Six inspiring speeches on Iowa's "first step" to address police violence

Most bills lawmakers introduced this year to address Iowa’s notorious racial disparities didn’t get far before the Iowa House and Senate suspended their work in mid-March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time the legislature got back to work on June 3, large protests were underway daily in Iowa and across the country, in response to the horrific killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Democratic lawmakers unveiled a “More Perfect Union plan” designed to prevent “violent conflicts between law enforcement and Iowa residents” on June 4. A bill incorporating their proposals sailed through both chambers unanimously a week later, with a group of Black Lives Matter protesters watching from the public gallery.

House File 2647 has four components.

Division I allows the Iowa Attorney General’s office to “prosecute a criminal offense committed by a law enforcement officer […] arising from the actions of the officer resulting in the death of another, regardless of whether the county attorney requests the assistance of the attorney general or decides to independently prosecute the criminal offense committed by the officer.”

Division II bans police use of chokeholds in most situations.

Division III prohibits Iowa law enforcement agencies from hiring police officers who have been fired elsewhere for misconduct.

Division IV requires “annual training to every law enforcement officer on issues relating to de-escalation techniques and the prevention of bias.”

During the Iowa House and Senate debates on June 11, several legislators remarked that there was no precedent for a bill to get through subcommittee, committee, and final approval in each chamber on a single day. Governor Kim Reynolds supports the measure and took the unusual step of coming into the chambers to watch the proceedings.

I cannot recall any other example of the Republican trifecta acting quickly to advance a priority for Democrats.

Videos of all speeches during the Iowa House and Senate debate are available on the legislature’s website.

This post highlights the voices of the five African-American members of the state House. More than any other Iowa lawmakers, they have battled the many manifestations of institutional racism and championed criminal justice reform. Several worked closely with Republican leadership and the governor to ensure lawmakers would not adjourn for the year without seizing this moment.

“THE GAINS THAT WE’VE MADE TODAY SPEAK LOUDLY”

State Representative Ras Smith spoke twice, near the beginning and end of the House debate. First elected in 2016, he has worked on many issues but never played a central role in crafting high-profile legislation a Republican governor would sign into law.

“The gains that we’ve made today speak loudly,” he said during opening remarks.

Smith acknowledged negotiators hadn’t reached agreement on all points, leaving some tasks such as racial profiling legislation for another time. “But this body, in ten days, through hard work and critical conversations, were able to make significant steps in addressing historic injustices in this country.”

Smith finished his opening comments by ticking off the four main points of the legislation.

“THIS WILL BRING A SMALL PIECE OF HOPE TO THE FUTURE”

State Representative Phyllis Thede spoke next.

The six-term lawmaker began by expressing how happy and proud she was to be part of “a true day of celebration.”

“In this moment, we are witnessing this first step toward equality and justice. June 11, 2020. I’m excited.”

Thede spent much of her time reading out loud a piece she had written to sum up how she felt upon hearing the news of George Floyd’s death.

On May 25, 2020, our lives and our emotions were plunged into turmoil due to the death of a citizen, a man, a son, a father, a friend who met an untimely death.

Protesting, looting, marches, cries of “No justice, no peace” rang out.

Each of us struggles to understand why this happened. In the blink of an eye, we had experienced actually two enormous things in our lifetime: the COVID-19 [pandemic] and the death of George Floyd.

I finally asked myself, where should we go from here? I know we can’t turn back the clock, and of course I don’t want to. But we need to try and make something positive out of these life-changing events.

We need to seek new ways of living that will bring about what is best for all: our families, our friends, our co-workers, our businesses, and our country.

We will forge a new normal, hopefully one with love for all mankind. My greatest wish is that all of you find peace through these turbulent times.

So for today, and I hold in my hand, this wonderful piece–pieces of paper that we will enact today. And this will bring a small piece of hope to the future. It is a step, but it’s a step in the right direction.

So thank you to this legislative body. I appreciate all the support, and I think it says a lot about Iowa. This is what Iowa does. We handle our business the right way.

“AN ACTIVE MARCH TOWARDS A MORE PERFECT UNION”

State Representative Ross Wilburn, completing his first legislative session after winning an August 2019 special election, thanked leadership for being willing to listen not only to the Black Legislative Caucus, but also to each other and to all of the peaceful demonstrators.

