Janice Weiner (IA): ‘It’s Not About the President—it Is About the Country and Systemic Racism’

Janice Weiner

Janice Weiner (61), a Democrat from Iowa City, IA, is president-elect of her synagogue, Agudas Achim, and on its safety committee, an area where she gained expertise while in the Foreign Service. She is very active in the Democratic Party, serving as first vice-chair of the Johnson County Democrats (the “bluest county in Iowa”) and was recently elected to the city council in Iowa City. She also serves on the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council.

We are providing the unfiltered opinions of voters interviewed for this project. Those views are based on their understanding and perception of facts and information from a range of sources. In some cases, that information may be misleading or incorrect.

What are your reactions to the protests occurring across the country? Long overdue. I’ve been wondering for a long time what it would take to finally get people out into the streets en masse to voice their frustration with racism, inequalities and failed political leadership. I’m grateful that most of the protests have been nonviolent and are trending more and more in that direction, even as they grow in size. 

What are your reactions to the looting, curfews and the police response of pepper spray, rubber bullets and arrests? There will always be some bad actors who seek to use and disrupt otherwise peaceful movements for a variety of reasons. Of course, I would prefer not to see any disruption in the form of looting, setting fires or property destruction. Police are supposed to protect life and property and life trumps property. There is never any need for the police to incite or commit violence.

What do you think about the call to “defund” police departments? I definitely understand and appreciate the police department but believe they go too far. We need to take a good, hard look at the necessary, core functions of policing and see what can be done by other social services that – at all levels – have largely been starved of funds for years. Train them all in crisis intervention techniques, and then have the funding and facilities available to deal with mental health crises and addiction issues. The police don’t need military and paramilitary gear. The federal program that sells surplus gear to police departments must end. Police departments should focus on building relationships via community policing and yes, fund social services, youth services, schools, etc. Laws should be changed so we’re not arresting people for possession of a small amount of marijuana, for example, or citing them for a broken taillight.

Have you participated in any demonstrations? As a member of the city council, I’ve been involved in tracking and following demonstrations in my city since day one. I attended the first outdoor demonstration/forum. I view myself as an ally who must help our Black mayor and mayor pro tem effect needed change. As a council, we asked that our police not participate in the use of any chemical irritants (aka pepper spray or tear gas) when working in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies. We have talked to protest leaders and now are taking it into council chambers to start to work on what our change/reform agenda will look like. We have avoided a curfew and largely given the protesters free reign in the city. But some demonstrations appear to have some bad actors, and we may now be forced to slap on a curfew for a few nights in the hope that they get overruled/weeded out and that everything continues peacefully. All council members attended an evening event when demonstrators presented their demands for change. We have also held and attended a series of “speak up, sound off” fora.

How do you think the president has handled this crisis? How has Joe Biden handled this crisis? The president is not suited to this. He simply does not know how to do anything but fan the flames. In this country, we do not bring in the military to quell protests. If need be, we deploy the national guard – not military troops or prison guards. Joe Biden, who has no power currently, has demonstrated the characteristics needed to deal with a crisis like this. He acknowledges the need for change, and he is listening. This has all been compounded by the fact that COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanics (as well as the elderly). Biden’s call with the Floyd family, for example, was the opposite of the president’s call. It’s not about the president – it is about the country and systemic racism. Biden gets that.

Have the events that have taken place over the last week changed your views on the upcoming Presidential election? I wish the election was tomorrow. Everything that happens, every crisis that builds on the previous crisis, emphasizes to me the inability of this president and administration to meet the moment. November 3 cannot come soon enough.

Do you think recent events will push people to one candidate or the other? We never know what is coming next. The president is trying to frame this as a law and order issue (a la Nixon). So far, it is not working. It may work in pockets. But everything I am seeing and hearing is that the electorate is swinging in Biden’s direction. Trump won Iowa by 9 points; it’s now a toss-up, which I never would have guessed just a few months ago. Between COVID-19 and BLM, people have seen what they don’t want leadership to look like.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us? None of this is easy, none of it is simple. There are no “black and white” answers. Re-thinking public safety, for example, is entirely doable but that is not the same as defunding the police. It means building a different model. We have seen in Iowa City protesters who have a list of demands and they want them fulfilled “now”. We can do some things quickly; other things take time. Some are simply illegal under existing state law, and if they want change, they need to flip the State Legislature. It is a hard civics lesson. Who wants to serve on a city commission? That’s slow and painstaking. It’s the work of local government. It took us 400 years to get where we are —in addition to commitment, it will take us real-time to change society and its institutions. Perhaps the most important is education: textbooks, teachers, school administrations, school boards—it starts there.

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