Skip to content Skip to footer

Will Grassroots Movements Change the Political Discourse in Iowa?

Presidential elections are an opportunity for grassroots movements to punch above their weight – especially in caucus states.

Minnesota-based immigrant rights group Asamblea de Derechos Civiles disrupts a soapbox speech by GOP presidential candidate and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal on August 22 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Photo: Iowa Starting Line)

The Iowa State Fair used to be campaign gold for presidential candidates, an event National Public Radio’s “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook has called a “campaign launching pad,” a picture perfect opportunity to meet thousands of likely caucus-goers, eat fried pork chops on a stick and bask in the glow of a national media spotlight brighter than buttered sweet corn shining in the summer sun.

But ever since 2011, when Mitt Romney was heckled by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement activists and made his “corporations are people, my friend” gaffe, a campaign appearance at the Iowa State Fair has brought as much risk as reward.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton understands this. She attended the Iowa State Fair on August 15 this year for photo ops and staged appearances but skipped the Des Moines Register’s Soapbox stage altogether, likely fearing an unscripted moment that could knock her campaign off message.

“It’s time for those running for office to answer the critical questions of our community.”

Two days later, on August 17, Wisconsin governor and GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker found out the hard way the power that citizen activists have to turn campaign launch pads into bottle rocket duds. More than 50 home health-care workers were bused in from Madison and Milwaukee by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and disrupted an Iowa State Fair speech Walker gave in front of hundreds of everyday Iowans.

The unionized “Fight for $15” workers followed Walker around the fairgrounds for hours and photobombed his stops with dozens of bright yellow-and-black signs that read, “Warning: Don’t let Scott Walker do to America what he did to Wisconsin.” Walker’s supporters fought back, but the ensuing spectacle only helped to generate even more media headlines.

Other activists also took advantage of the Iowa State Fair this year to draw attention to their issues. A faith-based immigrant rights group from Minnesota, Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, organized an Iowa Pilgrimage Ride from August 19 to 23 and marched, rallied and held vigils in major cities across Iowa. The group arrived in Des Moines on August 21 to protest outside a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, as well as at a “Rally for Religious Liberty” held by GOP candidate and Texas senator Ted Cruz.

The Minnesota immigrants also bird-dogged GOP candidates Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey governor Chris Christie at the Iowa State Fair on August 22, the same day animal rights activists also confronted Christie. An “#AllowDebates” group with ties to some of Hillary Clinton’s primary opponents publicly challenged the Democratic National Committee chair about the Democrats short public debate calendar on the second to last day of the fair as well.

“It’s time for those running for office to answer the critical questions of our community,” Pablo Tapia, an Asamblea de Derechos Civiles leader, told Truthout. “Every day we hear the stories of families torn apart, and the women and children who languish in prison while corporations profit off of our oppression. Now we are organized and there is no stopping us.”

The Movement for Black Lives Pushes the US to the Left

Heckling politicians is as American as apple pie, and mic check-style tactics are nothing new to social movement organizing. Young immigrants with DREAM Iowa have been bird-dogging presidential candidates on the stump all summer, and Quakers with the American Friends Service Committee in both Iowa and New Hampshire have spent the last several months training everyday citizens to take effective action on the issues they care about.

“The people in power don’t really want to concede to the radicals, but they end up being forced to concede some of the more moderate demands.”

But bold actions attempting to claim and hold space, and actually shut down campaign events entirely, seem to be gaining widespread traction this year after leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement disrupted speaking engagements of the self-styled democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in Phoenix and Seattle. The progressive favorite was quickly forced to add racial justice to his platform and talk more openly about race on the stump. Similar actions soon followed targeting Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

“African Americans have a strong history of spearheading resistance movements in this country,” said Jessica Welburn, a Black Twitter activist and African American studies professor at the University of Iowa.

“Mass movements make people feel like they can do something as individuals to make a difference. The conversation in this country has definitely moved forward as more and more people see civil unrest on the news and read about people protesting, and interrupting political candidates.”

Pam Oliver, a sociologist studying social movements at the University of Wisconsin, described the influence that Black Lives Matter is having on the national debate as an example of what some social scientists call “the radical flank effect.” According to this theory, mass radical organizing normalizes confrontational, disruptive direct actions as both legitimate and effective, and provokes a political crisis powerful enough to force institutional systems to begin negotiating with moderate movement factions.

“It’s a little more complicated when partisan politics get involved, but as a pattern to think about, radicals put pressure on the system and help moderates win,” Oliver said. “The people in power don’t really want to concede to the radicals, but they end up being forced to concede some of the more moderate demands to try and get a handle on things and cool things down.”

The dynamic Oliver describes is undoubtedly happening nationwide in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. President Obama has proposed a limited demilitarization plan for urban police forces and recently became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, where he called for some measured alternatives to mass incarceration policies. Presidential candidates besides Bernie Sanders have begun to spell out racial justice platforms of their own, and “Black millennial” factions like Campaign Zero have released their own political demands.

Local Resistance to Racism in Iowa

Iowa is first in the nation in the disproportionate incarceration of Black people. Iowa is 88 percent white, 6 percent Latino and 3 percent Black, but 26 percent of prisoners in the Midwest farm state are Black. Black Iowans are eight times more likely to be arrested for petty marijuana offenses than white Iowans.

Police violence against Black Iowans is also well documented. In 2008, Des Moines police officers beat a Black man 14 times with batons as he lay on the ground. Waterloo, one of Iowa’s most diverse and racially segregated cities, is currently the subject of five separate federal lawsuits for excessive force by police.

Iowa City, nicknamed the “People’s Republic” because of the community’s progressive values, has nevertheless struggled for years to deal fairly with an influx of Black migrants from Chicago who have largely been segregated on the city’s southeast side. A recent study of mainstream media coverage of Iowa City’s demographic shift found that “virtually every news item about the southeast conforms to stereotypes depicting African-Americans as lazy, uneducated, dependent on government handouts, and prone to criminal or immoral behavior.”

Welburn, the Twitter activist and sociologist, says her personal experience as a Black person from Iowa tracks with the academic research.

“There’s always been tension in Iowa between African Americans and the predominantly white community,” Welburn said. “A lot of stereotyping and profiling, as long as I can remember. But there are people of color in Iowa, and there are long-standing black organizations like the University of Iowa Black Student Union whose members were behind many of the recent protests here. People are developing strategies to become more vocal to combat racism in the community.”

“Any presidential candidate who wants the support of Iowans needs to take on working people’s issues.”

In December 2014, Black graduate students at the University of Iowa mobilized hundreds of people to attend protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the widespread outrage against the racist police killings of Black people. Just a few weeks ago, over a hundred people protested outside of Iowa City Hall after a Black 15-year-old was beaten by local police.

“I’m a mom, so if I see Black kids getting mistreated, I’m going to be like, ‘hold on, because you are not going to do that to my kids,'” said LaTasha DeLoach, one of the Iowa City “Black Kids Play Too” demonstrators.

DeLoach grew up poor in Iowa City and is now a social worker running for political office as a candidate for the local school board. She calls the disproportionality of discipline against Black schoolchildren in Iowa City “pervasive and alarming.”

“Some people may not like Black Lives Matter’s tactics, but if anything they make you pay attention,” DeLoach said. “They make you start asking questions. And the Occupy Wall Street folks did some of the same stuff.”

“Now Black women in my generation are ready to stand up and speak out. We’ve been quiet all this time, while all of these things have happened to us, and I think it’s important that now we have a seat at the table.”

Black women in Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines have also mobilized hundreds to Black Lives Matter protests over the last year. Demonstrations quickly broke out after a Black trans woman was discriminated against and arrested at a Des Moines metro-area hotel in July.

Pressure From Immigrant Workers

Low-wage immigrant and refugee workers have also been organizing in Iowa with the newly formed Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. The faith and labor-backed group uses community meetings, direct action street protests and targeted negotiations with decision-makers to win on issues like wage theft, stopping deportations, community ID and raisingtheminimumwage.

