has been on a citizens review board, Marcus said ASJ is continuing to work on the other six demands by forming subcommittees within the group.
“What you’ve seen with the work around the citizen review board is what you can expect with the other six demands,” Marcus said. “Hopefully, as we progress with the work with the CRB, that becomes a bit more streamlined in terms of meeting with the city so we can actually start to really get into those other six demands.”
Walker added that the city of Cedar Rapids has six more opportunities to work with the group.
“If it was the case that our good mayor understood all of these issues, then it would render the Black Lives Matter movement in this community useless,” Walker said. “We know that that’s not the case because you are all here, and we are calling on him to do better. We are quite honestly calling on him to just sit down and talk with the Black leaders in this community. That is the least, I think, an elected official can do in these times in which we find ourselves fighting for Black liberation.”
The crowd of about 200 was asked to sign a banner that said “Black voices matter” before beginning to march toward Cedar Rapids City Hall. Protesters on July 3 signed and left a “Black Lives Matter” banner on Hart’s front yard.
The banner was draped over one of the City Hall signs, and people were given chalk to write and draw messages. Right before the group arrived to City Hall to chalk the sidewalk, Robinson yelled, “Who’s ready for a revolution?”
The crowd cheered in response.
Update: Mayor Brad Hart told Little Village on Tuesday that he had never planned on attending the public forum. Hart said he received a call last week saying there might be a forum, but he didn’t know about the forum until later in the week when he received an email. He said the email had limited information about the event.
“The city has a process and announced that process on Friday to collect input from the entire community, including the views of ASJ,” Hart said.
He said that during the city’s process, city staff will reach out directly to ASJ, in addition to doing their own research and gathering information to develop a citizens review board that will work for Cedar Rapids.