Downtown Des Moines Has a Discrimination Problem Commons

I live in one of those fancy apartments that they’re having trouble filling up downtown. A couple months ago, many of my neighbors began hanging all sorts of flags and memorabilia on their windows. I was glad to see some character coming to the area and later decided to add my piece of the rainbow, hanging my LGBTQ rainbow flag in my window. I then received notice from building management that they were apparently now enforcing a piece of our leases that didn’t allow for window displays. Funny how that enforcement happened after weeks of other displays, but only days after the LGBTQ flag went up.

Recently, more flags and memorabilia went up in windows. Finally, after about two weeks. I emailed the management, inquiring if the policy had changed. I had some fabulous ideas for pride month coming this summer. It was radio silence from management, with the other displays staying up. Only after I ratcheted up the pressure and used language about discrimination and leases did I get a response from management. As of writing this, the other displays are still up.

This is how discrimination works downtown. We’re all fully immersed in Iowa nice. We’re pleasant, and kind, and would never do those direct interpersonal acts that we all can, on the face, identify as discrimination. Rather, it’s signaling to communities of color they’re not welcome by creating dress codes that target racial stereotypes, or putting jerseys of Colin Kaepernick on the floor to the entrance of the bar. Sometimes this does get more direct and overt, like when I’ve seen the young professionals that the bars cater to denigrate and harass the homeless people downtown on Friday and Saturday nights, or when I wear my “I Support Immigrants” shirt and more than one person stops me to tell me how I shouldn’t support “illegals,” or when the police use violence on young black girls at the downtown bus stations. Of course, the larger policy decisions for downtown play a role. The city’s lack of rent-controlled housing, its decision to raze homeless encampments, and its refusal to support a Welcoming City resolution all add to the climate and culture of discrimination. We get the idea. We’re not welcome downtown.

Here’s where this leaves us: When communities aren’t welcoming, when folks who’ve been pressured to be on the margins aren’t welcomed to the center, it hurts us all. Psychologically, those discriminated against feel heavy. We become anxious. We start to look over our shoulders and question almost any interaction we have for signals of hidden disdain. Our health begins to suffer. Socially, our community fails to live up to our better ideals of inclusion. We instead lean back on easy, unthinking patterns that keep certain people unseen, unheard, and unloved. Economically, we stop spending and investing in business, shops, and restaurants downtown.

It’s not all looking down. The city’s Civil and Human Rights Commission recently hosted symposiums on inclusion and is working to identify problems and empower communities. Other nonprofits and coalitions of individuals have been active in halting the destruction of homeless communities and advocating for full, unabashed, open inclusion of all our residents.

But we can do better, Des Moines. It will take all of us, not just the nonprofits and the do-gooders. Problems like discrimination, violence, exploitation, silencing, and marginalizing won’t go away on their own. City leaders will have to decide that policies and practices of inclusion and equity will take center stage when making decisions. Business owners will have to quit doing business as usual. They’ll have to train their employees on not only the economic case for inclusion but the civic and moral good of it, and hold their employees to it. Our young professionals will have to quit resting in the unbothered, unworried lives they lead and choose to get to the root of problems in our city. Everyone will have to speak up, educate themselves, and act. We can do better, Des Moines. We must do better.

Tony Tyler
Tony Tyler is an educator and has resided in Des Moines for almost a decade with his dog, Shep. Tony cut his teeth on activism in the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. Having spent over a decade in education, Tony is finishing a doctorate and recently published a chapter on queer theory. He enjoys getting tattoos and his most recent ones of a merman and a Triforce really rock.