Student arrested for allegedly pushing state trooper’s arm during protest of ‘racist bills’ at State Capitol

The Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, March 30, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

An 18-year-old high school senior was arrested at the Iowa State Capitol after allegedly tapping a state trooper on the arm during a peaceful protest on Thursday.

Josephine Mulvihill was part of a group of Black Lives Matter supporters from around the state protesting a series of bills that would grant expanded immunity to law enforcement officers for their actions, increase criminal penalties for people arrested at protests, eliminate all state funding to cities or counties that reduce their police budgets and prohibit governments and schools from providing certain types of training on implicit bias and structural racism.

Mulvihill was charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer, a serious misdemeanor.

In his criminal complaint against the Norwalk High School senior, Iowa State Patrol (ISP) Officer Dylan Hernandez said Mulvihill “pushed my arm in an attempt to gain my attention.” Hernandez immediately seized Mulvihill. Hernandez’s account confirms that of protesters who said Mulvihill was asking for the name and badge number of Hernandez and Trooper Dalton Grell, as the two officers were walking away from her.

As other protesters began to approach Hernandez after he seized Mulvihill and one person appeared to reach for the handcuffs Hernandez is putting on Mulvihill, the trooper forced Mulvihill to the floor to finish handcuffing her, while Grell starts to shove people away.

Mulvihill was released after being charged. If convicted, she faces the possibility of a fine between $375 and $1,875 in fines and up to a year in jail.

Following the arrest of Mulvihill, some protesters remained in the Capitol and chanted as they stood in hallways. The protest concluded with no further incident on Thursday afternoon.

Aside from the troopers’ actions, the protest was peaceful. But that didn’t stop disinformation about it from being circulated online, with false claims being made that protesters had stormed the building in manner similar to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.

The protest and the arrest occurred two days after the Associated Press reported on an internal report by the Iowa Department of Public Safety that found “a significant increase” in the use of force by its officers in 2020.

“Officers, who include members of the Iowa State Patrol, responded by drawing their handguns, shotguns and rifles 269 times in 2020, an 83% percent increase from the prior year, the report found,” the AP said. “They also took or ordered suspects to the ground in dozens more cases compared with 2019.”

The AP obtained the report through an open records request.

The increase in force cases began in January 2020 and continued most of the year across the state, decreasing only in April compared with 2019, according to the data.

Just like 2019, Blacks comprised a disproportionate number of those involved. Blacks make up about 4.1% of the state population, but represented about 30% of those involved in the incidents, the report found.

The report, approved on March 24 by Iowa Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens, attributed the increased use of force by troopers and departmental officers to “a substantial increase in subject resistance in 2020.”

“The 22-page report did not seek to explain what was causing more suspects to resist officers and did not mention either the pandemic or the nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality,” the AP’s Ryan J. Foley noted.

ISP troopers have been aggressive in their response to people rallying against police violence and systemic racism since the protests began in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. While ISP troopers have been most active in Des Moines, their influence has been felt in other parts of the state, including Iowa City.

It was an ISP officer, Lt. Greg Obbink, who was in command of the group of troopers and officers from the Iowa City Police Department, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and University of Iowa Police, that confronted protesters during a June 3 march up Dubuque Street. Obbink gave the order for officers to use tear gas and other chemical munitions on the protesters, as well as flashbang and stinger grenades against the marchers.

The ISP role in the June 3 confrontation was confirmed by an independent review of the events commissioned by the Iowa City Council. ISP refused to cooperate with the review and would not permit any of its officers to be interviewed.

In addition to the actions its officer have taken during protests, ISP attempted to ban five Des Moines protesters from the Iowa State Capitol Building and grounds. A federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the enforcement of that ban in December. The judge found it likely violated the protesters’ First Amendment rights.

The “Kill the Racist Bills” protest on Thursday was organized by Advocates for Social Justice (ASJ), the Cedar Rapids group that has led demonstrations against systemic racism is working with the city on police reform. In January, the Cedar Rapids City Council responded to reform proposals from the group and voted unanimously to create civilian police review board.

“They won’t care about their Black and brown constituents unless …they’re pressured to,” ASJ organizer Angelina Ramirez said at the protest regarding Iowa legislators. “We must be that catalyst.”

In its statement announcing the protest, ASJ pointed out that if SF 534, which increases criminal penalties for some protest-related offenses, had been in force last year, it could have resulted in “hundreds of protesters who used removable children’s sidewalk chalk to write messages on Cedar Rapids City Hall” being charged with felonies.

#BLM was outlined in the intersection of Bever Avenue and 19th Street in Cedar Rapids, which people then filled in with various messages and drawings. June 13, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The bill also requires, with very limited exceptions, that people arrested for criminal mischief or unlawful assembly be held in jail for at least 24 hours, even when they otherwise would have been immediately released.

The bill expanding qualified immunity for officers, SF 476, also increases the ability of law enforcement officers to sue any civilian they claim injured them, either physically or mentally, as they were performing their duties.

Protesters on Thursday were also objecting to SF 489, which would eliminate all state funding to any municipal government that reduces the budget of a law enforcement agency by more than it reduces its entire budget that year. The Republican lawmakers who pushed this bill through the Senate claim it is intended to counter efforts to “defund the police,” even though no city in Iowa has proposed that. Because of the draconian way it is structured, the bill may interfere with the efforts of some cities to use social service agencies to respond to some calls involving substance abuse or mental health crises.

All three of these bills were originally part of the “Back the Blue” bill Gov. Kim Reynolds announced during her Condition of State speech in January. The original bill also contained language banning racial and ethnic profiling by law enforcement officers. The Republican leaders in the Senate and House have discarded the section banning profiling, while moving forward with the sections increasing police power and increasing penalties for protest-related offenses.

The fourth bill protesters were objecting to on Thursday would restrict how “divisive concepts” are handled in training on diversity and implicit bias. It also restricts how issues of racism and sexism can be discussed in classes at the state’s public universities and colleges, as well as in all of Iowa’s public schools.

“Individually, each bill moves away from social equity and do not reflect the spirit of a state where our government claims to be for ‘all people,’” ASJ said in its statement announcing the protest. “Collectively, they reflect a white supremacist agenda, a mindset that our society simply cannot afford.”

Although she is still in high school, Josephine Mulvihill has already been active protesting against injustice. Earlier this week, she was one of the leaders of a group of Norwalk students who attended a Norwalk Community School Board meeting to protest racist, sexist and homophobic bullying in the district’s schools.

The student protesters had been told they would not be allowed to speak during Monday’s board meeting, but Mulvihill persisted. She took to the podium and explained to the board the problems she and her fellow students have faced, and how the district has failed to adequately addressed bullying.