Editorial | Leaders: Don’t miss this moment

The University of Iowa and Iowa City leaders must see their commitments to racial justice through.

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Only in times of crisis do we see our elected officials and industry leaders move as swiftly as they have these past several days.

On Friday, the governor signed a police-accountability bill that sped through the Iowa legislature in a single day as Des Moines Black Lives Matter organizers looked on. Iowa City leaders marched with protesters, set up a series of listening sessions, and committed to enacting changes Mayor Bruce Teague called  “long overdue.” Hawkeye Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Doyle was placed on administrative leave after athletic administrators listened to Black players’ experiences. (Though Doyle now has a generous separation agreement).

The University of Iowa committed to participating in the Iowa City Police Department community review board and pursuing reform with city and student input. Even though the institution’s statement fell short of mounting student calls to end contracts with the city department after the Iowa State Patrol and Iowa City officers under their direction tear gassed peaceful protesters.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board encourages the commitment to progress and action to keep Black students safe on campus and in Iowa City, but there’s still work to do — a lot of it.

The UI and Iowa City must see aggressive follow-through on commitments to racial justice. Committees and commissions have been meeting for years, yet still have led to slow changes and weeks of protesting.

Now is the time to step on the gas.

For two weeks, Iowa City has marched, and demand for change won’t disappear. During the Civil Rights movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days —  engagement that can and should be emulated in our times.

Wyl Smith, an advocate for the Iowa City-based Iowa Freedom Riders protest group, told The Daily Iowan he’s concerned policy changes could stall while Iowa City city councilors deliberate on the 13 demands from the group.

“We know it’s going to take a while to do things like radical police reform, but it does not take long to say, ‘we’re doing that,’” Smith said. “It does not take long to vote on that and say, ‘we want that done.’”

To the city council’s credit, an 87-page document produced by the city manager and city attorney to inform council of their decisions on the Iowa Freedom Riders’ demands is a sign they’re taking the demands seriously. Iowa City government has some of the most diverse leaders in Iowa who are open to changes: Teague, Mayor Pro-tem Mazahir Salih, believed to be the first Sudanese-American woman to be elected to public office in the U.S., and Royceann Porter, the first Black woman to be elected on the Johnson County level. But we need people in all departments and jurisdictions to get on board.

If our elected officials refuse to enact change in accordance with the will of the people, the people are going to make their will so obvious that it is impossible to ignore.

Social media may quiet and hashtags stop trending, but things will not go back to normal. There can be no going back to the status quo because normal isn’t enough. For too long, apathy to police brutality and systemic injustice has been the default position. Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over, but the disparity disappears at night, when a driver’s skin tone is hard to distinguish. A 2019 study found Black men in America are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.

And it’s not just a national problem. A 2018 Iowa City Police Traffic Stop study found that Iowa City Police Department officers were more likely to arrest or conduct a search of drivers of color. This disproportionality has trended downward since the city began collecting data, but the discrimination remains.

It is important to remember that radical reform is not impossible.

Already cities are committing to police reform that two months ago would have been unthinkable. In San Francisco, unarmed, trained professionals will respond to non-criminal calls for help — on matters such as mental health, the homeless, and school discipline — instead of police.

The Minneapolis City Council committed to dismantling the city’s police department, though concrete details are yet to be announced.

Along with more than a dozen other demands, the Iowa Freedom Riders have called for ICPD to be restructured toward community policing along the lines of cities such as Camden, New Jersey.

ICPD’s budget ($15.6 million for 2021) makes up about a quarter of the city’s general fund, and 11 percent of the city’s total budget. If the Freedom Riders’ demands are met, the savings from defunding the department would be rerouted to social services.

It sounds nice for officials to say there will be a community review board and a city-and-university-sponsored commission. But for too long Black Iowans and students have not seen the police as trustworthy emergency responders.

Something has to change now.

There may not be a perfect public-safety solution. Several laws, such as decriminalization of marijuana — which Black Iowans are much more likely to be arrested for despite similar rates of use — will come from the state or federal level. And there’s still time for Gov. Kim Reynolds to sign an executive order restoring the right to vote for people convicted of felonies. This could have passed the Legislature as a constitutional amendment. Instead, Iowa Senate Republicans overnight pushed through a 24-hour wait period before women could recieve an abortion.

But city governments and university leaders don’t have to wait on state or federal overhauls to enact meaningful and immediate change.

As a Board, we are calling on elected officials and leaders — don’t miss this time to act. So rarely does a movement garner more willpower and support from the people and from elected officials to make creative and lasting changes. Leaders in the city, county, state, and university need to coordinate swiftly and commit to the better world that  we all know to be possible.

It can’t stop here.


Editorials reflect the majority opinion of the DI Editorial Board and not the opinion of the publisher, Student Publications Inc., or the University of Iowa.

Editorial board members are Sarah Watson, Alexandra Skores, Josie Fischels, Caleb McCullough, Peyton Downing, Elijah HeltonBrooklyn Draisey, and Becca Bright.

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