When a Mexican restaurant moved into the rural east-central Iowa city of Grundy Center a few years ago, some residents rebelled. This was not some drive-through ethnic fast-food chain, but a bona fide restaurant owned by Mexicans, which meant they’d be coming, too.
“To have people a little bit different,” says Abby Taylor, 24, who has called the city home for 14 years, “was a huge step.”
Only 1% of Grundy Center’s 2,700 people weren’t completely white in the 2010 Census. The largest ethnic minority, at 0.2%, was African-Americans.
The arrival of a Chinese restaurant prompted threats on the owners and forced a temporary shutdown, according to resident Autumn Beck Brunk. Now everyone’s fine with it.
The third shocker came two Sundays ago, for the first time in most residents’ memory, a rally was planned: a Black Lives Matter rally.
“We don’t even have black people,” one incredulous resident said to Brunk, a co-organizer.
“Do you know what you’re inviting to Grundy Center?” some asked co-organizer Emily Boquet, who conferred with the police chief, who supported the rally but not a march. Brunk created a Facebook page, Progressive Folks of Grundy County, encouraging people to come out Sunday between noon and 8:46 p.m., representing the number of minutes a Minneapolis police officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
And they showed up. Some 45 to 50 people, mostly young and white, were out on the courthouse green bearing signs, engaging in conversations, standing and chanting every hour as bells rang. Some passing cars honked approval.
In this tranquil, kid-friendly scene, some of the early work was internal: understanding the roots of one’s own privileges along with the history of slavery, economic exclusion and prejudice. Imagining how a clean, friendly community beloved by its members could expand its notions of membership.
Just 2.5 square miles, with the motto “the Good Life,” Grundy Center shows such pride in its high school graduates that profiles of each one hangs along the Town Center. But contact with other kinds of people has been lacking. A Korean-American student was called “ramen” at school, for the noodles. Though diversity is addressed in schools, said Taylor, it grazes the surface in the way of “Be nice to everybody.” Taylor herself had been aware of racism but Floyd’s death was the tipping point — when she wanted everyone to wake up.
Grundy County is in Republican Steve King’s congressional district. The last time a Democrat won a House seat from there was in 2003. (Opinion editor’s note: Earlier this month, King was defeated in a Republican primary contest while pursuing his 10th term.)
Moving around the city asking people how they viewed the rally, I found many reluctant to talk, perhaps fearful of being judged or exposed.
“What happened was horrible but I have my own beliefs,” said a woman who wouldn’t give her name but said she has a biracial child.
An older man said, “I think all lives matter, not just black.” He saw no need to protest since states including Iowa have now banned the police chokehold and, “Didn’t Trump say all men are created equal?”
A high school freshman working at a convenience store thought it should be enough that Floyd’s killer got charged. “What if the officer killed a white man, would it be racist?” he asked. “Or an Asian? Maybe it was not racist. Maybe he just wasn’t in a good mood.”
A 75-year-old retiree who had lived in Des Moines strongly condemned the police’s actions but, like the others I spoke to, focused on the looting that had marred some protests early on (which whites had been a part of). He also suggested a 75-year-old protester who was pushed by Buffalo, N.Y., police in front of City Hall, fell down and suffered a head injury, had tripped himself. President Donald Trump has tweeted something similar, though two Buffalo police officers have been charged.
Robert Earle is secretary of Grundy County Democrats and teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Iowa. He returned to be closer to family two years ago after he and his wife studied around the country. He thinks the return of young people with spouses and kids has been driving a discernible change since 2016 and that the broadened exposure and new perspectives challenge the community to think differently.
Brunk grew up mostly abroad because of her father’s job, returning in 2010 as a high school junior.
“I’d never lived in a small town, never went to a school where everyone was white,” says the mother of a 4-month-old. She married her high school sweetheart who farms with his family.
“They’re afraid of what they don’t know,” said Dennis Evans, echoing the sentiment. He’s the Democrat running to replace Republican Rep. Pat Grassley in the Iowa House. He lives in nearby Reinbeck and thinks views about Latinos have evolved in communities where they moved in for jobs. Other societal changes are afoot that the community and politicians need to acknowledge, he said. Most cities in Grundy County lack child care, locked in a 1950s model of stay-at-home mothers. But working mothers need and can’t afford it, and the GOP-led government won’t fund it.
All were at the rally. But not all attendees were Democrats. Grundy County Attorney Erika Allen was sitting with her husband, Robert, and a sign saying, “With liberty and justice for all.” She’s a Republican raised in Waterloo.
“It’s a good thing when people in rural Iowa show support for something that doesn’t directly affect them,” she said, “and peacefully within the bounds of the law, which we are doing.”
Of the “White lives matter too” argument yelled by some passers-by, Allen quipped, “Of course. But white lives aren’t in any particular danger on a daily basis. That’s the joy of being white, I guess.”
So much has happened so fast since Floyd’s death, not even a month ago. The outrage has touched every corner of the globe, forcing soul-searching and prompting calls for action. In a show of bipartisanship almost unheard of these days, the Iowa Legislature unanimously passed a bill against police misconduct after the Des Moines City Council agreed to delay voting on its hastily written plan against profiling.
Corporations are examining their priorities. Actors are making televised apologies for staying silent in the face of racism. People in conservative rural Iowa are denouncing their privilege and standing up for their black brothers and sisters.
The motto, “Think globally, act locally,” never felt truer. Speaking up begins at home, within your own family and community, even when it’s not your own people’s lives at stake. Maybe Grundy Center will grow to lead the way.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her e-mail at rbasudmreg.com.