Iowa Freedom Riders: Nobody deserves prison, including the man who could have killed us

Protesters marching in Iowa City, Aug. 21, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

“That’s bullshit.”

“This is not justice.”

“Disappointed, but not surprised.”

“What he did is a terroristic act and should be in prison for it.”

The news that Michael Ray Stepanek, an Iowa City man who intentionally drove through a crowd of racial justice protesters on Aug. 21 in order to give them an “attitude adjustment,” had been granted deferred judgment and would serve no time behind bars, garnered these and a dozen similar comments from Little Village readers on Facebook and Twitter.

Not calling bullshit, however, are the Iowa Freedom Riders, the group that organized the August protest that could have turned deadly thanks to Stepanek.

In a guest opinion published by the Des Moines Register Saturday, IFR member Ala Mohamed explains why they “agree” with the judge’s decision not to incarcerate Stepanek.

“Our country is obsessed with revenge. When harm occurs, the only consequences we have been taught to imagine are punitive ones,” Mohamed wrote.

“[W]e must be better than our government officials and our police who imagine only consequences via revenge. We must resist the omnipresent social messaging that revenge is equal to justice. A truly transformative justice centers those who are harmed and works with them to find how to achieve reparations.”

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured by Stepanek’s Toyota Camry when it sped through the crowd of protesters on the intersection of Burlington and Gilbert streets the night of Aug. 21. Video of the incident shot by onlookers quickly went viral on social media, and Stepanek was arrested by Iowa City Police. He told officers his actions were intentional, and his defense attorney later said Stepanek had been conditioned by social media and right-wing news to despise Black Lives Matter advocates.

“He would have come out of prison even more broken, more hurt, more hateful, and more racist,” Mohamed wrote. “Prison not only would fail to ensure that he never harms Black people in the same way again, but it would go backward and make him even more likely to harm Black people in the future.”

“In the past few days, we have heard many well-meaning liberal people say, ‘I support jail alternatives for non-violent offenders.’ But deciding who is deserving of a break and who isn’t is not a moral ground that we will ever be comfortable with.”

Ala Mohamed in 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The same applies to policing, she continued. Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Des Moines have been policed with much stronger force for much less than the white Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. But tear gas and batons would have done nothing to cure the toxic beliefs that fueled the Capitol riots, Mohamed wrote; even “perfect policing” is an arm of an unjust, white supremacist legal system.

“The neoliberal obsession with order maintenance over justice is poison to true progress and antithetical to the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. The majority of elected officials are keen to “throw away the people who they deem too difficult to work with, instead of giving them more community, more education, and more compassion.”

Like their well-meaning supporters on social media, Mohammed said IFR is “furious” about Stepanek’s actions and the forces that fueled them. But true justice would mean directing appropriate resources towards transforming Stepanek’s mindset, and doing everything possible to ensure he won’t attempt similar hate crimes in the future — not make him another victim of the prison-industrial complex that has claimed so many Black and brown lives.

“Abolition means abolition for everyone,” Mohamed said. “Even the white supremacists who harm us.”

The future Iowa Freedom Riders, joined by Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter, demonstrate on the University of Iowa Pentacrest on May 30, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village