DES MOINES, Iowa — After Wednesday demonstrations at the Iowa State Capitol turned into violent confrontations between law enforcement and protesters, community leaders fear things will not improve if these types of altercations continue.
Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, has been a prominent voice for the African American community for decades, as well as a leader for young protesters, whom he likes to refer to as “game changers.” In the past months of protests, Abdul-Samad has worked as a mediator between protesters and law enforcement officials, pushing for nonviolence as means of achieving goals.
“We are at a juncture showing us that we now have to open up communication more than ever before. We have to watch our actions more than ever before,” he said. “Because we have a chance, especially in Iowa, to make history.”
Abdul-Samad said the “game changers” have already proven they can do that, after the governor signed a police reform bill that was passed unanimously and rapidly by the Republican-dominated state legislature. But he acknowledges there is still more work to be done.
Specifically, they want to restore felon voting rights before the November election. It is a demand protesters have been making to Gov. Kim Reynolds almost daily at the state capitol, and one she has committed to doing by the end of the summer.
Protesters returned to the capitol grounds Wednesday making those same demands, but with extra aggravation after a vehicle carrying the governor hit a protester on Tuesday.
Weeks of daily protesting and altercations with law enforcement officers are what some protesters said is the reason Wednesday’s events seemed to be a tipping point.
“The police escalated everything that happened. The police antagonized. The police are the reason everything went down today. They should take fault for everything and take responsibility for everything that has happened,” a protester named Julian said.
However, law enforcement officials have said their response was prompted by aggressive behavior on the side of the protesters. Sgt. Paul Parizek of the Des Moines Police Department said officers have been receiving threats from some of the more extreme protesters.
“I don’t know how we can try to create any more space than us leaving like what we were trying to do at the capitol. Those officers are swarmed and that’s what escalated the situation,” Parizek said. “When you start talking about violence and threats to families, we do have to take it seriously or bad things can happen.”
But Abdul-Samad said he worries that focusing too much on the blame game will take away from the bigger picture. He is asking that both groups and the community shift back to open and honest communication, even if it is uncomfortable.
“We can continue that momentum. If we understand the climate and understand the pain where we are at today,” Abdul-Samad said. “But that opens up to the question, how are we going to communicate with one another? And then, are we going to listen? And then, are we going to have action? That’s where we are at right now.”
He said these clashes between law enforcement and demonstrators occur when not enough productive conversation takes place. Abdul-Samad also does not want the Black Lives Matter movement, nor the perspective of officers, to be turned into something negative.
“There are confrontations but they don’t have to be physical and violent. They can be verbal, mentally-challenging confrontations that we have to tell what’s the difference. How do we make some changes? How do I have a paradigm shift?” he said.
Abdul-Samad acknowledged conversations can only lead to progress if they are solutions-based, with a call to action. He said everyone needs to be willing to challenge their perspectives.
“This is a time for you to hear and act on and look at where you are, what your reference point is. Maybe your reference point needs to be changed,” he said. “We have to have some conversations and talk about how we do this together. But you can’t do it without listening. You can’t do it without talking here.”