Des Moines Police Have It Out for Black Lives Matter. How Far Will They Go?

The current protest movement represents the greatest existential threat to the department since the days of the Des Moines Black Panther Party half a century ago

Des Moines Black Liberation Movement organizer Matthew Bruce, front left, addresses City Council member Josh Mandelbaum, right, outside his residence during a recent demonstration. Photo: Aaron Calvin/Iowa Informer

When prominent organizer Matthew Bruce was arrested for the fifth time in connection with his involvement in the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement (formerly known as Black Lives Matter) on September 24, the accompanying investigation report was structured in a way that deviated significantly from common arrest reports.

Bruce was technically charged with disorderly conduct, a simple misdemeanor relating to his assistance with a September 22 march protesting the federal agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the wake of a whistleblower’s allegation of forced hysterectomies at ICE facilities. The Des Moines BLM held the event alongside the American Friends Service Committee and other organizations, and Bruce helped guide the march, just as he had during numerous BLM demonstrations since May.

Des Moines police justified Bruce’s disorderly conduct arrest two days after the anti-ICE march on the grounds that there had been no permit granted for it, although neither Bruce nor the BLM was solely in charge of organizing the event. The investigation report, however, covered far more than the misdemeanor charge associated with the march. What the DMPD released was, in effect, a summarizing salvo on their ongoing battle against the BLM.

“I have identified Matthew Bruce as a leader of the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement,” reads the report, authored by Ben Carter, the DMPD’s primary investigator into the “protests and riots” that have occurred since May. The report goes on to detail a laundry list of invasive searches conducted since the department began the investigation, including searching the phones, residences, and vehicles of organizers and other protesters in Polk and Johnson counties. Sergeant Paul Parizek, the department’s spokesperson, confirmed that the warrant for the search of Bruce’s phone was “based on observations of ongoing criminal acts that included the organization of violent and destructive behaviors.”

The report accuses Bruce — based on information allegedly discovered while searching his phone — of planning the kind of outrageous acts that seem straight out of a right-wing fever dream, including a scheme to initiate some kind of hostage situation and throw nails across Interstate 80. Police prevented this situation from occurring on June 22, the report claims, when a large group of cops clad in riot gear did block a march from heading toward I-80.

Undercover officers overheard Bruce telling the crowd to head to the East Village district of Des Moines to continue the march, according to the report’s version of events, but not those who “didn’t want trouble.” This was a bit of willful interpretation on behalf of the police that was used to support their subsequent actions. In a June 23 email, shared with the Informer in a cache of intra-department emails obtained through an open records request, Sergeant Chad Nicolino asked if there was footage that “captured Bruce providing specific instructions about the crowd gearing up for a riot and telling those who don’t want to be involved to leave.”

In reality, I witnessed Bruce warning protesters not to head to the East Village that night if they didn’t want to get arrested. These instructions made sense to anyone who had attended previous Black Lives Matter protests, considering the unprovoked assaults and mass arrests previously carried out by police in the East Village and specifically around the Capitol building. Bruce’s instructions resulted in a much smaller crowd joining him in a march through the empty downtown streets. This crowd was eventually surrounded by Iowa law enforcement officers and blasted with pepper spray and tear gas. The group was subsequently chased through residential neighborhoods while stragglers (mostly young Black women) were detained.

Carter’s report goes on to accuse Bruce of researching de-arresting tactics and also includes information about the arrests of two other individuals described as “BLM associates.” The report ends by stating that “the protests, on occasion, have turned violent, with significant planning to disrupt society” and then circling back to the alleged crime that prompted Bruce’s fifth arrest: aiding in a protest march that “led to an obstruction for vehicles and other pedestrians.”

The report’s final sentence reads, “This investigation, as a whole, is on-going and further arrests are expected.”

Clearly, this report was less a description of the events relating to Bruce’s misdemeanor arrest and more of an attempt to present the DMPD’s ongoing hostilities toward the BLM as a cohesive and legitimate operation of surveillance and warranted privacy violation. But the internal emails obtained by the Informer reveal that the department has been conducting a paranoid and erratic surveillance effort of Des Moines-area residents who attended or publicly discussed protests since May, surveilling social media relating to BLM organizers and tracking individuals involved in those protests.

The emails also show that police monitored Black community events in Des Moines as innocuous as a summer barbecue featuring Black-owned businesses held on June 13. When police officer Chad Steffen sent out a department-wide email on June 15 listing potential protests that would be monitored that week, Kenneth Brown, a Black member of the force, replied to point out that Juneteenth was “a celebration of the slaves being emancipated and not a protest.”

