Updated August 1 to acknowledge Gill’s resignation and to fit the parameters of a letter to the editor. Original letter available below.
Coralville residents call for better representation by Mary L. Cohen, Tara McGovern Dutcher and Matthew A. Cohen
Disruption is a step toward rebuilding. Fire can be healing but is harmful when it burns out of control.
In light of 29-year Coralville City Council member Tom Gill’s comments and recent resignation, we write today about our hope for communities that place primary value on care, compassion and collaboration led by people who listen respectfully to one another and consider multiple views of any issue.
Gill’s comments about the Black LivesMatter movement in July were upsettingto many people. ‘Eighty percent of the town,’ he said, ‘doesn’t give a damn about what you are talking about — they are fed up.’
Was there a poll assessing the attitudes of Coralville residents? We’ve seen no evidence to support his claim, and we find his assertion deeply troubling, self-serving and deceitful. We do not want to be misrepresented. We care tremendously about the Black Lives Matter movement. We are fed up with political leaders and media sources communicating falsehoods.
Gill had “zero tolerance for criminals,” according to the Press-Citizen’s July 15, 2020 article.
“Tolerance” is the ability to endure, especially something that a person disagrees with. It is much easier to reflect upon and talk about ideas we agree with than to consider and discuss ideas we don’t. Discussing complex issues can be difficult. Holding two opposing views at the same time is extremely difficult.
Continuing to examine Gill’s rhetoric, a “criminal” is any person who has broken a law. For example, a person who is convicted or pleads guilty to exceeding the speed limit or possessing illegal drugs is a “criminal.” Many more U.S. citizens are “criminals” than are represented in the criminal legal system.
The criminal legal system comprises over 6.7 million people in correctionalcontrol, according to a Prison Policy Report. These include both incarcerated individuals like the 765 men in Coralville’s Oakdale Prison and people who are on probation or parole. People in our communities have experienced a wide range of harms and deserve care and compassion. The criminal legal system is a major human rights disaster in our country that is intertwined with the prison industrial complex, both in need of massive overhaul.
Restorative justice practices are creating more healing spaces for survivors of crime and accountability for their perpetrators. A simple step toward a common sense of humanity for people hurt in these systems is to use personcentered and positively-charged words: people, men, women, youth; not offender, felon, murderer, thief or “criminal.”
When people are flexible enough in their thinking to entertain different viewpoints and maintain grace to listen to others about what informs their thinking on sensitive topics, that is a step toward living together respectfully with a common sense of humanity in a way that promotes care and kindness. This flexible thinking is something we must all work to develop and practice regularly. We invite further conversation, preferably ongoing conversations facilitated by the City Council with as complete a representation of citizens as possible.
We hope the next Coralville City Councilor who takes Gill’s place will have a clear understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, will represent the entire Coralville community, including all of its Black citizens, too, and will entertain opposing views with grace.
Mary L. Cohen is an Associate Professor of Music Education at the University of Iowa.
Tara McGovern Dutcher is a freelance musician and teaching artist based in Coralville.
Matthew Allen Cohen is a film and media scholar and worked as a professor at the University of Iowa.
ORIGINAL LETTER in full:
July 20, 2020
To: Zachary Oren Smith, Iowa City Press Citizen Coralville, Mayor John Lundell, Mayor Pro Term Mitch Gross, City Council members Meghann Foster, Tom Gill, Jill Dodds, and Lauren Goodrich, and Thorsten J. Johnston, Coralville City Clerk.
We are outraged that Coralville Council member Tom Gill spoke hateful and hurtful comments toward “BLM” (as reported in Mr. Smith’s Thursday, July 16, 2020 Iowa City Press Citizen article “Coralville City Councilor Calls BLM Protestors ‘Criminals’”, p. 6A), especially just prior to the recent deaths of the beyond remarkable civil rights leaders John Lewis and Rev. CT Vivian.
Perhaps Dr. Gill does not realize BLM is a movement. The people who have been showing up to support this movement are people who stand up to support the dignity and care of all people. Until Black lives matter, all lives do not matter.
Personally, when I (Mary Cohen) heard Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” speak about the racial injustice that has been a constant in lives of Black people in this country; when I heard Black people in this area describe how many times they have been pulled over by police officers; when I viewed the film “Healing Justice’” at the Coralville Public Library; when I heard Professor Darryl Heller describe how he asks his university students to imagine how it would feel to not know when a crowd might come to your home and lynch you or someone in your family; and when I reflect upon my own research looking into the racial disparities in the criminal legal system, it is ever apparent to me that until Black Lives Matter, we are going to continue experiencing mass civil unrest in the U.S. Such agitation adds immense stress to our communities, particularly now as we are already trying to navigate an unprecedented global pandemic.
A second major concern we have is that, according to the Press Citizen article, Dr. Gill said he has “zero tolerance for criminals.” A “criminal” is technically any person who has broken a law. For example, a person who has not paid for a speeding ticket or has taken drugs that are illegal is a “criminal.” Many more U.S. citizens are “criminals” than are represented in the criminal legal system. The criminal legal system, comprised of 6.7 million people in correctional control – both people who are incarcerated, including 772 men in Oakdale Prison here in Coralville, and people who are on probation or parole. The criminal legal system is a major human rights disaster in our country that we are extremely concerned about.
