How Des Moines Media Has Failed the Challenge of Covering Black Lives Matter Protests

Protesters outside the state Capitol Monday night, shortly before police deployed chemical agents in an effort to disperse the crowd. Photo: Aaron Calvin/Iowa Informer

On Monday, June 1, standing upon the steps before Iowa’s gilded Capitol building, a crowd of peaceful protesters, mostly made up of young adults and actual children, was assembled before a line of heavily weaponized and armored members of the Des Moines Police Department and other members of Polk County law enforcement agencies.

Members of various local media outlets looked on as police gave the order to disperse and the peaceful protesters held their ground. There were some photographers embedded nearby, snapping away. On the southern edge of the hill, I saw local news teams like ABC affiliate We Are Iowa conferring with police officers, who were situating them safely away from the display of brute force that was about to occur.

We Are Iowa, like their competitors KCCI and WHO-TV — CBS and NBC affiliates, respectively — were running live stream videos covering the protests. On Sunday, all of them cut the live video before the police surrounded and began launching chemical weapons into the crowd of young people, violently dispersing them only so they could be surrounded, maced, and arrested.

All of these news stations are used to covering the police the way the police want to be covered. Stories involving police are often nothing more than simple transcriptions of the departments’ own accounts and consistently play towards their audiences’ culturally ingrained valorization of law enforcement. But generally these news organizations are not forced to directly confront the relationship between the police and the communities their authority impacts the most in such a direct way.

That local television news is inherently conservative and biased towards police is not necessarily news. It’s a superficial medium, perfectly calibrated to both sedate and vaguely alarm the post-retirement crowd with tales of gas station robberies and mugshots of black men. But as they are corralled away from the action at peaceful protests just before police violence gets underway, forced to watch anxiously from the hill like observers at the Battle of Bull Run, their impotence and built-in naivety is on full display.

When their cameras aren’t zooming in from a distance on an unintelligible crowd, their intrepid reporters are up close and personal with the minor damages and broken windows that have resulted when a non-representative group of people did damage to a few businesses. In most cases, these broken windows are replaced the very next day while young protesters are still nursing the chemical burns received from being directly hit by flash bang grenades.

These stations are at their best when they include the voices of actual protesters, of course. This WHO-TV report of a protester being violently dragged from their car and arrested after being maced is a good example, but the story is also careful to make sure to put the unquestioned police justification right up front, citing Des Moines Police Sergeant Paul Parizek’s claim that some protesters were throwing rocks.

As a reporter at the scene, I can verify that no visible rock throwing occurred. If WHO-TV’s reporters and cameraman weren’t cordoned off far away from the scene, perhaps they could have seen this, too. But even if some rocks were thrown at the police, armored and armed to the teeth, is this a good excuse for unloading a huge amount of chemical weaponry onto a crowd of outnumbered and unarmed protesters?

An inability to properly convey or process the difference between who has power in these situations is just one of the problems with local news coverage. The television stations aren’t alone in this either. The Des Moines Register (which is, full disclosure, my former employer) has been forced into the uncomfortable situation of having to defend their reporters against police violence while continuing to publish police press releases unquestioned as they normally do.

Andrea Sohouri, who has been on the ground for many of the protests, has been subjected to multiple attacks by the police with chemical weapons and was arrested by police while covering the protests at Merle Hay Mall, after some people on the scene broke windows and entered stores. Another reporter, Katie Akin, was sprayed with pepper spray while following police orders and loudly declaring her status as a reporter and her affiliation.

Of course, what the Register does not acknowledge about the violent arrest of their reporters is that they both were likely arrested or abused because they look just like the peaceful protesters police have been targeting. The police have not recognized these reporters as neutral observers in these situations, but young women (and in Sohouri’s case, a woman of color) at the scene of a protest where they are arresting many other young women (perhaps the Register should equip them with some of the ugly branded polos the television reporters wear).

It’s no surprise to anyone familiar with the Register, currently put under austerity practices by their incompetent corporate ownership at Gannett, that these two reporters are not receiving hazard pay and aren’t being adequately protected by their employer. Carol Hunter, the Register’s aging Dogen, has gotten the police to agree to an internal review of the situation, but when the review turns up nothing and results in no disciplinary action, it will surprise no one when Hunter remains silent.

What’s worse, Sahouri’s and Akin’s colleagues at the Register are actively undermining their on-the-ground reporting by publishing unfounded claims from police about “outside agitators” at the largely peaceful protests in Des Moines. The report, written by a veteran investigative reporter and a young business reporter, promotes multiple unfounded claims about groups who are providing medical support for the peaceful protesters being subjected to attacks by chemical weapons by police.

This is uncorroborated misinformation passed off as fact simply because it came from the police. It will be used to excuse more violence from the police. It’s a failure of journalism, the kind of concession a publication makes when they want to meet the standards of an old fashioned and ineffectual concept of objectivity and make sure the police will still allow them the access other news outlets receive, something the Des Moines Police Department seems only willing to do if you play by their rules.

The other voice supporting scurrilous claims about protesters in this article is Iowa state Representative Ako Abdul-Samad. He has been a fixture at protests night after night, trying to get protesters to comply with dispersal orders or engage in the strange and empty gesture of mutual kneeling. Abdul-Samad is a former Black Panther, an activist familiar with the ravages of racism and police brutality. He has been largely ignored by longtime Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and the powers that be, but has now been enlisted to help justify police violence.

The local television stations and the Register have been relying on Abdul-Samad to be the voice of protesters, a group they often treat as a monolith. If they were really paying attention and listening to what’s going on between Abdul-Samad and the much younger generation of Black Lives Matter protesters leading these events, reporters would find a complex conversation taking place in public about systemic racism and what it will take to uproot it. Abdul-Samad, perhaps due to his age, ponderously reiterates many racist cliches about respectability politics and seems eager to buy into any narrative, however unfounded, that pins actions taken out of legitimate anger by the local youth on “outside agitators.”

The real problem behind all of this, of course, is a total lack of context for these Black Lives Matter protests throughout local media. There’s no popular history, especially among Iowa’s overwhelmingly white population, about the ways the city of Des Moines has destroyed its black community throughout its history, from wiping out the vibrant Center Street by building an interstate through it, pervasive redlining, or the brutal police suppression of protests at Good Park in 1966.

This isn’t just history either. When young black people are abused by police simply for existing in downtown Des Moines, publications like the Register print quotes from the police spokespeople like Parizek calling it a “parenting problem,” just one of the racist cliches the police use to excuse their heavy-handed policing of people of color throughout the Des Moines metro.

The police and the protesters are not two groups opposed and equal in power. The young people protesting might toss a water bottle or a rock, might come prepared for the predictable chemical onslaught with gas masks and protective gear, but they’re facing off against a violent carceral state that exercises total power over their lives with impunity. To report stories without acknowledging the power differential involved is irresponsible and inaccurate.

The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in Des Moines are not just about creating a more just policing system. The city’s mostly white local media has for too long been too eager to publish one-sided stories about assault and violent arrests by police, bending over backwards to privilege their side of the story. All the young people gathering in Des Moines night after night seem to want is that the local reporters and editors covering them to finally see them, too.