Des Moines-area group stages ‘Back the Blue’ march in Iowa City

Back the Blue march in downtown Iowa City, Sept. 25, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

The Facebook post promoting the “Back the Blue” march in Iowa City on Friday evening said the event would have a “special guest” — it didn’t mention the tractor, or the bagpiper. But the approximately 75 people who gathered for the event marched from College Green Park to the Pentacrest, and back again, following a tractor and a bagpiper.

The tractor was painted with an America flag motif and had a Joni Ernst bumper sticker displayed prominently. The driver wore a flag-themed shirt and a Trump 2020 hat.

Many of the marchers, almost all of whom were white people, held what looked like homemade signs with pro-police messages.

The kilt-wearing piper did a credible job, playing standards like “America the Beautiful” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” as well as military tunes such as “The Army Goes Rolling Along” and “Garryowen.”

The tractor parked on the sidewalk when the marchers reached the Pentacrest. As an organizer from America Backs the Blue: Iowa Chapter explained the march permit only allowed them to be on the sidewalk or in the street. They did not have permission from the University of Iowa to actually come onto the Pentacrest or any other part of campus.

The speeches for the event, which like other Back the Blue marches around the country was intended to display unquestioning support for police agencies and any law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing, happened at the Pentacrest. None of the speakers were from Iowa City. Or Johnson County. Or even eastern Iowa.

“A lot of us came up from Des Moines to help support your town,” said the organizer who warned people to stay on the sidewalk. Another speaker announced that a dozen members of the crowd were students from Iowa State University who had driven in from Ames.

With one exception, the groups don’t have connections to Iowa City.

The primary organizer, America Backs the Blue: Iowa Chapter, is based in the Des Moines area. Another sponsor, the BLEXIT Foundation, doesn’t have an Iowa chapter, according to its site. The Leadership Institute (motto: “Training conservatives since 1979”), which was also listed as a sponsor, is located in Arlington, Virginia. The one local group among the sponsors was the UI chapter of Turning Point USA, a national organization for young conservatives.

The “special guest” for the event turned out to be Arielle Chambers, who was introduced as the national assistant director at BLEXIT America.

Arielle Chambers speaking on the sidewalk in front of the Pentacrest, Sept. 25, 2020 — Jason Smith/Little Village

The Washington D.C.-based BLEXIT Foundation was created in 2018 to encourage Black Americans to quit to the Democratic Party and become Republicans who support President Trump. It has had no discernable impact on American politics, but is nevertheless well-funded by conservative donors, and representatives from the organization often appear on Fox News.

Chambers, who said she was unfamiliar with Iowa but knows it produces a lot of corn, is not one of the people featured on Fox News.

“There is no race problem in this country,” she told the people standing on Clinton Street in front of the Pentacrest. “What we have is a culture problem in this country. I would go as far as to say, it is sin problem in this country — but that’s, you know, people aren’t ready to have that conversation. That’s OK, I won’t talk about that. But I will talk about culture.”

Actually, Chambers said almost nothing about culture, but did recite a skewed version of crime statistics broken down by race that would be familiar to anyone acquainted with right-wing media. Chambers also talked about the killing of Breonna Taylor, telling the people standing on Clinton Street that the Louisville police had done nothing wrong when they shot and killed Taylor, after they burst into her apartment looking for someone who didn’t live there.

Chambers’ garbled version of the killing of Breonna Taylor bore little resemblance to the facts so far established in the case, but that didn’t appear to bother anyone in the crowd.

“People try to say it was a police issue,” Chambers said. “Again, not a police issue. It was a culture issue in this country.”

She assured the marchers that they represent the majority of Americans, calling them part of the silent majority.

“The silent majority is stepping up,” Chambers said. “We’re going to make change. We’re going to make everything better.”

Robert Gamble also invoked the silent majority when he spoke. Gamble, who is from West Des Moines, heads the Iowa chapter of America Backs the Blue. He has long been active in conservative political groups in Iowa that identify themselves as Christian.

Robert Gamble of Back the Blue’s Iowa chapter speaking at the march he organized, Sept. 25, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Gamble was the lead organizer of Friday’s march. He had previously led a Back the Blue march in Des Moines, and told the Press-Citizen he was organizing marches in Davenport, Sioux City and Council Bluffs.

“The silent majority is no longer silent,” he told marchers on Friday. “We will not be silenced.”

“Like everybody knows, a war had been declared on our law enforcement officers,” Gamble said. “We can no longer sit behind our keyboards and get memes and emojis. We got to get out in the street. We got to make our presence known.”

Friday’s march didn’t attract much attention. A few protesters followed it, holding signs and chanting. Most of the attention it attracted from people along the route focused on the tractor and the piper.

An Iowa Citian protesting the Back the Blue march, Sept. 25, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

There had been concerns before the march that it might create tensions in Iowa City, since it was scheduled for the same day as a memorial service on the Pentacrest for Makeda Scott, a recent UI graduate who died in June. Calls for justice for Scott and criticism of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office for its handling of the case have been important parts of recent protest marches by the Iowa Freedom Riders.

The march started at 5 p.m. and was finished an hour later. The memorial service did not begin until 7 p.m. There was no overlap between the two events.

During her speech on the sidewalk in front of the Pentacrest, Chambers acknowledged the memorial service.

“We are here on a day when there was going to be a moment of silence for a young lady who lost her life right down the road from here at a lake,” Chambers said. She asked the crowd to join her in a moment of silence for Scott.

The moment of silence lasted nine seconds.

As she finished her remarks, Chambers said there would be another moment of silence when the marchers returned to College Green.

“When we walk back to the park, we will have a moment of silence for the young lady who passed away here, so please stay with us until we get to the park and finish the moment of silence,” she said.

That moment of silence didn’t happen. Instead, the marchers broke up into smaller groups, talking and taking photos. Some argued with the handful of protesters who at the park. A member of Turning Point USA collected the homemade-looking signs from the marchers, saying the signs would be reused at future events.

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