The hundreds of protesters who gathered at the Pentacrest in downtown Iowa City on Thursday night were not going to be deterred. Not by the memory of the previous night’s protest, which ended when police in riot gear threw flash-bang grenades and fired multiple rounds of tear gas. And not by the weather forecast that called for heavy rain.
People in Iowa City have protested the racism and police violence displayed in the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers for nearly a week. Until Wednesday night, the protests in Iowa City had been almost entirely peaceful, although they had resulted in some property damage — mostly surfaces tagged with spray-paint, but also some broken windows.
That changed on Wednesday, when law enforcement officers, including members of the Iowa City Police Department, used nonlethal grenades and what they referred to as “chemical deterrents” to stop a crowd of hundreds of protesters on North Dubuque Street from reaching I-80.
The officers were under the command of the Iowa State Patrol, who made the decision to forcefully disperse the crowd, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague confirmed during an online speech on Thursday afternoon.
Teague said the Iowa Department of Public Safety had explained troopers decided to use flash-bangs and tear gas out of concerns for “public safety.”
“In order to avoid hand-to-hand use of force, and keep people off the interstate, the use of chemical deterrents were deployed,” Teague said.
The mayor said that just as the killing of Floyd — which Teague has called “murder” — has caused people to look more closely at American institutions, Iowa Citians “must pause and wonder about our own police department and the policies that we have.”
He said the city council was committed to conducting a full and open public review of the actions taken by law enforcement officers on Wednesday night. Teague also expressed his support for peaceful protest.
“I’m actually pretty proud to see those that are going out and making their voices heard,” the mayor said.
Teague said he wanted everyone to remain safe and for people to protest “in a peaceful manner,” but didn’t want “to diminish the effects that protesting has, and I don’t want to hinder how protesters have the right to get out and make sure that their voices are heard.”
The mayor said he was worried that some people were distracted by tagging and other acts of vandalism and were missing the message of the protests — that black Iowa Citians and other people of color will no longer allow their voices to be ignored and demand to be included when policy decisions are made.
“It is very clear to me. It’s very clear to our council,” Teague said.
The mayor announced he and members of the city council would join the protesters on the Pentacrest on Thursday night before marching through Iowa City.
Teague and every member of the city council were there as a crowd of almost a thousand gathered in front of the Old State Capitol when speeches began at 7 p.m.
“Our heart is troubled,” Teague told the crowd when it was his turn to speak. “What happened last night is quite disturbing. We are very sorry that that took place. We as a city council have made it very clear that [ICPD] will not partake in such an act if you’re going towards the interstate.”
The crowd cheered when Teague said “Iowa City police will not be involved” in any effort to stop protesters from reaching I-80.
Teague stressed again that he wanted everyone to remain safe and be peaceful, but that protesting is a right.
“I cannot sit here and say, ‘It’s OK to go to the interstate,'” the mayor said. “But I know what is planned. They’re not going to let you do it,” he said, referring to the Iowa State Patrol.
“You make your decision for yourself.”
Protesters have marched down I-80 before. In November 2016, students from City High and West High led a large march protesting the election of Donald Trump that ended after they marched up Dubuque Street and onto I-80. No one was injured that night, but traffic was backed up for miles.
The protesters were serious but not solemn as they left the Pentacrest. They chanted the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of police violence, as well as “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” as they spread a serious message about justice. But spirits were high and everyone seemed confident, despite what happened the night before. Part of that confidence may have come from the fact Mayor Teague was marching with them.
The marchers hadn’t gone far when the rain began. For approximately 20 minutes, the rain pounded down on the marchers, but few left. As the march continued, more people joined.
The marchers stopped in several major intersections, forming circles that blocked traffic in all directions as they chanted and recited the names of people killed by race-based violence.
The last intersection circle was formed at North Dubuque Street and Foster Road. Down North Dubuque was I-80, and cars from the Iowa State Patrol were blocking the road in front of the highway exits. By now, the crowd had grown well beyond the 1,000 who started in downtown.
Teague walked to the center of circle to address the protesters. He asked them not to go onto the interstate, but said the choice was ultimately theirs. He could not stop them, but made it clear he was concerned about their safety.
There was no traffic on Dubuque Street as protesters marched toward I-80. There was no traffic on I-80 either. The Iowa Department of Transportation had blocked the highway.
There were fewer troopers on Dubuque Street than there had been on Wednesday night, and troopers weren’t in riot gear. Some officers spoke with protesters and shook hands. Patrol cars led the marchers over the I-80 overpass.
There were protesters who broke away from the main group and walked down an exit onto the interstate. The troopers did not confront them.
Most of the protesters left at the march had gone over the I-80 bridge, but a remnant marched back to the Pentacrest, where organizers reflected on the success they’d had in making their voice heard. They would be back every night until Gov. Kim Reynolds heard their message, too.
With additional reporting by Celine Robins