Iowans: Your Constitutional Rights Are Under Attack

In the name of supporting the police, numerous measures passing through the state Legislature would harshly penalize protesters for constitutionally protected speech — and let law enforcement off the hook for abuses

Photo illustration by Olivia Rasmussen/Iowa Informer

Last Thursday by a 63-30 vote, the Iowa House passed a 33-page amendment to a Senate bill giving police officers a pass on certain disciplinary issues with additional measures intended to strengthen legal protections for police in the wake of heightened police brutality and calls for racial justice. The vote also came amid former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial that resulted in his conviction on all counts Tuesday.

All but two Iowa Republicans who voted on the amendment, joined by eight Democrats, approved its measures that put the First Amendment, as well as the general safety of protesters and others present at political demonstrations like the press and legal observers, in question.

For one, the bill would significantly increase penalties for protest-related offenses by making it a felony to vandalize public property, participate in a “riot,” or simply be present during a riot. It would also make it an aggravated misdemeanor to be at a protest after police declare it to be an unlawful assembly (as Des Moines cops claimed they did before arresting Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri last summer).

It would be at the discretion of law enforcement to determine what qualifies as a riot, as well as when a lawful assembly becomes unlawful. The language of the amendment suggest that the moment a demonstration is declared to be a riot, everyone present could face felony charges, even if they were trying to disperse. The same type of situation could happen when a “lawful assembly” becomes “unlawful” by the determination of police, but with an aggravated misdemeanor charge instead.

This opens the door wide for even more overly punitive policing of protests. One example: Officers have been caught multiple times, even here in Des Moines, engaging in kettling tactics that make it nearly impossible for protesters to follow dispersal orders because they physically cannot leave.

The amendment does not differentiate between penalties based on who was ultimately responsible for instigating a supposed riot situation. An investigative reporting project published last year by ProPublica revealed evidence of a widespread “willingness by police to escalate confrontations.” They reviewed nearly 400 videos of protests against police brutality held last summer and “found troubling conduct by officers” in almost half of them. “In 59 videos,” the news outlet reported, “pepper spray and tear gas were used improperly; in a dozen others, officers used batons to strike non-combative demonstrators; and in 87 videos, officers punched, pushed and kicked retreating protesters, including a few instances in which they used an arm or knee to exert pressure on a protester’s neck.”

There’s also a long history of police infiltrating protests with the intention of escalating them, as the Intercept recently reported, explaining that “law enforcement frequently infiltrates progressive political movements using agent provocateurs who urge others to engage in violence.”

Another measure in the House amendment would prevent drivers who hit protesters from being held liable, so long as the protesters are either blocking traffic or demonstrating without a permit. The driver must also exercise “due care” and not engage in “reckless or willful misconduct.”

First, nowhere in the Constitution does it say you need a permit to exercise your right to assembly. And what is “due care” when running over a human being? It should be obvious that leaving such a determination up to police could involve significant bias against protesters.

Consider that investigations into white supremacist views within police departments have shown that hundreds of active and retired cops are members of pro-Confederate, Islamophobic, and anti-government private groups on Facebook, where they have openly expressed racist views. Numerous police officers have been linked to racist and anti-immigrant organizations on the far-right, including the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. Some have even helped the groups with their militia training efforts.

The House amendment also stipulates that an officer “shall not be discharged, disciplined, or threatened with discharge or discipline by a state, county, or municipal law enforcement agency solely due to the inclusion of the officer’s name on a Brady list,” a database documenting police misconduct. This flies in the face of claims from Iowa lawmakers and cops that they are committed to transparency and accountability.

The eight Democrats who supported the House amendment were Wes Breckenridge of Newton, John Forbes of Urbandale, Eric Gjerde of Cedar Rapids, Chris Hall and Steven Hansen of Sioux City, Keenan Judge of Waukee, Charlie McConkey of Council Bluffs, and Dave Williams of Cedar Falls. The two Republicans who voted against it were Jeff Shipley of Fairfield and Eddie Andrews of Johnson, whose wife, Betty C. Andrews, heads the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP.

The overarching theme of the amendment’s proposals is to increase police protections at the expense of expression critical of their line of work. Another troubling bill passed by the Iowa Senate would expand qualified immunity, which is described by the National Conference of State Legislatures as a legal doctrine that “protects state and local officials, including law enforcement officers, from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right.” The First Amendment apparently does not qualify as a “clearly established constitutional right” considering the lengths Iowa lawmakers and cops are willing to go to silence and punish protesters.

These measures seem destined for lawsuits concerning how the appear to be in direct violation of the freedom of assembly and speech. If the police have full discretion over what is and isn’t a lawful assembly, it’s fair to assume that if they don’t like what’s being addressed, spoken about, or chanted during a protest, they can declare it an unlawful assembly and start arresting people. This is already a tactic they commonly use.

A police state, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures.” Iowa lawmakers, as well as their counterparts in other Republican-led states pushing through similar legislation, are taking direct aim at your constitutionally protected rights. Are you willing to give up your democracy to coddle police-inflicted violence?