Ames Protest for George Floyd Highlights Community-Police Relations

Ames police officers join demonstrators on a march outside City Hall Saturday afternoon protesting the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Although some Ames residents variously raised concerns about the potential for property destruction and lack of information about who had organized the event, more than 200 people gathered on the front lawn of City Hall Saturday afternoon to partake in the nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, an African American who was killed last week by a white Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin. They were joined by several officers from the local police department, whose chief, Chuck Cychosz, two days earlier issued a lengthy statement calling Floyd’s death “shocking, disturbing, and of great concern to all of us.”

The previous night in Des Moines, at least 18 people were arrested after protesters clashed with police in riot gear who deployed tear gas on several occasions in an effort to disperse them. Conflicting accounts emerged of who was responsible for escalating tensions; in any case, the result was both uncharacteristic of the city’s typically more subdued demonstrations and similar to what was taking place elsewhere throughout the country. By the end of the night, several people in the crowd had damaged squad cars and broken downtown storefront windows, leading to local news coverage about the “violence” that transpired.

None of that happened in Ames, where the event ended shortly after 5 pm, well before nightfall. Several protest signs directly criticized law enforcement with slogans like “BLUE LIVES MURDER.” Another challenged the attention given to property destruction: “BUILDINGS CAN BE REPLACED. LIVES CAN’T.” Two police officers observed the scene, conversing with demonstrators and offering them bottled water they carried over from the police station. The station is connected to City Hall, which is closed to the public through July 1 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Eventually, three more officers arrived, and some joined demonstrators as they marched around the block for visibility.

Des Moines police officers regroup after dispersing protesters with tear gas from the steps outside the state Capitol building late Saturday night. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

The protest began haphazardly as several attendees, including one wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, said they were unsure who was responsible for organizing it. On Facebook, people had shared the message, “Ames protest tomorrow Sat May 30th at 4pm at 515 Clark. Pass it on.” Local BLM leaders apparently weren’t notified of the event, nor was the police department, which learned about it through social media. After a few minutes of uncertainty, someone suggested marching around the block. The protesters agreed; some marched closely together but most wore protective masks, and they chanted, “I can’t breathe.” It was a reference to Floyd’s unanswered plea before Chauvin pressed the man’s neck to the ground with his knee for over eight minutes, ultimately resulting in manslaughter and third-degree murder charges a day after protesters in Minneapolis torched a police precinct.

Upon their return, a handful of Ames protesters took turns speaking about their personal connections to the cause as others circled around. “Stop asking your black friends how to do better,” urged one speaker, discussing how white people could become better allies to the African-American community. “It’s not on black people to make us feel better.” This sentiment was reflected by a couple signs carried by protesters at the event, including one reading, “WHITE SILENCE IS COMPLICITY.”

Jeana Gibson, 36, a black mother of seven who’s lived in Ames off and on for about a decade, told the Informer that she spoke at the event “to keep the peace” and discourage protesters from “causing more havoc in our communities,” which she believes has been counterproductive to the cause’s message of racial justice. “The stuff that’s happening all over right now, especially the rioting and looting, those are criminals,” she said. “I don’t want that message to deter what the real message is today, and that’s for George Floyd, for his name to be heard all across America, and also our other victims who have been brutalized or lost their lives due to police brutality.” Gibson commended the Ames Police Department, saying it was significantly better than departments in Minnesota and Chicago where she previously lived.

Protesters seeking justice for George Floyd and other African-American victims of police violence march around the block outside Ames City Hall on Saturday. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Not everyone shared her favorable view of local police. A 14-year-old Ames High School student who is biracial attended the event with a sign that read, “ACAB” — a ubiquitous police protest slogan that’s short for All Cops Are Bastards. She referred to a case involving her cousin that she believed was trumped up because police had insufficient evidence to charge him. “They were just making up stuff,” she said. “Yeah, they’re peaceful,” she added, “because they don’t really do anything.”

Another protester held a sign that criticized the department for its hotly debated handling of a police chase that resulted in an officer killing a 19-year-old on Iowa State University’s campus in November 2013, making national news and, a year and a half later, leading to a $225,000 settlement that the city paid Comstock’s estate. “R.i.P. Tyler Comstock,” the sign read. “Shot by Adam McPherson.” (Both Comstock and McPherson were white; the officer was cleared of wrongdoing by then-County Attorney Stephen Holmes.)

Jason Tuttle, the department’s public information officer, was one of the cops at the event, which he said he attended “to make sure it’s safe.” He said Ames police continue to receive critical messages about Comstock’s death — including in a comment on Facebook in response to the statement about Floyd’s death posted Thursday — but defended the rights of protesters to speak their minds about local law enforcement. “Our mantra is problem-solving and relationship-building,” Tuttle said. “It’s important as police officers. If we’re not listening to people, we’re not doing our jobs, we’re not willing to be better.”

The actions of Chauvin and three other since-fired Minneapolis police officers who failed to intervene, as shown in a bystander’s video of the killing, were in “direct violation of our policy and training,” the department’s statement read. It added that police “receive training in de-escalation” and are screened “for bias, emotional maturity, and a service ethic.” It also touted the department’s working relationship with the local chapter of the NAACP. “Ames is a diverse and ever-changing community and we hire officers that embrace those qualities,” it read. “Racial bias has no place in our business.”

Signs of the times: left, on the interstate outside Minneapolis Friday night, when a curfew was in effect in a futile effort to deter protesters after a police precinct was set on fire the previous night; right, a reminder to socially distance heading north from Des Moines Saturday night after riot police tear-gassed protesters to chase them from the steps of the state Capitol. Photos: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

The ISU Police Department, which works with but is independent of the Ames PD, also posted a statement after Floyd’s death: “We grieve with you, community, and we are fed up with police brutality and a system of anti-blackness that allows us to continue victimizing the people we are sworn to serve and protect. We hear you. We are working to answer your questions because you deserve it. We will release a more detailed statement soon; we will not remain silent.” (The more detailed statement was released yesterday shortly before the protest.)

After the protest ended, several people lingered, including a black woman who was engaged in a conversation with Geoff Huff, another Ames police officer who, like Tuttle, is white, about how she had seen the department’s response to racial issues improve over the years. Racial tensions came to a head in the city a decade and a half ago over what some called the “Chicago problem,” when the unmet demand for government-subsidized affordable housing in the Windy City led residents to move to other communities, including Ames. A corresponding spike in violent crimes over a two-year period brought racist attitudes out in the open — one resident, for instance, began distributing white nationalist literature that criticized diversity. Ames Police Chief Chuck Cychosz, who wrote the Floyd statement, has sought to ease these tensions. In 2016, after a lone gunman killed five cops during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, he participated in a forum on racism and inclusiveness in Ames. But, through the stories of black residents who described the racism they personally experienced, the forum also helped to reveal how prevalent the problem still was in the community.

“We want to thank everyone who came down to city hall today for the protest,” the department said in a statement after Saturday’s protest. “We really appreciate the conversations and the opportunity to engage the awesome people we serve. From every Ames Police Officer, thank you. It is our honor to serve.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.