Black Lives Matter protesters gather outside the Johnson County courthouse. (Shoshie Hemley)
Black Lives Matter protesters gather outside the Johnson County courthouse.

Shoshie Hemley

Black Lives Matter: The Fight for Equality in Iowa City

October 23, 2020

Part One: The Protests

Raneem Hamad wasn’t surprised by the tear gas. 

“I don’t think we’re ever going to forget that night. A lot of people were commenting on how it was a war zone and they couldn’t believe that this happened to us here,” Hamad, a 2017 West High graduate said. “Law enforcement in Iowa City are agents of this imperial state that we live in. People were just surprised that, for the first time ever, their privilege didn’t have any terms of preventing them from experiencing this type of violence, but BIPOC in this country have always been experiencing violence at much greater rates.”

On June 4, as Black Lives Matter Protestors approached I-80, Iowa City Police used flash bangs and tear gas to turn them away. 

“Something that really stayed with me was the police brutality that we experienced, even as we were literally protesting police brutality, to our city officials,” Hamad said.

Something that really stayed with me was the police brutality that we experienced, even as we were literally protesting police brutality, to our city officials.

— Reneem Hamad

Hamad is one of the Iowa Freedom Riders organizers, a part of the movement that organized Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer in Iowa City. Their mission is to work towards full police and prison abolition.

 Protests, in many different forms, erupted around the world in late May after a Black man named George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, while being arrested for a forged dollar bill in Minneapolis. A video of Chauvin placing his knee on Floyd’s neck while Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breath,” went viral the following day. 

“George Floyd definitely disturbed me but I feel like, for a lot of people, that was their eye opening moment, but it’s the stuff I’ve seen before,” Sophia Lusala ‘22, one of the IFR organizers who attends City High said.

Some protests had hundreds of people show up, many who were non Black allies. Hamad enjoyed seeing how quickly the community mobilized and how energized all of the protesters were.

“Folks were not giving up. We were protesting like every single day for almost a whole month,” Hamad said. “Seeing everyone come out in solidarity and everyone just making sure that their voice was there and was heard and that they weren’t just posting on Instagram, but actually physically participating in the movement in of itself was just really beautiful to see.”

The night following the first tear gassing, Iowa Freedom Riders saw an increase in the number of protesters attending events. 

“As soon as the protest got violent is when I had my pivotal moment this really shows that people are gonna back down when it’s needed the most.” Lusala said.

While the protestors gained community support, they also faced push back from Iowa City Law Enforcement. Hamad described how Black people, especially Black women, were targeted by the police. 

“Black women who were organizing everything were followed home by police officers and followed across town. I was surveyed in my home, there was a cop car sitting outside of my home,” Hamad said. “There has been a lot of shared trauma from what has happened just in the sense of the targeting that we’ve experienced from law enforcement in our own community, a community that claims that at the end of the day is trying to hold everyone accountable and trying to keep everyone safe.”

Lusala shares that it is not uncommon for organizers to be closely monitored by police outside of the protests.

“The other frustrating thing is that when we’re out there, sometimes our faces are shown, cops know our names, they’ve tagged our phones, they have our license plates,” Lusala explained. “I can’t even drive my own car downtown without the possibility of me being followed.”

Not only were protestors tear gassed, but some were arrested. One of the organizers, Mazin Mohamedali, was arrested on six charges once the protests started. When Mohamedali was arrested, Hamad felt powerless. 

“You’re sitting here demanding that your rights be respected yet the same ones you’re asking to respect you are sitting there treating you like animals. You can’t let it get to you, to a certain extent, because you only have so much mental capacity as an organizer, to be honest.You take those experiences and let them fuel you in a good way in terms of motivating you to push for change,” Hamad said.

The other frustrating thing is that when we’re out there, sometimes our faces are shown, cops know our names, they’ve tagged our phones, they have our license plates. I can’t even drive my own car downtown without the possibility of me being followed.

— Sophia Lusala

The majority of the charges against Mohamedali were dropped after community backlash except for a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct due to obstructing a street or highway without authority from the State or local officials. Mohamedali pleaded guilty to this charge.

“It just gave me more and more motivation to fight for what I’m fighting for because while folks are sitting there saying, ‘Well the police don’t do this in my neighborhood,’ I’m literally experiencing the police brutality we’re talking about on the streets of downtown,” Hamad said.

