Racial Justice and Policing Reform

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 12, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Izaah Knox, executive director of Urban Dreams, and Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, discuss ongoing protests and public policy proposals centered on racial justice and policing reform. Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table is Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa.


The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked national and international outrage with protests calling for racial justice in many American cities including here in Iowa. We sit down with African-American community leaders Izaah Knox and Betty Andrews to discuss the path forward on this edition of Iowa Press.


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.


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, June 12 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: The death of George Floyd in Iowa's neighboring state of Minnesota did not stay a local issue to the city of Minneapolis. Protests across the country and here in Iowa have led to a newfound push for racial justice and police reform in states and municipalities. Some of the public policy debates are being waged at the community level in locations like Des Moines, Davenport, Iowa City and more. Other policy conversations are being held at the Statehouse in Des Moines as African-American leaders are actively meeting with legislators and the Governor. Two of those community leaders join us today at the Iowa Press table. Izaah Knox is Executive Director of Urban Dreams in Des Moines and Betty Andrews is the President of the Iowa-Nebraska Chapter of the NAACP. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today. We know it's a busy time for you.

Glad to be here.

Yepsen: Also joining the conversation across the table is Kay Henderson, News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Ms. Andrews, on Thursday evening the Iowa House and Senate quickly passed a bill that included measures that had been agreed to and were unanimously approved. First, banning most chokeholds, making sure that police with a record of serious misconduct are not hired again by another agency and also requiring training in de-escalation techniques as well as letting the Attorney General investigate cases in which a police officer is involved in a death. What is your reaction to that legislation?

Andrews: Well, certainly we applaud the passage of that legislation. I know that we worked closely with State Representative Ras Smith out of Waterloo and we discussed the elements of that bill thoroughly. We thought that at this moment I know that we have been, the NAACP has been pursuing anti-racial profiling legislation and so we talked through how this would impact the situations where African-Americans and other Iowans actually were encountering a police situation. And we thought that it would be awesome. And so he put it forth and really proud to be able to back him on that.

Henderson: Mr. Knox, what did you think when you heard that it passed unanimously?

Knox: I thought it was a great step, right, and unanimously was even better. Some of the things I was most proud of was the young people there in the balcony at the Capitol all day long helping legislators understand how important that bill was to pass. And then Representative Smith leading that charge. The picture of the moment of silence and the black fists of unity in the air were just so powerful and I think it's a very good start but we still have a lot to do.

Henderson: So, explain why now? People have been asking for these kinds of actions for years and in some cases as Ako Abdul-Samad, another legislator on the floor said, we have been wanting these changes for decades. Why now?

Knox: The tipping point, right, I think visibly seeing the protests and visibly interacting with the protestors. Iowa is a good place for these things to happen quickly because we're a flat state, right, access is easy. So I think the visual representation of people protesting in the street has really created this quick change. But we don't want it to be too quick, right, because we just don't want to check boxes saying that we're checking boxes and then pushing this thing to the side. This is a very, very long play that has been going on for a very, very long time.

Henderson: Ms. Andrews, is this a generational moment? Is it because we have video, the entire country is watching? What do you think spurred action so quickly in the Iowa legislature?

Andrews: Sure. So that is exactly it. Izaah refers to it as a tipping point. I look at it as a moment in history that where we are looking at one of the greatest tools which are the cell phone cameras and the body cameras and people being able to take a look and see what is happening and it's not something that has just started happening, this has been happening since we were brought here in chains and it continues to happen. So the fact that there are cell phones, the fact that there are people now who are undeniably seeing what has been happening, I think that is the difference maker and that is the reason people have not only been working harder in legislation but also taking to the streets to ensure accountability in the House, in city councils, in the county, all of those things because it is important that we take a look at this moment, this moment is like putting a mirror up to America, up to even in our state in Iowa, putting that mirror forth and saying, now look at yourself and you need to make change.

Yepsen: I want to focus on what's next here in Iowa. I want to ask you both but I'll start with you, Betty Andrews. We've seen what the legislature and the Governor have approved. What are the next items on the agenda of things we need to do in this state to deal with these racial problems?

