On June 1, amid ongoing Black Lives Matter protests on the first day of LGBTQ Pride Month, Des Moines police approached The Blazing Saddle, a gay bar in Des Moines’ East Village neighborhood, and searched the premises — apparently without a warrant. Video from a security camera made public on Facebook shows officers in riot gear converging suddenly on the bar at approximately 11:45 p.m. and detaining those gathered outside.
Employees had been inside after the establishment closed at 8 p.m, an hour before the curfew implemented for Polk County in response to the protests took effect for the night. They were drawn outside to tend to injuries sustained by demonstrators who, just moments prior, had been assaulted with chemical crowd-control weapons at the Capitol building in an unprovoked attack.
Isaac, the assistant show director at The Blazing Saddle (whose full name the Informer is withholding for privacy concerns), posted a harrowing account of the police raid on Facebook. He was outside helping distribute water bottles and providing first aid to protesters when police arrived on the scene and demanded they stop. “Literally all of a sudden, TWO trucks packed with police officers in full armor with big fucking guns (I have never seen a two-handed gun in person in my entire life) stormed the front of our bar in seconds,” he wrote.
According to Isaac, police did not announce a reason for why they entered. He fled to the basement to hide when they came in. Two officers demanded he return to the upper floor, where he was roughly patted down at gunpoint. He was then brought outside and detained by police along with one of the bar owners, Bryan Smith; bar manager Ryan Dennis; and a bartender. After police finished their search, they demanded that the group return inside and lock the door.
Blazing Saddle employee Logan Murley was also arrested along with the protesters he was trying to assist outside of the bar and eventually charged with a “failure to disperse.” According to Murley, the order to disperse was given to him moments before he was told to get on the ground. Though the bar’s employees and management were technically outside after curfew, police have admitted in other instances that the curfew was selectively applied.
Murley was held at the Polk County Jail until the next day, where he said he was denied medical assistance for a nerve-damaged hand that began to turn blue because it was so tightly bound, and also denied access to his needed HIV medication despite repeated pleas and requests. Six hours after he was supposed to take the medication, he said, he was finally able to because he was bailed out.
“The Blazing Saddle’s motto is, ‘Never a cover, always a double.’ It’s always dedicated to the community,” Murley told the Informer. “The city knows that, the police know that. And they still treated us like we were terrorists.”
Polk County Supervisor Matt McCoy, who supported lifting the Polk County curfew after pressure from Black Lives Matter activists on Wednesday, is also known to be a frequent patron at The Blazing Saddle. When reached for comment on the events that occurred at the bar Monday, he voiced his displeasure about the actions that police took.
The Blazing Saddle community “is, by our very nature, nonviolent,” he said. “This police department knows that. I’m disappointed and I’m discouraged. I’m going to be having individual conversations with [Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert] and find out what motivated this level of force. It’s an unfortunate and embarrassing situation.”
Reached for comment, police spokesperson Paul Parizek was both defensive and somewhat apologetic, drawing on hyperbolic images of protester destruction and the fact that others had been hurt in demonstrations elsewhere as a justification for entering the premises.
“There have been moments over the past week where our community has faced dangerous attacks,” he told the Informer in an email. “Our officers put themselves in between those attacks and our neighborhoods we serve, and at times our response to that has a harsh appearance. After speaking with the management at The Blazing Saddle, it sounds like we could have done a better job communicating in the moment. Fortunately, our relationship with one of the longest serving businesses in the East Village has been nurtured long before Monday night, and we can have those frank discussions with each other.”
Isaac confirmed the bar had previously had a good working relationship with the police, but that Monday’s events might change that. “Although there has been some property destruction, the protesters by and large have not been the cause of most of the unrest,” said a statement from the bar accompanying the release of security footage from Monday night. “Why should we, who are standing against the haters and providing first aid, be the ones with police guns in our faces and having our property stormed?
“This is not acceptable on any level. If this is how white, gay, law-abiding men are being treated, then why wouldn’t POC people, LGBT+ or otherwise, standing up to be counted and heard be scared for their lives? Is there an end in sight? Is there light on the horizon? Is there new leadership out there to fight for actual, real equality? We hope so, because otherwise we are just in for more of the same! Change is desired and required!”
According to Isaac, bar owner Bryan Smith has been reaching out to senators, police, and government offices since the event to let them know about “the gross misuse of power and force that unfolded that night.”