In Wake of National Tensions, Residents Meet to Discuss Racism, Inclusiveness in Ames

Ames Police Chief Chuck Cychosz speaks at the Body of Christ Church. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Members of the Ames Progressive Alliance were initially going to hold an organizational meeting Thursday at Torrent Brewing Co., a popular downtown hangout that’s lately been a regular host of liberal-minded events from the presidential to local level. But after a lone gunman killed five police officers during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas the week before, the group, led in part by former council member Matthew Goodman, quickly refocused. It had already planned on discussing the police killings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana that sparked the protest, and reached out to Toran Smith, one of the town’s few African American senior pastors. A group discussion on community inclusiveness was arranged at his Body of Christ Church near Fifth and Main.

An advocacy organization formed last year, the APA, according to its Facebook page, has a mission to “lead Ames toward a shared, vibrant and prosperous future by leveraging community resources for progressive priorities.” After Thursday’s meeting, Smith said that the consensus “became tonight that this wasn’t a good event” but rather “a good first step” toward yet-to-be-determined proposals that his church and the APA would likely collaborate on with others to address local racial and class divides identified by the 100 or so people in attendance, about a quarter of whom were non-white.

The meeting began with brief introductions by Smith, Goodman, and Ames Police Chief Chuck Cychosz (there were four or five plainclothes officers in attendance, plus police chaplain Kelly Vander Woude, Cychosz later told the Informer, and Iowa State University interim Police Chief Aaron DeLashmutt was also there). A number of other prominent locals were in the audience, including City Manager Steve Schainker, Housing Coordinator Vanessa Baker-Latimer, council member Tim Gartin, former City Attorney John Klaus, public library director Lynne Carey, and county supervisor candidate Lauris Olson.

After introductions, attendees were split into 15 groups in the church sanctuary and tasked with jotting Post-it notes as they considered three questions: Have you ever experienced discrimination in Ames? What actions could you take, as an individual, to ensure you are not contributing to a culture of discrimination? What actions can a community take to ensure that the structures that support most members of the community do not support a culture of discrimination?

I spotted an open chair and joined to listen in on the group’s discussion, sitting next to Bronwyn Beatty-Hansen, the 33-year-old council member who took over Goodman’s seat, on my right and a young couple — an Asian woman and white man — on my left. Beatty-Hansen, who’s also a manager at Wheatsfield Co-op, recalled an embarrassing moment when she mistakenly assumed that partners in an interracial relationship were headed to separate cars after shopping at the store. The couple in the group talked about the stares, stereotypes and, in the woman’s case, sexism they’d encountered locally.

Barbara Woods, a black woman in her 60s who was also in the group and works for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, described times riding her bike in Ames when young white men yelled racial slurs or taunts like “Get off the street!” at her. “I was not expecting that,” she said. “Maybe I should have, but you’re taken aback when you hear that in a town like Ames, when we say we are so well-educated and we care about people. It doesn’t match, it really doesn’t match what we say we are.” She said that people would sometimes dismiss her stories, unconvinced that racism was a problem here. “I think when we have these ugly things occur, we want to say it’s from an outsider,” she said. “In my experience in this town, it is not from outsiders. It really is from us who live in this town.”

Woods, who grew up in Alabama before moving to Iowa in the late ‘70s, added: “I think we think here that the South and other parts of the country are much worse. I argue they have the same characteristics, in terms of how we treat people, what’s important to us — very similar, no matter where you are in this country.”

Even for those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, it’s not necessarily too hard to spot examples of racism in Story County. One of the suspects in an alleged car theft and subsequent high-speed chase just this week, an Ames resident, is pictured in a Facebook profile photo posing in front of a Confederate flag, a racist symbol that was displayed prominently on Main Street just last month. The other suspect, from Nevada, has a profile with photos of himself next to a reflection in the mirror of the Iron Cross and shirtless with a swastika tattooed on his chest.

Things aren’t always so blatant. Another member of the group, 59-year-old Linda Hanson, has two adopted children who are black. They’re graduated now but grew up in Ames, and Hanson recalled the judgments from people who viewed her family as abnormal, which could include racial slurs but often just stares. “It was striking to me, after adopting black children, to realize how much privilege I had, and just to see the difference about how I was treated when I was with my children and when I wasn’t with my children,” she said. “I watched my son get followed in a store when he was six years old because he was black.”

