Iowa BLM groups collaborate to push for legislative action in 2021

Published: Jan. 12, 2021 at 11:19 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Protests last summer around Iowa and pressure put on government leaders to work toward racial equity culminated in the unanimous passage of a police reform bill in June.

Now Black Lives Matter groups across the state are bringing their fight for change to the new legislative session.

“Collaboration has been remarkably easy, and so that should send a message that we’re all aligned, all across the state and really all across the country,” said Amara Andrews, one of the co-founders of Cedar Rapids’ Advocates for Social Justice.

The Advocates for Social Justice is one of five groups forming the Iowa BLM Statewide Coalition, along with Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, Iowa Freedom Riders, Cedar Valley BLM, and Ames BLM.

The coalition has put forth a list of six legislative priorities for lawmakers, which were developed by Des Moines BLM and sponsored by the other groups:

• Legalize cannabis and expunge records

• Repeal Iowa Code 80F, the peace officer, public safety, and emergency personnel bill of rights

• Repeal SF 481, which requires law enforcement to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement

• Repeal Iowa Code 904.808, which requires state government and state agencies to buy products made by Iowa inmates through Iowa Prison Industries

• Legislation to promote Black maternal and infant health

• Constitutional amendment to protect voting rights for Iowans who have been convicted of a felony

Tamara Marcus of the Advocates for Social Justice said the repeal of the officer bill of rights would clear limits currently in place that hinder ASJ’s goal to establish an effective citizens review board to oversee the Cedar Rapids Police Department.

“That’s a big reason why CRBs don’t really have subpoena power, and we know that subpoena power is critical to having these truly independent investigations, which is the job of review boards,” Marcus said.

The constitutional amendment would replace a current executive order signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds last August that restored voting rights to people convicted of felonies. The amendment is largely seen, including by Reynolds, as a permanent move that would protect those voting rights, as an executive order could be overturned by a governor after Reynolds.

“That’s something that we’re going to continue to push and that we’re going to continue to advocate for strongly,” Rep. Ras Smith said of the constitutional amendment.

Smith was one of the lawmakers at the fore of passing last summer’s reform legislation, and he was an advocate for including members of Des Moines BLM in conversations with lawmakers about the changes they sought.

The Democrat from Waterloo said one of his main goals for this legislative session is also one of the coalition’s: the promotion of Black maternal and infant health.

“Right now, I think in the state of Iowa, people of color, Black women of color specifically, infant mortality rate is three times that of their White counterparts. That’s alarming,” Smith said. “But I also think it’s a systemic issue because in rural Iowa, right now, labor and delivery services are becoming scarce.”

Smith doesn’t believe the current General Assembly, which has Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, will repeal Iowa Code 904.808, the Iowa Prison Industries purchasing requirement, or the coalition’s law enforcement-related demands, particularly the repeal of SF 481.

“I think there’s credence to it. I think we should definitely explore it,” Smith said. “I think we need to allow these local municipalities to have some of that conversation about what their interactions look like, but also, what is the goal of ICE, what is their goal, and does that match the goals of creating inclusive, strong, collaborative communities? And in my experience that I’ve seen, those things are not running parallel to each other.

“We really need to have that critical conversation. Sadly, I don’t think that we’re going to see that conversation be had broadly this legislative session.”

Andrews said she anticipates the most pushback to the priorities would come against the repeal of the officer bill of rights.

But she added that she is “cautiously optimistic” about what results could come from this statewide coalition, the first time all five groups have worked together.

“A lot of these partnerships and collaborations have been brewing for a long time now, so it’s exciting that this is the first really concerted, statewide effort,” Marcus said.

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