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Resisting the Criminalization of Dissent: A Conversation With Iowa Activist David Goodner

Iowa activists are fighting a law that would make blockading highways a felony offense.

David Goodner coordinates a leadership team of rank-and-file workers during a "Fight For A Fair Economy: Make Wall Street Pay" action outside of Wells Fargo in Iowa City. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement)

It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, we introduce you to some of them. Today’s interview is the eleventh in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Activists in Iowa are currently organizing to stop a draconian criminalization of dissent bill at the Iowa State Capitol. In this interview we speak with Iowa community organizer David Goodner — a member of the Iowa City Catholic Worker Community and a member of an ad hoc organizing group that has loosely been called the “Kill the Bill Organizing Committee” — about criminalization-of-protest bills, tactics and organizing in rural “middle America.”

Sarah Jaffe: This bill is similar to ones that have been introduced in several places around the country, but can you tell us what it is and what it would do?

David Goodner: I don’t know how familiar readers are around the country with the political scene in Iowa. I will just take a step back. Iowa is a “right-to-work” swing state. It went for Obama in 2008 and 2012. We had the first in the nation caucus and we catapulted Obama towards the presidency in 2008. We were the fourth state in the nation to legalize gay marriage and we had a liberal lion, Sen. Tom Harkin, in the US Senate for decades. Democrats have been wiped off the map here in recent years, much like as around the country. Trump easily carried Iowa in 2016 and Republicans now control the governor’s mansion and both chambers at the State House. Both Iowa senators are Republican and three out of four congressmen are Republican.

Iowa is facing a budget shortfall this year as a result of property tax cuts that were supported by Democrats and Republicans in 2013. Now that the GOP controls all levels of the state government, they have already worked this legislative session, which just started a few weeks ago, to slash our state budget by $118,000,000, disproportionately impacting our schools and our mental health services and they are working hard to destroy public sector collective bargaining, defund Planned Parenthood, institute voter ID, slash environmental regulations on factory farms — we are the number one home of factory hog farms — turn over immigration information collected by law enforcement and state universities to the federal government and a whole host of other bad things.

But there is also a lot of inspiring social organizing in Iowa. It is not to scale compared to New York City or LA or anything, but in 2012 a grassroots community organization named Iowa CCI [Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement] bird-dogged Mitt Romney at the state fair and forced him into his “Corporations are people, my friend” gaffe. There was a relatively strong Occupy Wall Street movement here. Bernie Sanders tied Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucus and on January 21, the day of the worldwide Women’s Marches this year, 26,000 people rallied at the state capitol in Des Moines, which is the second-largest protest in Iowa State history. Just this last week 2,000 people demonstrated in Iowa City on February 5 and another 2,000 in Des Moines on February 2 to protest President Trump’s Muslim ban and immigration policies. After the election, on Friday, November 11, dozens of high school students in Iowa City walked out of class and over 100 high school, college and graduate students blockaded Interstate 80 for over half an hour, shutting down traffic on arguably the largest interstate in the country.

This action, more than any other, prompted Republican lawmakers at the State House to introduce legislation that would make blockading the highways and interstates a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison. Our Kill the Bill Organizing Committee [has] labelled it the Criminalization of Dissent Bill and we are doing as much organizing as we can to stop it dead in its tracks.

This bill is particularly aimed at the blockading of traffic. Can you talk a little bit about the history of that tactic, in particular in Iowa?

There is no question that it was a direct response to the action that took place in Iowa City on November 11, just a few days after Trump was elected, when over a hundred people marched in the streets without a permit, onto the interstate and stopped eastbound traffic for a half an hour.

I don’t think that tactic has been used in Iowa since the Vietnam War. It was something that definitely happened in the 1968-72 era. It hasn’t really been seen here since. I think it really marks an escalation of social movements, very much in line with what is happening around the country today. I think it scared the pants off of these guys and they are trying to do what they can to shut down successful protesting.

We have seen this tactic, as you said, rising in recent years. What are some of the arguments that are being mobilized to justify making it a felony?

We should pause and give credit to the Black Lives Matter movement, because they really brought this specific tactic back in the last few years, blockading highways and interstates in order to shut down business as usual. The argument that we are hearing from the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, Iowa, is that it is disruptive to the economy and that it is putting people’s lives at risk and preventing ambulances and law enforcement from getting to where they need to go.

This is really over the top, in our opinion. Anybody who has ever driven on a highway or interstate before knows that car accidents happen and that if you get stuck behind a car accident, traffic could be shut down on an interstate for an hour or longer, and nobody talks about doing away with interstate traffic. We also know that there was a recent example just in Minneapolis a few days ago where there was a big road blockade by demonstrators and an ambulance tried to get through and the demonstrators parted ways, let the ambulance through and put their blockade back up. So, the ambulances always get through and this idea that people are going to be rushed to the hospital and they are not going to get the medical care they need is, frankly, absurd.

When they are saying that it disrupts economic activity, that is kind of the point.

Yes. That is why people use this tactic, to shut down business as usual so we can open the country back up to a democratic dialogue. That is something that we have to do in these days and times…. When Republicans try to crack down on that, it sends a very distressing signal to people that their voices don’t matter and that the effective ways of making their voices heard are being taken away from them and that is not right.

Tell us a little bit about the organizing that is going on in response to this. How much support are you getting to try to kill the bill?

The action on November 11, it was fairly controversial. There were people in the community who were supportive of the protests but were concerned it was a radical action and could have endangered people, especially the protestors who first walked onto the highway to block traffic. Nobody got hurt. You never really hear about people getting hurt in these types of actions, but there were those concerns, and we have to take those from our supporters at face value and have a good dialogue about them.

