Legislators Prepare Racial Justice Push, Even If GOP Opposes

Waterloo’s Rep. Ras Smith got into politics around the time that Trayvon Martin’s killing in 2012 reverberated throughout the nation, igniting cries of racial inequity and police brutality. Smith stayed involved while riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after police shot and killed Michael Brown, even as little real political progress was made.

But now, following his participation in Waterloo’s rally protesting the death of George Floyd, Smith said he can feel a shift among his white colleagues. 

I came into the Legislature talking about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. As a black man in America, this is not new to me,” Smith said. “Things got crazy in Ferguson, Missouri as well. And [members of the Iowa Legislature] didn’t flinch. I don’t know if this is going to raise awareness, but I can tell you it does feel different.”

Top Democrats from the Iowa Legislature gathered online Monday morning to talk about the legislative session reconvening on Wednesday, COVID-19 and a state budget, and Senate Minority leader Janet Petersen said that racial inequity will be a topic added to the agenda. Concerns of the spread of coronavirus led the legislature to pause in mid-March.

However, Smith and other Iowa Democrats said little change is expected to arise when session resumes in a Republican-controlled House and Senate. 

“We’re being called back to do basically a couple pet project bills and a budget. So the majority party has zero appetite for addressing any of this [racial inequity] in the most regular of times, they definitely aren’t going to bring it up in these eight or ten days,” said Rep. Amy Nielsen of North Liberty. 

Petersen said that Democrats plan on addressing racial profiling, minimizing drug penalties, and Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “second chance” agenda, which focuses on criminal justice reform like expanding and restoring voting rights to felons. Lawmakers said they’ve before pushed for items like getting minority impact statements put onto bills and the formation of a racial justice reform committee.

“I work in the Iowa Legislature. And I’m a realist, I just am,” Smith said. “I don’t have a lot of hope that the majority party is going to move on a lot of the legislation that I think would help instantaneously in this moment in Iowa, or across our nation. I don’t believe, from my experience in the past four years, that my Republican peers would even have that conversation.”

Sen. Zach Wahls of Coralville said that he has heard some acknowledgment by his Republican colleagues of inequity related to Floyd’s death, though little recognition that the current disorder throughout the state and country might be restored by accomplishing justice. 

At a news conference Monday, Reynolds said that the Iowa National Guard stands “ready to assist and support” state and local law enforcement if violent protests arise, after applauding the Des Moines Police Department, Polk County Sheriff’s Office and Iowa State Patrol’s handling of three days of protest. 

“I’ve been heartened to some extent, I do feel there are some Republicans that agree that what happened to George Floyd was clearly an injustice and that it requires some kind of response,” Wahls said. “I’m also a little disappointed that it appears to be going hand-in-hand with ‘we need to give the police more support so they can crack down on the rioters and protesters.’”

Wahls said he’s been in touch with some of his colleagues about considering legislation around the use of force in policing and other racial equity protocols amid continued focus on COVID-19 oversight and preparation, though he also stressed that the Republican majority may affect the adoption of any new laws. At this point in session, any new legislation would have to be added through amendments of bills that have already made it through the first funnel. 

“The real question of what’s going to get done is going to come down to the majority and what their priorities are and are not,” he said. “I would obviously love to see some meaningful reform. It’s overdue and I think the last several days and weeks have underscored how important it is for us to restore an understanding or justice in this state and in this country.”

In the meantime, Smith and Rep. Ross Wilburn of Ames, another one of the state’s five black legislators, said the rest of session should move forward with a continued focus on things like K-12 education and housing policy, which will address underlying structural discriminatory practices impacting underrepresented groups. 

Wilburn said that looking at use of force by law enforcement will be important work for next session.

The demonstrations that I’ve seen happen, especially the diverse spaces and voices of young people is very encouraging and uplifting and really help me stay focused and calm in continuing the work of criminal justice reform, opportunity policies in terms of education and access to capital,” Wilburn said. “Those are the types of things that help me keep focused on the work that needs to continue to be done.”

 

by Isabella Murray
Posted 6/2/20

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