Iowa officials: Violent protests undermine message for change

Des Moines council members asked Police Chief Dana Wingert to clarify policies on avoiding violence during stops. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Police Department)

Iowa officials, including Gov. Kim Reynolds and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, on Saturday said the violence that broke out in downtown Des Moines on Friday night undermined the unifying message of a largely peaceful protest of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

About 20 people were arrested for failure to disperse on Friday and 20 police officers suffered minor injuries from people throwing rocks, bricks and other objects, Des Moines Police spokesman Sgt. Paul Parizek said during a news conference Saturday morning.

Hundreds of people attended a peaceful demonstration from 6-7 p.m. Friday near the main Des Moines police station. As the rally broke up, a small group that police characterized as “agitators” attacked a lone officer who was stationed nearby, jumping on and damaging his squad car.

Police and community leaders worked to engage protesters and encouraged them to leave the area.

Des Moines police, along with Polk County sheriff’s deputies and the Iowa State Patrol, occasionally used tear gas and non-lethal incendiary devices to push back crowds who were throwing rocks, bricks and other items.  Parizek said one person threw a bucket that police suspect contained urine.

Property damage included broken windows at the federal courthouse and businesses like the Hilltop Tire store and the Embassy Suites hotel. Three squad cars were damaged. No serious injuries were reported.

A separate protest and march underway Saturday afternoon in downtown Des Moines included hundreds of people marching, waving signs and chanting.  No violence had been reported as of mid-afternoon.

In a statement, Reynolds called Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis an “unsettling and criminal act of violence” and said it was unconscionable.  Floyd, 46, an unarmed black man, died after his arrest, during which a police officer was shown on video kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes as he cried out that he couldn’t breathe. All four officers involved in the incident have been fired and one, Derek Chauvin, has been charged in connection with Floyd’s death.

The incident has sparked protests across the country, some of them violent.

“As Iowans, it is right for us to react in different ways, from sadness to outrage. But it is never right to react with violence,” she said. “The violence that happened last night in Des Moines undermines the message of change and hope that so many seek.”

According to the release, Cownie and Reynolds met Saturday with Police Chief Dana Wingert, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Bayens, Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews, State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, and other community leaders about the violence and protests.

“Like hundreds of other Des Moines residents, I attended last night’s rally. It was peaceful and powerful, as it was intended. It had a purpose,” Cownie said. “Unfortunately for some, that wasn’t acceptable and they took matters into their own hands. Bringing violence to our streets and endangering others.”

He said Floyd’s death was “horrific and unacceptable.”

“We can’t undo what happened there, but we can have an impact on what happens here in our community, and how we move forward,” he said.

Wingert said Des Moines police also universally condemned the actions of the Minneapolis police officer who has been charged in connection with Floyd’s death.  “The discussion in our building, from the minute that video came out, was ‘I wonder what they’re going to charge him with.’ Because what he did was wrong. That’s the one thing that we can all rally around,” he said.