Across Rural Iowa, Protests Confront Small-Town Racism

It took Mallory Gosch an hour and fifteen minutes to gather the courage to step up and take the microphone at the racial justice discussion in Cresco, Iowa. The 14-year-old sat in the crowd of well over 100 as her mother and others took turns in the park raising their concerns over instances of racism and bullying in the small Northeast Iowa town.

The attendance was stunning to organizers in the town of 4,800 that is about 96% white. But also in that audience were some of Gosch’s fellow classmates who had lobbed racist insults at her in the six years since her family moved to town.

Finally, she walked up and addressed her neighbors.

“A few weeks ago, I counted how many times I’ve been in a racial problem in this year. I was called a ‘nigger’ six times,” Gosch said, adding there had been 16 times in total her classmates had used some sort of racial slur or insult with her. “Including stuff I was told like, ‘why aren’t you picking cotton in the fields.’ ‘Nobody wants to be your friends because you’re a nigger and that’s all you ever are.'”

She, along with many other speakers that day, encouraged people in the predominantly white community to speak out and step in when they saw others making racist comments.

“It’s hard, because there was nothing I could really do about it,” Gosch said of the insults. “None of the friends I had would really stick up for me.”

Gosch’s public story was one of many playing out in small towns across Iowa in the three weeks since George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, and served as a painful reminder as to why these conversations are so needed in rural Iowa.

While most of the state’s media attention has focused on larger protests in Des Moines and Iowa City, smaller rallies, marches, demonstrations and community discussions have sprung up in mid-size and small communities in every corner of the state.

Over 500 attended a George Floyd march in Spencer, deep in Northwest Iowa. In Mingo, a Central Iowa town of 302, a crowd of 53 showed up for a Black Lives Matter event. Around 160 people turned out for a rally in Keokuk.

There have also been racial justice events in Maquoketa. And Mount Vernon. And Panora. Grinnell. Marshalltown. Creston. Evansdale. Indianola. Sheldon. Belle Plaine. Ottumwa. Oskaloosa. Fairfield. Washington. Boone. Forest City.

And those were just the ones outside the larger cities we found on an initial look into the matter.

The names for these organic demonstrations, mostly organized by locals on Facebook, have varied significantly, with few calling themselves “Black Lives Matter” events, though many of the attendees at them bring signs with the saying. The Cresco event was titled “Cresco Peaceful Conversation For Change.”

The crowd in Cresco

“We need this in a small town because not everyone is hearing about this,” said Kendal Butikofer, 16, at the Cresco event.

The events have not come without local pushback from paranoid residents who have only thought of the protests through a rioting and looting lens.

Laura Hubka, who helped organize the Cresco conversation, said soon after she posted the event she saw one woman write on Facebook that they were planning a riot in the small town. The police called her a few days later, saying they’d heard rumors that people were driving in from out of town for it, and that they were bringing rocks for violence (apparently, in these police officers and rumor-mongers’ minds, Cresco has no rocks of its own anywhere in town).

A local Catholic church group marches to the Cresco discussion

For some communities, it was one of the few or only times that racial issues have been discussed in a large, public manner, with speakers highlighting the extent of how little diversity certain Iowa towns had until recently. At the Spencer rally, a man described how his father was the first black man to ever live in the town. He had moved there in 1989.

The conversations at these gatherings have offered a glimpse both at the unique challenges and discrimination that people of color face in rural Iowa, as well as the changing mindsets among at least some of the white residents in these towns.

“What I’d like to see happen is for the white residents of this community to sit down and listen,” Rick Nance, an older, white Cresco resident, told the crowd. “It’s time to quit saying, ‘we will give you our prayers and thoughts.’ We need to do some action.”

A Lonely March Turns Into Something Bigger

Clementé Love, 36, felt the call to do something in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. An English instructor in Indianola, she didn’t want to simply join the large Des Moines protests, as she wanted to draw attention to racial problems in her nearby town of about 16,000.

So, Love decided she would get up every morning to start a march up and down the main street in town at 8:30 a.m. She started on the Monday following Floyd’s murder, but was frustrated when her post on Facebook requesting her neighbors join her got plenty of likes, yet no new attendees the next day.

