Where are the freedom fighters? A plea for help from a beleaguered Black man

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker: “Until a renewed season of action on the hard issues springs forth from the Iowa Democratic Party, my people will continue to freeze in the long winters of apathy, and die during the hot summers of violence.” -promoted by Laura Belin

During a recent Facebook Live conversation with Kimberly Graham where we discussed issues facing the African-American community, I recounted a high-profile officer-involved shooting that happened in my neighborhood shortly after I was elected. It was during this very conversation, in real-time, that I realized this officer-involved shooting fundamentally changed who I was as a public servant.

After the incident, which occurred over four years ago now, I went from a cautious, calculating, non-controversial, please-both-sides, robotic, virtue-signaling style of politician (which has proven to be the most successful style here in Iowa and one I picked up from my time observing Tyler Olson during his bid for governor) to feeling utterly empty inside.

How could it be the case that an injustice so egregious was unfolding before our eyes and no politician was willing to say or do anything about it? How could I live with myself as a Black man, knowing this could’ve just as easily been me laying in a hospital bed suffering from a gunshot wound to the head, fighting for my life?

State Representative Liz Bennett was the only other politician I would hear from during this ordeal, and I’m eternally grateful to her for the courage she routinely displays.

It was at this moment I decided that I just had to let go of the idea of one day climbing the proverbial political ladder to higher office, or being recruited by the DCCC to run for Congress, or making it onto the Vilsacks’ Christmas card list. I was just going to have to be different and true to myself and accept the consequences as they come.

I have no regrets. In just a few years of being in office – with the help of many grassroots activists – I have been incredibly successful in bringing about much needed change in my community, while forcing a dialogue on issues that at one time would have never made it out of the quiet and sparsely attended community forums on race relations.

As I have grown as a man and as a public servant, I have come to realize that even if we are supposedly bound together by a platform of shared beliefs, we all have vastly different lived experiences and levels of understanding of racial historical contexts and the nuanced present day realities of vulnerable populations (read people of color). A simpler term for this phenomenon is called ignorance, which is typically morally neutral. However, ignorance can be solved for with education and a willingness to learn.

The hard problem to address is the one resulting from politicians ignoring the issues altogether because they view them as too risky or controversial. The great irony of it all is that these issues of race and systemic oppression are only considered controversial because not enough mainstream politicians choose to talk about them. A combination of the political location of the status quo and the sensitivity of whiteness determines the relative safeness of an issue.

Consider this: if Rob Sand (whom we all love) were to start talking about how auditors across the country should be examining use-of-force policies for municipal police departments and agency compliance, especially with respect to officer-involved shootings, Democrats across the state would laud his courage and talk about how he once again has expanded the scope of his office in service to all Iowans. If my representative in Congress were to even utter the phrase Black Lives Matter during an interview, perhaps her constituents in this state would be more open to engaging in conversations they may have once misunderstood to be one-sided and anti-white. This should be the work of our elected leaders.

This stuff isn’t easy, I get that. And I know that you have to get elected before you can govern. But here in Iowa we have already elected Democrats to high office. Racial disparities and inequities remain, and advocates have put forth solutions to address these issues. Yet and still, our party leaders are either uninterested in bold action or are paralyzed by the fear of perceived electoral consequences, which even if they exist, can only happen because we refuse to meaningfully engage these issues in a way that can educate and change hearts and minds–the fundamental work of an elected leader.

Until a renewed season of action on the hard issues springs forth from the Iowa Democratic Party, my people will continue to freeze in the long winters of apathy, and die during the hot summers of violence.

I stand ready to help and will gratefully receive offers from anyone willing to get in the arena and spend some of their political capital to achieve change and ultimately freedom. This work can no longer be solely the passion project of the activist Left, and the subsequent nuisance issue of the moderate middle. This fight for freedom for all people must be the work of the entire party and all other progressive activists who operate outside of the formal party system.

