Des Moines Police Start Riot at Iowa Capitol, Then Play the Victim

A still from a low-resolution video posted to Facebook by the Des Moines Police Department and used to justify their actions against Black Lives Matter protesters Wednesday afternoon outside the state Capitol.

On the grounds of the state Capitol Wednesday afternoon — the same day Iowa’s much ballyhooed police reform law took effect — Des Moines police along with members of the State Patrol moved to suddenly and violently arrest peacefully assembled Black Lives Matter protesters in another display of aggression and escalation.

The protesters had gathered at the Capitol an hour earlier as part of an ongoing series of nonviolent protests in an attempt to pressure Governor Kim Reynolds to sign an executive order restoring voting rights for felons, something the governor has said she will do but failed to offer draft language as she agreed to do last month.

For weeks, protesters had been meeting inside the Statehouse during the afternoon without incidents of violence. However, on Wednesday, law enforcement appeared with printed-out notices and images looking to arrest two Black Lives Matter organizers present at a protest outside a Des Moines Hy-Vee on June 20. Jassma’ray and Lashon Winfield were both detained in a conference room at the Capitol as protesters’ questions about why they were being held went unanswered. Jassma’ray and Winfield were charged with criminal mischief in the first degree, as Black Lives Matter organizer Matthew Bruce was when he willingly turned himself in on June 24 over the Hy-Vee protest.

Protesters followed officers as they removed Jassma’ray and Winfield from the Capitol. Outside, more Des Moines police appeared and began acting aggressively towards the protesters. In a video posted to Facebook by the department, officers can be seen suddenly and violently lunging towards Bruce at the head of the crowd. This move prompted surrounding officers to begin attacking and subduing protesters without warning. Another video taken by a Des Moines Register reporter shows a mother with a small baby strapped to her chest as police moved in on the crowd. Instead of attempting to de-escalate or resolve the situation peacefully, they resorted to violence immediately, according to multiple protesters at the scene.

As chaos broke out, officers can be seen tackling and dragging people to the ground. Pepper spray was deployed against several protesters. Some tried to “de-arrest” others, a common protest tactic described by Des Moines Black Lives Matter in a Thursday morning statement as “a non-violent response to what is often a violent act by law enforcement” that involves protesters attempting to pull others away from police as they attempt to arrest them.

“I didn’t see anyone trying to harm police, just people trying to put their bodies in between the officers and the arrested,” one eyewitness, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from police, told the Informer.

The Des Moines BLM statement characterizes officers as “violent and unmanageable,” and goes on to say that two Black women were placed in chokeholds (something the police reform law that went into effect that same day was supposed to ban except in extreme cases) and one was slammed against the side of a van. The statement also claims some of the arrested reported being touched inappropriately by police officers. One arrested protester claimed that an officer made insulting comments about her weight twice.

The scene ended with 17 arrested, including two minors. Only two of the 17 were over the age of 30. Bruce was arrested yet again and charged with two counts of assault on a police officer, interference with official acts with injury, and disorderly conduct. Eight of the arrested protesters were charged with some form of assaulting an officer, an insidious felony charge that essentially pits the word of the accused against the word of the offended — and armed — officer and takes no account of the actual imbalance of power between them. According to one protester hit with this charge, the accusing officer used scratch marks on his arm as supporting evidence.

Three young white women among the arrested are recognizable figures in the Des Moines music scene: Eva Lewin of the bands Pizza Babe and Lizard McGuire, Louise Bequeaith of the duo Glitter Density, and Anna Gebhardt of Annalibera. Both Lewin and Gebhardt were charged with assault on a police officer causing injury, Bequeaith with disorderly conduct.

Des Moines police spokesperson Paul Parizek moved quickly to establish a narrative of police victimization around the day’s events. “Today, multiple police officers were assaulted at the State Capitol while arresting persons wanted in connection with the vandalism at Hy Vee on 20 June 20,” he wrote in a message posted to Facebook Wednesday along with the video of the scene.

The status continues in a tone that is at turns defensive and self-serving. As with other protests involving police violence in Des Moines, Parizek’s recounting of events includes claims that directly contradict the accounts of protesters and other eyewitnesses at the scene. The Facebook statement claims an officer had his firearm taken from him and others placed in chokeholds by protesters, which is not shown in the video, and accuses protesters of sole responsibility for violence despite clear evidence of police escalation.

Although the post does not acknowledge the accounts it’s refuting, the statement goes on to vehemently deny specific accusations: “Central Iowa law enforcement has been supportive of peaceful protests, and professional and tolerant with non-violent protests that illegally block roadways for hours and disrupt neighborhoods. We have exercised restraint and discretion during times of criminal damage to property.

“Arrests are not an attempt to halt progress or punish any person that is critical of our department. Arrests in connection with the vandalism at Hy Vee and other local businesses address the real cost of the damage; the financial and emotional impact on the owners, consumers, and in some cases, the taxpayer.”

A more even-toned version of this statement was sent out in the form of a press release a few hours later.

A tweet written by Des Moines police spokesperson Paul Parizek, responding to a question about two partially uniformed officers at Wednesday’s protest by suggesting they rushed to the scene “to save lives.”

Parizek also made the unusual move of taking to his Twitter account to respond to other users of the social media platform that evening. When photographs of men with police vests but not badges, no body cameras, and at least one unique haircut at the event were circulated on Twitter, Parizek defended them.

“These are two of our best cops,” he said, responding to Twitter user @DarthVader_o. “When this call for help came out, we all came pouring out from the station and from all sides of town.”

When another Twitter user asked why these police officers weren’t wearing badges, he defended them further. “It clearly says POLICE,” he said, “So, yeah, we make exceptions when responding to save lives. I drove the few short blocks there without my seatbelt.” Parizek also insinuated men wearing police-labeled vests were just as legitimate as reporters wearing shirts that labeled them as press.

By the end of the day, Des Moines Mutual Aid had announced the successful release of each protester arrested at the day’s event on bail. However, police continued to hunt down and arrest those present at the Capitol. On Thursday morning, Viet Tran, the organizer who showed the notices police were passing around to find organizers from the Hy-Vee protest to a journalist was identified from a news broadcast and arrested at his home by a mob of police officers on charges including unauthorized dissemination of intelligence data. Jaylen Cavil, a protester who was hit by a vehicle transporting Kim Reynolds’ Tuesday after a public event held by the governor in Ackley, was arrested outside of the Des Moines Police Station later that evening for allegedly interfering with the arrest of another protester. In total, five additional arrests have been made.