The opening lines of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution became a recurring motif in Wilburn’s remarks. “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility.”

When Iowa became part of the union, he noted, “we said we’re going to establish justice and move toward domestic tranquility.”

So it’s really about an active march towards a more perfect union, which is what the original plan was named.

A lot of people have felt disenfranchised, not just with what’s happening in the state, but within the country and around the world, and have felt in some ways, the civil rights movement, despite gains of our past years, has become stagnant. And so it’s critical that we continue that active work.

Wilburn recalled a point of personal privilege he delivered in the House chamber late in the evening of June 5: “I spoke about moments, moments in time and moments in history, not only in this country and state, but right outside the very steps of this capitol.”

The bill at hand “is an important first step,” and work on other aspects of criminal justice reform “has to continue” after this session ends.

That work would focus on the underlying conditions that contribute to racial disparities in access to education, health care, jobs, and opportunity.

“So this is another invitation, not just to get rid of bad actors, or criminals, as has been referred to, that get into law enforcement, but for humane treatment for all of us.”

In closing, Wilburn reminded listeners of Iowa’s proud history on civil rights. “Let’s continue leading in civil rights, let’s continue that march toward justice, and let’s be Iowa.”

“Let’s be Iowa” was the main slogan of Wilburn’s 2018 campaign for governor.

“GEORGE FLOYD HAS BECOME A SPECIAL PERSON IN DEATH”

State Representative Ruth Ann Gaines, who has served in the House since 2011, recalled her reference to Rosa Parks earlier in the day.

Gaines knows a lot about the civil rights icon, having played her in a Des Moines Community Playhouse production several years ago. One line she had to recite for that show: “Sometimes the Lord chooses us for special things.”

Those words rang in her head as she watched the memorial service for George Floyd.

I’m not necessarily saying that the Lord chose George Floyd to die, thus good things would happen. But if you’re a Christian, as I am, you have to consider that his death and what has happened and is happening since then is food for thought.

Too long have Black men and women been persecuted by the police.

Too long have Black mothers waited for their sons to come home, to only find out that they’d been killed in the street.

Too long have children waited for their Black fathers, finding out that they would never come home.

When will it end?

George Floyd has become a special person in death. Because he, as a symbol of life, is saying, we won’t have to wait any more. The time is now.

I never would have dreamed that I could stand on the floor of the Iowa legislature and support a bill that would help all of this indignity to Black Americans stop. But here I am, and here it is.

So as I close, I will say, sometimes the Lord chooses us for special things. George Floyd, you’re bigger in death than you were in life, and I think that’s the rhyme and the reason to it.

“NOT ONLY ARE YOU PART OF HISTORY, YOU ARE RECTIFYING HISTORY”

State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad is the longest-serving current African American member of the Iowa legislature, having been elected for the first time in 2006.

Referring to the Black Lives Matter protesters watching the debate, Abdul-Samad credited his “brothers and sisters in the gallery” for “being the game-changers, because you have made us all listen, and we thank you for that.”

He remarked on the 400-year legacy of racism, starting with enslaved people who “had everything taken from them.” Most of us didn’t grow up learning this history and therefore didn’t understand its lasting impact, how it conditioned Americans to “accept racism as the norm.”

Abdul-Samad recalled the murders of Emmett Till, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the last century’s civil rights movement. He then moved to recent victims of police violence influenced by systemic racism.

Eric Garner died because of a police officer’s choke hold that would be banned under the bill.

Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old “playing cops and robbers in a park.” The officer who killed him seconds after arriving on the scene had previously been fired from another department.

Officers shot Breonna Taylor dead while she slept in her own home. And then George Floyd.

I say it that way because I’m glad we’re doing the bill, but am I happy? No, I’m not happy.

I’m glad we’re working together, because we need to. I appreciate the [House] speaker, I appreciate the president of the Senate, I appreciate the governor, I appreciate my colleagues in here, both Republican and Democrat.

But I’m sad because I stood in a line and watched young people with tears coming down their face because they were looking at us, and I saw the same tears that came down my face when I was standing there protesting. And we were trying to become the game-changers, and no one listened to us.

So I saw their tears, I saw the pain, I heard the hurt! But that’s what it took for us to move. But now that we have moved, let us keep moving. Let us not turn around. […]

This is a first step to get to the end of the tunnel. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and we must be able to run this marathon together.