This is a plea on behalf of my people, who have been the most loyal voting bloc the Democratic Party has enjoyed since the end of the second World War. The morality of this supplication notwithstanding, we deserve this kind of support from the party based purely on the rules of transactional politics alone. The Civil Rights movement yielded some watershed victories, but the fight continues and the New Jim Crow Era is proof positive. If Black folks were keeping score, the debt the Democratic Party owed them would rival General William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous forty acres and a mule promise.

However with time, even great expectations can be tempered. Now all that African Americans are asking for is a commitment from this party to meaningful reform and demonstrable efforts from its leaders to achieve policies that if enacted, could quite literally save our lives.

The apologists will argue that our team is still better than the opposition, no matter how quiet we are on the issues. This is true but year after year of this “consolation prize” rationalizing, the march toward progress eventually slows to a painful and pathetic crawl. Progress to me is not comparing this crawl to the complacency of the other side and feeling good about ourselves.

I would imagine if these same apologists shared my skin color, they would be in agreement with me and they would be boiling over with a sense of urgency every time they saw another story of an unarmed Black man gunned down in the streets by the police or an angry mob. Nowadays, it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

When I first ran for office, I told myself that if elected, I wouldn’t turn into another one of those politicians who only talked about “Black” issues. A well-known consultant with whom I worked during my first campaign cautioned me with similar advice. But I understand how it happens now. In an environment where leadership on these issues from the elected class is sorely lacking, your voice becomes indispensable. And since these issues are abundant and persistent, so too must be your voice.

This is the Black politician’s dilemma. We become typecast not out of our own doing, but out of necessity; a consequence of the instinctive response to moral imperatives.

I must admit, I’m in my feelings right now, and writing has always been a cathartic exercise for me. After seeing Ahmaud Arbery murdered by bigoted vigilantes while on a jog and reading about Breonna Taylor being gunned down in her home by the police and a host of other incidents this month, and hearing nothing from high-ranking officials in my party, I’ve become rather dejected. Speaking up and speaking out is the least they could do.

And although no amount of hashtagging will bring these individuals back from the dead, speaking up and speaking out makes it easier on the activists fighting the hard battles across this state. It softens the issues. It signals to white people that they should be concerned about these issues, not because a local politician is encouraging them to be concerned, but because party leaders are challenging them to think deeply about how their privilege and influence can be used as agents of change.

We are Democrats and we have an obligation to be truth-tellers and to help others. We’re called to be freedom fighters, making good trouble in pursuit of justice and equality. In one of the most dynamic political seasons in the modern era – where the racial and socioeconomic fault lines of this country were laid bare – the stage has been set for a political revolution.

And if a revolution is too much (after all, Senator Bernie Sanders lost the primary), then let this time quicken our hearts and stir the soul. Let’s aim for a revolution of the moral conscience. At least this consolation would be a sturdy building block to give new voices a place to stand, so that they may one day reshape this party and beckon the next generation toward a much needed progress.

This work is urgent and necessary because it can save lives, but also because many leaders of social justice movements in this state are growing old and getting tired. I’ve become a beleaguered Black man, at times giving in to cynicism and wondering where all the freedom fighters have gone. But I know they’re still out there, organizing for change in every corner of the state, making good trouble, and eagerly awaiting to be rejoined by the rest of the cavalry of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Top photo of Stacey Walker provided by the author and published with permission.

  • SIncere thanks Stacey

    Please read Stacey closely. He is telling you true. Iowa’s subtle brand of institutional racism, (now abetting DJTs more virulent form) has reached the toxic stage. It’s a moral sickness in our midst easily the equal of Covid-19 on our bodies. Are we conceding the field to The Dorr brothers?

    The underlying message of this piece reminds me of my grandmother, who when exasperated, would tell us: “ya’ll are workin’ my last good nerve!”
    which meant: “I can’t take any more of this noise. Stop now or there’s gonna be a reckoning…(and we knew what that meant).
    Which of us hasn’t felt as if we’re down to our “last good nerve” lately? Thank you Stacy, listen carefully Iowans.

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