The Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors on Thursday refused to condemn the use of local militia members who stood guard at the county courthouse in late May during the initial aftermath of the George Floyd murder.
At a morning board meeting, the Concerned Citizens of Pottawattamie County, a coalition group formed in support of Black Lives Matter, asked the supervisors to sign onto a formal statement denouncing the presence of “non-deputized paramilitary groups and individuals” on May 31, which followed rumors there would be protests of racism in Council Bluffs.
“To those who would assume the authority of law enforcement, to those who would intimidate the voices of those we seek to hear, to those whose agenda is the spread of racial and anti-government fear and intolerance, we do not seek, desire or accept your assistance,” read the letter the group wanted passed. “We offer the protection of our law enforcement to all members of the community and the fair enforcement of law no matter your race, creed, color, or code.”
The armed citizens at the courthouse were allowed to embed with paid law enforcement during the evening, even as there were no organized protests and few protesters with no evidence of violence. Rumors had quickly spread through the western Iowa city of 62,000 that Black Lives Matter protesters were coming to the city, with unfounded claims they would incite violence and property damage.
The militia members were legally carrying firearms, but stayed past the 8:00 PM curfew instituted by law enforcement and the city.
“I believe that all lives matter,” County Board Chair Justin Schultz told the two members of the Concerned Citizens of Pottawattamie County who spoke at the meeting. “Everyone matters, and as long as I’m on the county board of supervisors, I’m going to do my best that everyone has the same opportunities that I had growing up, and life for me wasn’t always easy either. There were things that I had to overcome and struggle with.”
“I’m not going to sign the letter. I’m not going to condemn this group for what they did that night,” he added.
Coalition member Glenn Hurst, a Minden doctor and political activist, said at the meeting that the militia’s actions and certain elected official’s reluctance to denounce it perpetuates a “backward image” of Pottawattamie County.
Hurst said that their group had a woman of color who was planning on presenting the letter with them, but she called him last night saying her family “begged her not to attend” the meeting because they were concerned for her safety.
“[The perception of the actions] negatively affects the county’s goals of inclusion. We want to grow Pottawattamie County. We want to grow businesses in this county, we want to grow the communities in this county, and the perceptions left by that action is having a negative effect on our ability to do that, I believe,” Hurst said.
Treynor, Iowa resident Cory Damgaard, a former marine who runs firearm customization business Valkyrie Arms, then got up and addressed the board, saying that he as a county resident stood guard at the courthouse in May, not in affiliation with his company.
The coalition’s letter mentioned that some of the militia members were individuals with Valkyrie Arms.
Damgaard said his mission was to assist law enforcement, not to implement fear or to protest second amendment rights. He said he was fearful that rioting would occur in Council Bluffs the way it did over the river in Omaha the night before.
“I think it’s sad that we have to be here today because you had a group of real concerned citizens standing up and doing what was right. I would absolutely do it again. I am part of this community,” he said. “We’ve seen what happened in Omaha, it wasn’t going to happen in my community … I love my country, I killed for my country.”
“Amen” and “As would I” was called out from several audience members in response.
The coalition also accused some members of the militia as being apart or supportive of the Boogaloo movement, a nationalistic far-right anti-government extremist group. Damgaard said his use of the Boogaloo name in social media posts was satirical.
About five others spoke at the meeting in support of Damgaard and the other armed citizens—some said they were proud of what they did and would do it again.
After Steve Gilfillan, a retired deputy sheriff from Pottawattamie County, stood up and said he’s never seen an act of racism in the county, another board member Tim Wichmann said that he too had “never seen it.”
“I’ve lived in this community for most of my life. I was in law enforcement for 27 and a half years. And in my 27 and a half years, I never saw any racism. I never saw it from law enforcement, and I didn’t see it from any of the public. I’ve never seen that,” said Gilfillan. “I rode by the evening of the event and I saw Cory out there, and I knew that things were in good hands.”
Schultz ended the discussion by reinforcing that he would not sign the Concerned Citizens of Pottawattamie County’s letter, but would help facilitate conversations between the coalition and members of the armed militia, like Damgaard.
“I’m not going to vote to sign it. It’s not because I’m being disrespectful, it’s because what I would like to offer you is a chance to maybe sit down with some of these folks who were there that day. So I’m offering to the Concerned Citizens of Pottawattamie County the chance to have me help mediate or facilitate those conversations so we can sit down and maybe air out some of our differences,” Schultz said.
by Isabella Murray
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