Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad (D - Des Moines) and Rep. Ras Smith (D - Waterloo) discuss racial equality issues in Iowa including legislation and executive orders pertaining to policing reform and felon voting.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Ty Rushing, editor of the N'West Iowa Review.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

(music)

Events throughout the summer raised issues of racial inequality to the forefront across the United States. We check in on the legislative and social progress here in Iowa with African-American State Representatives Ako Abdul-Samad and Ras Smith on this edition of Iowa Press.

(music) 

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

(music)

For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 4 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

(music)

Yepsen: As the conversation over issues of racial equality and police reform spread from Minneapolis across the country and now back to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the progress here in Iowa is mixed. State legislators swiftly passed a police reform bill in June that was signed by Governor Reynolds, but protestors and many democratic lawmakers were critical of how the Governor handled an executive order for felon voting here in Iowa. So to check the status of a tumultuous summer and preview the possibilities ahead we're joined by two African-American State Representatives, democrats Ako Abdul-Samad of Des Moines and Ras Smith of Waterloo. Gentlemen, welcome to the show, glad to have you both with us.

Thank you, thanks for having me.

It's good to be here.

Yepsen: Journalists joining us across the table are Ty Rushing, Managing Editor for the N'West Iowa Review in Sheldon and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Gentlemen, let's begin with the police reform bill that passed in June and what may be ahead. Representative Smith, in your remarks when that bill passed the House, you said you originally wanted everything and settled for something. I'm just sort of paraphrasing. What in your view is at the top of the list for what's next?

Smith: I think we have to start looking at accountability. I think a lot of the heartburn in communities of color, we understand what the systemic issues are, but a lot of the social and emotional problems are that when we see these murders of unarmed black men, we see paid leave, we see officers who aren't being held accountable and if they were normal citizens we'd see swifter justice. So I think we have to look at accountability but I think we have to also look at the systemic issues that exist and start really root causing some of these things. It's in small business, it's in housing, it's not just police reform. We have to broaden our outlook on some of these issues.

Henderson: By what means do you hold police accountable as a legislature?

Smith: I think we have to look at the law enforcement academy council and what that process is, but I think to take a month or two months or what we've seen from I believe Rochester in New York, that was in March that that took place and those officers are still working, no accountability has been there. So I think we have to look at how our justice system can enact swifter justice on actions of homicide.

Henderson: Representative Abdul-Samad, the legislation that passed said you can't rehire police who have a history on their record of past bad actions. It said, no chokeholds. What in your view should legislators tackle in the 2021 session?

Abdul-Samad: I think we need to be able to give the police department and the community some, and I hate using the term training, but I think we need to focus on how do we start educating individuals. And Representative Smith is correct, we have to start looking at the systemic change, but we have to look at the fact that we are right now in a perpetual reactionary corrective mode. We're correcting the injustice that has plagued us for decades and until we start addressing that then we will do cosmetic solutions instead of systemic.

Rushing: Okay, so Ras, first question for you, and this is for both of you guys, it seems like nationally and even in Iowa a lot of democrats are leading the charge and addressing racial inequality issues. I guess what can be done to make this more of a bipartisan issue? What can be done to get folks on the republican side of the aisle to also want to tackle these issues and go after them and get some sort of resolution?

Smith: I think we've had the difficult conversations about why is this falling along political lines. This shouldn't be a white or black issue, this shouldn't be a law enforcement versus community issue either. And the fact that we're seeing that I think is indicative to what really exists. Waterloo had this issue, we talked about removing the logo from the side of our police car. It seemed to be the black community voicing a concern about something, a logo that elicited fear and for historical reasons different emotions. But those advocating to keep it, to keep this thing that was an oppressive symbol for so many, were largely republican and/or white. And the fact that these topics are becoming political in a sense is really indicative of systemic and historic issues that exist within our country.

Yepsen: Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, what is your answer to Ty's question? How do you reach out to bring more republicans along?

Abdul-Samad: We've got to quit playing politics. It's as simple as that. It's time to sit down and say, what is good for this nation? We've got to quit saying because you're republican or you're democrat, no. We have a problem within this country that we have perpetuated hypocrisy for decades. Now, how do we stop perpetuating that hypocrisy? How do we quit telling children that Columbus discovered America? How do we quit telling children that George Floyd was the first when we know about Emmett Till, when we know about slavery? When we start teaching history and the value of people in this country, that is how we begin to cross the political line.

Yepsen: But it is true that this bill that we're talking about, that Kay mentioned, was passed by a republican House and a republican Senate and signed by a republican Governor in the space of about a day. I've never seen a piece of legislation move through a legislature that fast ever. So aren't republicans, Representative Smith, aren't they making progress?