Andrews: Well obviously, it's interesting you talk about what's next. The NAACP has had an agenda for several years on Capitol Hill. So thinking about what's next is really pushing forth that agenda. So when we're talking about, yes we're pleased with the More Perfect Union law being signed into, legislation being signed. But when we're looking at what's next we're looking at this anti-racial profiling legislation, we're also looking at the constitutional amendment for allowing people with felony backgrounds to vote, but until then we would like to see an executive order. Now is the time to do that type of bold move too, so not just signing these but there is an opportunity to work in the interim. And then what's next is that we around the state that there are police accountability, that there is economic accountability because part of what is happening is that this is a cycle and there are more systems that need to be addressed in this situation.

Henderson: We'll talk about economic issues in just a few minutes. But circling back, some community city councils have talked about community review boards, citizen review boards. Would you like to see state legislation that would require that? Or should this be done on a city by city basis?

Andrews: So, citizens review boards would be done on a city by city basis. However, at the state level there should be a committee, a commission to look at the aggregate information and watch trends and make sure that there is accountability and even working with those citizen review boards.

Yepsen: Izaah Knox, same question to you. Betty Andrews mentions anti-profiling legislation, getting the felon voting amendment, even before that becomes law she wants the Governor to issue the executive order restoring those rights, policy accountability and economic accountability. Any others?

Knox: I definitely have to agree with all of those points. Also, growing up in Washington State legalization or decriminalization of marijuana is obviously one of those things too. And taking the minority impact statement seriously when it applies to certain bills is very important and bringing that down to even local levels as well to make sure that we know when we pass legislation it doesn't negatively impact minorities at a higher rate, and if it does we can't pass those kind of bills. We have to continue to get out of our own way.

Yepsen: In other words, a minority impact statement on a piece of legislation would be like a fiscal impact, legislators get a report, here's what this is going to cost. You're asking for a rule that would require a minority, what is the impact on minorities.

Knox: We already have it in the state, yes.

Yepsen: What is the economic accountability you were talking about.

Andrews: If I could just on the minority impact statements, there are minority impact statements in the realm of criminal justice issues. We would like to make sure that the minority impact statements are expanded to economics, to education, to a number of other areas that affect the well-being of individuals. But also we would like to make sure that it has teeth because often or legislators are getting that minority impact statement but they are not acting on it and so it needs to be acted on to prevent this negative impact to our communities of color.

Yepsen: Izaah Knox, what does a civilian review board look like? You start talking about that with police officers and they immediately get upset. So what, talk about what does that mean to a police officer, what are you looking for to have happen?

Knox: Yeah, so they look different in every, that's why I think Betty said it needs to be city by city, right, it needs to look different in every single city and it needs to be led with community input, with community members to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with police oversight, how that looks in their own city or region. So that's it, continue to have those conversations and continue to push that stuff forward where everybody feels like they're safe.

Yepsen: And there is talk, Betty Andrews, of the federal government requiring these sorts of, local communities to do this. In other words, the federal government isn't going to do it for all police departments but that it be a requirement that communities do do some sort of independent review of police actions. How do you feel about that?

Andrews: The bottom line is that there needs to be accountability. The case of George Floyd, the case of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma, Washington, the case of Breonna Taylor, they all point to a need for police accountability, and so not letting the police just police themselves and making sure that there is an avenue for, and when we're talking about community we're talking about people who are studied and who are experts in this area so that they can take a look and we can continually put forth best practices when it comes to policing.

Knox: Can I jump on that real quick. Minneapolis had a citizen review board, so they're not perfect, we know that they do not stop these things from happening, there's just better oversight.

Henderson: You mentioned decriminalizing marijuana possession, which was on a list of demands from a Des Moines Black Lives Matter group. They also talked about expunging records. How important and how extensive would you like to see that go?

Knox: Well, there should be a time limit, right, on all kinds of records. Especially working at Urban Dreams when we're trying to get people employed we know how detrimental that is to have a criminal record that will follow you forever. And even expungement is still on like Iowa Courts Online you can still go back there and dig those things up even if you don't get those things taken care of and it's a hard, hard process so it should be automatic, it should be forever and it should be cleared from all databases so employers can't, because right now as Betty talked about those are kind of the economic disparities we have, why we have such a low median household income for black people in this state, why we have such a -- because so many people are incarcerated, so many people have these criminal records, but they never talk about all these things that lead up to it like pretextual where there is a possession of marijuana, where it's not decriminalized, where you get on and on and on. So it's just a cyclical process that we have to figure out how we can get everybody to an equal playing field.

