Not everyone on the Ped Mall with a political message on Saturday morning was there to support the Iowa City Women’s March. There was also someone with plastering “It’s Okay To Be White” stickers on public property.
“A friend of mine, who was participating in the march, walked by me and he was held up this ‘It’s Okay To Be White’ sticker for me to see,” Norbert Sarsfield told Little Village. Sarsfield was also participating in the march, but had stepped away to take a photo of it.
Two months ago, someone plastered identical “It’s Okay to Be White” stickers around downtown Iowa City. The person responsible was never identified.
Sarsfield asked his friend where he had found the sticker. “He said, ‘A guy is walking around in front of the parade, sticking them on lampposts and things. So, my friend was peeling them off as he went along.”
Sarsfield’s friend pointed in the direction of Black Hawk Mini Park.
“He pointed to a heavy-set guy wearing a grey hoodie,” Sarsfield said. “I wanted to get a picture of what was happening, so I went down there. When the guy saw me, he pulled his hoodie over his face and started walking away.”
The hoodie had the image of Pepe the Frog on it. The cartoon frog has become a popular symbol among alt-right activists and white supremacists.
“I asked him what he was doing. I said, ‘If it’s okay to be white, why are you hiding your face?’” Sarfield said. “He didn’t say anything, he just kept walking.”
Sarsfield followed the man, who headed to MERGE, the coworking space located next to the Iowa City Public Library.
“There were a few people in MERGE,” Sarsfield said. “He went in. I started to follow him in, but he turned around said, ‘Private property,’ and he shoved me out of the door.”
Joshua Christain had been participating in the Women’s March with his wife, Margaret Henderson. Christain also had seen the man in the Pepe hoodie putting up the stickers.
“I saw him go into MERGE,” Christain said. “I followed him in. I saw him head to the north side of the building.”
Christain knew the layout of the building from having spent time there before MERGE took over the property.
“There are multiple exits from the building, and I didn’t want him to be able to just disappear with no ramification for what he’d been doing,” Christain said. “So, I just kept walking behind him.”
At one point the man told Christain to get out, because he owned the building and Christain was trespassing. Christain, however, knew the city owns the building.
“At another point he yelled, ‘You’re assaulting me!’ because I was following him,” Christain said.
Eventually, the man went into an empty conference room, claiming it was his office, and closed the door.
“I tapped on the glass, and told him I’d wait right there,” Christain said. “He told me I was ‘kidnapping’ him, and he was going to call the police.”
Christain didn’t realize at the time that MERGE wasn’t open to the public, or that the other people in the building had left after the man in the Pepe hoodie came in or that MERGE’s doors were locked.
Christain said the man took out his phone and made some calls while in the conference room.
One of the calls the man in the Pepe hoodie made was apparently to his girlfriend.
“I was standing outside MERGE looking through the photos I’d taken, when a young woman in a blue hoodie came up to me,” Sarsfield said. “She asked if I’d taken photos of her boyfriend. I asked her if her boyfriend was the one putting up the white supremacist stickers.”
“She said, ‘Yes,’ and that he’d called her saying he was in MERGE. She said she wanted me to delete the photos, because this whole thing was traumatic for them,” Sarsfield recalled. “She said he’s not a racist, he just likes to do these things to get a rise out of people.”
Someone also called the Iowa City Police Department (ICPD).
“I got a phone call from my wife, who was outside,” Christain said. “She told me the police were there. I spoke to them. They said they’d gotten a call from someone who didn’t leave a name saying there was a trespasser in MERGE.”
The officers also asked Christain to open a door, so they could get into the locked building. He did.
“They took the guy out of the conference room, and started talking to him,” Christain said. Christain also gave the police a statement.
Little Village contacted the ICPD about the incident. Sgt. Scott Gaarde said no one had been arrested and there were no charges currently pending, but that the matter is still under investigation.
Christain said he hadn’t expected the man in the hoodie to be arrested.
“Even with that message, and even though he was clearly trying to provoke something, it probably wouldn’t have been more than littering or minor vandalism,” he said. “But I followed him, because I didn’t want his assholery to go undocumented.”