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Iowa City Protest Leader Held Without Bond On Unlawful Assembly, Disorderly Conduct Charges

Matt Alvarez/IPR
Protesters led by the group Iowa Freedom Riders disrupt traffic in Iowa City during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

A leader of Black Lives Matter protests in Iowa City is being held without bond after being arrested Sunday. Mazin Mohamedali faces charges of unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct and a probation violation.

Mohamedali has been a leading voice at the nightly protests in Iowa City, put on by the group Iowa Freedom Riders. According to court filings, the charges stem from his role in a June 3 protest that ended with officers using tear gas and flash bangs to disperse demonstrators as they marched down Dubuque Street towards an Interstate 80 interchange.

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague and city councilmembers have defended the demonstrators’ rights to protest, and have apologized for officers’ use of force against the group, calling the use of tear gas “not ok”.

The Iowa Freedom Riders have marched for miles in Iowa City over the past week, urging elected leaders to dismantle systemic racism in the state, and calling for justice, equity and police reform, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The group has disrupted traffic on major thoroughfares and intersections as they’ve chanted, “No Justice, No Peace”, and have prompted the closing of parts of I-80.

The group issued a list of demands Sunday, including redirecting 25% of Iowa City Police Department funding to social services such as mental health care and drug treatment, as well as empowering the city’s community police review board.

Attorney Rockne Cole said Mohamedali is eager to get back to advocating for political change.

“Our goal is to try to get him out as soon as possible so he can engage in principled, peaceful, nonviolent resistance,” Cole said. “And that has been the focus of the group really from the start.”

Judge Deborah Farmer Minot has ordered Mohamedali be held in jail until he can be placed at Hope House, a residential facility where he was ordered to go as part of a probation agreement for a previous robbery charge.

In the meantime, Mohamedali has been moved from the Johnson County Jail to Marshall County, but Cole is requesting he be transferred back.

According to court filings, a Department of Corrections parole officer believes Mohamedali “poses a threat to the community and local law enforcement,” citing an article by the Daily Iowan. The newspaper quotes him as saying, ‘“Tell your friends if they care about you they’ll be here on Monday,” he said. “They will help you on Monday. They’ll be ready for war Monday.”’

Cole maintains that his client’s focus, and that of the Iowa Freedom Riders, is one of “peaceful, nonviolent resistance.”

Cole said Mohamadeli is expected to face additional charges of criminal mischief and trespassing.

As they’ve marched, some in the group have left behind graffiti on businesses, sidewalks, and buildings including the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and Kinnick Stadium.

The arrest comes as some local officials are chafing at the group’s approach. On Saturday night Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek shared an image on Facebook of protestors at the stadium, saying he was “so very sad” about the vandalism of the UIHC and the stadium.

Still, chair of the Linn County Board of Supervisors Stacey Walker, the first black man to hold the position, tweeted Sunday night in defense of the group and their efforts to call for an end to structural racism.

“We do not tear gas peaceful protesters. We do not arrest peaceful protesters. This isn't 'Iowa nice,' nor is it constitutional. We need answers. And we need them now,” Walker tweeted in reference to Mohamedali’s arrest. "It is my hope that these protesters will soon get a seat at the table so their demands for change can be heard.”

On Tuesday, city leaders will address protesters’ concerns at a city council special work session dedicated to an update on the Black Lives Matter movement and a “discussion of next steps in response to systemic racism."

Teague, the Iowa City mayor, issued a statement Monday afternoon urging residents to engage in the city's process of addressing these concerns.

“Right now, people are demanding answers,” Teague said in a written statement. “They are demanding change. We need to take a moment for the policy makers to gather and listen and get to work. We are committed to following through on this work, because Black lives matter. The city council’s work will happen in public, and it may be messy at times. We invite everyone to this process.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter