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From Interstate 80, protesters issue racial justice demands

'Right now, black lives are on fire,' mayor says earlier

IOWA CITY — No flash grenades. No tear gas. No sirens. No traffic.

Hundreds of protesters easily marched Friday night onto Interstate 80 in Iowa City, unimpeded by authorities who two nights earlier used chemical agents and fear tactics to keep them off the state’s busiest thoroughfare — coveted territory for protesters over the years.

The Iowa State Patrol proactively shut down the interstate from its interchange with I-380 east past the Dubuque Street exit to make space for those rallying locally in concert with millions nationally who night after night have taken to the streets enraged over the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

With squad cars blocking traffic on I-80 in both directions, hundreds armed with signs and spray paint took a seat in the entirely peaceful protest that turned the interstate eerily quiet as person after person grabbed the bullhorn to share stories of racism or make demands of local authorities.

End curfews in Coralville.

Stop assigning officers to set up shop in schools.

Take a quarter of the money away from the Iowa City City Police Department to spend on social services instead.

Unica Kyle, 34, of Coralville, said she’s done this before. Been here before. Shouted and protested and decried police violence before. This time, she believes, something is different.

“I feel like people have finally woken up,” Kyle told The Gazette, leaning against the I-80 median that had temporarily become a perch for dozens of masked protesters. “I think us watching George Floyd take his last breaths on live TV has angered a lot of people. I feel like it’s different.”

Friday night already was vastly different from Wednesday night, when authorities fired tear gas and flash bang grenades into the crowd to keep people off the interstate, where police said the risk of death was high.

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Authorities first changed course Thursday night by blocking traffic. And protesters returned Friday from about 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., spreading not only demands and graffiti but ideas and invitations.

“I’d like the governor or people that actually can make changes to come speak to us,” Kyle said.

Only a few hours earlier, local leaders and dignitaries convened for another Iowa City “listening post” meant to engage the community in dialogue. A diverse collection of elected officials expressed solidarity with protesters — and also their own outrage.

Royceann Porter, Johnson County’s first black supervisor, told a crowd gathered in west Iowa City that the nationwide protests should and will persist — focusing more public attention on racial injustices.

“But we don’t have to keep talking about George Floyd,” she said. “Our house is on fire.”

Before hundreds who turned out to share stories of hatred in Iowa City, grieve systemic racism that’s plagued black children in local schools and their parents in the Johnson County workforce, and chant in anger over years of inaction, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague challenged those on hand to look inward. And then look around.

“At your job, when there’s a meeting going on, look around,” said Teague, the second black mayor in the city’s history. “If there is a lack of diversity there, you say, ‘Hold up.’”

A string of commenters Friday stepped to a microphone to express their own form of “hold up” by calling on residents to stop calling the cops on their neighbors; on teachers to stop accusing black children of lying and stealing; on police to stop following black drivers.

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“Yesterday I asked to go outside, and my mom said to be safe and be careful,” 13-year-old Jayden Hayes of Iowa City said. “She doesn’t want me to die. And I agree with her.”

Addressing head-on the contention between the “black lives matter” phrase and the rebuttal that “all lives matter,” Teague used a metaphor about “Bob,” whose house was on fire, and his neighbors, whose homes were not.

Flagging neighbors’ concern about their homes — “What about my house? Don’t my house matter?” — Teague said, “Well your house do matter. All lives do matter.”

“But right now, Bob’s house is on fire,” he said. “Right now, black lives are on fire. And we’ve got to come and recognize that black lives need our attention right now. Silence can’t happen anymore.”

During the listening session, men and women and children shared stories of blatant injustices and more discrete bias.

At the I-80 protest, Jamal Williams, 28, of Iowa City, said he’s experienced it more times than he can count, and he’s sick of being judged.

“You could be walking down the street, and I could help you out with your bags, and the police will stop and ask if you’re OK because they think I’m going to try to take something from you,” he said. “And if a white guy helps you, they drive right past. Well I feel judged. That’s why I’m here.”

Protesters left the interstate without being asked at 10 p.m. sharp, about two hours after stepping onto it. And they marched back to the Old Capitol, which has been tagged with graffiti and messages of Black Lives Matter in recent days.

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Detonating fireworks on the Pentacrest and laying flowers at the foot of a picture of Breonna Taylor — a 26-year-old black women fatally shot by white police officers in Kentucky in March — many in the crowd voiced optimism that change is in the air.

“This time is different,” Williams said. “Everybody’s together. Ain’t no gunshots. Ain’t no nothing. It’s a peaceful protest. I love it.”

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