Iowa Freedom Riders lead a weekend of protests ahead of the Iowa City Council’s next meeting

Protesters returning to the Pentacrest following a march led by the Iowa Freedom Riders, Aug. 28, 2020. –Anjali Huynh/Little Village

The Iowa Freedom Riders led three nights of protest in Iowa City starting on Friday to push for the Iowa City Council to take faster action on the group’s demands, ahead of the city council’s next meeting on Tuesday. A fourth night of protest is scheduled for Monday.

IFR’s demands for action to address issues of social justice, especially restructuring the police and turning many of its functions over to unarmed professionals trained in conflict resolution, were the basis of the 17-point resolution the city council passed unanimously on June 16.

A discussion of the resolution and its implementation is on the agenda for the city council work session on Tuesday, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will be established by the resolution is on the agenda for its formal meeting on Tuesday. IFR leaders have said the city has not made enough progress on implementing the resolution during the two months since it passed.

IFR organizer Raneem Hamad said during the protest on Friday night that IFR had offered some amendments to part of the resolution regarding the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and encouraged people to contact the council to support the IFR’s position and to push for the release of a video that reportedly shows how law enforcement — Iowa City Police Department officers and troopers from the Iowa State Patrol — decided to use tear gas on protesters during an IFR-led march on June 8. Both Mayor Bruce Teague and Mayor Pro Temp Mazahir Salih referenced the video during the city council’s Aug. 18 meeting, but the video has not been made public.

The four nights of protests were announced by IFR during its march on July 21. That night, a person drove his car into protesters are they standing in a circle in the intersection of Gilbert and Burlington streets. Four days later, ICPD arrested a suspect on charges related to the incident. The police allege a 45-year-old Iowa City resident deliberately drove his car into the protesters.

There was another incident on Friday night in which a driver backed into protesters at the intersection of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street. A passenger in the car yelled “white power” during an exchange with a protester and threw a bottle. No injuries were reported.

The incident was captured on video by the Independent Media Project.

IFR organizer Tina Deng told the protesters not to retaliate.

“We cannot respond with violence … This is a peaceful protest,” she said.

ICPD said in a news release on Saturday it was investigating the incident and asked anyone with information about it to contact the department.

Friday night’s protest, in which approximately 200 people participated, wasn’t only focused on local issues. Protesters also referenced Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23 for no reason apparent in the viral video of the shooting. Officials in Wisconsin have not yet explained the police officer’s justification for shooting the unarmed man who was not suspected of any criminal activity.

In remarks on the Pentacrest before the march, IFR organizers contrasted what happened to Blake, who police initially handcuffed to his hospital bed despite his severe injuries, to the treatment accorded to Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who shot three protesters and killed two during an Aug. 25 protest in Kenosha and was arrested peacefully after turning himself in. Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said in a news conference the next day that the shooting may not have happened “had persons not been out involved in violation of [the 8 p.m. curfew].”

“Remember that a lot of us wouldn’t have that luxury,” an organizer said. “My huge fire tonight is that a lot of my brothers and sisters would not have that same grace, and we’ve all seen that more than enough times.”

Protesters marching in Iowa City on Aug. 28, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

The march on Friday made several stops, including one at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. As they did during the Aug. 21 march, protesters called on the sheriff’s department to deliver justice for Makeda Scott and to free the inmates held in the county jail. No deputies were posted outside the office on Friday. Members of the crowd spray-painted messages on the office’s doors and walls.

Some members also tagged the streets with spray paint throughout the march, and when the marchers returned to the Pentacrest some began to tag the Old Capitol Building. As the spray-painting began, six University of Iowa police officers arrived and stood on the steps of the building to deter the taggers.

In response to the officers’ presence, IFR organizers led the crowd in chanting “All cops are bastards” and “How do you spell racist?” “I-C-P-D.”

“If you really cared about Black lives, every single one of you would resign,” the IFR’s Hamad told the officers, who did not engage with the protesters.

“When y’all became cops, did you take an oath to protect property or human beings?” Deng asked.

When protesters returned to the Pentacrest on Saturday for the second night of protests, a barricade had been set up blocking access to the Old Capitol Building. UI police officers were stationed behind the barricade. Most of the graffiti from the previous night had already been removed.

It was the same scene at the sheriff’s office on Saturday night. A barricade had been set up in front of the building and deputies were on duty. The marchers returned to the sheriff’s office on Saturday, renewing their call for justice for Makeda Scott.

