Written in the wake of the events in Iowa described below, this is an additional installment of the series, Protecting Protest: We Need All Hands on Deck, published in partnership with the Protect Dissent Network. Writers examine how the constitutional right to protest is being threatened and why we must fight to protect it. Analyzing what anti-protest legislation signals for the future of the country and our democracy, contributors address what we must do to defeat these attempts to repress our voices and reverse progress.
Anti-Protest Violence in Iowa
This June, my worst nightmare came true. On the 24th, the day of the Dobbs Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe, hundreds of us from local organizations working for reproductive justice and universal healthcare filled the streets of Cedar Rapids, IA, making our voices heard. Together, we found community, grieved the loss of a fundamental right, and vowed to do what we can to keep protecting and showing up for each other. As we wrapped up to go home, a truck driver plowed into our gathering. I saw his angry eyes as he literally ran over my friends. One friend narrowly escaped being hit by his car, while a few others were not so lucky and needed medical care for their injuries.
We immediately took down the driver’s license plate number and gathered two dozen eyewitness testimonies to share with the police. We did everything you’re supposed to do when you’ve been a victim or survivor of violence.
But a new Iowa state law means that local police have no incentive to act on the people’s behalf. In June 2021, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed one of the nation’s most punitive anti-protest bills into law. Dubbed “Back the Blue,” the harmful legislation increased penalties for protesting, granted legal immunity to drivers who injure protestors, and reduced police accountability by expanding qualified immunity for law enforcement.
In the weeks and months prior to the bill’s passage, many of us mobilized to protect protest. Just before the bill became law, young people from Des Moines Black Lives Matter and Advocates for Social Justice went to the Iowa Capitol to make their voices heard in support of protest and democracy. At the demonstration, police violently arrested 18-year-old Josephine Mulvihill for protesting.
Since the bill’s passage, I have been fearful of the increased powers police will have to arrest or penalize protestors. What’s worse, I’m afraid of what will happen now that people who disagree with our views have legal immunity to harm us during a protest.
The law includes harsher penalties for protesting—such as making unlawful assembly an aggravated misdemeanor while making rioting a felony—and expands the legal definitions of disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, harassment, assault, and other common protest-related charges. Extending law enforcement’s power to criminalize protest has the potential to lead to overreach by police who already take a heavy-handed approach to community members exercising our constitutional right to protest. We saw this in Josephine’s chaotic and violent arrest at the state capitol.
The law emboldens people who wish to act on their grievances against community members by granting them legal immunity to endanger protestors with their vehicles. We experienced the very real harm this can cause to our community on June 24th.
The qualified immunity clause in the new law is also worrying because it grants Iowa police stronger protections against lawsuits, further limiting the public’s ability to hold law enforcement accountable in the event of police misconduct or violence.
And this move by the Iowa legislature is not an isolated event: in recent years, state-level efforts to restrict or criminalize protest have severely curtailed our collective ability to hold lawmakers accountable for decisions that impact our daily lives.
A Healthcare Worker’s Path to Activism
I never thought of myself as an activist until I entered the healthcare industry as a dental hygienist in private practice. I began volunteering at a community dental clinic and saw how many people in Cedar Rapids and Linn County, IA, don’t have access to quality healthcare, let alone dental care. At one of our clinics, we had 1,000 people sign up—not just for simple check-ups, but to treat serious dental issues that impact overall health and well-being.
Seeing hospitals and health insurance companies prioritize profits over health got me civically engaged. I wanted to learn about my community, understand how our elected officials make decisions about public health, and do something to improve access to quality care—which we all deserve.
As I got deeper into advocacy for Medicare for All, I uncovered just how many of our public institutions and elected officials are driven by profits over people. I became active in Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, or Iowa CCI, as well as Indivisible Iowa. Both organizations are composed of civically engaged residents from across the state who are working to improve our communities’ wellbeing. With Iowa CCI, I’ve advocated for a state-level Medicare for All policy, and with Indivisible Iowa I’ve worked to protect protest and voting rights.
To Protect Democracy, We Must Fight for Our Rights
While years of community organizing and months of living in fear of Roe’s overturning enabled me to spring into action on June 24th, they did not prepare me for the violence that ensued—nor did they prepare me for the law’s complicity in that day’s events. Though law enforcement know the identity of the vigilante driver and have even contacted him, they have not pressed charges. On top of that, following an illegitimate claim that the local district attorney has a conflict of interest because he was in the area when the violence occurred, law enforcement transferred jurisdiction of the investigation to a neighboring county, further delaying potential action to hold the driver accountable.
And what is the impact of vigilante violence that goes unchecked? It has a chilling effect on community residents who may want to civically engage. Who wants to attend a protest if it means risking one’s life?
Unfortunately, what’s happening in Iowa is part of a disturbing and growing national trend. Anti-protest bills have been introduced in nearly every state legislature, though thankfully community-driven coalitions have defeated most of them. But the worst of these bills have been signed into law in a few states, including in Florida where legislators also introduced legal protections for drivers who kill or injure protestors.
The young people who have gotten more, not less, active in Iowa since late June give me hope. They grew up in the aftermath of the civil rights movements of earlier decades: they expect that women and people of color have the right participate in our democracy. They lived an entire lifetime with Roe as their daily reality and witnessed marriage equality and LGBTQ+ acceptance become the law of the land. To see these hard-won rights rolled back in the past few years runs counter to what they understand this country to be.
That’s why this summer I’ve seen young people—particularly young women and people of color—showing up at our community meetings and protests in larger and larger numbers. They are getting educated and organized and are exercising their constitutional rights in (what is meant to be) a democracy.
For my part, I’ve been working with CCI and Indivisible to help educate our members about the implications of the anti-protest law, while supporting folks who are training to be designated marshals to keep people safe at protests. We are fighting for so much this year—improving access to healthcare, upholding voting rights, strengthening gun safety, and mobilizing for reproductive justice—that we must protect protest in order to guarantee our legal and constitutional right to make our voices heard and hold lawmakers accountable.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more scared after June 24th. Of course I am. The idea that every time I leave my house—especially if I wear my Abortion is Normal shirt or join a community rally for Medicare for All—I might be a target of unchecked vigilante violence, is overwhelming.
But the hope and inspiration I feel—even if there’s just one or two of us standing together at an intersection holding a sign to raise public awareness—drives me to keep fighting for my community.