Editor’s Note: Protests held in the wake of George Floyd’s murder changed the world and Iowa. This must-read series about the protests, researched and written by Just Voices will appear exclusively in Black Iowa News. (The views and opinions expressed in this series are solely the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Black Iowa News.) Photos and video provided courtesy of Just Voices.
Lenin Cardwell has always cared about social justice. An only child, her parents openly discussed political and social issues with her.
“I went to my first protest with them when I was three, so that’s simply just been something that’s always been a part of my life from when I was really, really young,” she said.
Whether the issue is women’s reproductive rights, police brutality, or LGBTQ rights, Cardwell is not one to sit idly by.
“I’m just someone that when you see things happening, it’s really hard for me to just sit back and not do anything — that’s kind of always how I’ve been,” she said.
“I definitely think police brutality is of course one of the social issues that matter the most to me. And I mean that ties into several racial issues as a whole but police brutality was especially of importance to me. So, for me, during the summer 2020, it was just really important to get out there.”
Cardwell had just graduated from Drake University with a double major of sociology and history in May of 2020. She had landed her first professional job.
Early Evening June 22, 2020
But on June 22, 2020, Cardwell relied on the help of her fellow protesters, after she said she attacked by Des Moines police officers while trying to get back to her car, after police had shut down a peaceful protest. She was obeying police orders to disperse along with about 40 other protesters, but when they looked around they were surrounded by police on all sides, she said. It’s a tactic known as “kettling.”
In an interview with Just Voices, Cardwell said police chaotically chased protesters who were simply trying to disperse.
“As we started to leave, cops began to attack protesters from behind, body slamming them onto the ground and arresting them. When I saw a girl being arrested, I attempted to go up to her and help but was met with pepper spray, so I continued to try to get to my car. About 10 minutes later, I was attacked myself, being slammed onto the ground by two cops with their shields,” she said.
Cardwell thought for sure she would be arrested at this point.
Word of the protest spread on social media
Cardwell said she learned of various protests during that heated summer of 2020 through social media. The original point of origin for the protest was Skate North, on Meredith Drive, in the Merle Hay area. Protesters gathered at that parking lot, in the early evening. Cardwell didn’t know in advance the plan was to march north on Merle Hay Road toward the I-35/80 freeway entrance and shut down access to the freeway. The Des Moines police had a different plan, though.
Cardwell said, “Police had kind of started to block us off as we got closer to the freeway and started to form a barricade there. They were standing there — a barricade with their shields. So, we started to loop back around and kind of went through the neighborhood and then back out and around. And that was when we all kind of reconvened at Skate North.”
Their plans had been thwarted and protest leaders had a new idea.
“That’s when one of the organizers were basically, ‘We’re going to move this protest down to the Capitol grounds,’ Cardwell recalls. With that move, the size of the group had diminished because not everyone decided to continue protesting, she said.
‘We were boxed in’
The ones who did, about 40 strong, parked near the Capitol but on the north side of freeway, near East High School. They marched across a foot bridge and were met by police on all sides.
“. . . while we were walking, the cops really were starting to just kettle us and kind of block us in on all sides. So, when we had gotten to the foot bridge, it was pretty apparent at that point that we were boxed in,” Cardwell remembers.
Although, some protesters hurled foul insults at the police, no protesters touched nor threw anything at the police, she said. Speaking through megaphones, the Des Moines police, with reinforcements from the Johnston Police department, ordered the protesters to disperse. After a few minutes of back and forth, the protesters, including Cardwell, decided to obey orders and return to their cars. But as they looked around, there was nowhere to go – they were surrounded on all sides.
Cardwell remembers what the police said.
“They said, ‘You need to disperse. You need to leave. This is a dispersal warning. If people don’t leave, we’re gonna start arresting people,'” she said.
“We were in a kettle, so they just started chasing after us,” she said.
Imagine the confusion and chaos. The police ordered them to disperse but gave them no clear route to do so, she said, which added to the panic.
