Iowa House Republicans last week passed a so-called “Back the Blue” bill, which provides more protections to law enforcement and punishes protesters in direct response to last summer’s protests of nationwide racial inequity.
Democratic Rep. Christina Bohannan of Iowa City noted there are “some really problematic parts of this bill” during a time when the Derek Chauvin murder trial came to a conclusion and a number of other police-involved deaths have taken place.
“It creates new crimes and increases the penalties for the other crimes. If you block a sidewalk or a street, the penalty for that has been increased to an aggravated misdemeanor. This new legislation also says that if a driver of a car drives into a group of protestors hitting them, they will be immune from lawsuits if they were negligent or grossly negligent. On the other hand, if they were reckless, they won’t be immune,” said Bohannan in an interview with Iowa Starting Line.
The Representative also spoke against the bill on the chamber floor last week– stating that she would have supported the bill in its original form about more benefits for officers. After recently added language created penalties for protesters, the legislation became too partisan, she said.
“I think this goes way too far, it’s really unfortunate because the bill that was about sick leave and some other benefits for officers, and Republican legislators added all of these punishments in there for protestors,” she said. “They put all of these harsh punishments for protestors in the same bill, creating harsher and more severe penalties that are not necessary.”
Iowa currently has laws in place that punish those who assault a police officer or cause serious property damage. The Republican majority’s new legislative language makes it a point to increase the types of conduct that would be punishable by protesters.
“The message to protesters is, ‘You better stay at home and stop protesting, because if you go out and you do the slightest thing wrong, you can be put in jail,'” Bohannan said.
Days after the bill passed, protesters from the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement on Saturday held a “Back the Black” on Des Moines City Hall grounds. They called for demands ranging from identifying and firing all police officers with a violent record, racist conduct and the firing of City Manager Scott Sanders and Chief of Police Dana Wingert.
In addition, the protesters demanded the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis and requested the city defund and abolish the police.
The Black Liberation Movement said they communicated the rally in advance in light of tighter restrictions. They advised protesters to wear sunglasses so to protect their identity and to wear masks for privacy and COVID-19 safety. The Movement also discouraged taking phones and cameras to the event in order to avoid being identified and targeted by the police.
The names of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and Anthony Thompson Jr. were included in the call to action as the most recent persons of color killed by police around the country. No incidents were reported from the event.
Among Rep. Bohannan’s concerns about the recent legislation is that it will further pin law enforcement against movements like Black Lives Matter at a time when these groups should come together to engage in productive dialogue to address the issues of injustice.
“Instead, House Republicans passed this bill that really just says ‘We’re going to protect law enforcement, regardless of what it does to any of the protestors,’” she said.
The amended ‘Back the Blue’ bill is set to go back to the Senate for a vote. It faces opposition from organizations like Interfaith Alliance, among others.
Republican Governor Reynolds supports the legislation.
“Law enforcement officers take an oath of honor to serve their communities, and willingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect lives and property every day. In return, we must do our part to protect and defend them. This year, Gov. Reynolds is proposing legislation that calls for tougher penalties on those who harm law enforcement or cause chaos in their community,” her website states.
Her own recommendations are that:
- Officers shall have the right to pursue civil remedies against a person that injures them for being law enforcement or files a false claim against them.
- Enhance penalties under Iowa Code for harassment and assault of peace officers.
- Address riotous behavior through higher penalties for actions that destroy communities.
- Withhold state funding to local governments that reduce police budgets.”
Interfaith Alliance of Iowa & Action Fund Executive Director Connie Ryan said in a letter that she hopes the legislation will die in the last few weeks of the 2021 Legislative session.
“As you can see from the list of legislation below, a lot of ‘big issue’ bills are still hanging around and that is cause for concern,” she wrote. “Will the bills move forward, or will they die in the midst of the chaos of the closing days? Let’s hope for the latter.”
by Claudia Thrane
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