At the annual Condition of the State address last Tuesday, Governor Kim Reynolds proposed her Back the Blue Act, painting it as a bill that supports law enforcement while also addressing racial justice issues. To reinforce this, she pitched it in the context of legal changes implemented last summer, after pressure from the Des Moines Black Lives Matter movement, for minor police reforms and to restore felon voting rights.
But the Back the Blue Act may actually be targeting the BLM movement (which in Des Moines now goes by the name Black Liberation Movement). According to a summary released by the governor’s office, the yet-to-be-filed proposal “calls for tougher penalties on those who harm law enforcement or cause chaos in their community” including by filing a “false claim,” harassing, or assaulting an officer; or participating in “riotous behavior.”
Taking aim at a controversial but often mischaracterized cause championed by BLM activists, the bill would also “withhold state funding to local governments that reduce police budgets.” In Tuesday’s address, Reynolds herself added, “There will be no talk of defunding the police here.”
The call for defunding the police is supported by an analysis of bloated and unnecessary police budgets nationwide. In short, “defunding” simply means reallocating funds to other services like education, housing, and mental health. Leading advocates of criminal justice reform have made compelling arguments that shifting funding to community services helps to prevent crime, reducing the need for police involvement. Reynolds, like other Trump-supporting Republicans, has ignored the real explanation behind “defund the police,” using it instead as a talking point to discredit the movement.
Ahead of the governor’s address, the Des Moines BLM presented a list of demands for the new legislative session, including the repeal of a bill of rights for peace officers. It will be a tough sell in the Republican-dominated Statehouse. Senator Brad Zaun, who previously promised to “advocate for the racial injustice,” has introduced legislation to strengthen the bill of rights.
Reynolds has also ignored most of the demands that would make Iowa a more just, equitable, and safe place for Black communities. In October, the Des Moines BLM declared a state of emergency for Black Iowans, saying that these communities “suffer from staggering disparities in victimhood, disease, education, housing, poverty, state sanctioned-violence, and other forms of authorized force.”
The governor did sign an executive order last year restoring voting rights to Iowans convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences — a major victory that should be credited to the tireless efforts of BLM organizers. She also signed into law the More Perfect Union Act as an effort to hold law enforcement accountable by limiting their ability to use chokeholds, requiring additional anti-bias and de-escalation training, and adding measures to address serious police misconduct.
But Jaylen Cavil, a prominent Des Moines BLM organizer, argued that the proposed Back the Blue Act makes the More Perfect Union Act meaningless because it gives officers “more leeway, more protections, and it silences people who want to speak out against the abuse of law enforcement.”
“I definitely took it as a direct attack against us and what we’re trying to do and our fight for racial justice,” Cavil said. “Enhancing penalties under Iowa code for harassment and assault of police officers, addressing riotous behavior through higher penalties — all of this stuff is directly targeted towards us because these are the charges that the cops have been putting on us since we started protesting in the beginning of June.” Cavil pointed out that these charges have been used for even minor incidents like “allegedly having a laser pointer.”
The Des Moines Police Department has a habit of crafting narratives to make its officers look like the victims during BLM protests. This tactic has included hyperbolizing their experiences to vilify protestors, and the new proposal would likely help them further avoid internal accountability. Additionally, leaving what constitutes “riotous behavior” to the discretion of law enforcement could easily be applied to constitutionally protected protests, which is a dangerous path to pave.
The proposed law, Cavil argued, would silence people who speak out against the wrongdoings of the DMPD by stipulating that officers could “pursue civil remedies against a person that injures them for being law enforcement or files a false claim against them,” according to the summary from the governor’s office. It’s unclear who would have the authority to determine that a claim is false, but it would presumably be in the hands of law enforcement. Internal investigations have shown that cops rarely hold their own responsible through consequences or accountability.
Cavil said he worries that since Reynolds appears to think that the demands for racial justice are no longer in the spotlight like they were during the protests last summer, she’s going back to “business as usual,” thereby hindering the push for new racial justice legislation.
“We already know the disparities and the way that Black people are treated in the state of Iowa by law enforcement,” Cavil said. Were the Back the Blue Act to become law, he added, “It would only further those problems and advance her agenda of white supremacy onto the state.
“Because of the racism and outright white supremacy by Kim Reynolds and the Republican leadership in Iowa, we’re now forced to defend awful things from happening instead of furthering this movement for racial justice. It’s pretty disappointing.”
As Reynolds reaffirmed her unwavering support for law enforcement, she also refused to acknowledge any responsibility for fanning the flames of the Capitol siege on January 6, when a police officer was killed by a pro-Trump mob. The governor condemned the violence but dismissed the notion that she should be held personally accountable for endorsing the election fraud lies that fueled the riot.
Instead, she joined other Republicans in calling for the nation to “move forward” as they conveniently ignored the role they played in entertaining the president’s election fraud lies, in the process undermining faith in America’s democracy. The lack of accountability — especially as members of Reynolds’ party draw a false equivalence between the Capitol siege and BLM protests last summer — is a common theme that will only make those calling for meaningful police reforms more suspicious of her intentions.