When a kettle becomes a crucible: The lasting impact of Des Moines police response to the 2020 Protests

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.) Photos and video provided courtesy of Just Voices. (Top Banner: Getty Creative Images.)

By Tom Rendon for Just Voices Iowa (justvoicesia.org)

Suddenly, everything went black. It was as if his eyes stopped working. His ears were fine. He could hear the crowd noises, the commotion, the shouts and grunts of pushing and shoving. When he tried to open his eyes, a piercing pain shot through his brain and all he could see was amorphous blobs.

He couldn’t see. And he couldn’t think. His brain had shut off. He stumbled forward, catching his foot on a riot shield on the ground. He pitched over and collapsed.

Zach Humble, after his wrongful arrest on June 22, 2020. His charges would later be dismissed. Photo courtesy of Just Voices.

That was it, he told himself, I can’t go anywhere. I can’t do anything. If the police want me to move, they will have to do it themselves. I’m not resisting. I’m helpless. The forearm a police officer pushed into his neck and the handcuffing that soon followed were completely unnecessary. Zach was arrested, charged with failure to disperse.

How Zach Humble came to be in this situation on the evening of June 22, 2020, in a narrow street two blocks from the Iowa Capitol was not a random set of circumstances. It was a deliberate set of choices, fueled by a sense that standing up for what is right is the right thing to do.

Watch this video of the stand-off with Des Moines Police and officers from surrounding suburbs and the protestors.

Watch the video. Source: Just Voices.

Zach’s Upbringing

When Zach was in high school in Estherville, Iowa, a town in the northwest quadrant of the state about 10 miles from the Minnesota border, he knew that more and more brown students from Central America were showing up, and not always receiving an “Iowa Nice” welcome. Latinx students made up around 30% of the student body. When Estherville played other towns in sporting events, the racist comments would start coming out. Zach didn’t like that.

Zach with his parents after his high school graduation. Source: Just Voices.

Later as a college student at University of Northern Iowa, he majored in history and learned how American imperialism assumed the entire hemisphere was under its control. The U.S. had managed affairs in dozens of Latin American countries, even if meant sending in the marines for a decade or so. Those foreign invasions of the past helped explain why his rural hometown in northwest Iowa changed as immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica came to work in the area’s egg farms and industrial agriculture facilities. These were kids from families doing whatever they could to have a better life in America, and Zach knew that. He also knew throwing epithets during a football game, and saying they were not welcome, was wrong. And if that was wrong, so was kneeling on the neck of a Black man for 9 minutes until he was dead.

Zach Acts on His Beliefs

“If those are your real beliefs and values, you’d have to take action when the time comes,” Zach said. “Real” beliefs are only those you hold with enough conviction that they impel you to take action. That action, for Zach was to join the protests in Des Moines in the summer of 2020. He had some friends from college who were participating in the protests. He knew where to go to be part of this mass movement calling out police violence and demanding accountability.

Zach came to Des Moines early in June to be part of the first round of protest. But the one that stays in his mind is what happened on Monday, June 22. Zach met with about a hundred folks at a bowling alley and they first marched around the neighborhood. It was a smaller group than he had seen at the earlier demonstrations. A sense of dread welled up in him as soon as they started marching. Rows of police in full riot gear, along with a military grade Hummer, blocked the way. They marched back to the bowling alley.

As dusk was settling in, the protesters moved to a different location with a plan to march to the state Capitol. Zach drove to the East High School parking lot that served as a staging area. The group crossed a bridge over I-235, the 70-year old highway that cut the Black community in half, and headed up toward the capitol building. Again, the police were there in full riot gear.

The protesters marched slowly down a narrow street where there didn’t seem to be any police. Then the police appeared, coming from some blind area. Voices on loudspeakers called for the crowd to disperse. But Zach wanted to shout back, “Where do you want us to go?” Their way forward was blocked. The crowd was moving in from behind. The police were pressing in and surrounding from the back. Buildings blocked any lateral movement. The group with Zach had been corralled or kettled into a small area.

What is Kettling?

Screenshot of Dictionary.com.

Kettling is a controversial crowd control technique. The goal is to confine the group into a defined space and prevent any escape. That way they can be controlled and detained. But it risks compression crowd energy, concentrating and intensifying the situation, almost forcing a crowd versus police physical confrontation. If police kettle protesters, preventing their movement, they also assume responsibility for what happens in this contained space where they hemmed in people.

