The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Guest opinion | City Councilor Laura Bergus, JoCo Supervisor V Fixmer-Oraiz say authoritarianism is spreading in Iowa City

Iowa City City Councilor Laura Bergus and Johnson County Supervisor V Fixmer-Oraiz say they are seeing laws work together to bring harm against marginalized communities.
Jordan Barry
Laura Bergus and her supporters wait for the Iowa City Council primary results to come in while waiting at a campaign watch party at the South District Market in Iowa City on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. (Jordan Barry/ The Daily Iowan)

Laura Bergus

In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Iowa City made our rejection of discrimination clear. Our city made national news as peaceful protesters — many who were children and young adults — marched to disrupt traffic in protest of escalated police violence against our Black community. University, city, county, and state police responded to the protest. It was a horrific and chaotic scene as officers used “less lethal munitions” on the crowd. They shot canisters and pellets of harsh chemicals directly at people. The video shows people panicking and screaming. Some collapsed in terror and shock. An ambulance arrived and paramedics tried to help, right in the middle of roiling clouds of tear gas.

After thorough internal and external investigations, everything about police officers’ actions that night was “by the book.” As an Iowa City city councilor, I learned that the existing laws and policies in 2020 supported this use of chemical munitions on children. To me, this was unacceptable.

Since 2020, the laws have gotten much worse. A year after widespread protests against police use of force, Iowa’s Republican legislature enacted a “Back the Blue” package of laws. This law favors the protection of people who run their cars into protesters. This law increases protections for law enforcement. This law also enhances punishment for protesting state violence. This law tells Iowans, “You can go to jail for speaking against us, and we will protect the people who hurt you when you voice dissent.”

V Fixmer-Oraiz

Fast forward to the spring of 2023. The Republican state legislature took away the rights of parents to provide medically necessary healthcare for their children. This was ironic given the “parental rights” rallying cry that galvanized white Christian Nationalist leaders to strip our public schools of books and ban discussions of diversity, whether they centered on LGBTQ+ people and our health and relationships, or the history of race and colonialism in America.

I campaigned on affordable housing and inclusive economic development. However, as a transgender elected official, I felt compelled to respond to these hateful and discriminatory laws. I attended walkouts of middle and high school students who were demanding to know why they were being targeted. Why did political extremists get to make medical decisions that should be made with their doctors? I listened to angry parents who didn’t understand why the government would restrict health care for their children.

I spoke with other LGBTQ+ leaders in our community. We were asking ourselves, “Are we the frogs in the boiling pot?” We were feeling the acute anxiety of our rights being stripped away, but the lack of response from the general public and the speed of the legislative session seemed to dismiss it all. They passed laws that banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth and their families. They banned transgender youth from using bathrooms in schools. They erased us from the classroom, and threatened teachers who would dare to teach our history. In other words, they came after our children. And no one stopped them.

Bergus and Fixmer-Oraiz

In the fall of 2023, we saw how these laws work together, compounding harm against our transgender community. A conservative student group brought an anti-transgender speaker to the University of Iowa campus. Over 100 people showed up to protest this speaker’s hateful rhetoric and dangerous messages. Police did not ticket or arrest anyone at this event. Afterwards, though, UI police used body cameras to single out people who had blocked traffic. While “just following the law,” police targeted those who had violated the new anti-protest law.

University of Iowa police ultimately charged seven people. Every person charged identifies as trans or non-binary. Their charges are under the new law that specifically criminalizes a standard practice of protest: blocking traffic.

During other protests, especially after people were gassed in 2020, Iowa City’s police have tended to redirect traffic, to focus on keeping people safe. That’s such a different approach than charging people with crimes. These charges could mean substantial fines and a year in jail. Again, this law says, “You can’t speak against us, and we protect people who hurt you when you do.”

Those who are often discriminated against are further silenced. In our society, that’s Black and brown people, immigrants, transgender/non-binary, gay and queer folx. When people who would fight back are pushed down, discrimination spreads. Soon, anyone outside the extremists who have captured our state government can be targeted and punished.

There is a simple name for what we are witnessing in Iowa and in our community: Authoritarianism. When we say authoritarianism, we are referring to a system of laws that restrict acts against the government and mechanisms to enforce those laws. Each part can be carried out with good intent, but taken as a whole, the impact is oppressive. This makes local governments complicit in carrying out these laws, and thus, our local community suffers.

We know how bleak this sounds. But it’s important to know that people all over the world have successfully pushed back against government actions like these. We are not alone. When we act collectively, we show our leaders and each other how powerful we are.

For starters, we can call this what it is. It is authoritarian. It is anti-democratic. Don’t shy away from pointing out the connections that make these laws unjust. You do not have to be someone who normally follows politics to help. You don’t have to know the intricacies of the legal landscape to point out what is wrong. Just say it. And keep saying it. Lean into conversations with family and friends. And talk to your leaders. Especially those who are elected to represent your values. Are we exercising our discretion to protect democracy? As elected officials, we are your neighbors and community members, too. We are here to listen and learn, and persuade each other to do the right thing, right alongside you. Let’s talk.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

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