The Unity Driving Iowa City’s Black Lives Matter Protests Is Undeniable

Those who focus strictly on protest tactics they find disagreeable risk failing to fully grasp the broader purpose of the movement for racial justice, argues local organizer Mandi Nichols

Protest messages spray-painted on the Old Capitol building in Iowa City June 5. "Very sad, and counterproductive," the photographer wrote of the vandalism — but to focus on this alone risks "failing to fully grasp the deep sense of community and urgency behind this critical movement," argues Mandi Nichols. Photo: Alan Light/Flickr

Nearly everyone in the Iowa City area knows something about the recent nighttime protests. The movement is visible, loud, and permeating local mainstream media. Yet there are so many things people aren’t hearing about, so many stories that aren’t being told. I’m not seeing anything about the many businesses, organizations, and individuals offering safe places to rest as well as water and other supplies, outside of their own social media pages. I’m not hearing people talk about how incredibly well the protesters look out for each other, ensuring that everyone is adequately protected and cared for, with masks, water, and food.

The sheer numbers in the streets make the unity behind this movement undeniable. That same unity exists in individual interactions — such as when someone was stopped by the Johnson County Sheriff’s department while dropping off supplies near the Pentacrest and other protesters responded instantly — unloading the supplies and handing the driver cash. While I had no doubts, the Iowa Freedom Riders’ support for their followers was made blatantly clear when they covered the rest of the cost of that tow the next day. Anyone who has seen the spray paint or heard the chants, while failing to fully grasp the deep sense of community and urgency behind this critical movement, needs to hear these stories.

They also need to learn about the sound reasoning that is based on the reality of life not only in the United States in general but here, in this town, that is behind the Iowa Freedom Riders’ demands. They are doing important work in getting the attention of a community and government that has ignored serious, systemic problems for far too long. And it is working; the attention is there. People are responding, the media is responding, the City Council is responding. Yet the response is not enough and the media needs to be more accountable about making sure that people are getting the information that is actually important.

These protests are far more than the spray paint, the marching, and the traffic-blocking that are receiving so much coverage — those actions are simply the methods that were necessary to get the public’s attention

These protests are demanding changes that are known to be associated with improving equity and decreasing racial disparities. They are demanding reasonable steps be taken to improve diversity and inclusion within every city department and the school board, as well as other institutions and businesses. Diverse and inclusive organizations have been shown to make better decisions, to be more innovative, and to have employees who are more engaged in their work and have better performance — all things this city needs.

The Freedom Riders’ demands also include “a clear and sensible plan for affordable housing.” According to a 2018 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 40 percent of all Iowa renters are housing cost-burdened. It is one of many obvious issues that needs to be addressed immediately.

Perhaps even more crucial is the protesters’ demand for a restructuring of the Iowa City Police Department towards community policing. Camden, New Jersey, made such a shift in 2013 and the results have been astounding, with a 95 percent decrease in complaints of excessive force since 2014. This is critical, given the significant problem our country has with police violence. Per capita, six times as many people die in police custody in the US than in the United Kingdom. In 2018, according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force project, police in this country shot and killed 991 people. That same year, there were 11 such deaths in Germany and 8 in Australia. Not only do our officers kill far more people than those in other countries, they also kill Black people at a much higher rate than any other race or ethnicity — 30 per million of the population between 2015 and June 2020 compared to 12 per million of the white population, according to one estimate. Looking at all of those statistics, there is no acceptable excuse for not taking steps proven to decrease the use of excessive force and to give an independent review board more power, like they are demanding the Community Police Review Board receive.

Related to the problems with our current policing system is the Freedom Riders’ demand that all security resource officers be removed from public schools. The presence of these officers contributes to a school-to-prison pipeline that has a disproportionately negative impact on the Black community, with a higher rate of referrals to law enforcement and school-related arrests. In general, students in schools with SROs are nearly five times more likely to be arrested than students in schools without them. Our children do not need to be arrested, they need to be educated. Part of that education should include the demanded anti-racist curriculum including the complete knowledge of Black history in America, as that is what we need to decrease systemic racism not only in our schools but in future generations.

The demands that Governor Reynolds decriminalize marijuana are exceptionally important in Iowa, the state that ranks fifth-worst in the nation for racial disparities in marijuana arrests. According to a national ACLU study, a Black person here is 7.3 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person, even though both groups use marijuana at the same rate. That is an unacceptable stain on our state that needs to be addressed now. Making possession of marijuana unarrestable would go a long way towards decreasing disparities in general arrest rates.

These protests are far more than the spray paint, the marching, and the traffic-blocking that are receiving so much coverage. Those actions are simply the methods that were necessary to get the attention of the public and government officials. It is now time for that attention to be focused on the demands and the logic behind them, on the needs of a community that is coming together in unprecedented ways to get their message heard.