“I woke up, I came down here, and I was still alone,” Love told Starting Line. “As I was walking, I got angry, I got upset, I got sad. I felt just like for all the other things in the community, when someone is hurting or someone is in need, we pull together … If you think you’re for the cause, you’re doing it wrong if I’m the one who has to stand up.”

Clementé Love in Indianola

After subsequent online posts and her story being written about in the Indianola Independent Advocate, five people joined her on Wednesday. More came out each morning, and by the weekend, Love had 25 fellow Indianola residents join her on her marches.

Evening protests in Indianola organized by another group of people grew to about 100 people one night in the week after the murder, where the Register reported that all the attendees were white.

But whether she was by herself or with a group of supporters, most of whom were white, Love hoped that she was sparking internal debates in the minds of those who drove by her on the busy road.

“Some people are not going to agree with [the protests],” Love said. “But if you can, for a second, sit with that and examine why you feel that way, I think there are some people who disagree will sit with that and change their mind … I’ve been uncomfortable for so long, I have no problem making you uncomfortable.”

Addressing Specific Local Problems

In Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, Black Lives Matter activists have presented specific lists of demands to local and state leaders, both on significant policing reform and state voting rights issues. The Des Moines contingent has already seen success in a very short amount of time, including pressuring Gov. Kim Reynolds into a commitment to signing an executive order on voting rights restoration, a much faster route than what Iowa Republican lawmakers had been advancing.

For the small-town gatherings, the goals of attendees might be smaller in scope, but are still aimed at combating local problems.

In Cresco, many speakers emphasized that they didn’t have an issue with the local police, several of whom were on hand. There, the action item was clear: force the school district to take racist bullying seriously.

“The general bullying in our school system is horrific,” said Kelli Gosch, Mallory’s mother. “I would like to see consequences for the hate speech that my daughter receives in school … she’s moving up with the same individuals through her own school career.”

Kelli Gosch speaks to the crowd

She said that students are forced to apologize to her daughter, but then go back to saying the same racist things to her two weeks later.

Gosch collected emails from attendees at the Cresco rally to coordinate a large group to attend the next school board meeting and call for change there.

For Love in Indianola, her actionable item was simply for there to be a community conversation hosted at Simpson College, so that more white residents could come and learn.

“It’s a great community, I don’t want to make it seem like it’s a horrible place to live, but as a black person, we do carry a certain consciousness out the gate before we even step out the door,” Love explained, detailing how she makes conscious decisions in town of not walking too close behind anyone and always driving the speed limit. “The only safe haven where we can actually let our guard down is in our own home.”

In Spencer, however, there was a focus on policing problems, as like at the rallies in larger cities. Black residents described being targeted by police, including one woman who was pulled over by an officer in her own neighborhood to ask why she was there.

The problem there may lay in part with the sheriff. A recent Facebook post by Sheriff Chris Raveling has been bouncing around Iowa social media.

“The wolf has convinced the sheep that the sheepdog is dangerous and must be removed,” Raveling wrote. “When the sheepdog is no more, the wolf will feast!”

Some commentators have pointed out that the sheep/sheepdog language matches that of Dave Grossman’s “killolgytraining for police officers, a dangerous, much-criticized approach that teaches law enforcement officials to treat every interaction like a combat situation.

“We fight violence,” Grossman said in 2017 at one of his trainings. “What do we fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence.”

Tailoring The Message

In Creston, a Southwest Iowa town of almost 8,000 people, Gunnar Millslagle has stood at a busy intersection nearly every day since the Floyd murder, holding a Black Lives Matter sign at passing cars.

“It’s to show there are people who care even in this relatively right-leaning community, that we do care about the black community,” Millslagle said during an afternoon of sign-waving a week ago.

Creston is another Iowa town where 96% of the residents are white. Gunnar, a high school junior, and most of his school friends who come out are all white, though he noted one older black man has joined them several days. In the 25 minutes Starting Line was on hand, responses from drivers were four-to-one positive to their cause, though in previous days they’d gotten a few people who did a Nazi salute at them.

