Last Wednesday, January 6th, I gathered together with a group of really great folks outside of the Burlington (Iowa) Police Department to demand justice for Autumn Steele one year after she was killed by BPD officer Jesse Hill.
It was a cold day, but that didn’t stop these dedicated, caring and compassionate folks from joining me to demonstrate that we would not forgive or forget until there is justice; and to honor Autumn’s memory and show her family, as well as the families of all innocent civilians killed by police, that we care and will stand beside them. I will let the video speak for itself, but there are a few thoughts i’d like to share.
I have friends who grew up in Burlington, so I have heard lots of stories over the years. It reminds me of my hometown of Newton, Iowa in many ways. Both were once thriving industrial towns that later lost much of their employer base to NAFTA era outsourcing. At the same time both places were hit very hard by methamphetamine use. Today Burlington looks old and run down. Its once thriving waterfront downtown on the Mississippi is now just a collection of decaying relics that nobody has the resources or inclination to fix up. Its streets are relatively empty and its businesses are holding on by a thread. Even the government buildings like the police station were testaments to hard times.
Hard times bring their own culture. The meth use being battled (like a war instead of an illness) by police and increasing dependency on government assistance made Burlington residents ripe for an unjustified faith in their local authorities. Today those authorities are above question. This is how Hill and BPD have gotten away with killing Autumn. They have taken advantage of the sad side effects of a community on the constant verge of collapse. Several times in Burlington while we were making noise in the street, folks would peak out of their windows, wanting to see but not be seen seeing. This is such a great illustrative metaphor for that communities general apathy and the apathy for Autumns killing. They know. They just don’t want to get involved because that would tear down the thin veneer of control the authorities provide for them. It is a neurotic fear of the cognitive dissonance they would have to face if they recognized the truth of this situations and their community in general.
So my message for the people of Burlington is this: You have a responsibility to one another. You have a responsibility to Autumn. She could have been your daughter, sister, mother, wife, etc. The hard times your community have fallen on in the past few decades is no excuse for your apathy. Those authorities are not your protectors. They are the vultures picking whats left of your community from its bones. If you do not rise up against them when they are so obviously wrong, you will deserve the even worse parts of a community on the decline that are coming to you.
The other thing I wanted to mention was how the media responded to this protest and most others. First of all, the media that did show up were pretty hostile to us and obvious quite friendly with the cops. The man you saw interviewing me in the video was seen at one point hugging an officer in the street. So there is that to consider about the state of Burlington, Iowa as well. Here is the article that was published by the radio station. Notice he did not use any of his interview with me. Instead he chose to go with the messages that have already been printed in the past.
This is something that mainstream media does a lot. They choose the messages that have already met with public approval or the ones that are safest. They will shy away from any critical opinions of the system, because more often than not, they are part of or related to that system in some way. Therefore it is important that protesters recognize this will happen. If you want to communicate effectively with the media, discuss strategies ahead of time. Elect spokespersons that have a strong message all can agree with, and make sure everybody knows that message so that they can share it if asked by media to speak. Other wise they will water down your message and tame it so it is not harmful to the status quo.
I recommend that you start by identifying your possible goals. Then decide which ones are both most possible and most agreeable. If this is not your first protest on the subject, be sure to change your message each time. Different people will respond to different messages, so you can get the most effect out of media time by presenting new focal points of discussion each time. Once you have identified your core goal, create the message that helps you to meet it and make sure everyone is familiar with it and can be repeat it if the media tries to railroad people who are unprepared, as they often will. The entire game is rigged against us, but if we learn how it works, we can rig it back to our advantage. We have one thing that systematic entities can never have- creativity. Using it gives those fighting for justice, freedom and liberty the upper hand.
Here is an article from Iowa Free Press on the protest. They were not afraid to get to the heart of the issue and we applaud their integrity and honesty.
Here are some photos taken of the event from a wonderful photographer who was part of the protest.
Thanks again for all who participated, and on behalf of all those folks, we invite you to join us the next time we show up to remind Jesse, the BPD and Burlington that we will never forget.