“They kind of just started running after us. I remember I was with a group of friends, and pretty much everyone just started running, it was also really just chaotic. And I mean [the police] were, they were tackling people to the ground,” she said.
Protesters looked out for each other in the minutes that ensued. Cardwell saw a girl in distress
“I saw a girl — she was with her sister — and the police pretty much tore her from her sister. They had tackled her to the ground, and a few of us ran over there to kind of try and help her. But the police sprayed her and us, they sprayed . . . I believe it was pepper gel was what they used. The sprayed pepper gel at us, so I got some of that in my eyes then,” she said.
“I’m really just trying to leave. I’m really just trying to go home. And excuse my language, but all the cop said to me was to “Shut the f**k up!”
After that, Cardwell tried to get back to her car. She never expected any of this to happen.
“We were running, and there was this little, kind of hill. And I didn’t realize that the hill came back down — I wasn’t thinking properly— so I started to kind of run up it. And unfortunately, when I did that, I kind of fell behind the crowd and then had to get back in. But I was at the back of the line. The cops were really just charging at us and I was pushed to the ground. I thought I was gonna get arrested, but I did not. I was able to get myself up, trying to catch up to the others. And that’s when I was hit by a baton. I don’t know why.“
Cardwell said she was alone with the cop who hit her with the baton.
“Yeah, it was kind of just was an interaction between us. I mean here was other people around us, of course, but when I got up, he was the one that was right there and he hit me. And I just kept repeating, ‘I’m trying to go home. I’m trying to go home.’ And another cop was nearby and heard me say that, and he said, ‘I know, I know.’”
Although she did not get arrested, Cardwell was hurt. The baton strike was very hard and her pinky finger was injured when she was knocked down by police before they left and she got further behind the fleeing protesters.
“I mean once I made it to my car . . . I don’t think I had even processed what had happened fully. I remember I had to go get gas, so I remember I went and got some gas. I called my parents, because they. I mean, I told you, they took me to protests, but they didn’t love me going out so early that night and protesting. I get it. But, so I called them up kind of told them what happened, and then I just went home,” she said.
Shaken, not deterred
The next day, and in the days that followed, the bruise from the baton hitting the back of her thigh grew worse. She sought medical attention the next morning.
“I had a giant bruise on my thigh, because he hit me in the back of my back thigh. That’s where I was hit. The bruise didn’t develop right away, obviously. It was the next day when the bruise had finally shown up. And when I had been pushed, my hand had gotten hurt in the process of that, so I had a pretty big bump on my hand and a little dent in my pinky too,” she shared.
Cardwell recalls the excessive force she experienced and witnessed.
“I guess, the reason I would describe the police as violent is because they were just really tackling people to the ground. They didn’t approach people calmly, ‘Hey, turn around. You’re being arrested’. It was the police literally running after and knocking people to the ground,” she said.
Although Cardwell was traumatized and it gave her pause, she was left with a righteous anger and a determination to protest again.
“I mean by having that firsthand experience, it really did kind of ignite that fire in me and make me angrier and make me want to get things changed even more. But, but at the same time, I did have a new trauma of police that I had never had before,” she said.
Only six days later, on a Saturday, Cardwell went to another protest that started at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. There were police there, too, but it was daylight this time. She felt uneasy, still recovering from her still fresh injuries.
“Yeah, there were cops there, and I do remember it gave me an anxiety I hadn’t felt before. So, getting over that mental block was definitely hard for a while. I think mostly now I don’t have a ton of fear of going to protests anymore. It’s definitely kind of resolved itself now, but for some time that was definitely kind of a block for me to get over,” she said.
Cardwell survived her experience with police brutality and lived to talk about it, but it has had a lasting impacts. The trauma created an awakening in her and allowed her identify with Blacks’ experiences.
Cardwell said: “I definitely come from a place of ignorance as a white person. Obviously I always knew police were awful — that was why I was out there protesting, but I had never directly experienced anything [negative] myself until then. Yeah, this horrible event happened to me, and it really sucks; but this is something that, of course, Black people and other people of color might be afraid of happening anytime, even in regular interactions with the police.”