In Ames, State Rep. Abdul-Samad Says GOP Control Presents Opportunity for Progress

State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

At the “theologically progressive” United Church of Christ in downtown Ames Saturday, local artists held a listening session for “troubled times,” discussing the importance of mobilizing to stand up for neighbors and act against bigotry.*

Among the featured speakers at the event, called “Tear Down the Wall,” was state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, who argued the importance of having difficult conversations with others in the community as a starting point toward mending race relations by “address[ing] the pain” of the country’s troubled past.

“The problem in our society is we always focus on similarities and run away from the differences,” he said. “We’re scared of the differences.”

Abdul-Samad spoke about white privilege, telling “those of the caucasian race” in the audience of over 100 at a banquet room of the church that although they weren’t responsible for lynching and enslaving his ancestors, they have benefitted from it through their resulting position in society. He added an anecdote about the origin of the word “picnic” with “pick-a-nigger” gatherings where blacks were tortured and killed for the amusement of whites (a common misconception, although such outings did happen). He also suggested the audience read The New Jim Crow, a book about the racism inherent in mass incarceration policies, and Brown Is the New White, about America’s changing racial demographics; and spoke of his 19-year-old son’s death at the hands of gang violence in 1997.

After he spoke, the Informer asked Abdul-Samad for his thoughts about the new legislative session, which began this morning with Republicans in control of both houses and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1998.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said, expressing confidence that some positive legislation, including expanded medical marijuana access, would pass. But he added he thought things would go backward in the state, such as new efforts to suppress the vote and stand-your-ground and other NRA-friendly legislation that would pose a “threat to many.”

“But on the other side of the coin, this is also going to give us a chance to organize, it’s going to give us a chance to come into meetings like this,” he said. “That’s why I’m optimistic, because it will look negative in the beginning but it also depends what we do with it. Now, if we don’t do anything with this, then I’m very pessimistic.”

He added, “One of the things is, especially with events like this, is that we have to have them in every nook and cranny in the state.”

Other speakers at the event included UCC pastor Eileen Gebbie, who hosted the listening session at the end; Reyma McCoy McDeid, director of the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living that helps people with disabilities; and Abdul Muhammad, a black resident of Ames with a mixed-race family.

“This town has a really good capacity to be inclusive and welcoming… sometimes,” he said, after talking about how his son, a junior at Ames High School who read a poem about police violence against blacks before he spoke, two years ago witnessed him get pulled over and arrested for what he said was no reason. “I was driving while black in a nice car in the wrong neighborhood,” he said. When he was a student at Iowa State University, Muhammad added, he overheard students on CyRide say, “Get the niggers off the bus.”

Muhammad also echoed Abdul-Samad on the importance of having difficult conversations about racism.

“We have to understand the trauma of how this thing we call racism affects people of color,” he said, describing how friends have walked away from him after he tried to start conversations about it before. “If it’s not uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right.”

Disclosure: The event’s organizers included Bryon Dudley and Nate Logsdon, who write for the Informer.

* Clarification: While this event had some clear political themes, it was not explicitly about Donald Trump, as this article initially implied. The UCC avoids participation in partisan politics.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.