Saturday’s protest included a vigil for Scott, the 21-year-old recent UI graduate who drowned at Lake Macbride on June 7. The sheriff’s office immediately classified Scott’s death as accidental.

Scott’s family and friends believe the investigation was rushed and incomplete, pointing to what they say are inconsistencies in a witness’s account of what happened and to evidence the investigators did not examine.

Beyond stressing the importance of making sure Scott’s death is properly investigated, IFR has highlighted the case as another example of how the justice system fails Black Americans.

But on Saturday, the focus was on the memory of Makeda Scott as a person.

“I want to remind everyone around us that she is more than her death, and more than her drowning on the boat … from what I know Makeda was a strong beautiful Black woman,” Hamad said during the vigil.

A memorial to Scott was set up in front of the barricades at the Old Capitol Building.

The memorial to Makeda Scott on the Pentacrest. Aug. 30, 2020. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

The memorial was set up again when the protests resumed on Sunday evening. The barricades were still in place on Sunday, and UI police officers were present as well.

That night’s protest began with warnings to attendees about protesters being arrested.

Hamad said that three protesters had been arrested since protest resumed. The most recent arrest happened shortly before 7 p.m. on Sunday, as people began to gather on the Pentacrest.

UI police quietly arrested a protester on a charge of 2nd-degree criminal mischief for allegedly causing between $1,000 and $10,000 in property damage by spray-painting. Another protester had been arrested on Saturday on the same charge. In both cases, the police said they were able identify the person with evidence from both officers who witnessed the incidents and video footage.

University of Iowa Police officers at the Old Capitol shortly before the IFR protest on Aug. 30, 2020 began. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

Organizers repeatedly warned protesters on Sunday that if they chose to use spray paint, they needed to make sure their faces were covered so they couldn’t be identified.

The march on Sunday did not return to the sheriff’s office. Instead it stopped at both the UI Police headquarters and the MidWestOne Bank building. The Johnson County Attorney’s Office is located in the MidWestOne building.

Organizers called on participants to contact Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness and tell her to drop the charges against the three protesters who have been arrested. They also pointed to a recent federal court case they said demonstrated how Lyness’s office is part of the system that perpetuates racial injustice.

On Aug. 20, Judge Stephanie Rose of the U.S District Court for the Southern District of Iowa ruled that the evidence seized when Chris Kelly was arrested in December was inadmissible. Kelly was stopped by the police after Assistant Johnson County Attorney Jude Pannell called an ICPD officer. Pannell said that Kelly, a Black man walking to the Hy-Vee Gas Station on Waterfront Drive to get something to eat, was acting suspiciously. Pannell based this on the fact that Kelly was looking at ICPD officers in the parking lot, and might have had something heavy in one of his jacket pockets.

Rose said the stop and search of Kelly violated his Fourth Amendment rights, and constituted searching someone for “walking while Black.”

After organizers pointed out the Johnson County Attorney’s Office was located in the MidWestOne building, some members of march rushed to the building and began tagging it. Others crowded around the people spray-painting to protect them from being caught on camera.

Graffiti spray-painted on the MidWestOne Bank Building, Aug. 30, 2020. — Paul Brennan/Little Village

The spray-painting continued as the march proceeded down Gilbert Street. Many buildings — businesses, empty store fronts, apartments — were tagged. But organizers drew the line when people began to tag Red Ginger, a restaurant at the corner of Gilbert and Hwy. 6: IFR leaders told the protesters they should not spray-paint minority-owned businesses.

Following a pause to circle up for chanting and speeches at the intersection of Gilbert and Hwy. 6, the marchers headed back to the Pentacrest. The UI Police officers were still guarding the Old Capitol Building.

“I guess property matters more than Black lives,” an organizer said before the protesters dispersed.

The fourth night of protests is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at the Pentacrest.

In a news release on Monday afternoon, the City of Iowa City said it was important for anyone planning a march to apply for a permit.

The City strongly supports the ability to exercise First Amendment rights and will work to protect those who wish to demonstrate those rights in our community. Groups must follow proper permitting guidelines, which were outlined last week in advance of recently announced protests. Vandalism or destruction of private and public property is not a First Amendment Right and will be investigated by the Iowa City Police Department.

The news release said city crews would remove the graffiti from public property, but it may take longer than usual because many city workers are “currently assigned to storm recovery effort.”

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