Campus Town Amnesia

First published on ZNet, December 4, 2014, Last October I attended a small rally held outside Iowa City’s City Hall in solidarity with Michael Brown and those protesting his killing last August by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Two of the rally’s organizers told the gathering that an unjust police killing of a Black person “could happen here in Iowa City.”

Could happen here? Hello? How soon terrible tragedies and crimes can be obliterated from local memory! Nearly five and a half years ago, an off-duty white Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputy named Terry Stotler happened upon a scuffle that started when an angry white 63-year-old University of Iowa electrician named John Bohnenkamp stomped out of a tavern to assault a badly inebriated and homeless 26-year-old Black man named John Deng in a parking lot just south of downtown Iowa City.  Bohnenkamp was furious because Deng had dropped some bottles he had been picking out of a dumpster. “Pick those goddamned bottles up,” Bohnenkamp commanded (while his wife beseeched him to leave Deng alone). The electrician was further infuriated when Deng defended himself with a very small pocket knife.

The altercation ended when Stotler killed Deng, who could barely stand, with a single shot from the deputy’s .40 caliber Glock pistol to the upper torso (the standard police “shoot-to-kill” target area).  The fatal blast was entirely unnecessary and unjustified.  It occurred at the urging of Bohnenkamp, who repeatedly defied the deputy’s order to step away. The electrician was never arrested or charged, but state law required an investigation of the shooting.

Deng’s blood collected in a pool on the sidewalk in front of a business called City Electric, just a few blocks south of the downtown “Ped Mall,” where a large crowd soaked up beer and a cool summer breeze while the young homeless man drew his final breaths. And here is a cold and basic fact that any honest local resident would know to be true: if Deng had been a drunken white college student caught up in a violent altercation (a common occurrence on weekends in Iowa City), deadly force would never been have been considered, much less deployed, by city or county police.

The rally organizers last October can be forgiven, perhaps, for knowing nothing about John Deng.  After a brief flurry of protest, the Deng shooting largely disappeared from liberal Iowa City’s collective consciousness.  Any chance that it might reemerge as an issue was nixed in late September of 2009.  That’s when Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness made publicly available the Iowa Attorney General office’s investigation. As is generally the case with police shooting inquiries (e.g. the St. Louis Grand Jury report on the Brown killing this November), the report was a whitewash.  Focused largely on the task of discrediting the purportedly outlandish claims of two eyewitnesses, it skillfully evaded the incident’s richly racialized nature.

The speed and completeness of the Deng killing’s descent down the local Orwellian memory hole might seem ironic, surprising, and/or disappointing. Hadn’t liberal Iowa City’s Democrats recently and strongly supported Barack Obama twice (in the presidential Caucus of January 2008 and the presidential general election eleven months later) in his campaign to become the nation’s first technically Black president? Hadn’t the bright blue campus town’s many liberals felt that they’d struck a blow against racism by leading the nation in the effort to put a Black family in the White House?

I was neither surprised nor disappointed.  As I had determined from hundreds of voter contacts with liberal Iowa City Obama fans during the long Iowa presidential Caucus campaign of 2007 and early 2008, few of the future president’s many enthusiastic local backers seemed particularly interested in confronting racism deeply understood – as a pervasive societal and institutional force beneath and beyond the skin color of candidates and policymakers. Most of the many white Iowa City liberals I spoke to combined personal pride in their support for a (certain kind of) Black presidential candidate with remarkable indifference to the fact that Iowa possessed the nation’s worst racial disparity for incarceration and to the plight of the growing lower-class Black population living under conditions of segregated poverty and police harassment on the city’s Southeast Side.  If anything, the carefully white-pleasing, “post-racial,” and “Black but not like Jesse” Obama seemed to offer local white Democrats a convenient way to congratulate themselves for supposedly transcending racism in the realm of presidential politics while turning a blind eye to persistent lived institutional and societal racism within and beyond their own community. [1]

I was reminded again of the Deng killing when the hopelessly pro-police St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch[2] gave his long and smug justification for not indicting Officer Darren Wilson, the killer of Michael Brown, last week.  Very much like the Iowa Attorney General’s report exonerating deputy Stotler five years ago, McCulloch’s presentation was unduly preoccupied with discrediting the most condemnatory and (perhaps) questionable eyewitness accounts, ignoring numerous other and important facts suggesting the unwarranted and racially biased use of deadly force.

Did the local Ferguson-solidarity organizers last October really not know about the Deng killing?  According to one venerable local anti-racist activist and commentator I spoke with, those organizers have agreed not to mention it because they do not wish to offend Johnson County Attorney Lyness and the local Democratic Party establishment, which wants the shooting to remain locked in the closet of forgotten history.  I have no idea if the commentator is right about the organizers but I have no doubt that he’s correct about the local establishment. The criminally unnecessary police killing of John Deng just doesn’t jibe with the deceptive racially progressive self-imagery of liberal Iowa City, the “post-racial” President’s favorite little campus town.  Neither does Iowa’s nationally worst racial incarceration disparity nor does the segregated and concentrated poverty, marginalization and racial profiling experienced by Black folks living on the edges of the bright blue campus town.  The less said about these uncomfortable sorts of things the better as far as local elites are concerned.  The university and surrounding community are expanding, with lots of money to be made by big developers, bankers, lawyers, and building trades, after all, so who needs to rock the boat and kill the vibe by bringing up unseemly stuff like that?

There’s some good local race news to report from Iowa City, however.  Most of the many young folks who demonstrated in Iowa City against the killing of Michael Brown and against the exoneration of his killer (and also against the killing of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his murderer in 2012) may not know about John Deng. But many of them seem to have learned a good lesson from the Age of Obama: it’s not about who’s sitting in the White House and the suites, it’s about who’s occupying and marching in the streets – including the streets of Iowa City, where I marched last November 25th with more than 200 mostly young adults to protest the non-indictment of Michael Brown’s killer.  The current wave of anti-racist protestors have received some refreshing inoculation against the virus of identity- and candidate-centered politics. They are newly positioned to battle racism and related evils beneath and beyond major party electoral extravaganzas, with a much deeper understanding of the forces at play and the stakes involved.  That is a development much to be encouraged in Iowa, where – thanks to the blessing/curse of the “first in the nation” major party presidential Caucuses[3] – the quadrennial citizen-marginalizing presidential election spectacle takes on a special frenzied force one year before it hits the rest of the nation.

Iowa City writer and activist Paul Street is the author of many books, including Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). 

1. For a more in-depth account of my frankly disturbing interactions with “liberal” Iowa City Obama fans in 2007 and 2008, see my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), 134-135. 172-173.

2. In a forthcoming essay titled “No True Justice,” I go into some depth on how and why the Grand Jury exoneration orchestrated by McCulloch was sheer travesty.

3.  The only other state the comes close when it comes to big money-major media presidential candidate carpet-bombing for many months in advance of the actual presidential election year is of course New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the nation presidential primary.

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By | 2014-12-17T14:08:48+00:00 December 17th, 2014|Articles|