The group’s other member was Terry Lowman, 69, who formerly owned Lucullan’s Italian Grill with his husband, Mark Kassis, at the Main Street storefront Bar la Tosca now occupies. He suggested that the Ames school district should not have resource officers — cops assigned to schools with the intention of fostering better relationships with the communities they police but who have also disciplined kids disproportionately by race, causing black students to face more out-of-school suspensions and, critics say, fall victim to a school-to-prison pipeline that deprives them of future opportunities. Hanson told Lowman about how one of her adopted children had been suspended.

“I don’t think that people realize that there’s racism in Ames,” Hanson said. “They think we’re a progressive community.” But she added that as director of the nonprofit Primary Health Care Inc., a clinic for low-income residents, she’s seen how negative attitudes toward the poor and minorities often go hand-in-hand.

After the discussions concluded and Smith, the senior pastor, gave a parting blessing, I asked Cychosz, the police chief, for his thoughts on the recent national news and the proper role of law enforcement in a community. “We’re only successful at our job if we build a connection and stay connected in the community, and in these times, the things that are happening across the country are challenging that,” he replied. “We’re trying to have these conversations whenever and wherever we can”

Cychosz said that Ames officers receive training on cultural diversity, de-escalation, and community relationship building. As part of a pre-employment screening process, he said, “They see a psychologist, and if you have somebody who’s thin-skinned and they have a reactive personality, we’re not going to hire them.”

Did he think that police could do even more, for example by more quickly condemning fellow officers responsible for unjust killings?

“The loss of life is tragic and hurtful and painful,” he replied. “It doesn’t matter if it’s justified, unjustified, those wounds are deep for all parties. And it’s almost like this whole dialog minimizes the tragedy of the circumstances that lead to those.” He explained: “We flip from incident to incident without looking at the impact of these tragedies on people’s lives. Whatever role they have in this, they’re changed forever. We get called to crises every day that could be avoided if society was working better.” Cychosz said he was “astounded” by the frequency of crisis calls received by his department, and called on the Ames community to step up and find ways to provide more resources for the mentally ill and others, including victims of domestic violence, before calling 911 becomes the only option left and an officer has to be dispatched to a volatile situation.

“And I don’t know what button to push, or exactly what it looks like, but a community like this, with all these people, we’ve got to do better,” he concluded. “That’s why we get in a room and talk about these things. We’ve gotta figure out how to do this better.”

In the relatively recent past, Ames police have been involved in several meetings similar to the APA’s on Thursday. The most dramatic examples stemmed from the city’s so-called “Chicago problem,” when changes in federal housing policy contributed to an increase in the population of low income, minority residents from the Windy City. In 2007 and 2008, a handful of high-profile, violent crimes with Chicago ties caused racial tensions to flare. One resident distributed literature promoting white nationalism and arguing that diversity was detrimental; on the morning after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, several cars were vandalized with phrases including “The nigger won.”

In late 2007, a meeting titled “The Changing Cultural Face of Ames” was held at City Hall. It led to the establishment early the next year of a city task force on addressing racial tensions, which in turn led to a series of public forums called the Community Conversations on Diversity that yielded some results. “I don’t think the sharpness, or the acuteness, is as high as it was some years ago,” said Smith, who’s been a pastor at the Body of Christ Church since 1995, about the racial tensions. “I don’t think that environment exists anymore.”

Late last month, when the council asked the city’s Human Relations Commission to organize meetings on racism and free speech after the Main Street Cultural District apologized for allowing a vendor to display a Confederate flag at one of its events, council member Amber Corrieri cautioned that similar meetings had been sparsely attended before. That wasn’t the case with Thursday’s meeting, but another drawback may have been the relative like-mindedness of those in the sanctuary. “The people [who] need to be at these meetings are the ones who are being ignorant,” Julian Neely, a member of ISU’s Black Student Alliance, told the Ames Tribune. “The ones who continue to go down this route, that are discriminating against other people, being prejudice[d], being racist. Those people need to be at this meeting and hear people’s voices and hear their point of view.”

I asked Smith if he felt optimistic that something of significance would result from the meeting. He did: The turnout was higher than expected, and he was confident that those present understood that following up on their discussions would be necessary if they hoped for any real changes, whatever they might be. “I think that there has to be a very strong assertion, almost an aggressiveness, to make sure that these things are capitalized on,” he said. “In other words, there are actions that are taken from what was able to be brought out of tonight.”

When the interview wrapped up, Smith grasped my arm before I left the sanctuary and blessed me, praying that my work, like his and that of the others who’d attended the meeting, would play a role in creating positive change for the community.

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.