Des Moines City Council’s Public Comment Restraints are Silencing Push for Change, Activists Say

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Nearly 100 residents hoped to persuade city council members Monday to remove Des Moines Police Sgt. Michael Fong from teaching de-escalation training.

“If there is a bad actor who isn’t acting in good faith, who has a record of doing things not by the book and a lawsuit paid out, we need to consider someone else leading those trainings,” said Justyn Lewis of Des Moines, who was a scheduled public comment speaker.

Fong was suspended in 2007 for excessive force, causing an $800,000 settlement. Many of the over 70 residents are slated to address that issue in public comment, but they will each only have 25 seconds to do it. “It just looks like it isn’t in good faith. It looks like they see a lot of people there and they want to trim it down where they can push business as usual,” Lewis said.

Jaylen Cavil is an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement and will also call for the removal of Police Chief Dana Wingert and City Manager Scott Sanders. “We want to restructure public safety in this city, so reform is not enough, de-escalation training is not enough, body cameras are not enough, implicit bias training is not enough. We need to look at the entire system and tear it down and build up something new,” said Cavil.

The number of public commenters skyrocketed over the summer as protests and calls for change in policing from the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement led to Des Moines City Council meetings lasting several hours. Cavil said, “Throughout the summer we began becoming more active at every city council meeting and attended all of them and spoke up against everything we felt was unjust.”

In August, the city council approved limiting each public comment to three minutes or taking the 30 minutes divided by the number of individual speakers, whichever is less. Cavil said, “It took us young Black people, young progressives, energized people who really care stepping up and getting involved for the council to react and shut us down and shut down all public comment.”

In 25 seconds, speakers will have to get their point across quickly. In fact, they will have to be quicker than the 32-second countdown walk sign for people cross the street at Ingersoll Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. “Yeah, I don’t think trust can be built in 25 seconds. I don’t think a relationship can be built or a rapport,” said Lewis.

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