DES MOINES, Iowa — Black Lives Matter protesters accused of assaulting Des Moines police officers Wednesday afternoon are offering a novel defense for their actions: they were trying to “de-arrest” fellow protesters.
17 people were arrested at the state capitol on Wednesday afternoon following a violent clash with police. Des Moines police say they peacefully took three people wanted on outstanding warrants into custody as they protested inside the Capitol. But when officers tried transferring those suspects to vehicles outside the Capitol they were met by more protesters.
That is when things turned violent.
Des Moines police say protesters illegally blocked officers from walking, then physically intervened with officers. That lead to a violent clash between the two sides with police and protesters caught on camera tackling each other.
Black Lives Matter organizers tell WHO 13 that police were the aggressors. The group released a statement on social media saying they were trying to “de-arrest” the protesters they felt were illegally being detained by police.
In an exclusive interview with WHO 13, DMPD Chief Dana Wingert said the term “de-arrest” is not legitimate.
“What that’s called is interference with official acts. It doesn’t make you a martyr, it makes you a criminal, and there’s criminal implications for interfering with official police duties,” Wingert said about Wednesday’s events at the capitol.
Grant Woodard, a criminal defense lawyer in Des Moines, said officers are only legally obliged to inform the person being arrested of what charges they face. When it comes to the term “de-arrest” protesters used to describe how they responded to force by officers, Woodard said that is a novel term, and one that would be hard to use as a defense in the court.
“You would have to prove that the actions of the police were so malicious and egregious that they [protestors] were trying to defend other people’s civil rights,” Woodard said. “I have a hard time seeing it being successful — to be able to prove police were acting outside the scope of their authority is pretty difficult.”
Chief Wingert on Police Response to Past Protests
Wingert told WHO 13 that his officers respect their rights to protest, but a line has to be drawn.
“We’re not going to allow people’s property to be destroyed. We’re not going to allow people’s safety to be put in jeopardy. And we’re certainly not going to allow threats against police officers or violence against police officers,” he said. “That will include a trip to jail, every single time guaranteed.”
When it comes to the BLM group’s concern about asking officers about why some protestors were getting detained and on what charges, Wingert said others are not legally entitled to that information.
“The remainder of the crowd, quite frankly, we have no obligation to tell them. And when the crowds crowds house hostile like that, we’re probably not going to take the time hang around,” he said.
Black Lives Matter protestors and groups like the ACLU of Iowa have been vocal against law enforcement’s use of tear gas, pepper spray and force during demonstrations as means to disperse the crowd. When asked if he thought such force was necessary, Wingert said when protestors are throwing objects and not listening to disperse orders, that is when officers must intervene.
“That’s when we’re done, when we have an obligation to not only protect our property but we have to protect ourselves. There’s nothing too difficult figuring out what the word disperse means. It’s the law,” he said. “I don’t understand the difficulty in that so if beyond that you’re still there.”
Wingert said officers have tried to be patient with demonstators and defended the department’s responses in recent weeks.
“Sometimes police work is not pretty. It’s certainly not pretty when you have a standoff with a large group of people, but we’ve shown a lot of patience, and a lot of professionalism, almost to a fault in some cases,” he said. “But when that line is crossed and it’s time to make those arrests, we have policies in place and we know what we’re doing.”
Still, protestors stand their ground, and said they have been met with aggressive behavior by law enforcement officials. An organizer named Julian spoke to WHO 13 on Wednesday and said the account told by police officers is not accurate.
“We had two protesters recording documenting everything happening,” Julian tells WHO 13. “An officer strikes at one of the protesters and then things escalate by officers tackling two of the protesters dragging one of them.”
Who is in the right and who is in the wrong is something Woodard said will be ultimately up to the courts to decide.
“It’ll certainly be interesting as these arrests work their way through the courts in the coming months,” Woodard said. “Certainly we have the right to assemble and protest in the first amendment, but there can be restrictions. When it comes to the rights of protestors versus the rights of police to maintain order, there are a lot of gray areas in the law.”