What Really Happens at an Iowa Freedom Riders’ Protest

Jayne Ryder is a small business owner and Iowa City resident since 2005. This is her first-hand account, which mainstream media has declined to publish.

On Thursday, June 4, twelve days after the death of George Floyd, there was a peaceful protest in downtown Iowa City.

I got there late, cycling through the rain with pebble-sized hail bouncing off my bike helmet. My tardiness wasn’t an issue; the parade would be slow-moving, with 2500 people making the two-mile trek from downtown Iowa City to the I-80 interchange.

The previous evening, protestors had attempted to walk down the on-ramp to obstruct the flow of traffic on this artery of the national supply chain: Interstate 80 bridges the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, connecting the eastern half of the country’s interstate system with the western half.

Before protestors could make it down the ramp and onto the interstate itself, however, local police hit them with a deluge of chemical weapons. Gas designed to inflame the respiratory system, skin, eyes, and mucus membranes left these unarmed civilians coughing and gagging, unable to see or to breathe.

Tonight’s marchers were determined to make it onto the freeway, no matter what police and counter-protestors fired at them. Having first aid training, I decided to go to offer support, as well as to listen and observe. I took clean rags and rubbing alcohol. I was unsure what to expect and as I coasted toward downtown, I made note of three large, nondescript, military-like gray-blue vehicles rolling by, which I tried not to stare at.

I got off my bike when I spotted my friend Rilo*, who works for United Action for Youth; it’s a branch of United Way that works with area leaders, other groups, parents, and youth to meet the needs of teenagers aged 12 to 18 years within the local community. Rilo’s attendance at such events helps UAY find more opportunities to advocate for people who are at a socioeconomic disadvantage.

Given the youth-heavy demographics of Iowa City, as well as its own police force’s not-so-great brutality record, the UAY’s mission is critical. I chatted with Rilo and then said goodbye since we had different agendas.

I found myself walking my bike along Clinton Street along with other stragglers and found a side mission: a group of 7 females stood in the road blocking a couple of large trucks – not the nondescript ones I’d seen before; these were plastered with stickers and slogans that all said, “MAGA” – from rolling down the street toward the crowd. There were at least four such trucks roaming around. They “patrolled” the crowd, revving their engines at pedestrians – which ironically drowned out whatever the drivers were screaming as they did so (I’m guessing it was more MAGA slogans) – and burning out.

All these theatrics did was damage their vehicles, torching rubber and fluids so black smoke poured from their tailpipes. We filmed and took pictures of them ruining their engines before one got fed up and reversed aggressively.

Thanks to all the pictures, I was able to provide a perfect description to local authorities of the people using dangerous intimidation tactics. Will they do anything with it? Maybe not. But keeping track of that behavior –  that is, actively threatening strangers with immediate bodily harm or death – could save lives in the future.

Once the MAGA trucks turned away, we continued on our way to join the other protestors. A majority of the activists appeared to be under thirty, but there were people of all age groups, colors, races, ethnicities, and even vastly different political ideas.

I saw a 70ish-year-old white man in a MAGA hat having a polite, calm conversation with a young white man in a Nirvana tee shirt. I didn’t stay to hear their discussion, but I still think about them and wonder if they found any answers together.

I also saw a pair of young white women spray painting ACAB (“All Cops Are Bastards”) and F12 (“Fuck Drug Charges”) on a university building. My initial response was frustration. Maybe it’s because pop culture tells us graffiti artists are destructive, but I really don’t like it when people damage things that don’t belong to them. In watching them for a moment, though, I noticed they were careful to avoid damaging public artworks (which downtown Iowa City is absolutely full of) or independent storefronts – or any store fronts, for that matter, that posted signage in support of Black Lives Matter. Taking all this into consideration, I’ve decided I don’t mind the spray paint.

We continued down Clinton Street, past my old dormitory, past the University of Iowa’s President’s Mansion, to where Clinton meets Dubuque. I made it to the large, peaceful crowd. Cars were part of the parade, handing out water, medical supplies, and information about what to do – and who to call – if you get arrested.

Marchers starting out in Downtown Iowa City.

Everyone was friendly and peaceful. There were chants of “Black Lives Matter!” There was music, rapping, and dancing, and on top of all that, two of the MAGA trucks got stuck between cars. They had to slooooowly move along with the throng for over a mile before there was a break in the road blocks. They continued to verbally harass the peaceful protesters while trapped. I watched as an activist tried to make a connection with the Maga truck bro. A young man said, “We have the same truck,” while gesturing at both vehicles.

