Matè Muhammad said he knew something big was rising: As protests unfurled across the country following George Floyd's murder last May, hundreds of people were also flooding the streets of Des Moines, Iowa, his hometown.
From Chicago, where he lived at the time, Muhammad watched livefeeds of protesters in Des Moines squaring off against police in riot gear. Some smashed windows and threw water bottles. Crowds ran from tear gas and pepper spray. This was an unimaginable sight for Iowa's capital, which did not have a Black Lives Matter chapter, let alone massive street protests for racial justice.
It was like a train was moving, he said, and he didn’t just want to get on — he wanted to drive it.
He connected with friends and helped plan a march in Des Moines on June 3, then came home to be part of it. Since then, he has become a leader in a burgeoning Des Moines protest movement. He organized marches, moved into a house with other activists and, inspired by earlier revolutionaries like Malcolm X, changed his name from Matthew Bruce in December.
Matè Muhammad leads protesters in a march in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 15, 2020.Bryon Houlgrave / The Register via USA-Today Network
Muhammad was also arrested four times in the first four months of demonstrations over allegations that he interfered with law enforcement, vandalized a police vehicle and shined a laser beam at officers during protests, charges he’s still fighting in court. In emails obtained by NBC News through open records requests, law enforcement leaders labeled him an “agitator” and “the ringleader” of violence and disruption. But he hasn’t backed down.
“This is what I came home to do — there was no stopping me,” Muhammad, 25, said. “I was probably the worst one for police to target because I was the last person that was going to quit.”
Des Moines, a city of 215,000 where 11 percent of residents are Black, hadn’t seen protests like those of the past year since the riots over policing of Black neighborhoods in the 1960s. Inequity persisted — Iowa has one of the highest disparity rates nationally of Black people arrested for marijuana possession — but spontaneous mass demonstrations were so rare that the Des Moines Police Department had no formal crowd control policy a year ago.
During interviews over the past four months, 15 Iowa residents who joined the protests described unexpectedly finding a calling, transforming from restaurant managers and landscapers to the leaders of thousand-person marches. People who had never attended a Des Moines City Council meeting are now running for a seat.
Both experienced organizers like Muhammad and those who attended their first protests last spring say they set out to change the system — but found that the fight changed them.
While the protesters had some early victories — including a ban on racial profiling in Des Moines, and restoration of felons’ voting rights in Iowa — they’ve also faced consequences. Dozens were arrested, and several are still awaiting trial, some on felony charges that could result in yearslong prison sentences. Some said they were denied housing and jobs when employers and landlords found out about their arrests, while others have been under house arrest for months waiting for trial.
“It always has been a struggle and it’s going to continue to be a struggle,” said Jaylen Cavil, 24, a Black organizer whom police accused of creating a “grave danger” to the public by leading marches in the street. “As we gain more power, we’re going to see more pushback.”
Image: Jaylen Cavil speaks to protesters at the Polk County Jail while they wait for Matè Muhammad to be released on Aug. 20, 2020, in Des Moines.
Jaylen Cavil speaks to protesters at the Polk County Jail while they wait for Matè Muhammad to be released on Aug. 20, 2020, in Des Moines.Bryon Houlgrave / The Register via USA-Today Network
Many activists also described traumatic encounters with police at the protests, which left them struggling with anxiety months later. At least nine people have sued the city alleging that they were assaulted by police during and after the demonstrations.
The city’s police department declined interview requests. In a statement, the department said it had plenty of experience accommodating protests, but “Riots, on the other hand, are extremely unusual.” In internal city emails included among nearly 2,000 pages of documents that NBC News obtained, police leaders argued to elected officials that they were in a “no win situation,” fending off assaults by demonstrators who wanted to create chaos and see them out of a job.
After a quieter winter, protesters returned to the streets of Des Moines this spring to combat a push by Republican state lawmakers to increase penalties for protest-related crimes and ban teaching in schools that the country is fundamentally racist or sexist. Meanwhile, the City Council is preparing to resume in-person meetings in June for the first time since the protests began, setting the stage for a confrontation between local leaders and activists.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Justyn Lewis, a Black activist who started the nonprofit Des Moines’ Selma to provide implicit bias training, and is running for City Council.
“And good Lord,” he added, “I feel like the temperature is getting hotter.”
‘It really woke me up’
Denver Foote still has flashbacks to the night she said police assaulted her.