“Tolerance” is the ability to endure something, especially something that a person disagrees with. It is much easier to interact with people who hold similar views than to interact with someone who disagrees with you. Discussing complex issues can be difficult. Holding two opposing views at the same time is extremely difficult. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Whether this skill is “first-rate intelligence” or not, is not the point. The point is in our contemporary society, opposing views run rampant.
When people are flexible enough in their thinking that they can entertain different viewpoints; and when people have the grace to listen to others about what informs their thinking on sensitive topics, we think that is a step toward living respectfully with a common sense of humanity and living in a way that promotes care and kindness. This flexible thinking is something we must all work to develop.
Given the strong polarizing views that are apparent in today’s world, we all would benefit from improved ability to hold contrasting views in our thinking and to listen, to really listen, to each other’s experiences.
Additionally, people are protesting because great injustice has and continues to happen to Black U.S. citizens. The outrage of police murders has reached a breaking point and people are calling attention to it by protesting. Automatically labeling the protestors as “criminals” is another brutal form of injustice that proves the point of the protesters. Black U.S. citizens are remarkable, resilient, creative, and contribute tremendously to our local, state, and national communities.
In my first email sent Friday morning, July 17, I (Mary Cohen) asked Dr. Gill to contact me to explain what informed his comments. In my second email sent (7/18), I asked that he view a 4 minute video on racial injustice on the Equal Justice Initiative website. I have not yet (7/20) received a response. I completely understand he may not have time to respond to his emails over a weekend.
I (now Tara McGovern Dutcher) wrote to all six Coralville council members twice this year, once describing my displeasure in their immediate removal of the chalking done in the name of BLM in late May/early June in front of Coralville City Hall, and then I wrote again asking the Coralville City Council members if they were planning to hold a community conversation about racial justice. I received a reply from five of the six Coralville City Council members, and these five members attended “Reflect, Heal, Act: A Community Gathering in S.T. Morrison Park” on June 7. Thank you for this event. Dr. Gill did not respond to my messages, nor did he attend at this event.
Dr. Gill, we are curious what informs your thinking about “BLM”? We respectfully ask you to please consider one or more of the following actions: (a) learn about what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for, (b) learn about the history of how people with black and brown skin in the U.S. have been hurt physically, economically, and structurally, and/or (c) apologize to the residents of Coralville, especially to the Black community. If you are not in a place to do one or more of these three things, we respectfully ask you to resign as a Council member of Coralville Council. If that is the decision, we strongly encourage you to take steps toward the other actions. We realize you have served the Coralville community for over 33 years, and we thank you for your consistent work and service to this community.
In the article from the July 16, 2020 Press Citizen, Mr. Smith quotes you: “Eighty percent of the town doesn’t give a damn about what you are talking about – they are fed up.” What data are you referring to? Has there been a poll assessing the attitudes of Coralville residents? We haven’t seen whatever evidence you’ve attributed to Coralville residents and believe this comment to be deeply troubling, self-serving, and deceitful. We do not want to be misrepresented. We care tremendously about the Black Lives Matter movement. We are fed up with inaccurate information shared from political leaders to the public. Mr. Smith, we hope you will report an accurate and clear message from this letter and other correspondence from Coralville residents who care about the Black Lives Matter movement.
We desire leaders who can interact with one another and the community with a deep sense of integrity. We seek leaders who communicate with kindness, care, accuracy, positivity, and vision. Our community needs an entire council that leads with these values. Such leadership and news reports that describe how we are listening to one another, being open to difficult conversations, and celebrating all people in our community is vital for us to move forward in positive ways and to navigate the current health and racial pandemics.
Thank you for reading our concerns, and we look forward to receiving a reply from Mr. Smith and from the Coralville Council members as a group or individually, especially from Dr. Gill, after you have considered our concerns.
Mary Cohen, Coralville
Matthew Cohen, Coralville
Tara McGovern Dutcher, Coralville
Joseph Dutcher, Coralville
Jeff Agrell, Coralville
Shari Rhoades, Coralville
Lucas Moore, Coralville
Erin Moore, Coralville
Nuno Solano de Almeida, Coralville
Danniele Gomes Holanda, Coralville
Alice Kurtz, Coralville
Sheldon Kurtz, Coralville
PS: We encourage all Council Members to view this short 6 minute video that describes the difference between being a racist and being an anti-racist.
We noticed there is a Showing Up for Racial Justice Iowa City organization, and perhaps we could create one in Coralville too?
UPDATED: we are grateful to begin receiving replies from council members and we will post them as we receive permission.
“Hi Mary, Matthew, Tara, Joseph, Jeff, Shari, Lucas, Erin, Nuno, Danniele, Alice and Sheldon,
Thank you for your beautiful heartfelt letter. I very much appreciated the link to that powerful video! I know work needs to be done. If I need to find a silver lining in all of this, it’s that the curtain is being pulled back. I know implicit bias is a very tricky thing that can hide deep inside of us and I assure you I am not only learning more about BIPOC but more about myself. I have a meeting with four leaders of the Iowa Freedom Riders this week and look forward to digging deeper as we move forward to make positive change in our community.
Stay well, Jill Dodds, Coralville City Council”
“Dear Mary and Coralville resident friends,
Thank you for your thoughtful email. I am horrified by Mr. Gill’s statements, but trying to stay respectful. That said, when it comes to Coralville, I am dedicated to a comprehensive study and further action throughout all departments and areas of the city to create and sustain anti-bias policies and fairness. It appears that you can help us with that. I hope we can continue to believe the best. I am willing to learn and work together. Thank you, Mary and Coralville Friends.
Coralville City Councilor”