Defending Protestors

Last night Drake University’s National Lawyers Guild held a Zoom panel discussion about Defending Protestors. The panel explored the role the legal community plays in defending activists and their rights to protest and organize.

I found out about the event from an announcement on the Facebook page of my friend Ronnie James, who was on the panel. I was really impressed that there was such an event. I’ve been involved in many vigils and protests and don’t remember there being lawyers present at any of them. Although none of them had any real police presence, or need for there to be any.

One of the roles we did fill when we were organizing our local direct action in Indianapolis related to the Keystone Pledge of Resistance was legal observer. That action wasn’t triggered because President Obama denied the permit to build the pipeline.

There were several legal observers on the panel last night. Legal observers are really helpful resources to have during demonstrations. They can answer protester’s questions, and monitor the legality of what police are doing.

One of the most powerful experiences of the Keystone Resistance was when we took a statement of what we intended to do, to law enforcement officers at the Federal building where our direct action was planned to occur, should the actions nationwide be triggered. We actually had an interesting discussion. Not surprisingly, we learned law enforcement in Federal buildings all over the country already knew about these potential actions.

I was especially interested in this panel discussion because I know one of the projects of Des Moines Mutual Aid (DMMA) is a bail fund. The other two DMMA projects are the free food store, and work to help those who are houseless or facing eviction. So DMMA works on providing basic necessities of food and shelter, and supporting those who are arrested for agitating for change.

During the panel discussion Ronnie spoke about Mutual Aid as a framework for multiple, diverse organizations and people to come together to help the most marginalized people in our communities.

The panel discussion began with the question “why now”? related to the escalation of police brutality in the country in general, and in Des Moines specifically, this year.

The discussion was about how the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis triggered protests, and police responses all over the country, and in Des Moines. It was about the extreme grotesqueness and length of time it took to kill him, all transmitted all over the world via social media.

And social unrest was triggered in relation to the crash of the economy, with millions more becoming unemployed, and struggling to find basic necessities.

It was also the prolonged and varied response of those in Minneapolis, transmitted in real time, that influenced the prolonged protests in Des Moines, which triggered the police response here.

The Des Moines police, showing up in riot gear and aggressively responding escalated tensions. Tear gas and pepper spray were used when they weren’t called for. It was also the false depictions, by the police, of what was going on that was reported in the media.

Police body cam videos were so chaotic that charges against many individual protesters had to be dropped.

Warnings, that I had heard from Ronnie, were made about the dangers of people supporting the protestors, live streaming what was going on. Because the police can use those videos to bring charges. Police were actually scanning the crowd to grab individuals from prior videos from the local news media. Days after protests police went to people’s homes to arrest those they had identified from videos.

State Police also banned individuals who were protest leaders, from the grounds of the State Capitol, in clear violations of constitutional rights.

Some people on the panel felt that police were intentionally bringing multiple, and more severe charges against protestors, in order to try to deplete Des Moines Mutual Aid’s Bail Fund. Ronnie has told me the bail fund has paid the bail for every protestor in central Iowa.

Someone said police actions were the best fundraisers for the bail fund. Another person mentioned that was especially true when police turned their guns on white youth.

There was a heartfelt statement about the difficulty of white people, who grew up believing police are the good guys, finding out they are not always. Most Black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) never had those delusions.

The discussion ended by expressing this was all about community, and supporting those who are most marginalized.


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