Black Caucus members call GOP agenda ‘retaliation’ after 2020’s racial equity gains

Members of the Iowa House Black Caucus speak about legislative issues March 4, 2021. Democratic representatives shown, from left: Ruth Ann Gaines, Phyllis Thede, Ras Smith, Ako Abdul-Samad and Ross Wilburn. (Screen shot from Zoom meeting)

Members of the Iowa House Black Caucus called on Gov. Kim Reynolds Thursday to “veto for justice” any version of her “Back the Blue” legislation that passes without a ban on racial profiling by police and a requirement for implicit bias training.

“Our state has a strong heritage of standing tall in difficult moments and leading when it comes to innovation, when it comes to being inclusive in communities,” Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, said at a news conference. “But by excluding the anti-racial profiling language, and by defunding local cities that seek to modernize public safety, including brain health professionals, I think our governor has shown that they have no real intent to have equity and justice for all people.”

Reynolds, in her Condition of the State message, outlined proposals that she said would “punish” people who riot or attack police.

But she also said her bill would include a ban on racial profiling. “Because no actions should ever be taken based upon the color of someone’s skin. As Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” she said.

She followed with a call to unity: “Let’s come together again, like we did last year, to support our law enforcement and racial justice. Let’s make Iowa a safer place for everyone.”

Republicans in the Legislature, however, were advancing parts of the proposal ahead of this week’s “funnel” deadline for committee action but had not acted on racial profiling proposals as of Thursday morning.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said lawmakers were concerned about the impact of those measures on law enforcement. “Well, at this point in time, in my conversations with members of the committee, there was some concern as far as what the impacts may be, and how that would impact law enforcement, their ability to do their job,” he said.

Iowa’s public safety commissioner and several other representatives of law enforcement were on the governor’s FOCUS task force that recommended the racial profiling ban and related proposals.

Smith said lawmakers have debated bills that “devalue what we mean to the state of Iowa as a whole.” Republicans, he said, are “actively trying to get rid of words like ‘diversity’, and ‘inclusion,’ and ‘systemic’ and ‘privilege,’ right, they don’t want those words to be entered in code. They don’t want those words used on college campuses.”

He cited bills to prohibit use of the 1619 curriculum about slavery in Iowa classrooms and to cut off state aid for cities that “defund” police by shifting some resources to social workers or mental health professionals.

Members of the Iowa Black Caucus celebrate approval of legislation addressing racial injustice by police. From left are Reps. Ruth Ann Gaines, Ross Wilburn, Ako Abdul-Samad, Ras Smith and Phyllis Thede. (Photo courtesy of Iowa House Democrats)

Smith, who was flanked by Reps. Ruth Ann Gaines of Des Moines, Phyllis Thede of Bettendorf, Ako Abdul-Samad of Des Moines and Ross Wilburn of Ames, lamented a lack of collaboration by GOP lawmakers or the governor’s office with this year’s legislation. Last year, members of the Black Caucus were central to the advancement of a police reform measure hailed as “historic,” which passed the Legislature unanimously.

“I would have loved to see a more robust partnership,” Smith said.

Instead, he said Black lawmakers are seeing what Smith characterized as pushback in the wake of progress.  “When there are gains made, we’re used to the retaliation,” he said.

Grassley said some policing bills passed out of committee with bipartisan support, which shows members of the majority party were listening to Democrats.  He also suggested that the failure of certain bills to advance before the funnel does not end the discussion.

“Session doesn’t end when the first funnel ends, there’s going to be continued conversation around a lot of issues that may not have made it through the first funnel, whether it’s a part of amendments, whether it’s other bills that come over from the other chamber,” he said.

He was unable to cite any specific issues that he expected to generate further debate after this week.