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Protesters in Iowa City march to I-80 on Friday night, sing in memory of Breonna Taylor

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Protesters march on Dubuque Street, June 5, 2020 — Jason Smith/Little Village

After almost a full week of extraordinary protests against racism and police violence in Iowa City, sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, much of what happened at the protest on Friday night felt somewhat familiar.

A crowd of hundreds gathered at the Pentacrest to remember the victims of racist violence and call for substantive change. They marched through the streets of Iowa City, chanting messages of social justice, and a few used spray paint to tag surfaces, sometimes in support of Black Lives Matter, sometimes to leave less inspiring messages. The crowd even marched onto I-80, which was impossible only two nights earlier.

On Wednesday night, a contingent of law enforcement officers in riot gear, under the command of the Iowa State Patrol, blocked Dubuque Street before the highway on-ramp, and threw flash-bang grenades and fired tear gas to break up the protest.

Protesters on the Pentacrest, June 5, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

On Thursday night, the protesters returned to Dubuque Street. This time, they had the support of Iowa City’s mayor and city council. And this time, the troopers didn’t wear riot gear or block the protesters. Law enforcement escorted them over the bridge spanning the highway. Some of the protesters broke off from the main group and walked down onto I-80, which had already been shut down by Iowa Department of Transportation.

On Friday, the highway was the destination of all the protesters in the march. No officers tried t0 block their path. After marching onto I-80, the protesters formed a circle and sat down. Some members of the group stood up and shared stories with the others.

Protesters sit down on I-80, June 5, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

That was one way Friday night’s protest was different. Having focused on a collective message of social justice previous nights, on Friday the emphasis changed to individual stories. Both on the Pentacrest and on the interstate, people told stories about the impact of racism in their lives and the change they hope to see.

But something happened for the first time on Friday night — the protesters sang “Happy Birthday.”

They sang both at the Pentacrest and on the highway, in honor of Breonna Taylor.

Taylor was killed by police officers who entered her Louisville, Kentucky apartment on March 13.

Shortly after midnight, while Taylor and her boyfriend were asleep in bed, Louisville police officers used a battering ram to knock down her front door. They had a “no knock” warrant, meaning they did not have to give any warning before breaking down the door or even identify themselves as police officers.

The person the officers were searching for did not live at Taylor’s apartment.

What happened next is disputed, including who shot first. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker — a licensed gun owner — had his gun, when the officers burst into the apartment. Walker fired at least once at the people who had suddenly burst into the apartment, striking an officer in the leg. The police fired multiple rounds, killing Taylor as she lay in bed. Breonna Taylor was hit eight times by the officers while in bed.

Walker was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of a police officer. The charges have since been dismissed. The officers involved have not been charged with anything. They were not fired or suspended.

Breonna Taylor would have been 27 on Friday.

A memorial for Breonna Taylor on the Pentacrest, June 5, 2020 — Jason Smith/Little Village

After leaving the interstate, many of the protesters marched back to the Pentacrest, where they held a vigil in Taylor’s memory.

By 11:30 p.m., most of the protesters had left. About 15 minutes later, some of those who remained set off fireworks on Clinton Street. Officers from the Iowa City Police Department approached the people using fireworks. The remaining protesters and the police officers all left the area before midnight.


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