Who Killed Marshal Johnson?

The tent-camp inhabitant's alleged killers will soon face trial, but Des Moines city officials should also be held accountable for creating the inhumane environment in which Marshal Johnson died

A homeless camp along the Raccoon River on the edge of downtown Des Moines displays a US flag on the embankment. Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The recent surge of media attention over encampments of the unhoused in Des Moines ebbed as quickly as it flowed in. It was contained neatly in the Des Moines Police Department’s arrest of two of those camps’ inhabitants, Taylor Norris and Yancy Dane, for the murder of a third, Marshal Johnson. The charges against Norris signal a tidy closure for the DMPD, for it was his encounter and subsequent shooting by the police two months ago that focused the city’s attention on the typically forgotten encampments. His arrest Tuesday for the brutal murder and burial of Johnson will likely relegate further media coverage to duteous reporting of the city’s regular evictions of houseless campers until another tragic story filters up from the camps to mainstream Iowan life.

We would do well, though, to linger on the death of Marshal Johnson and the circumstances surrounding it, for he had far more than two killers. Johnson’s death and burial was possible only in camps far from the public eye and with no recourse to emergency services, a situation that is the direct result of the city’s eviction policy. Even if the police’s case against Norris and Dane holds up in criminal court, it is not just their fingerprints in the case files but the city’s as well.

If you find yourself without a place to sleep in Des Moines, no money for a hotel, and no friends with couches to crash on, you have a few options. If you have a car, you’re one of the lucky ones, because finding a way to make it comfortable will give you a locked door to sleep behind, though you’ll need to be mindful of your neighbors and police harassment. If you’re a man, you can go to Bethel Mission, a Christian shelter with 60 beds — but you’ll have to go to church every day. Center Iowa Shelter & Services, otherwise known as the “city shelter,” is another option. This one has 150 beds — but also a recent bedbug problem, and you can’t stay for more than a few months. If you’re not a man, CISS is still open to you, as are a few more shelters run by various agencies. But unless you’re fleeing domestic violence (and the DV shelters aren’t full), you’ll likely have to rough it for a few nights before you get a bed. With a bit of luck, you can make a friend at a soup kitchen who will let you in their tent or get your own from there provided by Joppa, an organization that helps people out of homelessness.

Marshal Johnson’s death is a bitter occasion, but perhaps it can also be a wake-up call to the city.

According to a point-in-time count, in February 2019, there were 681 people in Polk County who were houseless or in supportive housing for the houseless. This is likely a massive undercount, as it is extremely difficult to track people who are not sleeping in shelters. But even if it were close to accurate, it would mean that hundreds are sleeping in their vehicles, in tents, or under bridges in Des Moines every night. Those with cars have to be careful that they aren’t towed away, and those in tents need to make sure that they aren’t spotted.

Camping on private property will often land you in jail with a trespass charge, and the city of Des Moines aggressively evicts those found to be camping out on public land. Posters warning campers that the area must be vacated go up (though many never see them), and a few weeks later, city employees and police officers arrive with trash bags, bulldozers, and dumpsters to clear the camp of any evidence of its residents. Although the city claims to inventory and warehouse campers’ belongings for a few months, at least four people who frequent the soup kitchen where I work told me they have never recovered anything lost in an eviction. One woman lost all of her vital documents, including her birth certificate.

If your camp is discovered, an eviction usually follows, and that eviction can mean the loss of everything you own. Many have little choice but to chance it, unable to get a bed at overcrowded shelters or having been banned from staying there. For them, the most rational option is to hide their camps more effectively by retreating farther and farther away from the public view. “I lived in the woods just behind the road for two years, had no problem,” a woman I’ll refer to as Jan told me. “But then someone called the city and I had to move out here. Get my shit stolen all the time.” Jan now lives deep in the woods along the river, far back from any paved road and beyond earshot of anyone not living in the camp. If she wanted to report any of those thefts to the police, she would have a difficult time. As a man I’ll call D told me, “They’d arrest you and by the time you‘d got out, your camp would be gone.”

This lack of access to institutional justice, combined with a vulnerable and often destitute population, has predictable results. Most of the camps that I’ve visited were well-run, with strong community norms and leaders: People tend to want to work cooperatively, even in difficult situations. Theft from people outside of a particular camp is common, though, and occasionally soup kitchen and shelter workers like myself will hear about assaults, beatings, and, infrequently, rapes. These crimes certainly occur in broader society as well, but the fact that houseless peoples’ camps must remain invisible in order to even exist makes the problems all the more likely there. The lack of real access to emergency services means that these crimes must be dealt with by the victims themselves, if at all.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Washington state, major cities have allowed legal tent cities to sustain themselves for years, right out in the open. The fact that these camps are allowed to establish themselves in public areas means that their residents have far more ready access to social services and can govern themselves in a more democratic fashion, not to mention the prospect of rapid emergency medical care. If city councilors and administrators in Des Moines find tents to be unseemly, Joppa, the homelessness outreach organization, has been asking the city to allow it to set up a transitional tiny home village for years, to no avail. If the city felt like saving some money as well as acting humanely, it could simply provide all houseless people, not just those who fit into certain categories, with free housing. Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems that the city is set on funneling them to wholly overtaxed shelters or referring them to means-tested waiting lists for affordable housing.

Those responsible for burying Marshal Johnson’s body next to the Raccoon River will soon face trial. But whatever the outcome in the courtroom, not all those responsible for his death will be present. The people engineering camp evictions — the City Council, the mayor, and the city’s administrators — share culpability for creating the situation in which he was murdered and his body not located until weeks later. Before Johnson’s body was found, an untold number of violent crimes have been perpetrated upon some of the most victimized people in Des Moines, made far easier to commit and impossible to find justice for because of the city’s ostracization and criminalization of those without houses.

Marshal Johnson’s death is a bitter occasion, one in which many houseless people and those who work with them have been grieving. Perhaps it can also be a wake-up call to the city. It is time for its leaders to stop pushing the houseless far from the public, where they are forced to live their lives — and left to die — on cold, lonely plots of land by the river.

Patrick Stall
Patrick Stall is an itinerant Catholic Worker, wage laborer, recent Drake graduate, founding member of Des Moines’ Democratic Socialists of America chapter, and has been active as an organizer and participant in the Occupy movement, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and anti-eviction struggles. He has also written for Jacobin magazine and maintains a travel blog at skampercamper.wordpress.com. He can be reached at stall.patrick [at] gmail [dot] com or by howling obscenities about the capitalist class into the wind.