Smith: Well, I think that is yet to be seen. I think the fact that we haven't seen anybody speak up and stand up for social justice since that day means I reserve the right to see what change has been made. But to Representative Ako's point, I want to say, I've been on this show twice, this is my second time here, in my four years in the legislature I have championed legislation to reduce regulations for small business owners, I didn't get invited to talk about that on this show though. I've passed legislation to create alternative pathways to high school completion. I wasn't invited to talk about that on this show. I've helped have conversations about drainage ditches, I've done other things that aren't black legislation, but I'm invited on this show to talk about black legislation. And that's part of the problem is we have to normalize our day-to-day. It has to be normal to see me talking about things that exist because my intellect is much more than just on black issues. And I'm appreciative of the invite, I don't want you to get me wrong. But, that is indicative of what we have to do to change this narrative because -- I'm saying me because this is my reflection, but in four years I've done those things and never got an invite on this show for those, but I've gotten an invite to talk about stand your ground, which was a black issue, and talking about police reform, which is considered, a very current topic, a black issue. So I think showing that we are broader than just this one topic, we have more value than just this one topic, is important. And as, if we want to further this conversation we have to show the human value, show that our value is more than just on that.

Yepsen: But, Representative, it's also true the country isn't blowing itself up over drainage ditches, there's racial turmoil in our society and so it would be natural that we turn to African-American leaders such as yourself to talk about these problems.

Smith: Right, but I think if that's all that you're inviting me on to talk about then it's funneling and it's showing and it's framing things that that's all we can be experts on and I think we have to be broader than that.

Abdul-Samad: Let's reframe your question. The fact is not are republicans making headway, the question is, are elected officials making headway? Democrats and republicans have to make headway, independents have to make headway. What we have is a conditioning that affects everyone. You have a police department and you have individuals on the police department who are conditioned to see the way of life a certain way, same thing with republicans, democrats and everything else. What you saw in that two week period of time, you had individuals that deal with introspection, you had individuals that looked at a video, you had individuals that looked at unrest, you had individuals that finally looked at Iowans, young Iowans, that had tears rolling down their eyes and the thing that pushed it is that you had a group of individuals, republicans and democrats, that had no understanding why.

Henderson: Representative Abdul-Samad, the Governor last month signed an executive order restoring felon voting rights to an estimated 35,000 Iowans. Has that taken away the momentum for a change in Iowa's Constitution to make that permanent?

Abdul-Samad: No, not at all. We have to begin to do that. But we can't do it in the way that it was proposed before. We can't add a poll tax to that by saying that you can't have your right to vote if you don't pay your restitution. This was, again, a reaction to something that should have been done a long time ago. So now that we have this reaction, now let's further that and add into it some corrective measures. That has to, we have to push that and we have to do it from the Governor to the legislature to the people in the street.

Henderson: Representative Smith, you've dedicated some characters on Twitter to this issue. How do you now convince people who are reluctant to embrace a constitutional amendment for a variety of reasons, including people who say that that doesn't respect the rights of victims?

Smith: So, I think for me that's, it's kind of a fallacy. We've seen in the legislature people making that claim, it's not respecting the rights of victims, but we've also seen legislation in which they haven't acted upon that are actually victim rights legislation. So to me I think the argument kind of falls short. But I think we have to convince people that this country is founded on no taxation without representation. If you don't pay your taxes this year you can still participate in the electoral process. But if I'm somebody who is poor and I'm released from incarceration, I can't get a job because I have to check that box that says I'm a felon, I can't get a driver's license, I can't do all these other things, I've been robbed of my voice and data shows that recidivism goes down with opportunity. And part of that opportunity is being able to voice my concerns and say hey, I choose this person to sit on my city council, I choose this person to be my county attorney, I choose this person to be my county sheriff, I choose this person to be my Governor or elected official. Representation matters and I think any time we're shrinking that, we're shrinking the most American thing that exists in our society. So I think to say that it doesn't take into effect victim's rights, I think that is false. We have to create a system that allows people to get gainful employment to pay what is owed but still participate in the system.

Rushing: Representative Ako, there seems to be a divide generationally between younger activists like the Black Lives Matter activists in Des Moines, the Iowa City Freedom Riders and older activists in the black community on things they want to see going forward. What do you think we could do to lessen that divide?

