Dana James: In the two years since George Floyd’s murder, Iowa lawmakers have prioritized order over reform

Protesters stage a sit-in on the lawn of the Minnesota State Capitol, Friday, June 5. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020 scarred my soul. Watching video of callous white police officers murdering a Black man on a Midwestern street provoked despair and unparalleled anger. But the ensuing groundswell of protesters that summer felt cathartic.

Unpopular opinion: While many Iowans fretted over the ensuing chaos during the wave of protests, I rejoiced when people of all hues, ages and walks of life yelled, pumped their fists in the air and demanded an end to police brutality. The crisis mapping nonprofit ACLED found 95 percent of the protests were peaceful — but my rage danced in the flames when buildings burned. The aftermath of broken glass reflected my broken faith in the people and systems that had routinely failed to accomplish justice for marginalized populations. While protesting struck fear in many Iowans, the phrases “defund the police” and “abolish the police” made sense in my grief.

After two years, the restoration of order that many people craved — and prioritized over criminal justice reform — is present in Iowa streets. The lives of two of the high-profile cofounders of the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement have vastly changed. Activist Jaylen Cavil, 25, who is running for Iowa House District 36, emerged victorious from his protest-related trials. But cofounder Matè Farrakhan Muhammad, 26, has a lingering court case and upcoming trial.

Muhammad is accused of shining a laser pointer at University of Iowa police officers during a protest in Iowa City on Aug. 31, 2020. Muhammad had originally faced nine felony counts and six misdemeanors; the felony charges and one misdemeanor charge were dismissed, according to court documents and his attorney, Aaron Page.

Page, who has been practicing law for 16 years (four in Iowa City) and took the case pro bono, told me the officers allege they suffered eye damage, but that the state’s doctor he deposed in May said it is “impossible” for a laser pointer to cause eye damage.

Page has conducted extensive research about laser pointers and couldn’t find any similar prosecution in Iowa or elsewhere in the country.

The case lingers, he believes, because officers are “full of resentment against these protesters.”

Racial justice demonstrators march in Iowa City, May 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

The trial is scheduled for 9 a.m. on June 7 at the Johnson County Courthouse after more than a year of wrangling, including a previous motion to dismiss. Page said he expects the officers will “get up there and claim they had a subjective experience of pain when a laser pointer hit their eyes from 40 feet away for a tenth of a second.” Muhammad faces two years per count.

In an unrelated case, Muhammad, formerly known as Matthew Bruce, was sentenced to probation and 150 hours of community service after pleading guilty to damaging a police vehicle during a protest at a southside Des Moines Hy-Vee grocery store, according to the Des Moines Register.

The Movement for Black Lives, a national grassroots coalition of 150 Black organizations working for Black political power, released a report last year that found more than 80 pieces of state legislation designed to criminalize protests. After Floyd, Iowa passed legislation with increased penalties for protest-related crimes, which some legislators and activists felt was a direct response to protests. The report also found inflated federal indictments for protesters, including significantly harsher penalties than local charges.

Iowa made some strides toward justice, with a ban on police chokeholds and temporary restoration of voting rights for Iowans with felony convictions. But activists had long sought a ban on racial profiling by the police and wanted them to collect data from police encounters, goals that went unrealized.

Legislators ultimately voted to “Back the Blue,” including provisions that:

  • Increased penalties for protesters
  • Shielded drivers who hit protesters from lawsuits
  • Increased qualified immunity for police officers
  • Made rioting a felony, rather than a misdemeanor

Floyd’s death left an indelible mark on the world. Criminalizing protesters for standing up for justice for marginalized populations just exacerbates injustice. Now, at the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s killing, protesters’ efforts to gain justice for Black, Indigenous and people of color who continue to be victimized by the criminal justice system have evolved. But, as in Muhammad’s case, they face continued roadblocks.

Dana James is an award-winning writer who founded Black Iowa News, one of two newsletter subscription-based media outlets in Iowa publishing on Meta’s Bulletin platform. James is also a co-host on the new Inclusivi-Tea podcast. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 003.

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