Black Iowa in ‘State of Emergency’

Activists sound the alarm about the dire longstanding racial disparities harming Black lives.

Photo: Matthew Bruce, an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, speaks during a Tuesday press conference at Cheatom Park in Des Moines about the ‘state of emergency’ experienced by Black Iowans. Watch the video. Photo by Dana James, Black Iowa News.

Key Points:

  • A coalition of 10 organizations working to end police brutality, violence and enact a host of other reforms declared a ‘state of emergency’ for Black Iowans and also warned them not to travel alone — especially at night.

  • Learn more about the coalition’s efforts by following the social media hashtag #BlackEmergencyIA.

  • Des Moines Black Lives Matter clarified why it’s now known as the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement. Matthew Bruce, an organizer with BLM, said the group wanted to make sure that “we reflected that not only are we valuing our lives, but we are dismantling the systems that keep us oppressed.”

Blacks Iowans exist in a “state of emergency” and need resources to fight longstanding racial disparities and violence, said a coalition of 10 community organizations from across central and eastern Iowa.

“With this declaration of a state of emergency for Black Iowans, we are also calling on all local elected officials — from city elected officials to state representatives — to Governor Reynolds to our federal elected officials in the congress and the senate — to join with us in recognizing the state of emergency for Black Iowans and reacting with the resources that are necessary to help combat this,” said Jaylen Cavil, an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement (BLM).

The coalition identified a long list of problems, including how police and others have mischaracterized the killing of Michael Williams, a Black man whose body was found burning last month in a ditch in Jasper County.

“We are calling the death of Michael Williams in Grinnell a lynching, and it needs to be recognized as such, and we need more information and more facts to be released about this case,” said Cavil. 

Matthew Bruce, a BLM organizer, agreed. 

“Rather than investigate this murder as a hate crime, which it was, the Grinnell Police Department declared that race had nothing to do with the incident,” he said. “The Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP echoed this statement to our disappointment. It is so wrong that in 2020 a black man was clearly lynched and law enforcement refuse to investigate it as such.”

The coalition discussed racial disparities in COVID-19, gun violence and maternal mortality. They also classified Iowa as a “sundown” state and discussed the support that’s needed for the families of homicide victims. They also urged people to support Black businesses, among other initiatives.

“Throughout the history of this state and country, the oftentimes overwhelming celebrations of democracy, governance and civil liberties that many Americans and most Iowans enjoy have come at the expense of the black humanity, whose relationship to this nation was forged not in liberty, but in bondage,” Bruce read from a prepared statement during Tuesday’s press conference. “Iowa’s failure to recognize this history has led to the neglect of Black Iowan communities, which today suffer from staggering disparities in victimhood, disease, education, housing, poverty, state-sanctioned violence and other forms of authorized force.”

The coalition of groups include:

Cavil said the coalition has taken on the task of protecting Black Iowans and finding solutions amid these dire conditions.

Luana Nelson-Brown, executive director of Iowa Coalition for Collective Change, said Blacks make up 4% of Iowa’s population, but 31% of gun violence. State money for victim services goes toward sexual assault and domestic abuse, not homicide and other violent crimes, she said. The state has a responsibility to provide resources for the families of homicide victims — especially since a third of them are Black, she said.

Nelson-Brown listed some of the names of Blacks who were victims of violence this year, including both DarQuan Jones and Stephanie Hinton, who were beaten by white assailants who yelled racial slurs in two separate cases, and Breasia Terrell, Makeda Scott, Abdullahi ‘Abdi’ Sharif and Williams.

“The assaults, disappearances, lynching and subsequent cover-ups of Black Iowans are all alarming if not traumatizing for the black community,” she said. “This pandemic of racial violence against the black community is made worse by law enforcement agencies that are ill-equipped ensure our safety.”

Other disparities plague Blacks, Nelson-Brown said, including:

  • Blacks make up 4% of Iowa’s population, but 6% of COVID-19 cases and 4% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.

  • Black women in Iowa are more likely to have low-birth-weight babies and experience maternal mortality at 3 times the rate of whites. She also said there is a need for data disaggregated by race and for more Doulas.

  • “Black communities were disproportionately affected by the derecho storm, not only in exposure to damage but in the stark difference in relief efforts between black communities and other communities in Iowa. We want to specifically highlight the African refugee community in Cedar Rapids whose housing was completely destroyed, and who were abandoned by their state government without power, running water, food, or shelter for days on end,” she said.

Many organizations are working proactively on many of these issues, but organizers said they’ve been met with “aggression and violence” from state and local governments.

“Black Iowans have had to put their bodies on the line against law enforcement officers who have been armed for battle,” said Calvetta Williams, founder of Mothers Against Violence.

These issues combine to represent an “existential threat” for Black Iowans, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency, she said.

Know Your Rights

The coalition listed several action steps, which include sounding the alarm that Iowa is unsafe for Blacks to travel alone — especially at night, said Reyma McCoy McDeid, executive director of the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living. She said Blacks should travel in pairs, let others know where they are going and be prepared to escape, hide or defend themselves.

She also urged Blacks to know their rights at home and inside vehicles, with law enforcement, when carrying a firearm, while filming the police and know their right to remain silent, among others.

“Black lives matter,” she said. “Black safety matters.”

Several members of the Iowa Freedom Riders from Iowa City also spoke about IFR’s formation in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, which sparked worldwide condemnation and protests.

“I'm speaking to the people who aren't part of the BIPOC community. You guys have to protect black lives as well. It's hard to protect our skin by ourselves. But we're still doing it 400 years later. We could use a little help here and there, too,” said Tina Deng, of IFR.

Sekou Mtayari Jr., a co-founder of Shop Black DSM, said their mission is Black economic empowerment. He urged people to vote and to support Black businesses within their community.

“We believe this is a direct path to race equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth,” he said.

The Busy Des Moines BLM

The Des Moines BLM has had many accomplishments this year, Bruce said, which include:

  • Ending a “racist” curfew in Polk County during the summer protests

  • Getting BLM protesters released from the Polk County jail

  • A racial profiling ban in Des Moines

  • The Plan for a More Perfect Union” statewide ban on police chokeholds

  • Restoration of voting rights for Iowans with felony convictions

  • Release of Iowa City police bodycam footage

“Iowa City has done a lot of work on police accountability,” Bruce said.

Kiara Warner, serves on BLM’s programming committee. She said the group had a busy summer helping the Black community. The group held a Juneteenth Jamboree celebration; created a community garden in partnership with the Supply Hive; created and donated COVID-19 care kits; donated Sunday dinner meal ingredients to families; hosted a back-to-school supply drive with the Supply Hive and worked on the Rent Relief Fund in conjunction with Des Moines Mutual Aid and Urban Dreams.

What’s Next?

Bruce said the coalition will provide updates while it continues working on eviction moratoriums, rent relief and economic grants, among other priorities.

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