Beyond volunteering for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, Foote had never been an activist, nor paid much attention to the Black Lives Matter movement before last year. But she felt compelled to be in the streets after Floyd’s murder.
Foote, 24, who is of Mexican and Asian American descent, grew up in a small town in northern Iowa. At her first restaurant job, she said, some white patrons refused to let her serve them or touch their money. In a state where only 2 percent of residents are of mixed race, this reaction was so common, she said, she felt desensitized to it. It wasn’t until she moved to Des Moines, a more diverse city where she now works as a hairstylist, that she said she started to learn her experience was not isolated.
Then Floyd was killed, and it felt like a dam broke inside her.
“It was a grief I never felt before,” she said. “It really woke me up. The protests started happening and I had to be there.”
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Image: Denver Foote outside the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement in Des Moines, Iowa, on May 1, 2021.
Denver Foote outside the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement in Des Moines on May 1, 2021. Rachel Mummey / for NBC News
On May 30, the second night of protests in Des Moines, Foote marched with a large crowd to the Capitol building.
During those early protests, people gathered based on word of mouth, usually spread through social media. They chanted “I can’t breathe,” held signs reading “Prosecute Killer Cops” and told stories of racial harassment they’d experienced while marching to government buildings. Some protesters vandalized businesses downtown and at a mall on the north side, damaged police vehicles and threw rocks; police said in court filings that some officers were bruised, cut and required stitches.
Des Moines police had been working with an FBI task force, officers later said in court, searching for members of antifa “who we were told were in town coordinating events.” Police flew drones over the marches and embedded undercover officers to keep watch, court records show.
After police fired tear gas at protesters on that second night of demonstrations, Foote retreated to another neighborhood downtown. Just after 2:30 a.m., police received a report that people had broken into a grocery store. Ten minutes later and two blocks away, as Foote walked alone to her car, she said, a group of officers cornered her. Without warning, they pepper-sprayed her and hit her with batons, she said, before arresting her on charges of participation in a riot, unlawful assembly and failure to disperse. Photos taken by her partner after she was released from custody show grapefruit-size bruises on her arms and legs.
Officers stand in a cloud of tear gas as protesters retreat on the steps of the Iowa State Capitol on May 30, 2020, in Des Moines.Brian Powers / The Register via USA-Today Network
When Foote was released to await trial, the court placed her on an 8 p.m. curfew. She had trouble leaving her apartment for weeks anyway, she said, because of trauma from that night — she once had a panic attack at a grocery store after seeing an officer sitting in his vehicle outside. But she also felt more committed to the cause. She raised money for a bail fund to support other protesters and became a regular at City Council meetings.
“It’s made me want to fight harder,” she said. “We have our local police department getting away with doing these things.”
After prosecutors dismissed her charges citing insufficient evidence, Foote sued the city and police department in December alleging malicious prosecution, assault and battery, and false imprisonment, seeking damages. The city filed a response in February denying her account and the suit is pending in federal court. The police department said it could not comment on pending litigation.
“Our response to violence directed at our officers, and the unlawful destruction of property, was based on our training and experience,” Sgt. Paul Parizek, a police department spokesman, said in an email. “As we’ve moved forward since those days, just like other law enforcement organizations across the nation, we’ve improved policy and practice based on the best practices available now, and lessons learned then.”
Last year, the police department promised a “comprehensive review” of its use of force during the summer’s demonstrations. Police briefed the City Council on the findings, but Parizek said he couldn’t release information because of pending court cases.
“This level of protest and activism really is something our community hasn’t seen, and that includes our law enforcement,” said Josh Mandelbaum, a Des Moines City Council member who is white. “I don’t think they were prepared for sustained protests like this.”
‘This is what I should be doing’
After a few days of protests, more than a dozen Black teens and 20-somethings who’d connected through the events began to organize as the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement. They included Yena Ana Balekyani, who had previously started a nonprofit to support Congolese youth in the state, and Linda Brown, who worked with a local artist collective that mentors public school students. Jaylen Cavil had just finished working on a Democratic Senate campaign when he got involved.
The organizers put a spotlight on systemic problems: Black residents of Iowa are 11 times more likely to be imprisoned than white residents and 7.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijauna possession — double the national disparity. While there hasn’t been a high-profile police killing of a Black person in recent years locally, there have been several cases in which the city paid settlements to Black residents who alleged officers used excessive force and racially profiled them.
