Open letter to Susan Mims: The accusations against ICPD are not ‘baseless’

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

By Nicholas Theisen, Iowa City

Dear Councilor Mims,

Since it has become your habit of late to respond to public comment at city council meetings, despite stating each time that it is not the historical habit of councilors to do so, I write this letter to you, and by extension to your colleagues, to address your recent assertions during the Oct. 7 city council meeting with regard to “baseless” accusations directed toward the Iowa City Police Department (ICPD) and its newly appointed chief, Dustin Liston.

First, the assertions that local law enforcement have been targeting protest leaders for intimidation has been the subject of excellent reportage in your own local newspapers. That you never cared to inform yourself of these facts is not the responsibility of those who point it out to you, it is yours. And I say this pointedly, because, as someone who is expressly responsible for overseeing the police department’s budget, setting policy and appointing its chief, you should be paying better attention to the malfeasance and misdeeds of those to whom you regularly pay public obeisance.

The arrest of Matt Bruce by a confluence of local law enforcement agencies is one such incident that should give you pause. Mr. Bruce was quite literally dragged from his bike immediately after a protest and tossed into a police vehicle. I was not speaking metaphorically at the Oct. 7 formal meeting. Mr. Bruce’s case would worry a city councilor who showed any interest in properly overseeing ICPD, because he has regularly been targeted for harassment by the Des Moines Police, and the fact that he specifically was singled out over all the other protest leaders should give a curious councilor pause.

Your marked lack of such curiosity is evident in how less than two weeks prior to when you felt the need to compose an obsequious paean to ICPD — while simultaneously scolding those whose necks have long rested beneath their boot — a federal judge was similarly inspired to scold ICPD officer Travis Neeld and Johnson County Assistant Attorney Jude Thaddeus Pannell in open court for conspiring with one another to racially profile a black Iowa City resident, Chris Kelly. Your fawning missive made no mention of this incident. A curious councilor might want to look into it, because Officer Neeld, who was not alone in his actions, is still with us.

Second, I do not have to rely on excellent local reportage to know that the protests organized by the Iowa Freedom Riders were being spied on by local law enforcement. Unlike you, I was there. I was less than 10 feet from a fellow protester whom a local resident backed their car into. I do not have to wonder whether the protest marches were being followed by unmarked vehicles, I and others saw them. This information was widely known among those present. The fact you were not aware of this just shows how disconnected you are from the reality that local political activists face.

Third, as for Mr. Liston, a curious councilor would have looked deeper into his history as the director of a fusion center, given the checkered history of those institutions. Fusion centers were key to the FBI’s multi-state crackdown on the Occupy movement, by coordinating among disparate law enforcement agencies to provide intelligence so as better to suppress citizens’ right of assembly. More specifically, an ACLU report from 2009 singled out one fusion center in Texas for spying on local activists. “The idea that the tolerance advocated by the groups being targeted would be treated as a menace to American security demonstrates a disregard for civil liberties and a disdain for democracy itself. The kind of indiscriminate and unlawful investigations this bulletin calls for always results in a chilling effect on free speech and association.” To be sure, the fusion center being called out above is not the one in El Paso, but a curious councilor might wonder if this pattern of behavior is endemic to all such organizations.

Given the situation local political activists face, like the possibility ICPD or UIPD might approach them before a protest and haul them away under suspicious charges, a curious councilor might pay closer attention to what manner of individual the city manager has chosen to lead the police department. And given your disconnect from what was happening in the streets, you might be forgiven for not recognizing how this is a common intimidation tactic used by law enforcement against activists. Someone who is on the fence about publicly exercising their rights of speech and assembly might hesitate to do so, when they hear local cops are grabbing people who show up to protest. I imagine, what with your deep concern for the unpainted façades of Iowa City businesses, you will say that these individuals are simply being arrested for committing a heinous crime against property. I imagine by that logic the intimidation is just an unfortunate side effect.

Last, as a teacher for more than a decade, it disappoints me immensely whenever someone who failed to do the assigned reading feels the need to pontificate from their ignorance and suck all the oxygen out of the room. But do not lose heart! There is always the opportunity to educate yourself on matters it is your job to be better informed of. It is my sincere hope that you and your colleagues take advantage of such an opportunity.

With all due respect,
Nicholas Theisen

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