However, Brown also spread a fair share of misinformation within the department. Emails show that he passed along information characterizing the group of street medics that formed to treat protesters’ injuries caused by police pepper spray and tear gas as outside agitators excited to “engage in vandalism and escalation.” Anyone who has attended a few of the BLM protests knows that this group is in fact made up of community members dedicated to keeping people safe.

“Attire is usually black and they have backpacks and sunglasses,” Brown said in an email to other officers on June 2. “The women were noticed to be not wearing bras. When they were encountered and asked if they were from Des Moines they replied Yes but when asked what school they attended they all claimed to be home schooled … There is a belief that this particular group is not local due to contacts who work with Des Moines youth and DMPS [Des Moines Public Schools] not recognizing most of them.”

In her coverage of his latest arrest, Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri — who still faces charges related to her presence at a protest on May 31 — only included information in the investigation report that pertained specifically to Bruce’s misdemeanor charge stemming from his involvement with the anti-ICE march and recapped his previous charges. However, local news station KCCI, the DMPD’s number-one water carrier, credulously reported the allegations in full (along with Bruce’s blanket denial). Rekha Basu, the Register’s longtime liberal columnist, published a lengthy report that questioned the veracity of the allegations and portrayed Bruce as a fiery young activist committed to his beliefs.

The simple truth behind the Des Moines Police Department’s ongoing campaign against protesters, which began as a storm of pepper spray, tear gas, and arrests and has since homed in on key organizers as part of a broader effort to malign the Black Liberation Movement in the press, is clear: The BLM represents the greatest existential threat to the department that it has faced in 50 years.

In the time since the overpoliced Black community rose up against the DMPD in the aftermath of the Good Park Rebellion in 1966 and the eventual extinguishing of the movements that stemmed from this moment, the department has become one of the most autonomous, opaque, and powerful government agencies not just in Iowa’s capital city but in the entire state. The expressed goal of the Des Moines BLM is to defund the police and instead promote a less violent, less carceral form of community safekeeping — a concept directly at odds with the DMPD’s very existence.

Evidence of the department’s vice grip on the city, which includes controlling over a third of the city’s total budget, can be found by observing how unchecked and unaccountable its ongoing response to BLM protests has been. When Bruce was arrested with another participant several days after a march on the south side of Des Moines, during which City Council member Joe Gatto effectively used police as a personal protection service for the Italian restaurant he owns, another council member, Josh Mandelbaum, tweeted some mild criticism of the department. After pressure from the progressive advocacy organization Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, it was revealed that the Des Moines Police Gold Braid Organization, a union that negotiates contracts with the city on behalf of DMPD officers, sent Mandelbaum a haughty and dramatic private letter in response.The tone of the letter was aggressive and threatening in its subtext, although Mandelbaum issued a statement before it was made public saying he didn’t feel threatened.

Despite the decades that separate the last major challenge to the department’s dominance, the police are an entity entrenched within and guided by history. The concept of policing itself grew out of slave patrols, while the violent and heavy-handed police response to the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death have resembled the strategies employed against civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s.

When the Des Moines Black Panther Party (later renamed as the Black Communist Workers Party) was organized, police surveilled and attacked the group and its leaders whenever possible. Following the bombing of the Black Panther headquarters in April 1968, officers arrived to pepper spray and arrest organizers among the rubble. Many residents became convinced that the police knew the identities of the perpetrators and that some officers conspired with them.

State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, a prominent supporter of both the BLM and DMPD, told Rehka Basu for her recent Des Moines Register column that Matthew Bruce reminded him of a young Huey P. Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party (of which Abdul-Samad was once a member) who was arrested and tried unsuccessfully in court on various charges until he was shot to death. But a more apt (though not exact) comparison for Bruce may be a former contemporary of Abdul-Samad’s, a Des Moines activist by the name of Charles Knox.

Knox was a prominent leader in the Black Communist Workers Party. He once successfully petitioned the state to allow him communist reading material after he was jailed for spitting on a judge in 1970. He was arrested after holding a rally for a free breakfast program without a permit and falsely accused of being inebriated. Along with legendary Des Moines community activist Joeanna Cheatom, Knox was charged after allegedly setting fire to a lumber yard in October 1968, but never convicted. Knox claimed he was the subject of extensive FBI surveillance, as well.