We have a chance to make history in the state of Iowa,” Abdul-Samad said, raising his voice near the end of his remarks. “We’re going to make it happen […] we refuse to be defeated.”

The bipartisan bill “is only the first step of what we have to do.” Dropping his voice to almost a whisper, Abdul-Samad told his colleagues, “Not only are you part of history, you are rectifying history. And that is something that you can tell your babies, your grandchildren, so they can tell the story from now on, what we did in Iowa.”

“THE WORK AHEAD OF US IS PLENTIFUL AND IT’S TOUGH”

Smith had the last word, after the bill’s Republican floor manager, Bobby Kaufmann, yielded part of his time for closing comments on the bill.

He took a few seconds to compose himself.

I’m taking a moment to breathe it in a little bit.

For me, I wasn’t content initially with just small steps. I was blinded by the need to make decades of progress in a week.

Then he thought about watching his three-year-old daughter when she was learning to walk. It began with small steps, but soon she was walking fast and then running and jumping all over the house.

Smith described the current moment as “bittersweet” for him.

I’m heartbroken by the injustice that has plagued our country for generations. I’m here to acknowledge and inform you all that the work ahead of us is plentiful and it’s tough. But I have so much hope.

I’m hopeful because in this time in Iowa, we stepped up to make real change.

At a time when we could have taken our ball and gone home, we didn’t. The process for me has one that’s been maturing. You see, Governor Reynolds, Speaker [Pat] Grassley, [Minority] Leader [Todd] Prichard, this not-so-young kid from Waterloo was so focused on the policy that I nearly missed the growth in this chamber.

Smith turned to address House Judiciary Committee Chair Steve Holt, saying “our ability to have back bench discussions about race have progressed.” He’s glad to have Holt’s support for this legislation, but more important, he’s excited to work with him “to improve the profession that you love.”

The Iowa House has committed to ensuring that what happened to George Floyd and scores of Black men before him “doesn’t take place in our state. Not on our watch.”

The past few months have been very difficult for some of us, Smith said, but “On this day, in this body, the sunlight shines a little bit brighter.” Not just because of today’s work, but because the effort has “illuminated the path toward our nation’s greatest promise of liberty and justice for all people.”

POSTSCRIPT: “THERE’S STILL MUCH MORE WORK TO BE DONE”

Several lawmakers alluded to the need for the legislature to keep working on matters of racial justice. The governor also acknowledged in a June 11 news release,

These problems didn’t arise overnight and they won’t be fixed in a day. We are just getting started, but our work together shows Iowa is willing to have the tough conversations and to look past our differences to find common ground and a brighter future for all Iowans.

ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer flagged some of the key tasks remaining in a statement the civil rights advocacy group released shortly after the bill’s passage.

“This legislation is an important step in the right direction and credit is due to the Black communities across Iowa who have been agitating for real reforms for years. Credit is also due to the thousands of Iowans who took to the streets to protest against police violence in Black communities.

“There’s still much more work to be done. We have an obligation to change the current system and support efforts in Black and Brown communities to develop and build community-controlled institutions and interventions that have been proven to improve public safety and health more successfully than oppressive, terrifying, ineffectual, and deadly modern policing.

“The statehouse needs to reduce the public safety budget, pass drug law reform that legalizes possession, change our sentencing laws more broadly, fund alternative-to-policing community services and programs, pass a ban on racial profiling and pretextual stops, pass a bill to ensure body camera footage is available to the public in police use-of-force events and not kept secret forever, and get SROs out of schools.

“It’s past time for robust reforms that fundamentally change the role of police in our society.”

Top photo: From left, Democratic State Representatives Ruth Ann Gaines, Ross Wilburn, Ako Abdul-Samad, Ras Smith, and Phyllis Thede raise their fists after the Iowa House unanimously approved a police reform bill. Photo posted on the Iowa House Democrats Twitter feed.

  • This...

    …is what Democracy looks like. Note of the moral imperative of this moment. Thankfully, it touched the hearts of even the most calculating.
    Ako, Ruth Ann, Ras, Ross, and Phyllis: Thanks for standing in the breach for us.

    Now, about that long-sought local racial profiling ordinance here in Des Moines……

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