High schoolers turn out in Creston

“People are starting to open their eyes,” Millslagle said of what he was seeing from white friends’ recent social media posts.

Also on hand most days at the corner of Sumner and Taylor streets is Christopher Harms, 23, who lives just down the road. He had with him last week a sign that read “Hold police to a higher standard.”

“A lot of people, when they see a Black Lives Matter sign, they get really defensive,” Harms said. “But when they see it’s a cop thing, and I’m not saying that all cops are bad, I’m just saying we need to hold them to a higher standard, I feel like that sways people a little bit more.”

Harms in Creston

At the Cresco rally, Kelli Gosch tried to explain to the mostly-white crowd what was actually meant when “white privilege” was discussed.

“I think most black people when they say [white] privilege, they’re not meaning that white people don’t have struggles. They’re not meaning you don’t know what it’s like to be poor,” Gosch said. “They’re meaning your struggles and you being a certain economic level, your skin tone is not one of those reasons for your troubles.”

A woman came up and showed off her sign, which said, “White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard, it means your skin color isn’t one of the things making it hard.”

A Pledge To Speak Out Against Small-Town Racism

If there was one major common theme voiced throughout these rural demonstrations, it was that white residents need to do more in calling out racist remarks from their friends and neighbors.

Attendees at multiple events told Starting Line that the general thinking in many of these overwhelmingly-white towns was that racial strife wasn’t a problem there because there were few people of color. The stories shared at these events showed that clearly wasn’t true.

“It doesn’t look as if we have a racial issue here in Cresco because there’s just not that many black people here, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Kelli Gosch said. “Even though I love this community and I know people love me, I feel it. I feel it in the stares. I feel it in the things people say to me that they don’t feel they’re being racist, but they are racist.”

The large turnout at the Cresco rally was particularly noteworthy given the distinction of Howard County, where Cresco is the county seat, in the 2016 election — its 41-point swing from Barack Obama to Donald Trump was the largest in the nation. While Trump’s anti-establishment and trade issues did resonate with Eastern Iowa voters, most locals will tell you his racist and anti-immigrant messages had a significant impact in swaying white Iowa voters’ to his campaign.

Cresco rally

One retired teacher at the Cresco event told the crowd that she saw racism by children in the schools really spike after the 2016 election. And while Kelli Gosch noted there’s only about 16 black adults in the entire town, the schools have many biracial students, including her daughter, who have felt the brunt of that racism.

Though Kelli Gosch said she’d hadn’t been treated as poorly as her daughter by white adults, she’s received plenty of “insidious little comments like, ‘oh, you’re black, but you talk good.'”

Cresco rally

One of the police officers in Cresco said the work needs to start at home in teaching children better, but some disagreed with that being a sufficient approach.

“I’m worried about this idea of it starting at home. I think a lot of people take that to mean, I’m personally not racist, I’ve got that box checked, and that’s all they do,” a woman named Jennifer said soon after. “My question is, in this very small town, what’s the next step?”

Cresco rally

Many people urged that next step to be calling out the racist comments.

“I’m trying to bring it within myself to have the courage to say, ‘maybe don’t say that,'” Cassidy Byrnes, 19, who traveled to Cresco from Waukon with several of her friends, said.

That may be an easier goal as people like those who gathered in Cresco realize they’re not alone in how they feel. Hubka noted that the attendees didn’t match the typical political crowd that she sees out at local Democratic Party events.

“I didn’t know there were so many small towns in a majority Republican state … where you meet other people who are like-minded [on this issue],” said Lilly Sauceda Millage, 21, a college student who’d seen her black friends and Hispanic grandfather discriminated against.

For the black residents of small towns who helped organize these events, that would be a very welcomed help.

“Use your white voices to help out the black cause,” Love said. “They’re suffering.”

 

by Pat Rynard
Posted 6/18/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

2 Comments on "Across Rural Iowa, Protests Confront Small-Town Racism"

  • Well yes, of course anyone who doesn’t like your riots and your looting must be a racist. Welcome to your second presidential election defeat, smug liberals.

  • I guess that Mr Jackson missed the part that these rallies are taking place in “right-leaning” small towns with a vast majority white population. They, apparently, understand what the deal is.

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