For a while, I was even having fun. But protests aren’t supposed to be fun, and my joy was short-lived.

As the protest continued to move toward the freeway, I recalled how state police had attacked unarmed citizens the night before. Many of these same citizens were around me now, still peaceful, exercising their rights to assembly and free speech. It was entirely possible that many of the same state police had returned, as well.

When I was in 8th grade, our history teacher told us about the Holocaust. He assured us nothing like that could ever happen here in America because our federal government has a system of checks and balances.

Balances – like the balance of Lady Justice – keep everything steady and equal. That’s what he told us, and most of us probably believed it. Even if you could take away the bubble white privilege provides, we lived in Iowa; we had little first-hand experience with racial inequality.**

It dawned on many of us slowly that the ugly racism we’d seen in documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t some relic of a long-gone era. That same horrible shit was, and still is, going on all around us all the time. Like an object in motion, it will keep going unless we do something to stop it. Kristallnacht may have happened overnight, but it was a long time coming.

That’s what I thought about when my anxiety resurfaced as we walked the final stretch of Dubuque Street. So I addressed that anxiety directly: “We are not going to run away. We are not going to hide in our basement because we’re afraid of violent police and of our own government. We are not going to do nothing while our neighbors are under attack. An attack on them is an attack on us. An attack on black rights is an attack on human rights.”

View from the top of the hill on Dubuque Streets Frat Row.

This helped me to overcome my fear, along with the general attitude of the crowd. People were quick to care for each other, to offer water and moral support. Some of the homeowners along the street had been so thoughtful as to leave ropes dangling over their retaining wall in case demonstrators needed to climb to safety.

It turned out that night local authorities did not use chemical weapons against protestors. Instead, they did what they should have done in the first place: redirected traffic on Interstate 80 in order to prevent accidental collisions and deaths. A plain-clothes officer – his walkie-talkie was a dead giveaway – stood among the crowd. Other than that, most of the state patrol kept their distance and watched while a portion of the crowd peeled off and walked down the ramp. Some continued on to the Interstate itself, while others returned to Dubuque Street, satisfied that they’d accomplished their goal of getting the attention of area lawmakers and enforcers, as well as the national and international travelers who use the freeway every day for work as well as leisure.

A rare sight: an empty section of Interstate 80.

Like many others, I opted to stay on Dubuque. Aside from being toward the rear of the protest, I’d just spent the previous weeks carefully quarantining as best I could while still operating as a small-business owner; it was a shock to my system to be around so many people again all at once. All the kindness and support I saw around me that night, however, made me glad I took the risk to bear witness to the protest.

Again, I took many precautions. I took medical supplies and had my phone with me. I stayed vigilant, yet I never felt in danger; except, of course, when the MAGA trucks threatened to run us down.

Despite feeling nervous a couple of times, I’m glad I went to observe and march alongside my neighbors. It did more than reassure me that people aren’t all bad; it made me feel like humanity could still have a chance. It made me decide that, ultimately, I do believe in people. I believe we can actively and non-violently work toward a more perfect union.

I found out later the crowd was estimated to be 2500-strong. People of all ages, races, religions, and socioeconomic background were there. Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague took part, showing leadership I’d come to think of as rare. By the time I rode home, people were already beginning cleanup, filling trash bags with litter – mostly water bottles and rubber gloves – marchers had dropped.

I owe the world a debt because I’ve benefited from white privilege. It’s not a debt I’ll ever truly be able to “pay off,” but for the first time in a long time, I feel like I can actually do something to balance that scale. We can, all of us together, dismantle a violent institution that has degraded and brutalized our fellow humans for hundreds if not thousands of years.

I urge everyone to attend these events. Don’t miss the opportunity to see real democracy in action. Exercise your constitutional rights every day. Don’t ignore this milestone; amidst the most significant human rights revolution in 50 years, our society is at a critical juncture in its development.

Finally, love they neighbor as thyself. Even if you’re a soulless Machiavellian nightmare, doing unto others is just logical. To see an example of what happens when you don’t do that, just take a look at every fascist dictator who ever lived – including the one now living on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The most dangerous place for black people to live is in white people’s imaginations.” D L Hughley

“How wedded must an institution be to brutality that in the face of huge protests against said brutality and knowing it is under intense scrutiny for said brutality, it persists in brutalizing people?” Daniel Summers MD

**As of 2019, an estimated 90% of Iowa’s population identify as white, while only 4% identify as black or African American. In other words, it’s a real tough place to be a black kid; most of the other kids you know have little to no idea what you’re going through.

*Not their real name