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Iowa City rally in response to George Floyd death draws hundreds to downtown Iowa City

Activist Lujayn Hamad speaks to protestors through a megaphone during a rally hosted by the Black Voices Project at the
Activist Lujayn Hamad speaks to protestors through a megaphone during a rally hosted by the Black Voices Project at the University of Iowa Pentacrest in Iowa City on Saturday, May 30, 2020. The rally was held in response to the recent death of George Floyd, a black man who died Monday night while in custody of Minneapolis police officers. Organizers estimated that over 750 individuals attended. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Iowa City Saturday in solidarity for a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee on the man’s neck, resulting in his death.

Rally organizers as well as a number of black elected officials from Johnson County and Iowa City raised their voices condemning police brutality and calling on their white peers to do more in support of people of color.

Eighteen-year-old Lujayn Hamad and her sister, 20-year-old Raneem Hamad, organized Saturday’s rally. Both sisters grew up in Iowa City but now attend college at New York University in New York City.

Even with the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, organizers estimated at least 750 protesters filled the Pentacrest lawn and on Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue, which were blocked off by city officials in anticipation of large crowds.

Throughout the event, the crowd’s chants of “black lives matter” and “hands up, don’t shoot” echoed throughout downtown.

On Monday, George Floyd died in police custody after officer Derek Chauvin pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes, despite the man’s pleas of “I can’t breathe.” Chauvin was arrested this week and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Despite the arrest, the violent unrest in Minneapolis continued for a fourth night Friday and into Saturday as rioters continued to loot and vandalize businesses and set fires throughout the city.

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Throughout the speeches at the Iowa City rally, a common thread was the belief that sometimes violence is needed to inspire change.

“I’m not encouraging the violence, but I’m not necessarily discouraging it, either,” Lujayn Hamad told The Gazette.

She recounted hearing about the death of Trayvon Martin while a student in Iowa City. Despite his death happening more than a decade ago, “nothing has changed,” Lujayn Hamad said.

Martin, a black, 17-year-old high school student, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, who is white, in Sanford, Fla., in 2012. Zimmerman later was acquitted of all charges.

“You cannot place blame on the protesters,” she said. “You cannot blame others for the way they grieve because it’s been years of silence and years of peace.”

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter, the first black county elected official, said the rioters in Minneapolis got to that point “because they’re tired.”

“People are not being heard,” she told reporters after the rally. “It should not have to move to lead to looting and rioting and go on and on, but if that’s the way that the people are going to hear us, that’s the only way that people know to do it. That’s why they do it, so that we can get the message across.”

She added, “We had a murderer at home free, and he needed to be arrested. And if that’s what they had to do to get the attention of the people, so then that’s what they did.”

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On Friday, a peaceful protest in Des Moines attended by hundreds escalated into a violent melee, with the crowd throwing items and jumping on patrol cars. Officers in riot gear responded, using pepper spray on the crowd and arresting more than a dozen protesters, according to reports.

Gov. Kim Reynolds released a statement Saturday afternoon condemning the protest, saying “it is never right to react with violence.”

“The violence that happened last night in Des Moines undermines the message of change and hope that so many seek,” Reynolds wrote. “A thousand people gathered to exercise their right to protest and to speak their mind. It was a powerful message. But the lawless actions of a few drowned out that message.”

But many who attended Saturday’s rally in Iowa City seemed to disagree. The first speaker at Iowa City’s rally, who stated individuals should not answer violence with violence during his speech, was met with a chorus of boos and chants from the crowd.

At the same time, Porter said the rally was not calling for similar events to take place in Iowa City.

“We don’t want it to be violent, we’re not trying to be violent,” she said. “We can get our message our without being violent, so that’s what (this rally) was all about.”

Instead, Porter said she and others are having conversations with other Iowa City leaders to address issues facing people of color in the community, including about affordable housing and meeting the needs of students in local schools.

Lujayn and Raneem Hamad, along with 13 other individuals, left immediately after the rally for Minneapolis, where they plan to join the protests there.

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A GoFundMe page created by the pair for water bottles, masks, gloves and other items they plan to take to protesters reached more than $3,000 by Saturday afternoon. Lujayn Hamad said they plan to donate excess funds to George Floyd’s family and to the Minnesota Freedom Fund.

Other rallies were scheduled over the weekend for Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. Another rally is planned for 4 to 7 p.m., June 6 at 450 Fifth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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