Misinformation about a protest at the state Capitol last Thursday spread like wildfire across right-wing networks and social media accounts. Many of them backhandedly compared what happened to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol that resulted in multiple deaths (and was supported by some of the same people dishonestly comparing the two events).
Last week’s permitted protest in Iowa was organized by a Cedar Rapids-based organization called Advocates for Social Justice. It was named “Black Lives Matter Protest — Kill the Bills,” a response to legislative proposals to increase penalties for protestors, rid schools and government agencies of diversity and inclusion training, and enhance qualified immunity for police officers.
As someone who was at the Kill the Bills protest, I can assure you that it was nothing like what happened on January 6. The protest started outside, where a group of no more than 40 people gathered around to watch a few organizers speak. After that, we engaged in protest-oriented chants like “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police.” Some attendees wrote similar slogans on the ground with sidewalk chalk. Then we headed indoors.
We formed a line to go through security and get our temperatures checked because of the pandemic. Once most of us were inside on the ground level, protestors began lying on the floor as part of a planned nine-minute show of solidarity with George Floyd, representing the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — on trial now for murder — knelt on Floyd’s neck as he died.
But about six minutes into the demonstration, state troopers policing the event told organizers that if they don’t wash off the chalk outside, they would be fined $10,000, according to witnesses including Indira Sheumaker, a candidate for the Des Moines City Council. Several participants went outside to clean it up.
This disrupted the demonstration, so people were back on their feet. One Black activist, later identified as 18-year-old Norwalk high schooler Josie Mulvihill, started to request names and badge numbers from nearby troopers. Two whom she approached, Dylan Hernandez and Dalton Grell, ignored her request and walked away. But only seconds later, Hernandez shoved her to the ground as troopers arrested her. She was charged with assaulting an officer and released the same day.
Video footage shows Mulvihill walking up to the troopers and then following them after they ignore her. Trooper Hernandez alleges that she pushed his arm. If anything, Mulvihill may have tapped Hernandez’s arm in an effort to get his attention as he walked away, but that’s scant evidence of assault.
A video that I took shows a trooper repeatedly asking protestors what happened and asking one man if he was a witness. The man responds by saying, “Well, yeah, I saw what happened,” before insisting that it was nothing illegal. “We peacefully demonstrated, that’s what happened,” he tells the trooper. After the arrest, protesters moved outside to surround the patrol car Mulvihill was being taken away in and condemn her arrest, but were unsuccessful in their efforts to de-arrest her, or free her from police.
This isn’t the first time that Hernandez — who is just 21 years old himself — has needlessly escalated a situation involving an activist. The progressive advocacy group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement previously alleged that Hernandez “harassed” and “threatened” an autistic Medicaid recipient during the Community Living and Caregiver Advocacy Lobby Day at the Capitol in February 2020.
On social media, Hernandez has shared posts from far-right sources including memes from Occupy Democrats Logic and the white supremacist-amplifying Breitbart. The Breitbart post is of a video purportedly showing a white protestor getting “SCHOOLED by a black policeman” on racism. “It’s been an interesting sight seeing protesters shouting obscenities and insults to even our minority officers like myself,” Hernandez added.
Hernandez shared a tweet from right-wing YouTuber Matt Walsh that reads, “‘The man who drove drunk, assaulted a cop, stole his weapon and fired it at him, was shot because of racism’ is an actual argument that people are making right now because we live in the dumbest era in human history.” The tweet was a reaction to news reports about a Black man shot dead by police in Atlanta last year.
Hernandez also posted a screenshot excerpting a press release from Des Moines’ Black Liberation Movement last July about de-arresting, which is a common protest tactic). He again included his own commentary: “‘De-arresting’ also known as ‘Interference with Official Acts’ and potentially Assault of a Peace Officer” — the latter being the same charge Mulvihill was handed last week. The young trooper also liked comments on his post from people calling the BLM press release “dumb” and “stupid.”
Grell, the other trooper Mulvihill approached — who is also 21 years old — appears to have similar right-wing views. On social media, he’s followed far-right shit-stirrers like Kaitlin Bennett and has openly supported Donald Trump. One of Bennett’s dog-whistling tweets that he liked reads: “The black community should be focused on family reform, not police reform. The single greatest threat to blacks is the absence of fathers in the home & the destruction of the family.” Another tweet he liked of hers says that those who attend protests (or, as Bennett calls them, “riots”) shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
Grell also liked a tweet from former UFC fighter and Trump supporter Tim Kennedy, who used to host a show on Infowars, Alex Jones’ conspiracy news network, called True Patriot. The tweet says, “I stand with all real peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protestors but every single thug from #Antifa needs to go to jail.”
The views espoused by the troopers involved in the unjust arrest of a peaceful activist last week, far from providing evidence of the similarities between the event and the US Capitol insurrection in January, are a disturbing example of how the same far-right misinformation networks responsible for creating this false narrative have influenced law enforcement officers policing legitimate protests.