Staff Columnist

Whose streets? They're not ours, Iowa City officials remind us

When protesters take the streets, the disruption is the point

Law enforcement officers, including officers from the Iowa State Patrol, make a line blocking access to Interstate 80 du
Law enforcement officers, including officers from the Iowa State Patrol, make a line blocking access to Interstate 80 during a protest march in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The fight over racial justice and police accountability is taking place in the streets. Whose streets are they, anyway?

Iowa City has been witness to some of the state’s largest and most intense demonstrations amid the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter and police reform movements of the past three months.

Last week, police charged an Iowa City man with two felonies after he allegedly drove his car through a group of protesters downtown on Aug. 21, causing minor injuries.

This was no accident by a panicked driver — when the man encountered protesters disrupting traffic, he reportedly drove around the block and turned off his lights before hitting the crowd. He later told authorities that the demonstrators needed an “attitude adjustment,” according to police.

I do not endorse obstructing other humans’ freedom of movement, but in most recent instances where protesters blocked downtown Iowa City streets, it was easy for drivers to take an alternative route. And it ought to go without saying that people who block traffic don’t deserve to be subject to physical harm, be it from a civilian automobile or the state’s chemical munitions.

Besides making an arrest, the city’s response was to advise citizens to get a permit before they gather in large groups on Iowa City streets or sidewalks. That way, the city can divert traffic, plan hospital detours and reroute buses, officials said in a news release.

Offering a permit for street protests misses the point. The disruption is the point, and asking for permission is antithetical to the protesters’ mission.

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“Whose streets? Our streets,” has been a common American protest chant for decades and especially during the Black Lives Matter era. Blocking traffic is a way for the crowd to physically claim power, to purposely disrupt commerce and daily activities and demand an audience for injustices they think are being ignored. Right or wrong, that’s their explicit intention.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s tips for protesters advises that speech is protected in public spaces such as streets and sidewalks, “as long as you are not blocking access to the government building or interfering with other purposes the property was designed for.”

In Iowa City, it all comes back to the streets. The recent protest where participants were hit by a car was organized after Iowa City Council members said they might not follow through on their commitment to contract an independent review of a June 3 incident where police officers — assigned to protect transportation infrastructure — fired flashbangs and chemical irritants at protesters in Iowa City.

Roads were the issue during that showdown between protesters and police. Local officials ceded city streets to the demonstrators, but state officials would not do the same for the interstate highway under their jurisdiction. On North Dubuque Street, police used crowd control weapons to prevent the masses from reaching Interstate 80.

The next night, authorities preemptively closed a portion of the interstate and allowed marchers to occupy it. Eventually, city leaders and protest organizers seemed to reach some kind of informal agreement to allow street protests, but not on the interstate.

What did Iowans think all this riot gear was for?

What happened in Portland could happen in Iowa City or Des Moines, too

Two weeks later, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution committing to substantial police reform, including a plank calling for an outside investigation of the tear gas incident. With multiple law enforcement agencies participating in the crowd control project, community members demanded to know who called for the gas, and which department carried it out.

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The city made plans to hire an out-of-state firm to conduct the inquiry, but at a work session this month, Mayor Bruce Teague and council member Mazahir Salih suggested saving the $50,000 fee and doing an internal investigation. They have seen video from the incident, which they said makes clear that Iowa State Patrol made the order to use tear gas, but that footage has not been released to the public.

To counter, a couple of other council members said we already knew State Patrol made the call, but an outside review still is necessary. They’re asking for additional community input in advance of their meeting this week.

“Based on Iowa State Patrol holding the line to the interstate, I think we understood they were the ones in command that night. So, I thought we really were looking for a deeper inquiry into how everything went down. I don’t think policy was violated, the issue is, what policy might need to change that we can influence?” council member Laura Bergus said.

So, whose streets? The streets belong to the city, the interstate belongs to the state, and none of them belong to the masses.

But, the city reminds you, if you submit the proper paperwork, you can borrow their streets for a planned demonstration.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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