Polk County declares curfew amid protests over Floyd death

Protesters hold up signs near Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines on May 31, 2020. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In an effort to prevent more unrest after two nights of vandalism and violence, Polk County officials have declared a curfew from 9 a.m. Sunday until 5 a.m. Monday. 

Nationwide protests have broken out over the death of handcuffed George Floyd in Minneapolis after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over eight minutes.  The disturbances have included two straight nights of rowdy protests in Des Moines that broke out after peaceful daytime rallies and marches.

Protesters gathered Sunday evening at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines, which closed at 6 p.m.  Police shot tear gas in the parking lot trying to disperse crowds and brought canine units amid reports of breakins and looting at the mall. The group left the mall area on foot about 9:20 p.m.

A crowd gathered outside the Des Moines police station broke up peacefully after some officers joined protesters in kneeling for a moment of silence in honor of Floyd.

Fights broke out Saturday night on Court Avenue and businesses were damaged after police had succeed in pushing protesters away from the Capitol. 

Friday night, protesters broke squad-car windows and hurled water bottles, rocks and obscenities at police. 

The crowds chanted, “No justice, no peace,” “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “Black lives matter.”

Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder in the incident, which has been viewed in a viral video. He and three other officers were immediately fired and the investigation continues. 

In a statement, Polk County Board of Supervisors Chair Matt McCoy said the situation brought another economic insult to restaurants and other businesses try to open after weeks of state-ordered closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It is heartbreaking to watch as some businesses started responsibly opening their doors to face this backlash of unrest,” McCoy said. “It is imperative that we have cooperation from the community to prevent violence and property damage. For this reason, Polk County has no other choice but to make this difficult decision.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, police departments and community leaders supported the move.

“For the past two days, thousands of Iowans gathered together in our capital city to peacefully and respectfully protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the societal injustices it represents. But each of the past two days, those responsible protests have been overshadowed by violence that threatens lives and our community,” Reynolds said in a statement.

“Violence, in any form, is unacceptable, and must come to an end. I support Polk County’s decision to implement a 9 p.m. curfew,” Reynolds added. She praised Des Moines police, the county sheriff’s department and the Iowa State Patrol for their “restrained” response.

“Senseless acts of violence do nothing to rectify injustice or fix problems,” Reynolds said. “I encourage all Polk County residents to follow this curfew, stay at home and do their part to stop the violence that has disrupted the lives of so many over the last couple of days.”

As Reynolds issued her statement Sunday night, protests had begun at Merle Hay Mall, which straddles the Des Moines and Urbandale border. A vigil was also underway in Des Moines’ at Union Park about two hours before the curfew was to begin.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie also issued a statement supporting the curfew.

“Unfortunately, the City of Des Moines has recently spent all of our efforts dealing with vandalism and violence instead of focusing on meaningful policy and cultural changes,” Cownie said. “The City is very supportive of the peaceful rallies, marches and candlelight vigils to commemorate George Floyd and his family.”

“Violence and riots in the streets of Des Moines are not the way to honor the death of George Floyd,” Cownie said. “We need to seek solutions to the challenges so many of our communities face these days. That is what is needed right now: communication and cooperation.”

The Des Moines City Council and the Civil and Human Rights Commission are expected to reconvene in June to discuss ways to improve relations.

“Des Moines city leaders are always open to having productive discussions on policies and procedures that will strengthen and improve our community. That is how Des Moines will come together – not through violence in our city streets,” City Manager Scott Sanders said in a statement.

The Friday and Saturday protests, which drew hundreds downtown, led police to use tear gas and to arrest dozens. Protesters broke windows at the federal courthouse, the county courthouse, the county administration building, and Court Avenue restaurants. Several hundred protesters moved towad the Capitol Saturday night before police and state patrol held them back with tear gas and ordered them to disperse or be arrested.

The curfew, which continues until 5 a.m. Monday, does not apply to people who are traveling to or from work, those who require medical assistance or have a genuine emergency or those participating in an official religious observance. Those were the only exceptions cited in the Polk County order.

Not everyone thought a countywide curfew was warranted. Some thought forcing suburbanites to stay home was too much. 

“A countywide curfew is an overreaction that I won’t soon forget,” lobbyist Eric Goranson tweeted Sunday night. “Rediculous (sic). See you at the voting booth.”