While the protesters experienced violence from the police, they also experienced violence from civilians who were against the cause. On two separate occasions, white men in trucks drove through the crowd of protesters. 

“The first night the man who [drove into the crowd] got arrested. IFR came out with the statement about abolition. When we think of abolition and transformative justice, we’re not just thinking about it for ourselves as marginalized people, but for all members of our community. That’s something that honestly surprised a lot of people because a lot of people wanted us to be retaliatory and expect us to be retaliatory,” Hamad said.

Hamad wants people to focus on educating themselves about abolition and transformative justice because she believes that that is one of the best ways to be involved with the movement.  

“The call to action is really educating yourself,” Hamad said. “Read up on abolition and transformative justice and figure out ways to implement that in your daily life. We can practice abolition in our day to day lives and push our community, at the end of the day, to think about abolition.”

Protests died down in the later weeks of June, with a few sporadic protests happening afterwards. Now, the Iowa Freedom Riders are looking mainly towards change in policy with the Iowa City Council and the district school board. 

The Iowa Freedom Riders meeting with the school board was held on August 18.

Part Two: City Council

Mazahir Salih was outraged with the lack of representation in the Iowa City Council. She became determined to fix the everyday problems she saw on a city level.  

“Through my work with low wage workers and people who are constantly left out, people who were never given a chance to have a seat at the table, I found out there is a big disconnect between the people who make policy and vulnerable people in the community,” Salih said. “But if given a chance they can bring really creative solutions as well.” 

She soon began campaigning for a seat on the council. In January of 2018, Salih started her first term as a Mayor Pro Tempore, making her the first Sudanese American to be elected into public office in the United States.

“Even though being the first is sometimes sad, it also makes me happy that at least we’re breaking the barrier. This is a step moving forward for immigrant people, to become a role model,” Salih said.

When the protests began, Salih was put in a difficult position. Being one of two members of color on the council, she was put on the spotlight by both parties. 

“It was hard, I had been expected to make the policy and at the same time, people expect me to also lead the movement. Wearing those two different hats was very difficult for me because this is my movement as a Black woman,” Salih said. “I’m grieving, and really sad about what’s going on in the country.” 

Protesters met at the old capitol every night before they began marching. (Jesse Hausknecht-Brown)

She soon decided to use her voice to help the Black community. 

“I said, ‘Okay, this is my time. If I cannot make a change at the city level as a Black woman, what [else] do I have to focus on?’” Salih explained. “This is the time the people who look like me, need me, because I’m the policymaker. That’s why I was really fighting hard for Black Lives Matter.” 

Salih is also a mother of five, and her kids were heavily involved with the Black Lives Matter protests throughout Iowa City.

“As a mom, I would be worried about [my child’s] life, but at the same time, I believe in Black Lives Matter, that we cannot be silent anymore. It is past time for this. That gives me the power to say yes, we need to do this and try to support them as much as we can,” Salih said. 

In addition to speaking at multiple protests, Salih worked to implement the Iowa Freedom Riders demands. In order to pass a demand, the council needs to have a majority vote.

Salih described the difficulty of enacting policy on a City Council level. “At the end of the day I am only one vote. You can tell how I’m passionate about it while I’m fighting for it.” 

The City Council implemented the Black Lives Matter and Systemic Racism Resolution in June of 2020. This plan includes seventeen actions that the city will make in attempts to combat systemic racism in the community including a preliminary plan to restructure the Iowa City Police Department to community policing, banning the use of chokeholds, and putting 1,000,000 dollars towards promoting social justice and racial equality. More information can be found on the Iowa City Government website

Part of the City Council’s work towards ending systemic racism is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Hamad, who is a human rights major at Columbia University, has researched the subject which is often brought up in human rights conversations. 

“They’re basically forums in which communities can recognize the injustices that have been happening in their own communities, and move past them,” Hamad said.

I want to see the police treating people of color and Black people in this community, the same way that they treat white people in this community.

— Mazahir Salih

Iowa Freedom Riders are a part of the voices represented on the commission. However, even with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Hamad is still disappointed with the lack of progress the City Council has made. 

“The progress has really been slow. They’re always going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, change is slow,’” Hamad said. “It’s really disheartening to see how slow the progress is when the council is sitting there saying that ‘Black lives matter to us and we’re trying. We’re committed to making change.’ But in actual terms of results, there really hasn’t been anything that’s been done.”

