The Wednesday night protests in Iowa City ended with law enforcement officers using flash-bang grenades and firing tear gas at protesters, many of whom were chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
After more than five hours of marching through the streets of Iowa City on Monday, spurred by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the crowd of hundreds of protesters were on North Dubuque Street and trying to reach I-80. A line of law enforcement officers from the Iowa City Police Department and the Iowa State Patrol, equipped with riot gear, blocked the protesters from reaching the interstate.
The Iowa Department of Transportation had already blocked off I-80 in Iowa City as a precaution.
Protesters and officers then stood facing each other in a standoff that started shortly after 11 p.m. The front rank of the protesters linked arms and chanted, calling on officers to take off their riot gear. During the protests on Tuesday night, some officers guarding the Johnson County Courthouse did remove their riot gear, and talked to members of the crowd. That didn’t happen on Wednesday night.
“‘Disperse immediately,’ said a speaker who identified as an Iowa State Patrol officer,” Zachary Oren Smith of the Press-Citizen reported. “The voice added that failure to do so would result in the deployment of chemical deterrents.’”
While the protesters were holding their hands in the air and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the officers threw flash-bang grenades and fired tear gas into the crowd.
“It was absolutely terrible,” Hannah Green told Little Village on Thursday.
Green, a lifelong resident of Iowa City and former EMT, had come to the protest expecting a long night and she was ready to offer basic medical aid to anyone who needed it.
“If I’m being honest, I didn’t think anything would happen,” Green said. But it was a hot day, and she was prepared for protesters to become overheated or suffer an injury while marching.
Protest organizers were also prepared for those eventualities. Plenty of water was available for marchers.
Green, who joined the protest when people were still gathering near the Pentacrest at 6 p.m. and was there until the last people left near midnight, has attended many protests in Iowa City over the years, but had never been at one that turned violent.
“I expect the police to help people,” Green said. “But that was because of my privilege. That was the world I lived in yesterday.”
Organizers had other expectations. Before heading north on Dubuque towards I-80, they warned participants that police might use aggressive means to stop them. They also asked everyone to write down the phone number for Iowa Legal Aid, in case there were mass arrests.
Prior to Wednesday night, the protests in Iowa City against racism and police brutality that started in response to the May 25 killing of Floyd had involved marching to sites downtown. On Wednesday, that changed, as the protesters marched along several major roads, slowing or halting traffic altogether as they stopped in intersections.
ICPD hadn’t interfered with the protesters as they marched through the streets, even though some had spray paint and were tagging surfaces. The police even blocked westbound traffic on Hwy. 6, as protesters stopped at the Gilbert Street intersection.
Speaking at the Iowa City Council meeting on Tuesday, interim Iowa City Police Chief Bill Campbell had talked about the department’s emphasis on de-escalation of potentially violent events. But on Wednesday night, it was a mixture of ICPD officers and Iowa State troopers — who are part of the Iowa Department of Public Safety (IDPS) — protesters encountered at the end of the march.
The troopers were in command of the contingent of officers on Dubuque Street. It was an IDPS officer who gave the order to use flash-bangs and tear gas.
At a press conference on Tuesday, IDPS Commissioner Stephan Bayans was asked about the use of tear gas on protesters by the Des Moines Police Department. Bayans said he would not “second guess” actions taken by police during in what he called “very fluid and dynamic circumstances,” adding that decisions on when to use tear gas are “more of an art than a science.”
“When the tear gas exploded in my face, I ran to the side of the street near the dog park area,” Green said. “A lady came out of her house, and said if anyone needed medical care they should come in.”
Green help a fellow protester who had rolled her ankle in the confusion after the flash-bang grenades and tear gas were used.
“Then I ran back out into the gas to try to see if anyone was hurt,” she said.
After helping a few people overwhelmed by tear gas find places where the gas wasn’t so thick, she spotted people trying to help a man on the ground who was having a seizure and joined them.
“We got gassed while we were helping him,” Green said. “We took a flag and covered him, we made a barrier with our bodies, and tried to keep him as safe as possible.”
Officers reportedly fired three more volleys of tear gas at protesters when they didn’t disperse after the first use of gas.
“It seemed pretty clear to me that there were pockets of us who were surrounding people who needed help,” Green said. “From where I was, it didn’t appear like the police were helping anyone who was injured.”
The last of the protesters left Dubuque Street just before midnight.
Little Village emailed questions about the events of Wednesday night to both ICPD and IDPS, but has not received replies.
Green called Wednesday night “a huge wake-up call about my privilege” as a white woman.
“I thought the police wouldn’t hurt me, if I didn’t break the law,” she said. “I have no clue what it’s not like not to be able to trust the police or how black and indigenous people, and people color in America feel when they encounter the police. But last night, I got a little bit of that fear. It was terrifying.”
Asked if she would be attending the protest scheduled for Thursday night, Green said, “Absolutely, yes.”