“It doesn’t have to be police killing you with a bullet — there are other ways the system kills you,” said Balekyani, 26, who grew up in Des Moines.
Yena Ana Balekyani speaks to reporters outside the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on June 4, 2020.Kelsey Kremer / The Register via USA-Today Network
Sgt. Theodore Stroope, president of the Des Moines Police Gold Braid Organization, a union, said the fact that Des Moines had not seen mass protests against police in recent years was evidence law enforcement had a solid relationship with the community. The department started a community policing program in the 1960s, banned chokeholds in the 1990s and had already implemented most of the #8CantWait policies pushed by some reformers, he said. According to the department, officers use force in about 1 out of every 592 calls for service.
“The police keep getting blamed for the problems that they have zero control over,” Stroope said. “The police never redlined anybody, the police never denied anybody a job, the police never denied anybody a bank loan.”
But to the organizers, who favor abolishing the police department, there was still plenty that needed to change. They wrote out a list of demands for city and state leaders — ban racial profiling by police, decriminalize cannabis, create a civilian oversight board for the police — and on June 3, they marched to Mayor Frank Cownie’s house with more than 1,000 people to present it.
Protesters walk to Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie's house on June 3, 2020.Brian Powers / The Register via USA-Today Network
Mayor Frank Cownie with Matè Muhammad in front of the mayor's house on June 3, 2020, in Des Moines.Brian Powers / The Register via USA-Today Network
When the protesters arrived, Cownie, who is white and has been mayor since 2004, spoke to them through a bullhorn on his lawn, pledging to support some of their demands and promising to put a racial profiling ban to a City Council vote that month.
“You had a huge group of people unified and getting traction, getting covered in the news, the mayor having to respond to every single demand, because he’s forced to when we’re at his house,” said Cavil, who was in the crowd that night. “That's power.”
Cownie declined multiple interview requests.
Progressive activists and local chapters of the NAACP had pushed for the racial profiling ban for two years, but faced resistance in the all-white City Council. Days after the march on the mayor’s house, one of the police unions, the Des Moines Police Bargaining Unit Association, complained in an email to City Council member Joe Gatto that the proposed ordinance was “meant to ‘appease’ a riotous mob and protestors,” and would “tie the hands of law enforcement.” (The union did not respond to a request for comment.)
The racial profiling ordinance was on the agenda at the next council meeting, on June 8, and more than 1,300 people tuned in on Zoom. Among them was Indira Sheumaker, 26, a Black Liberation Movement organizer who’d never been to a meeting before. She tore into the council when it was her turn to speak.
“It is ridiculous that it took hundreds of people coming to Mayor Cownie’s house, coming to his front yard, for you guys to move on this at all,” she said during the public comment portion. “It is 2020, and we don’t have a ban on racial profiling in Des Moines, Iowa, a place we pretend is so liberal and so accepting? It is not.”
The council unanimously passed a ban June 22 but did not include a civilian oversight board, one of activists’ chief goals. The ordinance outlaws racial bias in government and law enforcement actions, requires police to undergo annual de-escalation and implicit bias training, and gives people a route to complain to the city about alleged violations.
Sheumaker credits her younger sister, Paden, with encouraging her to take the microphone at rallies and City Council meetings. It wasn’t that Sheumaker had been afraid of public speaking — she took part in plays in high school and college — but she said she’d grown up assuming that she shouldn’t challenge authority.
In June, she started to speak to crowds about problems with policing, bail and her own experiences with racism. She urged people to step out of their comfort zone, “because we’re all uncomfortable right now,” as she put it in one speech last summer, standing on top of a white SUV.
Indira Sheumaker protests with fellow demonstrators on June 24, 2020, at the Polk County Jail following the release of Matè Muhammad.Olivia Sun / The Register via USA-Today Network
“Everything I thought people expected of me suddenly changed,” she said in an interview. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is what I should be doing.’ I need to be saying these things because these are important and they need to be said.”
Sheumaker, who was furloughed from work at a community center, also began looking at city budgets. In August, she called attention to city plans to approve police purchasing $99,000 in ammunition. So many people joined the next virtual City Council meeting to object that it lasted 11 hours.
The City Council was unaccustomed to so much attention by activists who didn’t follow procedural rules and voiced complaints every chance they got, disrupting discussions of other topics, such as stormwater management or approving a new car wash. Multiple activists used profanity and called council members racist.