Hamad feels that the commission isn’t being fully operated correctly.

“It’s kind of disappointing to see, to me personally it feels a little performative,” Hamad said. 

The commission will collect evidence and testimony from community members’ experiences with racial injustice, and then there will be the opportunity for facilitated conversation to discuss these experiences. 

“There is more that needs to be done,” Salih said. “I want to see the police treating people of color and Black people in this community, the same way that they treat white people in this community. And I want to see Black people being represented. I want to see city education that looks like the community. Leaders that look like the community, school teachers that look like the community.”

Part Three: City High

In response to the community outcry and BIPOC students sharing stories of discrimination, the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) has worked on implementing a number of new practices to help students of color in the district.  

“The main focus of our work that we narrowed down really revolved around that professional development training, looking at our K-12 social studies curriculum, a new evaluation standard for teachers and administrators, creating a position for an ombudsperson,” Matt Degner, the Iowa City Community School District’s superintendent, said.  

One of the new initiatives includes the creation of a position for an ombudsperson in the district. As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an ombudsperson “one that investigates, reports on, and helps settle complaints.”

“So say something terrible happened to you or one of your friends in school and for whatever reason, you don’t feel comfortable going to Ms. Swan, Mr. Jespersen, or Mr. Bacon, you would reach out to this person, a district person, and say ‘Hey this event happened to me and I’m not sure of my options, but I wanted it addressed.’ And that person’s really what we see as a safe person, because they’re not going to do the investigation, and they’re really more like an advocate for you to make sure that that situation gets addressed,” Degner explained.

The district ombudsperson can navigate the system that an individual would have to go through, manage the communication with other parts of the administration, and serve as an advocate for the individual.  

“When something tragic or substantial happens, it’s really stressful and overwhelming,” Degner said. “And then trying to take on the challenge of knowing who to report it to or how to file a complaint can be overwhelming, so that [ombuds] person is supposed to be an assistant for that individual.” 

The district has started the year with mandatory training for teachers and staff, and has made improvements to professional development training that will continue throughout the year.

“So in the start of the school year, we looked at this in two different ways,” Degner said. “One is professional development. And that’s how we improve, right how we get better in our practice. And once we know better, we need to do better. And so the first thing we need to do is to try to provide professional development to our teaching and support staff. And then the other part is just general expectations about how we should essentially work together and live together in the school system.”

Additionally, students have expressed frustration in the history curriculum, claiming that the time spent learning about minority groups is less significant and in depth than the amount of time learning about more privileged groups, specifically white people.

The first thing we need to do is to try to provide professional development to our teaching and support staff. And then the other part is just general expectations about how we should essentially work together and live together in the school system.

— Matt Degner

“I’ve learned so much more [about Black history] in the past five months than I have in school,” Lusala explained. “A lot of times because they like to whitewash education.”

Lusala is a part of the Iowa Freedom Riders school board committee which plans to introduce a full Black american history unit in the next few years. She also took initiative and started advocating for Black Lives Matter within the school district by setting up a meeting with Degner.

“We started off by finding a few Black teacher allies from within the school district, then we set up a meeting with Mr. Degner and like Ms. Malone, and had like a small meeting about if we were to bring this into a school board meeting with our demands, how it would look and like and who’s gonna stand on our side just to make sure we weren’t going in there without any support,” Lusala explained. 

The Iowa Freedom Riders, along with the District Equity Advisory Committee, met with the school board on August 18 to discuss their demands, which include the need for more diverse representation, for ties to be cut with Johnson County Law Enforcement, and for different disciplinary processes. There are seven demands in total and the full list can be found here.

“The other component that also stemmed from that [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work and the movements from the summer would be that we met with the Iowa Freedom Riders and the District Equity Advisory Committee, and the board and the administrative team are moving forward on some action steps that are directly linked to that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan to improve our system,” Degner said.

In December of 2019, the district rolled out a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) plan. Now, they are building upon that work as well as the demands from the Iowa Freedom Riders to create new DEI action steps, a list of which can be found here

Although Lusala is unsure of progress being made, the Iowa City Community School Board committed to all of their demands. 

“Matt Degner was so open to learning about our demands, committed to our demands and told us what type of progress he’s going to make towards our demands so he was really helpful in that sense,” Lusala said. “It’s frustrating being in these meetings sometimes but it’s all worth it in the end when you’re trying to fight for equity and equality.” 

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