Des Moines Black Lives Matter lists demands for Iowa legislators

Store owners in Valley Junction board up their windows and show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. (Photo by: Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Des Moines Black Lives Matter organizers are calling on Iowa legislators to pass a set of policies this session to address racial injustice in the state.

The five demands focus on education and criminal justice reform, as well as a plan, promoted last week by Democratic legislators, intended to address issues within law enforcement agencies.

Legislators are currently back at the Iowa Statehouse to wrap up the 2020 session and address COVID-19 recovery. But Ellie Odole, a leader in Des Moines Black Lives Matter, said lawmakers should also have the time to make their demands a priority.

“The legislators at anytime can choose to do what’s right,” Odole said. 

The five demands include:

  • Voting down a classroom violence bill, which appropriates money for the creation of therapeutic classrooms, but also gives school staff more leeway in touching students.
  • Pass the Democrats’ plan to address racial disparity.
  • Decriminalize cannabis and expunge cannabis-related charges.
  • End juvenile detention and divert money toward education and mental health.
  • An executive order from the governor granting the restoration of voting rights for felons.

The demands are not new initiatives, Odole said, but represent demands the organization has pursued since the protests started.

The feasibility of passing all of them is unknown however, as lawmakers have stayed home the last two days due to budget negotiations.

However, a few of the initiatives are already underway.

Republican leaders have expressed interest in supporting the Democrats’ proposed “More Perfect Union” plan. Both House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said they’re open to discussing the policies, but have not made it clear whether they support passing them this session.

That plan bans chokeholds, prohibits police departments from hiring officers fired for misconduct and allows the Attorney General’s Office to investigate police misconduct.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she does not plan on signing an executive order for the automatic restoration of felons’ voting rights, but has urged lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment instead.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the constitutional amendment on Friday.

House File 2532, an initiative targeted at addressing classroom violence, appropriates funds to create therapeutic classrooms to help students who struggle in a traditional environment. But it also protects school staff from disciplinary action if teachers make physical contact with a student, such as moving them out of a classroom, if it is deemed “reasonable” under the circumstances. 

In May 2019, the suspension of a substitute teacher at Southeast Polk School District resulted in a backlash from the community. The teacher allegedly took a student by his arm to guide him back to his seat, resulting in disciplinary action, according to the Des Moines Register.

The initiative moved forward both in the House and Senate with bipartisan support prior to the session being suspended 

Black children are more likely to be disciplined in school than white children, due to racial bias from educators, according to a report from National Public Radio. Odole said the policy could lead to teachers disproportionately putting their hands on students of color, escalating already tense situations.

“It doesn’t really make sense to me why you would want to introduce a bill that would allow teachers to lay their hands on students at all, but knowing the way disciplining already works within the school system, we know who it will most heavily impact,” Odole said.

Odole said Des Moines Black Lives Matter wants all of their demands passed this session.

“Delaying it shows to me that they’re people in power and the current system helps them and they don’t want to change it,” Odole said. “It’s 400 years of oppression. They could choose to end it tomorrow.”