Des Moines Police “Retaliate” with Arrest of Prominent Black Lives Matter Organizer

A Black Lives Matter protester listens to organizer Matthew Bruce speak Wednesday morning after his release from the Polk County Jail involving a criminal mischief charge. Photo: Aaron Calvin/Iowa Informer

“What happened Monday night was a full on civil rights crisis.”

These were some of the first words from Matthew Bruce, a prominent Black Lives Matter organizer, as he spoke to a crowd of supporters and media assembled before the Polk County Jail, where he had just made bail Wednesday morning.

Bruce turned himself in at the Des Moines Police Department earlier that morning after learning late Tuesday that police had issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of first-degree criminal mischief related to the painting of a police vehicle at a protest on Saturday outside of a Hy-Vee grocery store on the east side of Des Moines.

But the first thing Bruce wanted to bring attention to after his release was the police violence against non-violent protesters on Monday night. He was referring to events that occurred after a larger march blocking a thoroughfare on the west side of Des Moines came to a conclusion without incident, and a smaller group of protesters were subjected to unprovoked violence from Polk County law enforcement later that night.

A photo taken by a protester of the police vehicle spray-painted at a protest outside a Des Moines Hy-Vee Saturday.

Around 11 p.m. Monday, police surrounded protesters on the street in the East Village neighborhood. After a dispersal order, the small crowd moved peacefully to the sidewalk in an attempt to comply. Police then moved in abruptly, tackling protesters to the ground, pepper-spraying them, and striking them with riot shields. Stragglers were chased down and arrested as police pursued protesters through a residential neighborhood as they attempted to disperse.

This event occurred the same night the Des Moines City Council passed an ordinance ostensibly banning racial profiling. The ordinance fell far short of what activists and organizers were asking for and notably didn’t include any mechanism that would allow for any kind of police oversight outside of the police department.

“There were multiple dispersal orders given, appropriately spaced in time, to allow those who chose to comply the opportunity to do so,” said Sergeant Paul Parizek, the spokesperson for the Des Moines Police Department, about the heavy-handed police tactics used on Monday night. “Based on the social media videos circulating, it appears that confrontation with the police was the desired outcome for many.”

This statement contradicts the events of Monday night as witnessed by multiple protesters, including Bruce, as well as what was witnessed by an Informer reporter on the scene and the actual video evidence. Bruce led the crowd gathered outside of the jail in calls for the resignation of Parizek and Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert.

“This shit it is blatant,” Bruce told the crowd assembled outside of the jail. “They are using their power to try and suppress First Amendment activity and to suppress the ability for people to be represented by their government.”

Bruce noted that he was not the only Black Lives Matter organizer targeted after Saturday’s Hy-Vee protest. Of the approximately 20 protesters arrested on Monday night, he estimated that a third of them were Black women and known Black Lives Matter organizers. He said he believes they were targeted by police as well. A minor was also arrested on Tuesday for their alleged involvement in painting the police vehicle.

Criminal mischief in the first degree is a Class C felony with a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and $10,000 in fines. It’s defined as when “the cost of replacing, repairing, or restoring the property is greater than $10,000 or if the acts are intended to cause a substantial interruption or impairment of service to the public by a utility.”

As Bruce reminded the crowd outside of the jail, if he’s found guilty of these charges, he will lose his right to vote under the same law he’s been organizing to change (Iowa is the only state in the country that bars felons from voting). Governor Tom Vilsack signed an executive order in 2005 giving felons the right to vote, but the order was rescinded by Governor Terry Branstad in 2011. A major ongoing focus of the Des Moines Black Lives Matter movement has been to pressure current Governor Kim Reynolds (Branstad’s lieutenant governor in 2011) into restoring felons’ right to vote through a new executive order. Although Reynolds has committed to doing this, she has not provided a clear timetable or clarified whether or not it will include a poll tax like the one in a bill she signed into law earlier this month.

“They’re trying to punish me,” Bruce said. “They’re trying to scare me. Spending a couple hours in that room or having my hands behind my back is supposed to make me think twice about coming out here. Or make us think twice about y’all doing what y’all doing, because really I’m just a symbol for y’all’s collective power.”

“It was retaliation because they felt humiliated Saturday.”

Bruce told media gathered after his speech that painting the police vehicle was an “artistic statement” about how Black people would no longer accept oppression by the police. He accused officers of responding to public pressure from racists who didn’t like the statement protesters were making. He also said the police violence on Monday and his arrest that morning were clearly police retaliation.

“It was retaliation because they felt humiliated Saturday,” he said. “They locked themselves in a building that they were supposed to be protecting. We could’ve destroyed that building and they would’ve failed their mission which was to protect Hy-Vee. They got humiliated. We didn’t touch Hy-Vee, we just blocked it off and closed it.”

Bruce also claimed police detectives told him they were not investigating Jeff Boucher, the man who drove through a crowd of protesters at the Hy-Vee protest in full view of officers. After he was identified by activists, Boucher was fired Monday by his employer, Wyckoff Comfort, a heating and cooling company. Bruce said a formal request for an investigation into Boucher and another driver who was filmed driving into the crowd would be filed by Black Lives Matter organizers along with formal calls to investigate the officers who arrested a group of protesters inside a residential apartment building.

Parizek told the Informer that further statements on the arrest of Bruce and other organizers would be forthcoming. A spokesperson for Hy-Vee did not respond to a request for comment on the arrest of protesters by the time of this story’s publication.