“Any presidential candidate who wants the support of Iowans needs to take on working people’s issues, like addressing wage theft and low wages,” said Mazahir Salih, a low-wage worker and board member of the local worker justice center.

“We want the next president to ramp up enforcement of labor laws, raise the wage and strengthen workers’ rights to organize. We must also re-haul our immigration laws, provide a progressive path to citizenship for every undocumented person and immediately stop deportations.”

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement is another people’s action group with a long history of organizing family farmers, immigrants and Black people to fight for economic, environmental and racial justice. The group is planning a 40th anniversary convention for October 2 and 3 in Des Moines that will include keynote speeches by Moral Mondays founder Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza.

Shaping the Narrative of the Election Season

A year of urban riots followed by recent disruptions of presidential campaign events has succeeded in forcing the mainstream media and political system to consider the demands of racial justice activists.

“There is all kinds of information that shows white people are paying far more attention to Black issues after the surge of Black Lives Matter protests than they were before,” Oliver said. “Significant strikes and riots will probably always produce headlines, but as elections heat up, party politics tend to crowd out all the other news in the paper. If you want to get your message out, showing up at an election event increases your chances of being heard because that’s where all the reporters are.”

To be successful, social movement organizers will have to navigate the open political space as an independent source of power, contending not only with super PACs, which are increasingly taking on campaign organizing and event planning in addition to attack ads and household mailers, but also with national advocacy and interest groups posing as grassroots activists, as well.

After Labor Day, Iowa and other early voting states will be flooded with campaign ads, field organizers and political operatives of all stripes and allegiances in an attempt by special interest groups to influence the primary races, jockey for internal control of the political parties and vie for public attention. Many of these outfits will attempt to orchestrate events to appear to be organic and homegrown, even if the plans, the staff and the money come from national advocacy groups and foundations based in Washington, DC.

Right-wing activists are also organizing and using the presidential election season to push their agenda forward. Nearly 200 pro-Confederate flag rallies have been held across the country this summer. Anti-choice protests in Iowa targeting Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive freedom mobilized 250 people on August 22 and more than 1,000 on August 15. Sen. Ted Cruz’s rally for religious liberty turned out thousands of people. A popular conservative Iowa talk radio host recently called for enslaving immigrants who refuse to self-deport.

“The grassroots right has a lot of different elements,” Oliver said. “There are the racist, nativist elements, who have clearly been exploding with activity recently. You’ve got the Tea Party and these right-wing populists where government somehow becomes the enemy instead of corporations. There’s also a version of right-wing populism associated with Christian conservatism.”

Building Radical Momentum in the Midwest

Taking on the combined forces of big money corporate spending, the grassroots right and liberal AstroTurf organizations is a daunting task for social movements to tackle and overcome. But grassroots organizing in Iowa, the Midwest and across the United States is having a real impact.

To sustain and build the momentum, movement leaders will have to mobilize more and broader layers of everyday people into durable, long-haul organizations, capable of scaling up and taking on larger, more sustained and more disruptive direct actions. Rank-and-file militants should learn to accept the inevitable bargaining between decision-makers and moderate movement factions, and keep fighting for more with their eyes on the only true prize: growing a real base of people power in workplaces, neighborhoods and communities across the country, which is truly independent of establishment interest groups, foundations, politicians and political parties.

“Candidates on both the left and the right are attempting to strike a populist image on a wide range of issues affecting working-class people,” said Adam Mason, an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement leader originally from rural Storm Lake. “Our members and many other everyday Iowans can see through the populist rhetoric on both sides, and we will be pressuring all candidates to back a specific set of ‘People and Planet First’ policies,” added Mason, who currently serves as the organization’s statewide policy organizing director.

“We’ll also build and mobilize a base of social justice fighters that will hold the eventual nominees from both parties accountable to the people.”

Urgent message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $18,000 before midnight tonight. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.