After the BCWP was surveilled, arrested, and prosecuted out of existence, Knox became a trained lawyer, returning to Des Moines after receiving his degree to join the Legal Aid Society of Polk County. He spent the 1970s laying the groundwork for the creation of the Black community-focused radio station KUCB, which endured a fraught existence after the FCC cracked down on it for not disclosing the fact that Knox was a convicted felon and accused him of misappropriating grant money, among other issues.

The Des Moines police in particular weren’t fans of KUCB’s programming, either, and accused the station of sharing “anti-police broadcasts” that “often put the lives of officers in jeopardy.” After a long battle that progressed all the way to the US Supreme Court, KUCB turned over its license and surrendered its airwaves to what is now KJMC in 1998. After being hounded by the FCC and even the FBI for alleged involvement with a Chicago gang, the last reports of Knox’s whereabouts in 1994 claim that he had fled to Canada.

Around the same time that KUCB began its legal contest with the FCC in the early 1990s, a high profile case of police brutality rocked Des Moines when a Black man named Larry Milton was beaten by multiple police officers with flashlights and leather-covered steel batons. A jury awarded Milton one dollar in his civil rights action. A subsequent investigation largely exonerated the officers. One of them, Thomas Heller, who turned off a tape recorder that had been running just before the beating began, was president of the Des Moines Police Gold Braid Organization when he signed its current contract agreement alongside Mayor Frank Cownie in April 2018.

The Des Moines Police Department has made its antipathy toward the local Black Liberation Movement known. What remains to be seen is how far they will go in seeking to eliminate this perceived threat.

The investigation report that accompanied Matthew Bruce’s most recent arrest was just another installment in the ongoing public relations campaign being waged against the BLM by the DMPD. The public face of this campaign has been police spokesperson Paul Parizek, although he has stepped back slightly since his son accused him of bias and interpersonal abuse in an exclusive interview with the Informer. Parizek has stopped tweeting since the interview was published, and has instead retreated to his wife Heather Burnside’s radio program to complain, among other things, about his personal mistreatment at coffee shops.

Des Moines BLM activists have been quick to point out the clear political bent of the DMPD as well. BLM organizer Jaylen Cavil circulated an image of Police Chief Dana Wingert appearing as an official guest along with his wife at a rally for President Donald Trump in January — the same rally attended by Kyle Rittenhouse, the vigilante shooter who killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. (The picture was originally posted to a Facebook account belonging to Wingert’s wife, which has since been made private.) Former Republican Congressman David Young, who is vying to take back his seat from Democrat Cindy Axne in November, recently tweeted photos of an event he attended to present thank-you cards to Parizek, calling the spokesperson “an outstanding public servant.”

The DMPD’s preoccupation with surveilling and arresting Bruce may not have the desired effect, either. Compared to the movements in Des Moines during the 1960s and ‘70s, today’s BLM enjoys a more diversebase of support. Its core group of organizers is generally democratic and non-hierarchical. Although Bruce may be one of its more visible organizers and has led coordination efforts at marches, removing him from the group would do little to slow it down.

“We don’t have a ‘leader,’ Cavil told the Informer. “We have a collective of organizers who all have their own specialties and specific things they work on, but are also always collaborating, so arresting Matt does not stop the work we do.”

While the Black Communist Workers Party, like today’s BLM, spent a great deal of its organizing effort on providing the community with needed services not provided by the government, the Des Moines BLM uses social media to promote its efforts and tell its own story about the work it does.

The biggest problem the DMPD faces in its ongoing efforts to prosecute and delegitimize the BLM is just how effective the movement’s marches and direct action initiatives have been. (Before a mass arrest on July 1, such initiatives included a constant presence outside the state Capitol building; on Monday, the ACLU of Iowa filed suit on behalf of five protesters who were banned from its grounds following their arrests.) In the short time since the movement was organized in the city following the initial George Floyd protests at the end of May, it has stepped in to fill a gap by helping to organize food donations during a time when many families are facing food insecurity, community events where supplies are given away, and significant political victories that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, like the updating of Iowa’s statewide police regulations and the restoration of felon voting rights.

In the ongoing battle of the DMPD and the BLM, one thing is certain: The police will not stop. As the investigation report for Bruce’s latest arrest indicates, more arrests are planned. “Any movement or organization that promotes positive change in our community is supported by the DMPD,” Parizek told the Informer. “People who choose to engage in violent and destructive behaviors are not.”

But even as a summer of protest winds down, the BLM doesn’t plan on slowing down, either.

“We don’t plan on letting winter weather stop us from marching or protesting outdoors,” Cavil said. “We may start doing more virtual events, but when it comes to direct action, we’ll march in the snow if we have to.”