Following their march to Coralville on Thursday, where a line of law enforcement officers under the command of the Iowa State Patrol blocked them from reaching I-80, the Iowa Freedom Riders adopted a new tactic. Instead of marching to the highway, or making a circuit of downtown Iowa City, the IFR started leading protesters to the homes of city council members to push for the council’s approval of their demands.
On Friday night, the march went to Mayor Bruce Teague’s house on the west side of Iowa City. (Teague was elected to an at-large seat on the city council, and then chosen by his fellow councilmembers to serve a two-year term as mayor.) Marchers headed to the northside on Saturday, stopping at the home of Councilmember John Thomas. On Sunday, it was back to the west side, as the protesters marched through the streets to the home of Councilmember Pauline Taylor.
The crowd numbered about 200, roughly the same size as the group who marched to Thomas’ house the night before. On Friday, fewer than 100 protesters marched to Teague’s house. During the first week of protests, marches sometimes had more than 2,000 participants.
On Friday, IFR organizers noted the drop-off in numbers, and encouraged everyone to bring friends to future events. On Sunday, one of the group’s leaders encouraged people to think carefully about their actions when they are trying to promote IFR’s message.
Speaking to the crowd on the Pentacrest before the march got underway, Keki Smith said she was tired of hearing reports about “somebody yelling or harassing someone in the name of IFR.”
Those are tactics of white supremacists, Smith said, and should not be used by opponents of white supremacy.
“We not going alienate or isolate anyone, we’re not going to harass anyone,” she said. “We’re not going to put our hands on anyone.”
Smith acknowledged that feelings could run high when talking about IFR’s demands for social and political change because real pain underscores the issues at hand.
“We cannot let our anger get the best of us, and then let it blunt the message,” she said. “So make sure when you guys are out there trying to educate people, trying to advocate for Black Lives Matter, trying to advocate for Iowa Freedom Riders, that we are paying attention to the actions that we’re doing. That we’re actually starting conversations that are making people then want to come hear more, making people want to march with us, making people want to share posts, making people want to have these conversations on their own.”
The march to Taylor’s house took about an hour. The two-term city councilmember was waiting for the protesters in front of her house. She wore a plastic face shield. Most members of the crowd were wearing cloth face masks.
It was, at best, an awkward encounter. IFR members who spoke used a bullhorn pointed up to amplify their words. Taylor speaks with a fairly quiet voice, and IFR did not offer her the bullhorn; noise from the crowd rendered many of her words inaudible.
IFR members seemed unfamiliar with Taylor’s political career and her background as a labor organizer. A speaker got Taylor’s last name wrong on one of the few occasions it was used. For the most part, they called her “Miss Pauline.”
The IFR members with the bullhorn frequently spoke over Taylor as she was responding to questions. At one point, organizers said they had to come to Taylor’s house to hold a productive discussion. At another point, Tina Deng, an IFR leader, cut off Taylor, explaining, “The way this works is that we’re here for you to listen to our voices, not to listen to [your] speeches.”
During an exchange about the IFR demand regarding the police, Taylor started to speak about placing a greater emphasis on community policing. Keki Smith explained the IFR has no interest in that.
“We want to defund the police,” she said. “We’re not trying to retrain them or do some other avenue. We’re trying to defund completely, and then build something from the scratch up. Not from the police at all.”
Although Smith and the other members of the IFR were clear that they are committed to the abolition of the police department in Iowa City — Smith even directed Taylor to a website with information about the police abolition movement — completely dismantling the ICPD is not on either version of the list of demands IFR has published. Both versions of the demands use more modest language.
The first version calls for a 25 percent cut in the ICPD budget, with that money being redirected to social services and intervention programs. The second version doesn’t even include the demand for the 25 percent budget cut. Instead, it calls for the release of a full and detailed version of the ICPD budget, and demands a “Strong statement from the ICPD in favor of protests including deprioritization of law and order; and property damage. Instead a prioritization of police accountability for racism while also addressing issues of systematic racism and inequality.”
Taylor told the protesters that she objected to their frequent chant “All cops are bastards.”
“Do you want to know why we say it?” Smith asked Taylor. Taylor said yes.
“Granted, every person has the right to be a good person, and due process and all that stuff,” Smith said. “I’m not saying people aren’t good people, I’m saying they’re bastards because the job that they work at has a racist and classist background, and it still is racist and classist.”
If Taylor, or anyone else, knows a good person who is a police officer, “then tell them they can resign, Smith said. “Because that’s what we’re trying to do, is remove the job anyway.”
As for the chant, Smith said, “If that offends you personally, then that’s the point of it. So you can understand how they make us feel.”
Smith told Taylor she believed her failure to appreciate the importance of abolishing the police was rooted in ignorance.
“I believe a lot of this comes from ignorance. Right?” Smith said. “When we’re ignorant, we make wrong decisions. Right?”
Smith said Taylor should read the material on police abolition she showed her before Tuesday night’s council meeting.
Taylor did agree during the 30-minute encounter to work on “actionable steps” to meet the demands IFR has presented to the city.
The encounter came to an end with Taylor being asked to say “black lives matter.” She did. The crowd cheered, and then briefly chanted “black lives matter” as it marched about, before switching to “all cops are bastards.”
IFR plans to march to another city council member’s home on Monday night, but has not announced which member it will be.
Speaking on the Pentacrest before the march began on Sunday night, Smith said there will be no marches on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But there will be a special event on Saturday to celebrate Juneteenth.
“It’s a family-friendly event, that means anyone can come,” Smith said. It will start with a march at 1 p.m., which is earlier than the IFR marches typically start.
“Yes, that means we’re going to take out some of the chants,” she explained. “Because we’re trying to be inclusive. We’re going to make family-friendly, so everybody feels comfortable to join.”
Following the march, there will be food and live music on the Pentacrest, starting at 4 p.m.
“Black Voices will be speaking, and then IFR will be speaking, so it’ll be a whole shindig,” Smith said.