Over the last week, the protests against racism and police violence in Iowa City that start at the Pentacrest and move through town have attracted the most public attention, and with good reason. Those marches have led to stand-offs with law enforcement officers, including one on Wednesday night during which an Iowa State Patrol officer ordered the use of flash-bang grenades and tear gas against protesters.
They’ve also left behind visible reminders in the form of messages spray-painted by the handful of taggers among the hundreds who turned up for the protests each night.
But they haven’t been the only local responses to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. The City of Iowa City has held a series of three community meetings in public parks last week called “Speak Up, Speak Out,” which featured black leaders who have been elected to office in Johnson County discussing the same issues that sparked the marches from the Pentacrest.
“Every day this week, we’ve been out in the communities,” Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter said at the final Speak Up, Speak Out at Mercer Park on Saturday afternoon. “We’ve gone to the people. We have chosen to go into the neighborhoods where people are marginalized and we know that they have some problems with the police department. And that’s why we said we want to hear from you all.”
“We need to know what you feel like the problem is that we need to sit down at the table to talk about. So that’s why we’re here.”
Porter, who was a leading community activist in Iowa City for more than two decades before becoming the first black person elected to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors in 2018, said it had been a “very long week” for black elected officials such as herself and Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague — “Our phones have been ringing off the hook” — but said they weren’t slowing down, because there was “more work to be done.”
“We’ve met with leaders of the protest downtown,” Porter said. “They have given us their demands. And some of the things that they asked for, they don’t even know, we’re already doing it — we’re already sitting at the table and we’re making it happen.”
The leaders of protests that have started at the Pentacrest now call themselves the Iowa Freedom Riders. On Saturday, they published a list of 13 demands made in the name of “the citizens of Iowa City.” The demands are separated into the three categories involving the Iowa City Police Department, Iowa City Community School District policies and housing in Johnson County.
Under the heading “Iowa City Police Department,” there are eight demands.
• A 25 percent cut in the ICPD budget, with that money redirected to social services and intervention programs
• A citizens’ police review board with real power
• Divestment from and removal of military-grade equipment
• Drop all charges against protesters
• Strong statement from [the] city in favor of protests
• Decriminalization of the use and possession of marijuana less than 40 grams
• Reduction of probation length and no drug testing for marijuana
• An increase in funding for the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department’s Special Populations Involvement Program, which provides recreational opportunities for people with special needs
There were three demands under the heading “School Board.”
• An alternative school board review process for students
• A representative school board
• The complete removal of School Resource Officers from schools (School Resource Officers are police officers assigned to work at particular schools. The Iowa City Community School District does not have SROs.)
Under “Housing,” there were two demands
• Johnson Count Sheriff/ICPD may not enforce evictions
• Lift the curfew in Coralville
In an early Sunday morning Instagram post in which they published these demands, the IFR said “the enthusiasm, mass attendance, and ungovernability of BLM protests over the last week” has “given city leadership little choice but to come to the table and address protesters directly.”
“There is sympathy for protesters’ concerns about policing and racial justice among Iowa City’s leadership,” the post continued. “Rather than allowing leadership to frame the conversation with demands that would corral protesters into city sanctioned spaces and activities, protesters are framing the conversation preemptively by presenting the fulfillment of our demands as a condition of our willingness.”
The lack of interest in allowing elected leaders to lead the discussion was evident at the protest on the Pentacrest on Saturday night, where IFR leaders also presented their 13 demands. Joining those leaders in speaking to the large crowd gathered there were elected officials, including Sen. Joe Bolkcom, Rep. Mary Mascher, Johnson County Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglas, as well as Mayor Teague and Supervisor Porter.
Instead of speakers addressing the crowd from the steps of the Old Capitol Building, as had happened on previous nights, there was a stage set up. Temporary barricades had been placed in front of the Old Capitol, whose façade was heavily tagged during earlier protests.
All of the elected officials were treated with skepticism and heckled by the crowd. Mascher and Green-Douglas were cut off when they tried to make their remarks. Porter then came to the mic.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and let you all disrespect these people up here,” she said.
Porter had a contentious back-and-forth with some members of the crowd.
“You’re not going to get action overnight,” she said. “We’ve already made commitments. I’ve been meeting with you all.”
Porter said she understood the anger and frustration of the protesters — “Don’t think I’m not mad” — but called on them to recognize the diversity of the area’s elected leaders and their commitment to social justice.
“This is change up here,” she said, referring to her fellow officials. “We’ve made change.”
When it was his time to speak, Mayor Teague had more sedate on-stage dialogue with one of the IFR leaders.
“I hope that you’re happy to know the commitment of our leadership in our community,” the mayor said.
“I don’t know,” the protest leader replied. “There’s a lot of smoke screens and a lot of talk. But I know your hearts might be in the right place, but I heard a lot that I couldn’t agree with. But you guys are hearing us.”
“And when we say, ‘no justice, no peace,’ this is what we mean. Until we get those laws, until we get those 13 statements, there will be no peace.”
The protest leader said they wanted change right now. “No waiting, we’re done waiting.”
The protesters marched again on Saturday night, but took a new route. They had already been warned the city had closed off Dubuque Street at Foster Road, so the marchers would not be able to reach I-80 for a third night in a row. City officials made that decision after the Iowa State Patrol denied their request to temporary close a portion of the highway to allow for a protest march, Zachary Oren Smith of the Press-Citizen reported.
Protesters instead followed a westward route, which took them by the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and Kinnick Stadium. As has happened at all the previous marches, surfaces were tagged.
At Kinnick Stadium, one protester climbed the statue of Nile Kinnick and called for the firing of UI Football Coach Kirk Ferentz, the Daily Iowan reported. The protester cited Ferentz’s $4.5 million a year salary.
“You know what he does to the people who make his team, who pay his salary?” she said. “He’s a racist piece of shit. We need to fire his ass.”
(Earlier on Saturday, UI announced it had placed Chris Doyle, the football team’s strength and conditioning coach, on leave following multiple allegations of racist behavior during his long career with the Hawkeyes. Many former Hawkeyes said that, while they had not had racist encounters with Ferentz himself, the head coach could have done more to protect players and improve the program’s culture.)
Although there was a police presence at various points as the protesters marched through the parts of the westside of Iowa City, there were no confrontations between demonstrators and officers.
Some of protesters stayed with the march until after midnight, when it ended at the Pentacrest. Organizers said they had another protest and march planned for Monday night.