On the evening of Thursday, November 4, 2021, after the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners filed out of their meeting in City Hall, Commission Chair Mohamed Traore spoke with community members about school outreach. He noticed two police officers approaching. He thought that they might ask him about the Commission’s work. Or that something had happened to his family. It was neither: The officers arrested Traore.
Traore’s arrest for a nearly three-year-old warrant came as a surprise. He had been convinced the charges were behind him. Traore was befuddled: “Why did it have to be so public? My address is public record.” For the better part of a year he had been the public-facing figure of a leading city commission.
For some commissioners, the arrest was an escalation in the long-simmering antagonism between Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague and Mohamed Traore—an antagonism that has characterized the Commission’s brief existence. The Commission, which began with so much emblematic hope, was at risk of crumbling to infighting, hurt feelings, and petty politics.
Lost amid this conflict was the original purpose and importance of the Commission as well as its international context. When created in the summer of 2020, the Commission was intended to be part of a city-wide effort to tackle systemic racism. A subnational truth commission in the United States is rare. Now, that citywide effort has largely stalled, and the commission is in danger of becoming the first U.S. truth commission to begin without properly ending its work.
There are just 20 past, present, and proposed truth commissions in the United States. Truth commissions are temporary bodies tasked with investigating past crimes. The most famous case is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tasked with uncovering the political violence underpinning apartheid.
Truth commissions are one policy in the “toolbox” that is transitional justice, a victim-focused approach to healing and confronting a country’s past. Typically, transitional justice occurs in transitional settings, where one government is being replaced by another government or when a country emerges from a serious conflict. A relatively recent phenomenon, however, is transitional justice in countries that have strong, long-standing democracies, such as Canada and South Korea.
In the U.S., truth commissions have largely been isolated events, taking place only where local consensus about a historical crime exists. U.S. transitional justice has so far only dealt with racial violence. For example, the commission on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the commission on the 1898 Wilmington Race Massacre, and the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission all centered around specific historical acts of racial violence.
When the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement resurged in 2020, many activists seized on truth commissions as a way to confront the legacy of racial violence in this nation while moving toward implementing racial progress policies.
In fact, the idea of truth commissions has risen to such prominence that in each of the last two sessions of Congress two separate proposals for a national truth commission have been introduced as bills—something that would’ve been unimaginable just a few years ago.
In Iowa City, the major force behind the Summer 2020 BLM protests was the Iowa Freedom Riders, a civil rights activist group headquartered in Iowa City. Raneem Hamad, a young student activist, was one of the Iowa Freedom Riders’ most important figures and eventually its representative on the Commission.
The creation of an Iowa City commission was one of the Freedom Riders’ demands, and the City Council seized upon it, unanimously voting to create the Commission that very summer. In hindsight, Hamad said, “The Council jumped on it as a performative opportunity to show that [the city] was making progress when in reality it didn’t make any towards any other [Iowa Freedom Riders’] demands.”
In June 2020, the City Council released a 17-point resolution containing policies to combat systemic racism, one of which was the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission. By September, they had resoundingly passed the resolution creating the Commission.
A crucial aspect of any truth commission is its mandate, or the legislation that creates the body. It sets out the rules, power, and jurisdiction a commission has. For example, whether the commission has the power to subpoena information is crucial to its success—and that sort of power is rarely assigned after a commission’s creation.
In Iowa City, the Commission mandate was written by two City Council members working with expert Eduardo Gonzalez, formerly of the International Center of Transitional Justice. Gonzalez was largely confident in the Commission, expressing only concerns over the fact that its composition would be “exclusively from Black organizations” (As the Commission grew, representation now includes members from the Latino, Native American, and Asian American communities.). He also expressed worries regarding “the actual independence of the Commission, since it would operate under the City Council,” a prescient concern.
While a truth commission is ostensibly designed to interact with the public to interrogate a community’s or country’s history, Iowa City has been dogged by one fight that has consumed nearly all of its existence: the search for a facilitator, the very person who would allow the commission to fulfill one of its core missions of interacting with the public.
The search for a facilitator has been complicated by Mayor Teague’s antagonism. The mayor has allies throughout local and regional government—Commissioner Eric Harris referred to the mayor and his allies as the “go-along, get-along” group. One member of this group, alongside Teague and former Mayor Pro Tem Mazahir Salih, is Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter. In fact, Porter was initially the chair of the Commission
Porter’s fall highlights the Commission's need for a facilitator. Porter was selected as chair in November 2020, when the Council finally selected commissioners. Her tenure only lasted until March 4, 2021, when she was removed as chair by a vote of no confidence—unprecedented in the history of the Truth Commissions.
Porter was removed for confronting a member of the public who came to the Commission outside official channels, allegedly berating the civilian. To complicate matters, the civilian reported the incident to Hamad—the young progressive was thus the one who ousted the older, more moderate Porter as chair. The split between these two wings was already clear by December 2020, when a dual interview was published in The Daily Iowan revealing wide divides in how the younger Hamad and the older faction view policing.
Regarding the end of Porter’s interaction with the participating citizen, Amel Ali, the current vice chair of the Commission, said, “We [the commissioners] decided that it was not cool and that was not the way we were going to get people to trust the TRC. So, we decided we didn’t want her as chair anymore, the intention was never to remove her from the TRC or anything like that.”
Yet, Porter resigned completely from the Commission upon losing the vote of no confidence. In quick succession, so did her closest allies: Tony Currin, now a Iowa House candidate and a longtime friend of Porter’s, as well as T'Shailyn Harrington, the vice chair of the commission.