Henderson: Ms. Andrews, did you want to add to that?

Andrews: I agree. You mentioned the pretextual stops and I was thinking about how not only that discriminatory pretextual stops lead to searches and African-American's vehicles are more likely to be searched than anyone else's, which leads to higher arrest rates and even though African-Americans and white Americans use drugs and marijuana at the same rate. And so in this state where we are at 7 times the rate in terms of arrests for the use of marijuana this is extremely important to us.

Henderson: Let's talk about some broader cultural issues. Mr. Knox, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz started a conversation within his team and I don't want to talk about that specifically but there are a lot of coaches in this state at private colleges, at community colleges, at high schools who are leading teams that are multiracial. How should that conversation happen?

Knox: That's a really hard conversation to have, right, because nobody can understand the black experience unless you're black, period. So you can be empathetic and sympathetic but you can never say that I completely understand or that I stand in your corner. And what you need to do and understand is that you have to take the black experience serious and not say that they need to assimilate to a certain culture to be able to fit in and be proud of who you are, if that makes sense, because it's really hard, it's super easy to go into a situation and feel totally comfortable with somebody that looks like you first. We all see visible accused first where we go into a room and when you go into a room that a lot of people don't look like you it's hard to adjust. So take that experience serious.

Andrews: These conversations are hard. Conversations around race are hard because we have not dealt with America's original sin. So I would suggest that in any room, I'm not so much familiar with the coaches, but in any room where you are having this conversation that you be willing and open and understand that you may not get it right the first time but the important thing is to keep talking. Of course you're going to need to have thick skin and there's a lot of emotion because this is an oppression that has happened for years and years and years. This is kind of the water that we live in and there are so many layers and components and things that compound this that it is not an easy one and done conversation. So it's important to keep talking. We have been reached out to by so many Iowans who are willing now to have that conversation and also work on the behalf of racial justice and that is powerful. But if you are just looking at this moment and stopping there that's not good enough. You have to commit for the long run.

Yepsen: Izaah Knox, are we in danger here of in the course of solving this problem discouraging people from wanting to become police officers? You have officers quitting in Buffalo, for example. What do you say to that? Police officers are needed aren't they?

Knox: Yes, yes. Two things, I do want to follow up on that cultural competency training is going to be more crucial than ever now and it's shocking because we do it and how many people don't know historical facts about the black experience. So I just wanted to follow up on that. That's crucial for all people that deal with groups in general, or lead groups especially. But back to the police officers, right, so I understand are you talking about defunding the police and how scary that is for people to digest?

Yepsen: That's part of the conversation.

Knox: We have to understand, again, civilian review boards, defunding the police is going to be something that happens locally. That is what I really like about this protest and this movement, it's not a march on Washington, it's a march on your local government, state and city. So defunding the police or reallocating police budgets to better reflect the city as general or to not have police doing non-police work like dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues is probably required and crucial so that we have less negative interactions with police officers.

Yepsen: Betty Andrews, I notice you did not use the word defund the police. I used that word.

Andrews: We're using the word divesting.

Yepsen: Okay, reallocating resources?

Andrews: Yeah, reallocating is an appropriate term. And it is a conversation that we continue to have. There are a lot of components and there are a lot of kind of pieces in that spectrum. So we're still taking a look at how that plays out. But I think the biggest thing is reimagining policing in our country. When we think about the origins, the racist origins of policing in our country it is time to take another look and to reimagine what that looks like in the US of A.

Henderson: Stacey Walker who is the first African-American elected to be a supervisor on the Linn County Board of Supervisors this week called on police departments throughout the state to not use chemical irritants on protestors, peaceful protestors. Is that a priority?

Andrews: You know, I think that has been a call since day one of the protests. It certainly doesn't do any good in terms, it exacerbates the situation. So absolutely, we are not wanting to be in a community where we're feeling like policy are an occupying force and that is what that brings about. And so absolutely, I would support that.

