Police raid LGBTQ bar in Iowa after staff assist protesters

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Des Moines police entered the Blazing Saddle last week after staff members provided first aid to injured protesters.

Three members of the staff of an LGBTQ bar in the East Village neighborhood of Des Moines, Iowa, were arrested last week when they went outside to help after police fired tear gas at people protesting police brutality.

Matthew Raper, Thuan Luong, and Logan Villhauer were arrested outside of the Blazing Saddle, the oldest gay bar in Des Moines.

The men told the Des Moines Register they were returning to the bar after providing first aid to a protester who'd been sprayed with a chemical when police arrived in riot gear and, with their rifles drawn, ordered people to get down on the ground. Video footage posted by the Register shows that the three men complied.

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Court documents say Luong and Raper were near a riot or unlawful assembly and would not disperse when ordered to by police, but Villhauer noted the two different orders given and said they weren't sure which to follow.

Raper and Villhauer said officers expressed contempt for the protesters.

Bryan Smith, co-owner of the bar, said he and three others who had been aiding the protesters went back into the bar when riot police arrived.

"We were trying to get out of the way to let them do their job and then we realized we were their job at that time, or what they preconceived as their job, I guess. There were other people on the street besides us — the people doing the first aid."

Smith said he thought the protesters immediately left the area once police arrived.

Police officers came to the bar and told the people there to come out of the building, Smith said. Three of them did so. Police then asked if anyone else was still in the building and proceeded to go inside.

After the officers had asked the remaining person to come outside and had frisked him, they inspected the rest of the bar.

"I don't know if they thought that we were hiding anybody, but we weren't. I don't see the reason for them to march in here without reason. I didn't see a reason for them to come in other than we were here when they jumped out," said Smith.

June 1, when the bar was raided, saw Des Moines' fourth night of protests against police violence following the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis on May 25. That night, police used tear gas and flash-bang grenades on about 200 demonstrators.

Polk County officials had instituted a curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. at the request of Gov. Kim Reynolds and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie. On June 4, the county rescinded it. Smith said the bar wasn't open and he and a group of employees and patrons were at the bar watching the protests on television.

Sgt. Paul Parizek of the Des Moines Police Department told ABC affiliate Local 5 We Are Iowa, "It does look kinda frightening when police come through the door with guns in their hands, but once we were able to talk that out, everybody was able to understand why we were there and what we were trying to do. It was truly in the best interest of the businesses in the Village."

The Des Moines Police Department had not responded to requests for more information about its actions by the time this story was published.

Smith said that the bar has had a "pretty good relationship" with the police in the 27 years he has been there.

"But that is a thing when you're a minority. That's an automatic thing where you kind of go, 'They're here because it's a gay bar.' I don't know if that's the truth, but that's kind of the perception," he said.

Smith said of the police, "Just check yourself before getting in the middle of something like that. No one asked us who we were or what we were doing or asked for any ID. Nothing of that sort ... There were plenty of people who were out, so I don't understand why we, who were peaceful, were targeted. It's hard for me to say we were targeted, but it's hard for me to say that we weren't. I'm still up in the air about that."

Smith said that the bar has been in conversations with the Des Moines City Council and the police department about the incident last Monday and that a police liaison wants to talk to the people involved about "what we want." The Des Moines Police Department's website lists an LGBT liaison and reads, "The Des Moines Police Department is committed to supporting the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community."

Smith said all he wants is for the police not to repeat what they did on Monday night.

"They all kind of make it sound like we have some big lawsuit involved, but no, we don't plan on doing anything other than just ... don't do that."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.