Abdul-Samad: I think it comes back to education, it comes back to respect. We saw the same divide when we had the Black Panther Party back in the '60s and we saw the divide when we had Stokely Carmichael and Dr. King. We see that divide because we have to begin to understand that we stand on all these shoulders and that comes from lack of education. If I don't understand your value and what you have contributed to this perpetual struggle, then it's going to be hard for me to understand that the difference between you learning to work through the system as you get older and how the young people are saying, now. I remember when I was a Panther, I wanted it now, I didn't want to wait. We wanted to go forward and that is where the term Uncle Tom came in because we feel, oh my God, they're taking too long. But we understand now this is a marathon and that we didn't correct those things that needed to be corrected so that's why we're still in the situation we are today.

Rushing: So would you say the biggest lesson that the older generation can provide the younger generation is patience?

Abdul-Samad: Not only patience, but reaching out. We have to also understand, I guess the best example that we have is when you talk about music and now you have the older generation talking about all the young people, the music they listen to, but remember it was rock and roll they said was going to destroy the country, it was the music that they said this is going to happen because every generation that did not trust the system developed a subculture. The problem is we didn't accept a subculture and begin to discuss it and begin to understand where we could find those common grounds. We want those that say now, we don't want individuals to be that patient that they're not saying we need it now, but then the older generation has to begin to work together on that.

Rushing: Ras, I'm going to ask you kind of the same question there.

Smith: It's always with perspective and Representative Ako has done so many things in the Capitol that allow me to be able to walk in those footsteps. I'm kind of a grinder though, right, I like to push and I do think this is our greatest opportunity for change. So we pay reverence and reflect on what history has shown us and it has shown that in moments like this we have to sprint because the ground is fertile for change right now so we have to take advantage of that, and not just along racial lines, I think it's hard to make gains in any other area until we can correct that. Poverty is going to be hard to fix until you can fix the system that creates it for people of color specifically. But we can all win, we can all eat in these things and that is what is important for me I think right now in this moment when eyes are open, people have the opportunity to consume more media so they're seeing George Floyd, which is why we were able to pass legislation in the Capitol. That does not get passed if people do not have the opportunity to consume that and fill that visceral feeling of how could somebody do that to another human being. That's because of the moment, in this moment we have the greatest opportunity for change, let's do something about it.

Yepsen: To change subjects a little bit here, could a Minneapolis, a Kenosha, happen here some place in Iowa?

Smith: It already has. In Waterloo, Derrick Ambrose was shot by law enforcement while running away. It already has.

Yepsen: Waterloo has not burned itself down over that.

Smith: I don't think any city has burned itself down. I think there's never going to be a way that is acceptable for people to protest oppression. Representative Ako can speak to this, throughout history we've tried everything, so to say that it's burning itself down I think that's inaccurate. I think what you're seeing is people have reached a point to what else do you want us to do? How else do we voice that this is not an okay circumstance and we're not comfortable, we refuse to live like this anymore? What is acceptable?

Abdul-Samad: Historically, and that is actually not correct, Waterloo did go up in fire on 4th Street, East 4th Street, in the '60s. So they did, the young people at that time, we would have been those young people. It did catch on fire, Des Moines caught on fire, we've got to understand when Dr. King was killed you had half the nation caught on fire when we didn't even have cell phones then and we didn't have Internet. So yeah, can it happen now today? It can if we don't, going back to your question, Ty, if we don't bring us together with the younger and the older generation and quit letting people divide us. We can't allow people to do that.

Rushing: Some of the most prominent activists, younger activists like in Black Lives Matter, Matthew Bruce for example, he got hit with 9 felony charges for a laser pointer, I believe, and a lot of them feel like they are being targeted by law enforcement agencies in the state. Do you have any thoughts on that or any opinions on that?

Smith: I think that, so it's disheartening to see that, 9 felonies, because we know what that means, specifically in Iowa, what that means for the future of that young man and that does concern me. But I think what concerns me more is the time allocation to making sure they're monitoring what he's doing when there are other things that should be taking place. For me, to see the lack of real attempts to build a bridge, this is an opportunity for law enforcement to evolve as well, and I think we have to look at that and most of our systems have changed throughout time. But the way that you escalate a protest is by showing up in riot gear. Proximity is always your friend. When I worked in a middle school, if I had a student that was agitated, distance, distance. But this situation now we're seeing I'm going to assert myself as the strength in this situation, you have to abide by what I say, and I think it hasn't made things better. So maybe we both have to do better, both sides have to do better. I don't think it's acceptable for Matthew to point a laser pointer at anybody's eye, we've seen what that can do, I think he will grow from that as well. But I don't think law enforcement should be enticing some of these circumstances either.

Henderson: Representative Abdul-Samad, when Betty Andrews, the President of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP was on the program in June, she says she doesn't use the phrase, defund the police, she thinks that is kind of a non-starter with a lot of people, there's different ways to talk about it. How do you talk about it?

