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'Des Moines is not immune to this': Iowa protesters march for racial justice — and get results

After a week of demonstrations led by black activists, the all-white Des Moines City Council is planning a vote on a ban of racial profiling by police.
A crowd marches through downtown Des Moines following a night of protesting in support of George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020.
A crowd marches through downtown Des Moines, Iowa, following a night of protesting in support of George Floyd on May 30, 2020.Brian Powers / The Register via Imagn

Outside the governor's mansion in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday evening, Dionna Langford spoke to a crowd of hundreds of protesters with a bullhorn.

"Black people," said Langford, 28, who is African American, "if you have been harassed, terrorized, bullied by the police in this city, make some noise."

A large proportion of the crowd clapped and yelled, according to a video of the protest.

"It isn't just a somewhere-else issue," she said. "This is a here issue."

For the past week, thousands of people have attended marches and rallies in Des Moines to protest racial discrimination and police violence. As in many other cities nationwide, the mostly peaceful protests were spurred by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. And as in other cities, police have used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters and reporters.

But in Des Moines, the activists already see progress on reforms they've long demanded from city leaders.

Speaking before about 1,000 protesters who marched to his house Wednesday night, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie committed to bring an ordinance to ban racial profiling by police for a vote at Monday's City Council meeting. The next day, the mayor and county leaders met another of the protesters' demands by lifting the nightly curfew imposed amid the demonstrations. And Thursday, state lawmakers introduced legislation to ban chokeholds by police and empower the attorney general to investigate police misconduct.

"I think they set the model for what organizing can look like in the city," Langford said of the protesters in a phone interview. "There was no ego. There was a lot of love, but there was also a ferocity that we recognize our power collectively."

Will Robinson, one of the march organizers, speaks on the lawn of Terrace Hill, the home of Iowa's governor, in Des Moines on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.Kelsey Kremer / The Register via Imagn

The sustained demonstrations are unusual for Des Moines, a city not known for protests. While Iowa is a hotbed of presidential politics because of its first-in-the-nation caucuses, activism in the state is typically much more subdued. Local organizers say that they were surprised at first by the size of the recent protests — but that it shouldn't have been unexpected given the many issues the black community faces in Des Moines, including concerns about policing.

"In this moment, with such a spotlight on black issues, it's important for white people to understand this didn't come out of nowhere," said Ellie Odole, 18, who is African American and helped organize the protests.

Last month, the city approved a $75,000 settlement after a white police officer pepper-sprayed a black teenage girl at a downtown bus transfer station and threw her to the ground, bruising her ribs. The city paid another $75,000 in a settlement last year over a traffic stop of two young black men who accused the white police officers of having racially profiled them and conducted an illegal search.

"We haven't had a George Floyd, a Freddie Gray or all those others — but we don't want one, either," said Sharon Zanders, special projects director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Langford works as a youth director at a YMCA, where she once invited a police officer to speak to a group of 30 boys, ages 11 to 18, almost all of them black. She asked the children to raise their hands if they'd had a negative experience with the Des Moines police. All of them raised their hands, she said.

The Des Moines Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Over the past two years, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement has been working with the local branches of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union to push for an ordinance against racial profiling by police in Des Moines.

The City Council proposed a version this year, but Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement considers it weak because it wouldn't create a citizens review board, require data collection on police stops or ban what are known as pretextual stops, which refers to the police practice of stopping a car for one reason and then investigating something else. The council's version would also allow police to investigate complaints against the department internally, rather than bring in another branch of city government for an independent investigation, as activists wanted.

A spokesman for the mayor's office said Thursday that the racial profiling ordinance would be revised before Monday's vote but did not detail the measures that would be included.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

Council member Josh Mandelbaum told NBC News that after having heard the feedback from the community, he concluded that the ordinance "needs to be stronger." Mandelbaum also said the council should consider ways to make enforcement of marijuana possession the lowest enforcement priority for police.

A 2013 analysis by the ACLU found that Iowa has the worst racial disparity rate in the country for marijuana arrests. While a black person was 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana as a white person nationally, the study found that the rate was 8.34 times in Iowa.

"We have this term 'Iowa nice,'" said Justyn Lewis, 30, a black man who has spoken at the protests and said he recently decided to run for the Des Moines City Council, which is all white. "So, you know, people won't overtly push and get in your face — it's institutionalized and hidden in structures, in the hiring processes and pay scale."

Iowa is 91 percent white and 4 percent black, but the state's prison population is 25 percent African American. Black families' median income is only a little more than half of what white families make, according to 2018 census figures.

While Des Moines is slightly more diverse — 75 percent white and 11 percent black — African Americans are more than twice as likely as white people to be denied home loans in the city. Des Moines was historically segregated by redlining policies, and in the 1960s, the state tore apart a neighborhood that was a hub for black businesses to make way for an interstate freeway.

"People realized this has been going on for decades now and we're not getting anywhere, and we're kind of fed up," said Jadyn Lovelady, 21, a college student from Des Moines who's been at each of the protests.

The protests in Des Moines began two weeks after two high-profile incidents.

On May 14, someone infiltrated a meeting between the City Council and the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission over the videoconferencing software Zoom and shouted racial slurs at members of the commission.

Two days later, DarQuan Jones, 22, who is black, said he was attacked and beaten in the middle of the night by three white men who shouted racial slurs at him, held his head underwater in a creek and pulled out a gun before a witness scared them off. The attackers also shouted racial slurs at two black women who ran over to help, according to one of the women. Jones suffered a broken arm, a broken nose and five broken bones in his face. Police haven't made any arrests.

"Des Moines is not immune to this," said Kameron Middlebrooks, head of the local NAACP chapter. "We're dealing with this invisible virus, the pandemic, and it has really exacerbated every issue, but one invisible virus we clearly haven't stomped out in this country is the invisible virus of racism."

Ako Abdul-Samad, who was a lieutenant in the Black Panthers and is now a state representative from Des Moines, said he hasn't seen protests like this in the city since the 1960s, when young black people made complaints of police harassment in their neighborhoods. Abdul-Samad has been at each protest over the past week, and he took it upon himself to intervene during a couple of the demonstrations when small groups of young people vandalized businesses. He said he was tear-gassed by police and hit with rubber bullets and a brick in the process.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad speaks to protesters in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, June 1, 2020.Bryon Houlgrave / The Register via Imagn

"It's a generation that not only is tired, but their backs are up against the wall," Abdul-Samad said. "There's no path they know to follow. We have a disconnect with the system. They don't feel that they belong anywhere or are listened to. They are now saying: 'We want some answers. We don't want to say kumbaya. We want some answers.'"

Activists say one notable change in the recent protests is increased support from the white community.

Lewis said that at one protest, he heard white teenagers say they were going to stand in the front and were willing to get arrested first "for our black brothers and sisters, to protect them," because their parents were going to bail them out.

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Calvetta Williams, founder of Mothers Against Violence, a local activist group that organized a march late last month, said she's been surprised to see so many white people attending. Williams, who is black, said that during the march, she saw an elderly white woman holding a sign that read simply, "I'm Sorry."

Abdul-Samad said he hasn't experienced much pushback from white demonstrators when he brings up the concept of white privilege at the protests in Des Moines: "They're understanding what those two terms mean."

"A lot of them have said, 'I didn't know,'" Abdul-Samad said. "And the real conversation has been, as they have said: 'I'm not going to lie to you. I still don't understand, but I know it's not right, and that means I have to do something.'"