Attendees ‘disappointed’ after Johnson County sheriff candidates back out of forum on racial injustice

Newman Abuissa of PEACE Iowa speaks during a forum on racial injustice in downtown Iowa City on June 1, 2020.
Newman Abuissa of PEACE Iowa speaks during a forum on racial injustice in downtown Iowa City on June 1, 2020.(Mary Green/KCRG)
Published: Jun. 2, 2020 at 1:51 AM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - A public forum on racial injustice in Iowa City on Monday was intended to spark a conversation with attendees and Johnson County’s two candidates for sheriff, according to organizers.

But neither candidate was there.

The forum, which took place at the Pedestrian Mall downtown and was attended by about 50 people, was sponsored by PEACE Iowa and Veterans for Peace.

Those groups started organizing the event on Friday, and the two candidates, Al Fear and Brad Kunkel, said they found out about the event Saturday. After making adjustments to fit the candidates’ schedules, the parties settled on holding the event Monday at 6 p.m.

But by the time that came around, both Fear and Kunkel had backed out.

Fear, who has worked for the Cedar Rapids Police Department for the last 20 years and currently serves as a sergeant in its patrol division, said he did initially intend to attend the forum, before putting out a press release Monday declining the invitation.

“I was getting phone calls and text messages from business owners in the Pedestrian Mall who were very concerned about the safety of their business and also about the safety of the people who were going to be at this event tonight, given the situation of the high tensions currently in the community,” Fear said.

Kunkel, a detective sergeant with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, echoed those same concerns about public safety, referencing violent events Sunday night at Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville and in Davenport, and said he would’ve participated Monday if the forum had switched to a virtual setting.

“It’s unpredictable what maybe what one person could decide to do in a setting like that, and again, out of public safety concerns, because that’s the lens I view a lot of things through is that public safety angle, I didn’t feel it was a good idea to go through with it right now,” Kunkel said.

Both candidates said the topic of racial injustice is a conversation of great importance.

“I understand why people are hurting. I see that, I hear that, and it’s important for people to know that I do see that,” Kunkel said.

“The subject matter that we’re talking about tonight is a pretty tense conversation,” Fear said. “It’s something that needs to happen. I just feel that the time and location of the event is probably not the best idea right now.”

But Ean Mills, who grew up in Iowa City, currently lives in California and has been staying in Iowa since March to quarantine with his family, asked, if not now, then when would be a better time to have those conversations?

“What if it gets worse tomorrow? What if it’s worse next week, and the week after that?” Mills said. “We keep pushing it, pushing it. Tensions are continually rising. When do you have the conversation?”

Mills, who attended the forum and is Black, said he wanted to share a personal story on interactions he’s had with law enforcement officers in Iowa City with the two candidates, both of whom are white.

“But it’s not just me,” he said. “Everybody has a story. Every person of color, I guarantee you, has a story.”

Mills and two of the forum’s organizers said they were disappointed that the dialogue they had hoped to have didn’t happen Monday.

“You should’ve been here. Period. That’s how I feel about the circumstance,” Mills said.

Copyright 2020 KCRG. All rights reserved.

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