We have basically been working on an inside-outside strategy. We are in Iowa City, which is fondly known as the People’s Republic of Johnson County. It is home to the Big Ten research university, the University of Iowa, which is best known for its writers’ workshop and medical and law schools. That is 110 miles away from the state capitol. We have been planning organizing meetings here locally, op-eds in local newspapers, rallies and banner drops, legislative forums with our state legislators here in town and other protests. That is the outside part, hitting the streets to make our views known. We also know that this bill is going to be debated at the State House in Des Moines 110 miles away from where the original action took place and that we have to have a presence at the subcommittee and committee hearings. We will also be putting together phone and email blasts to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jake Chapman, as well as the members of the transportation committee. We need to mobilize at the state capitol and attend some of these committee meetings so we can give public testimony, and if necessary, take direct action and maybe civil disobedience inside the State House so that we can kill the bill.

The idea of shutting down business as usual is related to labor strikes — how can people halt economic activity? As somebody who has been a labor organizer, talk about these kinds of tactics and why they are gaining increasing relevance and popularity under Trump.

We are only three weeks into the Trump administration and we are already seeing, perhaps, one of the largest mass movements in American history…. This movement is going to continue to grow and we are going to bring in more and more people. Where we really need to take it now is we need to start bringing in the working class, everyday people, working families in order to build the movement and in order to take it in that direction. We are starting to look at workplace actions and strikes as a way to shut down the country so that we can open it back up.

Speaking of pipelines, can you tell us a little bit about the resistance in Iowa around the Dakota Access pipeline?

Hats off to the Indigenous people at Standing Rock. They have really shown the rest of the country — just like Indigenous people have done throughout our country’s history — the proper way to fight back against injustice and the way to incorporate prayer with confrontation in order to get done what needs to get done…. They led the social movement and they need to be the ones that are continuing to be in front of the movement. Especially, the Indigenous women who time and time again we saw really taking charge and really being the leaders of that fight.

Now, we did have a very, very robust resistance movement against the pipeline here in Iowa. It had been going on since the pipeline was announced in 2014. Last year, in the fall of 2016, before the election, there were close to 200 arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience in several different areas for weeks and weeks. That was really an incredible thing that you don’t really see happening in Iowa very often, certainly not in my lifetime.

Going forward, obviously, Trump is going to push for the completion of this pipeline, of all the pipelines. What are the conversations that you are having with people to connect all of these issues together?

The pipeline is completely buried in Iowa. If we had a really, really massive movement maybe we could talk about digging the pipe back up, but that is probably not realistic. One thing that I think really connected with folks here — beyond the struggle in North Dakota and people’s desire to stand in solidarity with the Indigenous people — most Iowans know very well from personal experience the importance of water quality. Iowa has some of the worst water quality in the world. Mostly, because of corporate agribusiness.

It was really easy to pivot from the years and years of organizing around clean water issues to understand just how important this fight really was. I think moving forward, whether it is the Dakota Access pipeline, whether it is a factory farm hog lot that is being built next door to a rural community, clean water is going to always be an important issue in Iowa, and it is always going to be a tool that social movements can use to organize, not just your usual suspects, but actually rural Iowans, people who voted for Trump….

There are all of these conversations going on right now about how certain tactics are going to alienate people. It is really interesting to hear you talking about the defense of the right to protest as actually a way to bring people in.

Absolutely. Stuff like what happened at Berkeley, that is going to be controversial. I think we also have to realize, at least in that sense, confrontation won. When we went to the airports all over the country and confronted and there was really the risk of shutting down these major airports, these major centers, again, of economic activity, we won major concessions from the Trump administration on his bad policy. The Women’s March, having millions of people in the streets, there may not have been a clear-cut victory, but I think it did energize and mobilize people to realize that we can win when we stick together, when we develop a mass movement strategy, and when we fight like hell. … I think people here in Iowa want to stand with somebody who they know is fighting for them. They are not going to care so much about ideology if they can see that there is a movement that has their back and is going to defend their interests. People are going to sign up and join it.

You have been organizing in Iowa for a while now. Talk about some of the things that you have learned, things that have been successful, things that have been less successful that people who are organizing in more rural areas, in whiter areas, in smaller cities can learn from.

I think the most useful experience that I have had was as a rural environmental and family farm organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI). That is a statewide community power group that has over 3,000 dues-paying members and uses direct action as their primary tactic to talk, act and get things done. Their base, again, is not college kids. It is not liberals or anarchists. It is rural countryside family farmers, people who live in rural Iowa, people who watch Fox News. And when a big giant corporate factory farm is being built across from the farmstead that your family has owned for a hundred and fifty years, ideology goes out the window. You are mad as hell about your life being impacted, and when people can come to you and talk to you in the language that you understand, speak to your self-interests, build a personal relationship with you, and show you a time-tested proven method that can get you what you want when you join with other people in your neighborhood, in your community, at your churches, the folks you see at the grocery store, in school, in the church pews, beautiful things can happen.

I think that is the mindset that we need to take into these red states, into these places that we don’t think are with us, because I know that they are. We just have to talk to them in the right way.

How can people keep up with you?

Anytime folks want to know what is happening on the ground in Iowa, check out the Des Moines Register. The Iowa City Catholic Worker — we have a Facebook page. Just be looking for stuff to come out of Iowa because this bill … we have to stop it. There is a live and active resistance here that is going to continue.

Note: This interview has been edited for concision. Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast.

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