The damage of the exit of the Commission’s establishment members and allies of the mayor was compounded on March 25, 2021 by the departure of the activist who willed the Commission into existence: Hamad. In the official tweet announcing her departure, the Freedom Riders referred to the Commission as “that performative tool of whiteness,” a departure from less than a year prior when the creation of the Commission was the Freedom Riders’ top priority following the resurgence of Black Lives Matter.
On March 26, the Iowa Freedom Riders, led by Hamad, announced the creation of their own commission—a “People’s Truth and Reckoning Commission” that would meet at the same time as the city’s Commission across the street from City Hall. That commission lasted until the summer, when the Freedom Riders’ organizers put it on hiatus, citing a need to re-evaluate how to best address the needs of communities of color in Iowa City. This unofficial commission completely independent of the City government was characterized by a complete lack of structure.
The city’s Commission took a monthlong hiatus to reset amid the chaos and fallout, retooling with new members that expanded the diversity of its membership. Most importantly, the Commission needed a new chair, and ended up choosing Mohamed Traore. On April 15, 2021, the commission finally resumed its meetings with Traore at its head.
Traore is a childhood friend of Amel Ali, his vice-chair, and a prominent activist within the city. He initially heard about the commission from her and at “the last minute” submitted an application to join. He had never worked in government or any large entity; he simply wanted to be helpful. Traore’s biography sticks out in a commission dominated by community activists and politicians: He works at a company specializing in artificial intelligence. He crisscrosses the nation for his work, making it difficult to get in contact with him for an interview.
Traore is young, of Hamad’s generation, yet lacks the confrontational mindset of an arch-activist. Instead, Traore pulls his punches. While other commissioners insisted Mayor Teague was involved in Traore’s arrest, Traore himself refused to get caught up in accusations, saying, “I’m not interested in finding out who had done it [arrested him], at the end of the day…” And he largely succeeded in unifying a commission that had been known mostly for its infighting—there have been no significant intra-commission fights since he became chair.
Now, however, the antagonists to the Commission lie not within itself, but elsewhere in City Council. The commissioners traced Mayor Teague’s opposition to the Commission to this moment, when his close ally and major Johnson County politician Porter was replaced by the unknown Traore. Perhaps Teague thought he could dominate the young and politically inexperienced Traore. However, Traore has stuck to his guns.
A series of incidents paint a clear picture. In one case, in August 2021, Traore and the Commission appealed to the Council for compensation for its work—a feature of most truth commissions but one that went unaddressed in the Iowa City Commission’s mandate. The mayor, rejecting the Commission’s request out-of-hand, suggested that Traore get a job in the public meeting. Traore called the mayor’s comments “a massive slap in the face.”
Nonetheless, he couldn’t help but see the irony: “Funny enough, an hour and a half after I left that job [as Commission chair], I was going to a call for a job that pays me.” At this same meeting, the mayor suggested the Commission needed to be heavily re-structured, maybe even dismantled.
In a turn of events, former Truth Commission Chair Porter appeared at a July City Council meeting urging the Council—her friend Mayor Teague—to “take back [its] power” from the Commission. She also opposed compensation.
More broadly, since assuming the chair of the Commission, Traore has been frustrated by the Council’s inaction and a lack of support. “It became more of City Council being more hands-off and hands-off; I feel like we’ve been handled with kids gloves ever since [Porter left],” Traore said. “There are times when I felt like my phone calls were getting ignored.”
The conflicts the Commission has become embroiled in are not ideological. Initially, there was sharp disagreement about how directly and explicitly the Commission would take on white supremacy and whether the focus would be on commissioners sharing their experiences or the Commission acting as a venue at which members of the public could share their lived experiences. This sort of contestation is typical of new commissions, and can be seen across commissions here in the United States.
However, since Traore took over and the opposing wings of commissioners both left, these debates have been settled. Now, there are no clear ideological disagreements between the mayor and the Commission. Traore seems to take great pain to avoid being an ideologue and Mayor Teague’s opposition to the Commission’s activities don’t follow any sort of ideological logic.
Traore’s frustrations came to a head in September 2021, when the City Council voted 4-3 against the Commission’s proposal for a facilitator. This came just weeks after the Council had voted for the Commission’s proposed budget, during which contention over the facilitator had been hinted at.
In the case of Teague’s rejection of the Commission’s facilitator, Traore said, “I just saw hypocrisy. No one had even mentioned that a lot of us [the commissioners] had actively gone out in the community and asked what they would like us to ask.” Teague insisted the Commission should hire a locally-based facilitator. However, no qualified local facilitator applied, the City Council did not appear at any Commission meetings to discuss the issue, and the Council failed to offer any serious help in locating a local facilitator.
Now, the Commission has to start from zero. And, although they are now receiving community-based applicants for a facilitator, the Council-engineered reversal has cost them months and is just another in a long series of delays.
Traore sounded an optimistic note, saying he hopes that by this summer—the two-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and the Commission’s inception—the Commission is “going to be starting to hit our stride in terms of community outreach.” He insisted on the need for sustainable and concrete processes to be in place to make future Commission work easier.
One can see parallels with the Commission’s inception. The mandate failed to create a sustainable base upon which the Commission can work—a failure Teague has seized upon to stop the Commission in its tracks. Traore is adamant the course can be reversed.
There’s a lot at stake dependent on whether the Commission can reverse course. As Kelebogile Zvobgo, an expert in transitional justice at the College of William & Mary, said, “Iowa City is a Democratic city within a Republican state that is attempting to address TJ. Cities’ ability to enact TJ helps to mind the gap in attempts to provide truth, but more generally, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition.”