Iowa City to reboot racial truth commission after infighting

A groundbreaking effort to document and dismantle institutional racism in Iowa’s most liberal city has been paused after weeks of conflict among leaders derailed its work

Via AP news wire
Wednesday 17 March 2021 18:15 GMT
Racial Injustice Iowa Commission
Racial Injustice Iowa Commission (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


A groundbreaking effort to document and dismantle institutional racism in Iowa’s most liberal city will be paused and relaunched after weeks of conflict among leaders derailed its work.

The City Council in Iowa City voted late Tuesday to suspend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission until April 15, after new members can be appointed to replace three who resigned from the nine-member commission. The council also plans a special meeting with the commission then to iron out how to move forward.

The vote came after hours of public comment that recounted the personality conflicts, distrust, generational divides and tactical disagreements that had erupted over the commission in recent weeks.

“This grieves me to my core that I, as a Black sitting mayor, have to come before this council and have to ask for a suspension,” Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague said Tuesday.

Teague said that he still supported the commission's goals and believed it could bring systemic changes to the city. But he said the commission had become “an unsafe space" for some commissioners of color to participate, including its former chairwoman, and that it needed to make changes before resuming its work.

The council created the commission last year after months of protests calling for racial justice in Iowa City, a college town of 75,000 known for progressive politics but also racial disparities between whites and Blacks in criminal justice, education, and business.

The first of its kind in Iowa, the commission was asked to collect evidence of systemic racism in institutions through public hearings and other fact-finding and make policy recommendations to fix problems. The commission was also to promote truth-telling through art, media and other channels and reconciliation between citizens of color and white residents, who make up 75% of the city. It has been given $1 million in funding to address issues of systemic racism.

But the commissioners who were appointed to carry out the work clashed during meetings in recent weeks over its direction, as they started perhaps the most ambitious and difficult inquiry in city history over Zoom

Iowa City is among several cities across the country, from Providence, Rhode Island, to Evanston, Illinois, that are taking steps to acknowledge past policies that benefited whites over other groups and to promote racial reconciliation or reparations.

The work is just getting underway in many areas and will lead to “uncomfortable conversations," said Leon Andrews, director of the Race, Equality and Leadership program at the National League of Cities.

“The work is messy. The work is not easy. If it was, we probably would have solved this a long time ago,” he said.

Among the many flashpoints was simply how to conduct meetings in the absence of clear bylaws. Another was the city’s appointment of a white male union leader, Jesse Case, to serve as the group’s facilitator, a move that some commissioners criticized. A third was how much independence the group should have from city government.

Earlier this month, commission chairwoman Royceann Porter stepped down ahead of a planned vote of no-confidence in her leadership, after some commissioners accused her of a bullying style.

Porter, a longtime racial justice activist and now vice chair of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, said she was falsely accused and treated unfairly by critics on the commission. After Porter resigned as chair, vice chair T'Shailyn Harrington automatically became the chairwoman. Within minutes, commissioners ousted Harrington and elected Mohamed Traore as the new chair.

Harrington resigned, saying meetings had been poorly run and hostile and that she became “collateral damage" due to the infighting between others. Commissioner Tony Currin also resigned, saying the commission needed “a full shutdown and reboot” with changes to improve its oversight and self-governance.

Case, the facilitator, resigned, forfeiting his city contract and complaining the commission had been “set up to fail” without clearer city governance structures.

“In its current condition the commission is doing more harm than good and is unable to chart a path for reconciliation within its own membership, much less the community at large,” the board of the Black Voices Project, a community group which includes Porter, wrote in a letter to the council.

Mayor Teague and some city councilors called for the commission to be temporarily suspended. But some remaining commissioners and activists were incensed, worrying that a suspension would lead to the commission's demise and arguing the panel could move forward with new leadership until the vacancies are filled.

Traore, the current chairman, said councilors were seeking to exert more control and warned they may face a backlash.

“Community participation in truth and reconciliation will not and should not be completely on your terms,” he said. “It will be on ours. It will be on the people.”

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