The People's History: What happened during the 2020 protests in Des Moines

EXCLUSIVE: New article series from Just Voices

Editor's note: Protests held in the wake of George Floyd's murder changed the world and Des Moines. 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.)

A research project on the Des Moines, Iowa protests during the Summer of 2020.

By Just Voices

Just like 9/11, you probably remember where you were and when you first saw the video of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. For me, it was the morning of May 26, 2020. My cousin Cassie, who lives in Cedar Rapids, knows I’m a racial justice activist. She sent me the link to an article and video of Floyd’s horrific murder. I couldn’t even finish watching it.

I still haven’t to this day.

George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Black Iowa News

But like 9/11, when foreign terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, the battle cry became “Never Forget”. Since that summer, it seems that America’s sudden urge for police reform and a racial reckoning has gone from a boil to a slow simmer.

Have we forgotten so soon about Floyd? Where has all the energy and outrage gone? The urgency to do something has waned. But just like 9/11, the Holocaust, and slavery, we must never forget the Summer of 2020.

This article is the first in a series to give witness to what happened in Des Moines during the protests in the Summer of 2020. It’s about speaking truth. It’s about seeking justice and police reform. It’s about you because it’s the history, as told by the people who experienced it. We are calling it “The People’s History.”

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America and Iowa Rise Up in Protest

In the Summer of 2020, more than 7,750 demonstrations against police violence and racial bias took place in the U.S. Nearly 95% of which were nonviolent. Fewer than 220 locations reported any form of “violent demonstrations,” defined as involving any acts of vandalism such as graffiti or toppling of statues, property destruction, or violence of any kind against individuals, according to The U.S. Crisis Monitor.

In Des Moines, we know over 40 identifiable demonstrations occurred in and around our city, according to a review of the data by Just Voices. By the end of September 2020, 208 people had been charged with 281 separate protest-related offenses, Just Voices found. What’s striking is the majority of those charges have since been dismissed and the most people accused who did go to trial were found not guilty by jury or judge, we found. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the City of Des Moines about police misconduct during the protests, according to our research.

Just Voices has obtained some video footage, audio records and testimony that gives witness to the actions of the Des Moines Police Department. We intend to share that with you as a part of this series.

George Floyd Rally on May 30, 2020, in Des Moines. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Des Moines Police Refuse to Look Back

Many cities across the country have already completed reviews of police conduct following the wave of protests in 2020. Some larger cities had the benefit of an existing independent body to conduct the review, such as a Citizen’s Review Board or an Inspector General. Other cities have hired third party experts. In some cities, a variety of community stakeholders were involved in the review. Sadly, the Des Moines Police Department, and even the city manager, refused to conduct any review of the actions of the Des Moines Police Department, when asked by Just Voices founder Harvey Harrison.

Therefore, Just Voices Iowa is doing such a review. We’re talking to the people who protested, some of whom were arrested or injured. We’ve filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to get the data, booking records, and use-of-force reports from authorities from that volatile Summer of protest.

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Because this research is extensive, we’ve found volunteers to help. But we can use more help from people just like you. Rather than waiting until we have all the research completed, we are going to share the information and the stories as we get them.

We’re sharing our findings exclusively with Black Iowa News readers first over the coming months. And rather than waiting until we’ve got all the research compiled in a nice pretty package, we are going to share what we know so far with you — now. We call it “The People’s History.”

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Why Document the People’s History on the 2020 Protests?

Ever heard the saying by Winston Churchill that goes: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” How did our local police force respond and how much force and chemical weapons were used? These questions deserve answers, so we can learn from it or be doomed to repeat it. God forbid another unjust murder as gruesome as Floyd’s happens again in our country.

Our focus in this project is to gather the data related to the most volatile and larger protests. We’ll also collect the stories of the individuals who were there. Our goal is to share what we find and to provide our findings to city officials and the police department. We hope to answer the following questions:

  • Whether the Des Moines Police Department response was proportionate to the incidents
  • Whether the response was consistent with best police practices
  • What outcomes resulted from police arrests
  • Whether arrests of Black and Brown residents were disproportionate to our city’s racial makeup
  • What steps have been taken to ensure accountability for wrongful conduct What has been the impact on people who were wrongly arrested?

George Floyd Rally held on May 30, 2020, in Des Moines.

More Articles to Come in this Important Series

In the coming months, we’ll share with you in Black Iowa News, what we know. You’ll see videos, photos, read first-hand stories from protest organizers and protesters who were hurt and arrested.

If you have a story to share from your experience with the Summer of 2020 protests, we’d love to talk to you. You can help us write the People’s History so the truth can be spoken. Also, we may publish photos or videos you have and would like to contribute to this series. Please reach out to us online and we’ll get back to you right away. Or you can email us at info@justvoicesiowa.org.

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