'Police Attack' Zach

Then Zach turned around to watch three police officers attacking a street medic. The protesters had volunteers, in clearly dressed attire, who carried first aid supplies and were embedded with the protesters to help out anyone who was injured. The police grabbed the street medic by his backpack and spun him around. Zach, alarmed by the police attack of the street medic, moved in to ask why. That’s when it happened. A full direct spray of mace directly into his face. And pain.

“I always thought it would be the kind pain where you could work through,” he explained later.

Zach was, after all, a former high school football player, used to jarring blows, picking himself up and getting ready for the next play.

“This was debilitating. My mind shut off. Motor skill and anything else . . .” His voice trailed off. He couldn’t find the exact words to describe what it was like. That’s when he turned around and tripped over a riot shield. The cuffs that followed were completely unnecessary. Despite orders to disperse, Zach wasn’t going anywhere.

'A Wrongful Arrest'

Screenshot of Polk County jail booking information. Source Just Voices.

It was debilitating, but Zach had no idea how debilitating it would be. He was arrested and released the following morning. The charges of “failure to disperse,” as nearly all charges that came during the protests were eventually dropped. He still could not see normally. He was miles from his car and without a phone. He had turned that over to a sheriff and never got it back. A friend finally got him back home.

After Zach’s Release

He started taking cold showers when he got back to Cedar Falls. That was the advice he received.

Cold showers because hot showers open your pores and the irritant in the mace gets in and the pain spreads. It was a week before he was functional. He could go back to his job working for the UNI football department. Except he couldn’t. That’s when the panic attacks started.

He tried to go back to the office but couldn’t be there for more than an hour. This was a job where he was accustomed to putting in 12-15-hour days. He would be overcome with panic and just couldn’t be there. The UNI staff understood and since the fall season had been canceled due to COVID-19, they could be flexible. But eventually he knew he wasn’t able to do the job, so he quit. And things got worse.

Zach’s Lasting Trauma

In November, shortly before Thanksgiving, he found himself staring into a mirror. His mind was one place and his body another. He knew he had a gun and two shells in his truck left over from turkey hunting.

“My body took over,” he said. “I felt like my body was reacting to being aware of that thought.”

He was facing his killer, and the killer was himself. It was so terrifying that he started to cry. Thoughts of suicide kept recurring.

Zach was trying to put his life back together. He lost a job with UNI that would have put him on a pathway to a paid position coaching college football. That’s what he had always wanted. That wasn’t going to happen now. He filled some time Door Dashing, and then moved back to Estherville in spring and worked putting in docks at Okoboji.

He wasn’t going anywhere. He was offered and accepted an assistant coach position with his former high school football team in Estherville. It was a job he should have loved. But he didn’t. Going nowhere, finding no joy, life seemed desperate. Zach used to pride himself on how efficiently he worked, how productive he could be. Not anymore.

“I couldn’t do anything,” he said, as if there was no exaggeration in the sentence. “I was moving in the direction of, ‘Yeah, I’m going to kill myself.’”

But he didn’t. What he told himself at the time was that he didn’t want young impressionable high school students having someone in their lives who had killed himself. He quit the high school football job. And that made him feel worse.

Therapy Helps Zach Heal

It wasn’t until July that his parents finally got him into a psychiatric ward in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The doctors diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. He was prescribed medication. And he improved.

Now, he says, he feels a million times better. But he is still on medication and still putting his life back together after two years. His story was not easy for him to tell, and sharing his mental health struggles is not something he could talk to strangers about except maybe two years after the fact. But he did share them with Just Voices Iowa and now they can become part of the record of the human cost of protesting and a police response levied during the summer of 2020 in Des Moines. He has no criminal record, and yet he paid a steep penalty for whatever it was he did.

No part of it feels like justice or public safety.

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Help Us Write “The People’s History”

Just Voices is doing this research in hopes of seeing meaningful police reform, better transparency and police accountability. All factors in improving community trust and better public safety.

You can be part of this effort. Here’s a number of ways to contribute:

  • If you have a story to share from your experience with the Summer of 2020 protests, we’d love to talk to you.
  • If you have any photos you took or videos you recorded, please share them with us.
  • If you had charges assessed against you, we’d love a copy of the criminal complaint filed against you.
  • If you sued the City and the DMPD for any reason related to your experience as a protester and you were represented by an attorney, we’d love copies of all documentation related to your lawsuit.

Please help us write the People’s History so the truth can be spoken. Just reach out to us online and we’ll get back to you right away.

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