Editor’s Note: Protests held in the wake of George Floyd’s murder changed the world. This must-read series about the protests in Des Moines is researched and written by Just Voices, which is part of a movement to end racial profiling by the police. The series appears 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.)
Lora Fraracci, a Just Voices volunteer, interviewed her friend, Pascha Morgan, to find out what happened to him after a May 30, 2020, protest at the Iowa State Capitol, just days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody.
Would Morgan’s activism lead him to experience police violence?
Day 3 of Des Moines Protests
On May 30, 2020, a large protest occurred at the Iowa State Capitol, which flowed into downtown Des Moines. Hundreds of people protested police abuse and the lack of accountability. By most eyewitness accounts, the protest started out peacefully. Then Des Moines police showed up with military gear and became aggressive, said Morgan, a husband, father, community activist and Army veteran.
Protesters wore summer clothes — by contrast, the police were “overwhelmingly dressed for full-out war,” said the self-described military brat who “literally grew up all over the United States and all over the world.”
According to Morgan, who was an activist in Texas before he moved to Des Moines five years ago, the SWAT team started “kettling” the protesters, by surrounding them on all sides, making escape difficult. Tear gas hung in the air, and people grimaced in pain and anger. Many of the protesters fled the Capitol steps due to the tear gas. Morgan walked through the tear gas with his hands up and got hit with a tear gas canister in his lower stomach, he said.
An estimated 500 people headed over the bridge into downtown. By the time Morgan and his wife made it to the Court Avenue district, most of the protesters had dispersed.
“We were all just kind of meandering. There’s about 60 people. We’re walking. We’re not together. There’s someone behind me and they are having a whole conversation. Some guy in the middle of the bridge is talking on his cell phone,” he said. “There were a couple of girls across the way. Me and my wife are holding hands. We’re heading back to the car.”
Trying to Get to His Car and Go Home
As Morgan and his wife head to their car parked on the east side of the Court Avenue bridge, they see a line of police with a huge tear gas launcher. As the officers start running towards them, Morgan tries to shield his wife, huddling on the bridge over the edge to avoid more tear gas. When the police run by them, it seems like they are “in the clear.” However, one officer stops close to them and appears to be “closing in on the group that was walking behind them.”
“Now, by this time I’m turning this way so I can kind of see him in my periphery. So, he decides they are his target, they are his play. So, he has this big thing of tear gas, and he grabs one of their hoodies and tries to spray it directly in their faces, right? But the guy slips out of his jacket and takes off. But by then (the officer) had sprayed so much tear gas, he slips in it and falls on his back, boom! His helmet goes flying off, and he’s in the air like a beetle,” Morgan remembers.
“So, I look at my wife, Beth, and I say, ‘We got to go’ because at this point we’re the only ones left,” he said.
While they’re struggling to get away, one of them drops a cell phone, leaving just enough time for this officer to approach them. In those few seconds, several thoughts ran through Morgan’s mind: The officer is going to be mad and embarrassed. Morgan knew the officer would be “looking to take his anger out on someone,” and it turned out to be him. Morgan told his wife to run so she wouldn’t be attacked or arrested.
Morgan recalls that moment feeling like it happened in slow motion.
“When he started to come across the bridge towards me, he took a pause as if deciding what to do. I told him we were heading back to the car,” he said. “But it didn’t matter, despite having time to think about it, the cop decided to make me the target of his anger.”
Pascha Gets Arrested
It is clear that these cops were on a mission that night, he said. After repeatedly telling the police he is heading back to his car, more officers appear. Morgan thought “two cops” were on him but would find out later it was closer to five. Pressed against the bridge railing, it is clear he is going to be detained, he thought. Morgan said he was shoved to the ground and handcuffed. A Latino officer helped him up and asked the others what was going on. Morgan remembers telling him:
“Well, I was heading back to my car. My wife is over there, and we were heading back to our car.”
A different officer orders the Latino officer to take Morgan to the “paddy wagon.” Morgan is handcuffed, taken and told to sit down on the ground.
“So, then they take us over to the paddy wagon, and then like they normally do, because their whole deal is power and authority, they tried to make me sit on the ground. I tell them I’m not sitting there. ‘Well, I’m going to need you to’, says the cop. I told him, ‘Well, I’m an old vet so I’m not going to.”
Once in the police van, Morgan estimates they were held behind the police station for two hours, just sitting. At some point, the police bring a young man to the van who is bleeding profusely from his head.
“They had to drag him in the van. He was barely conscious. Like he was literally barely conscious. We kept singing songs and making him sing with us. The people on the side of him kept nudging him to keep him awake on the ride to Polk County. Yeah, they dragged him into the paddy wagon and he was limp, and his eyes were barely open. Oh, and interestingly enough, there were 11 people in that paddy wagon. The protest was about 500 people in Des Moines, Iowa. So I’m pretty sure you understand that means, it was overwhelmingly white people. But of the 27 that were arrested that night, I think maybe only two of them were white,” he said.
After a Weekend in Jail, the Community Shows Up for Pascha
The police charged him with inciting a riot and failure to disperse before they released him three days later on a $2,000 bond. Morgan was arrested on a Saturday evening and released on Monday afternoon.
“Yeah, they got us all out. Not only that, when we walked out to the parking lot, there were snacks and new clothes if people needed them. There were cigarettes, there was Tylenol if you needed it. There were people offering rides. There were people just to hug you and say it was going to be OK if you didn’t have any family that was going to show up for you. It was awesome. Our community is awesome. We take care of our people.”
After experiencing “violence from the DMPD,” protesters had to prepare differently for future protests, he said.
“We realized they were at war, so we changed things up. We got street medics. We started finding out what we needed for defensive weapons. We realized that milk was a good agent for tear gas, so we started making sure there were gallons of milk. We started making sure people used handkerchiefs and covered up any identifying scars or tattoos. And we made sure we had baseball helmets to save our heads from tear gas containers and whatnot. We warned people that this was probably not a place for children.”
Did the violence and chaos surprise him?
“No, not at all, because I’m in the community. The movement is the movement, and it’s a movement no matter where. It’s not a Des Moines movement. And the reaction here was the same as the reaction of people in Texas. It’s the same as the reaction of people in Atlanta. It was the same as the reaction of people in Virginia. It was the same. The community is a community of love and justice, and so that’s how they reacted. So, no, that was no surprise. It was no surprise when the cops reacted the way they react. That’s how cops act. The movement is taking care of itself, we’re taking care of people and we’re loving and enveloping people. That is how the movement is, and that’s how it is everywhere, and that’s how the people are. So that was no surprise. It’s a positive note, but it wasn’t surprising.”
All charges filed against Morgan were subsequently dropped and there was no formal court action against him.
Editor’s Note: Morgan knows the name of the officer who arrested him, but that officer’s name is missing from official police documents and another officer’s name is listed, which concerns Just Voices.