Henderson: Ms. Andrews earlier mentioned economic issues and Mr. Knox, the other point that Supervisor Walker made this week was that we can't just have this conversation about the police, we have to have a conversation about the business community and about the elected officials who are people of color. How do you have that conversation?

Knox: Well, it goes back to those trainings. You need to get people in there, third parties to come in and offer best practices. And it's going to be a deep dive into what organizations look like, what systems look like, and it's not just business, it's health care, it's education, it's criminal justice, the list goes on and on and on. So, again, that's why we're not just checking boxes, we need to train people, we need to get people in positions where they can advocate for people of color at these tables because we know where the decisions are made, the decisions are made around board room tables and we need to make sure that seats are occupied.

Andrews: And if I could, not only is this a situation where this is generational because of course if African-Americans are enslaved they're not benefiting from the wealth that gets passed down through generations and then you have the situation with redlining and making huge leaps and then now we come to the day where African-Americans have, well actually white Americans have ten times the wealth of African-Americans and that is really, when you think about exponentially greater. So we do have to address this wealth gap and there are a number of measures that are out there but at this moment we're still struggling.

Henderson: So are those measures at the government level or at the business level?

Andrews: They are both. They are both, they are things absolutely that employers need to look at. They need to, again, look at themselves in the mirror and then in our government we need to make sure, part of the role of government is to make sure that there is equity. And so if there are restrictions and regulations that we can put in place we absolutely need to look at doing that.

Yepsen: Betty Andrews, a lot of issues to talk about and we've touched on several of them. But I want to take this closer to home here in Iowa. The state is 4% black, a lot of Iowans live in communities with no African-Americans in it. What do individuals do, what should individuals do who want to make a contribution? How do they talk about it, how do individuals in white communities talk to their kids about these issues? Any thoughts?

Andrews: It's amazing you mention how do individuals talk to their children because in the African-American community there is this thing called the talk that we have to have with our young men and young women about interactions with the police. And I think that that same conversation can be used as a basis to talk with young people about what is going on. Sure, there are places where there are not a lot of African-Americans but usually there are a few speckled throughout communities and there is television. So parents need to be a stop sign and I often talk about white Americans needing to be a stop sign so that when they are in a situation where they're hearing racist language or hearing language that is inequitable or treatment that is inequitable that they need to stand up and say no, this is not correct and make sure that they’re having those conversations. This is the conversation to have around the dinner table. Ask them if they understand what is going on right now and why people are so upset so that they don't get the picture that black people are just angry. No, we're not just angry. We have been oppressed for several years. And so we need to figure out how to address that and that is what we need to show to our children and whether they be black or white or whatever, just making sure that they understand what is happening in this moment.

Yepsen: Mr. Knox, same question to you. What should individual Iowans, what should white Iowans in small towns do when they talk about race?

Knox: I protested eight straight days, I was on the front lines and was tear gassed for the first three days. So I was still shocked though of how many young people came from small, rural communities to support the cause. And I think that is one thing, allow your children to go out, especially now since they are non-violent protests going on, allow them to participate, go with them. There's still during the protests more non-people of color, white people than there are black people at the protests. So feel comfortable, go and experience it.

Yepsen: Kay, quickly, one minute.

Henderson: One of the poignant moments during the House debate was when a legislator described, one of the African-American legislators described when they first understood what racism was. How old were you and what was that moment?

Andrews: I can't speak to the first time but I can certainly speak to a time when I was walking as probably a twelve year old, maybe thirteen, and someone yells out of a car, nice butt and then they use the n-word. And so that was a moment for me and I had to have a conversation with my mother about what was going on.

Yepsen: Izaah Knox, quickly.

Knox: So I grew up in a bi-racial family so being shunned by most of, if not a lot of my family, and having them ask me, my mother why they didn't tell her that she had a little n-baby. And the same thing, running through a neighbor's yard and she yells, get out of my yard you little n, when I was about five. So multiple times throughout my life.

Yepsen: We're out of time. I want to have you back some time to talk more about these issues. This is not the last conversation we're going to have here.

Andrews: That's what we need.

Yepsen: Thank you for your time today.

Andrews: Thank you.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thank for joining us today.


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.