It was obvious before you reached the Pentacrest on Saturday that the protest rally scheduled for noon was going to be different. Clinton Street was blocked off from Washington to Jefferson, and a traffic barrier at Dubuque Street kept cars off Iowa Avenue. The streets weren’t blocked for a march, but to allow the hundreds attending the rally to spread out.
Almost everyone was wearing a face mask or face shield, and many were trying to practice social distancing.
“Stretch your hands out and separate,” Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague said when he addressed the rally. “Six feet, come on, separate. I totally respect COVID-19, I want us to be healthy and safe.”
“Today, we’re breaking the law,” Teague said, acknowledging that Gov. Kim Reynolds’ ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people doesn’t expire until June 1. “But it is a necessity. We need to be here to let the world know that we will not tolerate this any longer.”
The rally was in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. On Monday, May 25, Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after MPD Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. Floyd was restrained — handcuffed and lying on the pavement — as Chauvin continued the illegal restraint, while two other officers assisted Chauvin, pressing down on Floyd’s back and legs. A third stood by and did nothing, as Floyd begged for help.
In a video filmed by a citizen who witnessed the event, Floyd can be heard repeatedly telling the officers, “I can’t breathe.” The officers replied, “You are talking fine.”
Floyd said “please,” several times and called out “Mama.” About two minutes after Floyd stopped moving, Officer J.A. Kueng, who had been pressing down on Floyd’s back, checked Floyd’s wrist for a pulse. “I couldn’t find one,” he said.
Floyd was transported to a hospital, where he died.
The four officers were fired the next day. Protesters gathered that night on the streets of Minneapolis, chanting “I can’t breathe.” Demonstrations continued in Minneapolis through the week, and began to occur in other cities. There were violent conflicts between the police and the protesters in Minneapolis and elsewhere on Thursday night, and some property damage occurred.
On Friday afternoon, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The other officers have not been charged with any crime.
The protests continued around the country on Friday, and so did the clashes with police with riot gear. In Des Moines, the police teargassed protesters, who had thrown rocks and bottles, broken some windows and engaged in other acts of petty vandalism.
Fliers distributed in Iowa City on Friday explained the Saturday rally was being held “In solidarity with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Yassin Mohamed. Say their names.”
Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was shot dead while jogging near his home in Georgia in February by a white man who said he thought Arbery looked suspicious. Yassin Mohamed, a 47-year-old Sudanese-American, was shot and killed earlier this month after he threw rocks at a Georgia sheriff’s deputy. Mohamed was reportedly having a mental breakdown, and had tried earlier to find help.
“All of us are here because of an event that happened and continues to happen throughout our country,” Mayor Teague said at the rally.
Lujayn Hamad and her sister Rameen Hamad, both West High School graduates who are currently attending college, organized the rally. Both of the young activists spoke at the rally, as did Andre Wright, who created Humanize My Hoodie in response to the killings of black men and boys such as Trayvon Martin, and many of Johnson County’s black political leaders. In addition to Teague, Iowa City Councilmember Mazahir Salih, Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter and North Liberty Councilmember RaQuishia Harrington addressed the hundreds of people gathered at the Pentacrest.
“Many of you saw the video, and when I saw it, it crushed me,” Teague said of the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. “That was an intentional act, that was murder.”
Royceann Porter was even blunter, calling the killing a “lynching.” Porter’s fiery speech was the emotional highpoint of the rally.
“When is enough e-fucking-nough?” Porter asked the crowd. “When is enough enough?”
Porter had been a community leader on racial justice issues — from city schools to police-community relations, to ensuring black voices are represented when political decisions are made — for decades before becoming the first black person to serve on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.
“I’ve been in Iowa City 30 years now, I’ve been called ‘a mad black woman’ for a very long time,” Porter said, referring her activism.
Porter talked about what it was like to watch black people be killed by the police, and having to pray every day “that nothing like this will ever happen to our children.”
“The worst part to me in watching that video was to see this white man with his knee in this man’s neck,” Porter said. She then pointed out something many people watching the video of Floyd’s killing might have missed.
Every time Floyd said “he couldn’t breathe, [Chauvin] rocked a little bit. He put more pressure on,” Porter said. “He heard that man say, ‘I can’t breathe.’ He heard that man say, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
The crowd began to chant, “I can’t breathe.”
“He cried out for his mama, who has been dead for two fucking years!” Porter exclaimed. “Who calls on their mama? That man was fighting for his life, and he did not deserve to be treated like that.”
She continued, “And all these people around here talking about the riot. If that’s what it takes — if that’s what it takes — then so be it, damn it. Then so be it.”
“I’m not for rioting, but if that’s what’s going to get your attention, if that’s what’s going to bring charges, then we’ll take ’em.”
Porter broadened the scope of her remarks to talk about how racism affects every aspect of American life on a daily basis.
“The truth needs to be told,” she said. “I appreciate everybody out here. But white people, you all don’t understand what we go through. You all truly don’t know, right here in Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty. And then you like to say, ‘Oh, but they’re killing each other.’ That’s a separate thing, we’re working on that, too.”
“And I want to say to everybody in Iowa City that’s black, you all don’t get off that goddamn easy neither,” she added. “You all need to be held accountable.”
“We all need to be held accountable,” Porter stated firmly.
She turned to the importance of holding people in power accountable.
“We talk all the time, everybody’s got something to say,” Porter said. “But if you really want to hit them in the heart, how ’bout voting?”
The supervisor pointed out that early voting was already underway for Tuesday’s primary.
“You want to do something? Vote,” she said. “You want to get that orange-ass man up out of here? Vote.”
“It’s not over, we don’t know what may happen tomorrow,” Porter concluded. “But what we want to do is make sure that it does not happen here in our city.”
The rally’s last speaker, North Liberty Councilmember RaQuishia Harrington, brought a quiet intensity to her remarks.
“Like many of you, I’ve been crying,” she said. “When I looked at that video, I saw every black man, every family member, I saw the face of my son, I saw my husband, I saw my brothers, I saw my uncles, I saw cousins, I saw every black face. Looking at me. Crying out for their mama. Hurting.”
“I’m still grieving. I’m mad.”
“We are more than a hashtag,” Harrington said. “We are more than these protests. We mean more.”
She then read a long list of black men and women killed by the police, going back to Amadou Diallo, who was killed by New York City Police Officers in 1999. Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Africa, was shot 19 times by four plain-clothes officer, after he reached his wallet. Diallo had no criminal record, was unarmed and wasn’t the man the officers were searching for that night. The four officers were charged with second-degree murder, but were acquitted by a jury.
“We’re tired of making hashtags, we’re tired trying to explain why we feel this way,” Harrington said. “We’re tired of just fighting every single day just to merely exist — for you all to see us, for you all to hear us, for you all to understand our pain.”
But being tired doesn’t mean giving up, Harrington explained.
“We’re not backing down,” she said.
As the rally came to a close, the hundreds of people gathered at the Pentacrest chanted George Floyd’s name.