McBrien: 90 minutes of protest


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There was a D-shaped gathering outside the Old Capitol at 5 p.m. Nov. 25 to protest the Ferguson grand jury decision, and the press fit snugly into the straight side of that formation. Later as the crowd moved down to City Hall and coalesced again, the press stepped back for some artful “wide shots.” Even when the crowd members stood their ground at Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue to choke traffic, the press held back on the comfortable sidewalk.

I was in the mass of bodies, taking notes, and time-stamping everything that happened.

A Press-Citizen reporter approached me at 4:49 p.m., despite both of us carrying notebooks instead of signs. The newshounds outnumbered the demonstrators at first, because this hot-button issue was their slice of Our American Pie. Other protests were going on nationwide, and college towns are hotbeds for these stories. Sleepy and desolate as Iowa City was for Thanksgiving break, the crowd swelled in spite of that by 4:59 p.m.

This was followed by several minutes of restlessness and one colorful remark toward a man in the crowd showing microscopic dissent among those gathered. One leader warned: “If you have come here with a personal agenda, I would implore you to leave.”

A moment of silence was observed for Michael Brown at 5:09 p.m. and broken by 5:11 p.m as chanting began: “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” “Hey-hey, ho-ho, these racist cops have got to go.”

Two nearby white men began to debate the facts of the Brown shooting around 5:13 p.m. One a father with his boy astride his shoulders, the other a goateed fellow with a sign reading: NO LIBERAL MEDIA. NO RIOTS. The larger crowd didn’t notice them, but closer folks shushed the second man, which didn’t end the debate at all.

By 5:15 p.m. new chants were used: “Mike Brown was educated. Still taken by racism.” “When people of color are under attack, what do we do? Fight back.”

By this time, I was circumnavigating the crowd and passed a young woman making a fresh sign: “Democracy = Disguise Hypocrisy.”

Volunteer speakers then took the megaphone to talk about race relations in America. One woman changed the subject at 5:24 p.m. to the high number of African-American ex-cons who can’t find jobs or vote. The two white men continued their debate in quieter tones nearby.

Another woman took the megaphone to say that “[the system] actively hunts me down to kill me.”

The crowd began marching and chanting down Iowa Avenue toward City Hall around 5:34 p.m. Two musician-poets accompanied the chanting with notes from a saxophone and ocarina. An annoyed driver passed by with: “There’s a sidewalk.” No one cared. On Gilbert Street, a helicopter flew overhead flashing a spotlight. I couldn’t tell if it was media or police. Then I realized that police weren’t visible at the scene. Chanting at City Hall lasted until 5:53 p.m., when we all marched toward the Ped Mall with another chant: “No justice, no peace. No ra-cist po-lice.”

By 6:04, we were back at the Old Capitol, but another march was attempted by a splinter group. Embarrassed by the lack of greater movement, they rejoined but had inspired the crowd to take over the street. Clinton’s southbound traffic was stopped. Leaders tightened the crowd to alleviate northbound traffic, but another splinter group spread out toward the corner in front of Iowa Book. More volunteers told stories at the microphone. Two white gentlemen (not the previous two), young and old, claimed that being white makes you immune to police harassment (that seems like the Tallest Tale of the 21st century, in my experience). But their point was made and the crowd agreed in unison.

Restless drivers began to move toward the crowd from the south at 6:16. One man in an expensive, white Ford was told that “far too many people have died.”

“Well, I’m not going to shoot,” he said in frustration before pulling away.

A minute later, a black SUV drove through the fringes of the crowd with one wheel on the curb. No one was injured, and the driver got away.

Other traffic allowed the protest to continue until 6:26, when the final chant rang out: “I believe that we will win.” The crowd dispersed by 6:28 p.m. Stragglers posed for photos, and lonely reporters began wandering around for leads, but the scene was now dead.

I can only hope those 90 minutes amounted to something good.

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