Abdul-Samad: Well, I think we need to look at how we fund the police department, but we also need to look at how we fund DHS, we need to look at how we fund our school system. We can't separate it and I think that's what Representative Ras is talking about. We have to begin to look at it realistically. Now, there's other states that have funded the police department but part of that funding is put mental health workers with individuals. We see that in this last suffocation that we have a young man who is suffocated that probably mental health workers should have been there instead of the police department.

Henderson: You're referring to the Rochester, New York situation that has come to light this week.

Abdul-Samad: Exactly. We need to look at that. Why do you need a military tank in the streets of Des Moines? Why do you need certain equipment when we can take that to put the professionals where they need to be to work with the police department? And I think the conversation has to start there, defunding to be able to mature, to actually be able to develop that, a solution to it.

Rushing: We've got an election coming up here. Ras, I know you're part of the Biden team there. We know there is a lower back turnout in some of the swing states, it was a big difference maker in the 2016 cycle. But do you see Joe Biden and the Kamala Harris ticket inspiring a higher turnout this year in some of those potential battleground states?

Smith: I work my butt off every day for it. But I think there's so much on the line right now. I think our last conversation is indicative to the things that we have to start talking about because public safety has been defunded on city councils across the state for decades. So if we're going to talk about issues, let's really talk about it because public safety, if you look at it, and city councils are not supposed to be partisan, but we've seen republican efforts on city councils to defund public safety for a long, long time. And that has been happening in Waterloo and Cedar Falls with our PSO program where we have cross-trained police officers and fire. That has been defunding public safety for a very long time. But those are issues that are important to communities that we have to talk about if we want people to turn out to vote. We have to give them a reason to vote. And Vice President Biden and Senator Harris are individuals who are putting forth policy and platform that give people a reason to vote.

Yepsen: Republicans will argue that they are making headway in African-American communities with younger blacks by pointing out that the democrats have not delivered for African-Americans. Do you see that here in Iowa?

Smith: I see our country as a whole has not delivered for black people. I think in Iowa, just like everybody else, the current state of our country is because no party has delivered on any promises that they have made to people except for the fact that we will oppress you as long as you are here.

Henderson: Representative Abdul-Samad, what sort of effort needs to happen to ensure that felons who got their voting rights back are able to vote?

Abdul-Samad: I think you have the NAACP, you have Black Lives Matter, that has chosen their lane to make sure that happens and we need to support that as we work on, in other lanes to make sure we get the vote out. But also, if I can respond real quick, because I agree with Representative Smith. The other thing is we've got to start being realistic, but as black people we have to start understanding our own value and we have to look at who is going to talk black after the election? Everybody, it depends on what cycle you're in, talks about the issue at hand. At one point we talked about water because water was the issue. I think we all can agree that this is the first election that we've heard about blacks so much. I've never heard so much about black history and black people in my life and people are learning about black people now and how to talk to black people. You kind of smile because it's never happened before. Even in the '60s it didn't happen. Now we have to understand because our value, once we recognize our own value then we don't let anyone decrease that value again.

Yepsen: Ty, we've got less than a minute.

Rushing: My final question is, what can be done to help white Iowans understand more about the African-American experience in America and in Iowa? And what can we do to make Iowa a more appealing place for people of color?

Smith: I think one, we have to create environments in which people can feel welcome. Diversity is our greatest tool for our country and for our state specifically. There's no piece of legislation that I have signed off on or been a part of that has supported only black people. Iowa is over 90% white, so anything that we've done good for this state has been good for everybody. And I think we have to start fostering communities that allow for economic growth for everybody, that allow for availability of child care and health care for everybody, because those are all our issues, those are issues for all people that impact all of our quality of life.

Abdul-Samad: I want my white brothers and sisters to ask themselves why. I want them to look in the mirror and say, am I a product of white privilege? And why do I need to learn about black people? Do I see them as a value? I want my white brothers and sisters to see the value in people of color and what has happened. I want them to come off the couch, I want them to get uncomfortable. The only way that we can help our white brothers and sisters is that we quit making them feel comfortable because we don't want to offend anyone.

Yepsen: I'm sorry, I have to offend you, I'm out of time. Thank you both for taking time to be with us.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Yepsen: And we'll be back very soon with a special Iowa Press Debate this Monday, September 7th at 8:00 p.m. live from Iowa PBS Studios. We'll welcome the candidates battling in Iowa's 1st congressional district, democrat Abby Finkenaur and republican Ashley Hinson. The one-hour Iowa Press Debate live on Monday, September 7th at 8:00 p.m. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

(music)

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa