Man drives his truck into protesters marching for abortion rights in Cedar Rapids

Video still of truck leaving the scene after hitting protesters in front of the Cedar Rapids U.S. Courthouse, June 24, 2022.

A man drove his pickup truck into protesters crossing a street in Cedar Rapids on Friday night. This happened at the end of a march in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overruling Roe v. Wade and eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion, as protesters who had gathered for a rally and march at the Cedar Rapids U.S. Courthouse at 111 7th Ave SE.

The protesters, who were at the end of the group of marchers, were returning to the staging area when the driver swerved out from behind two cars that were ahead of him and drove forward into the group, all of whom were women. According to a statement from the Cedar Rapids Police Department, the protesters “were attempting to legally cross the street in front of the Federal Courthouse when the traffic lights changed, giving right of way to vehicles on 8th Avenue.”

The CRPD statement said it happened at “approximately 7:17 p.m.,” and described the incident as “a single pedestrian … injured by contact with a vehicle.” One woman, whose foot was run over by the truck, was taken to the hospital for evaluation, but according to people who were at the march there were other injuries.

“As I crossed the street, I heard a commotion,” Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker told the Gazette. “I turned back to see a truck driving into the crowd with at least two young women — one of whom is a Linn County staffer — directly in front of the vehicle, and another woman appeared to be engaged with the vehicle near the driver’s side.”

“It became apparent that the vehicle had no intention of stopping so I ran as fast as I could to try to get the young staffer out of harm’s way,” he said. “The driver accelerated and injured several young women in the process. Thankfully the women in front of the vehicle were not run over.”

Journalist and author Lyz Lenz was one of the speakers at the rally on Friday night and had just crossed the street as part of the march when the truck hit her fellow protesters. Lenz described what she saw on her Substack site on Monday.

After the speeches, about 150 of us marched through the city, holding our signs and chanting. It was hot and the walk was long. By the time we streamed back to the parking lot the protest was done. Just a handful of people left. We crossed the busy street with the traffic light and in the crosswalk. When I got to the curb, I turned and saw a black truck that was sitting behind two cars weave around them and head straight through the crosswalk. People tried to stop him, they banged on his hood and hit the side of his truck. A crowd of people surged around the truck as it pushed through the intersection trying to pull two women away from the front of the truck. I learned later another woman fell and hit her head. One woman had her foot crushed. The truck drove away.

CRPD interviewed the protester whose foot was injured at the scene, and the “driver of the vehicle was also voluntarily interviewed by Cedar Rapids Police,” according to the department’s statement.

Identifying the driver, whose name has not been released, would not have been difficult because his vanity license plates were visible in photos and videos.

In the statement issued at 9:55 p.m. on Friday night, CRPD said it was “canvasing the scene to obtain potential surveillance video and more information will be made available when possible.” No further information has been made public yet.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell issued a statement on Friday night that does not actually mention the incident or make any distinction between pedestrians crossing a street and someone driving a truck into them.

Cedar Rapids is a city with a diverse population and many viewpoints. Today’s Supreme Court decision is likely to elicit strong opinions. What we must do as a city is come together, especially in times like these. The Cedar Rapids Police Department is conducting a thorough investigation into tonight’s incident. We all have a right to our opinions, but we must act in a peaceful and respectful manner.

What happened in Cedar Rapids focused attention on changes to state law made in 2020 that increased legal protection for drivers who injure people engaged in a protest. That protection was included in the so-called “Back the Blue Act,” one of the bills Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed during the Iowa Legislature’s 2021 session.

Despite its name, much of the bill was focused not on the police, but on increasing penalties for protest-related offenses. The bill increased the penalty for unlawful assembly, expanded the range of behavior that qualifies as “disorderly conduct,” and revised the definition of “criminal mischief” to include any of a broad range of acts that “damaged, defaced, altered, or destroyed any publicly owned property, including a monument or statue.”

The bill also created special protection for drivers who strike people marching in the streets during a protest.

The driver of a vehicle who is exercising due care and who injures another person who is participating in a protest, demonstration, riot or unlawful assembly or who is engaging in disorderly conduct and is blocking traffic in a public street or highway shall be immune from civil liability for the injury caused by the driver of the vehicle.

A court would have to establish that a driver engaged in “reckless and willful misconduct” before the driver could be held civilly liable for injuring a protester.

The Republican lawmakers who pushed the Back the Blue Act through the legislature claimed the changes were needed following the protests against racial injustice and police violence sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

“The public peace is too important, and the safety of our officers too precious, to tolerate destructive behavior,” Gov. Reynolds said in a statement when she signed the bill into law.

The 2020 protests in Iowa were almost entirely peaceful, but there was one act of violence involving a driver in Iowa City deliberately targeting protesters with his car.

As marchers paused at the intersection of Gilbert and Burlington streets during a protest march on Aug. 21, 2020, Michael Stepanek drove his Toyota Camry into the crowd and then sped away. Stepanik struck several people, but none of them were seriously injured.

The 45-year-old Iowa City resident was arrested four days after he struck the marchers. Stepanek told the police he drove into the crowded intersection because wanted to give the protesters “an attitude adjustment.” He was charged with intimidation with a dangerous weapon, a class C felony, and willful injury, a class D felony.

As part of a plea deal, Stepanek received a deferred judgment, which will result in his willful injury charge being expunged if he successfully completes three years of probation, and a fine of $1,025, which was also suspended by the judge.

Stepanek’s attorney claimed his client had been misled by social media and the rhetoric of conservative politicians into believing social justice protesters were dangerous criminals, and also did not understand how dangerous his actions were when he deliberately drove into the people on the street that night.

Abortion rights advocates march down Burlington Street in Iowa City, June 24, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

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