Protester convicted, faces fine and jail time after arrest at June Des Moines City Council meeting
A Des Moines man ejected from a Des Moines City Council meeting this summer was convicted Monday of trespassing and interference with official acts.
John Noble, 26, was arrested outside the council's June 28 meeting after police said he refused to leave the property and prevented officers from closing an interior door leading back toward the council chamber.
Noble said Tuesday he was "disappointed" by the verdict and thinks the city and county are retaliating against him and other protesters.
"We’ve seen it continuing from last summer into now, and my case is just one of many," he said, noting particular concern for cases brought against Black activists. "I think it’s very worrying that this is where the county and city want to put their resources — going after people speaking at city council meetings — instead of dealing with problems in the community."
Noble and others at the meeting opposed the adoption of a no-bid contract with the national nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum to provide de-escalation training to the Des Moines Police Department. Noble testified Monday he had asked the council to remove the item from the council's consent agenda to allow for council debate and public comment on the issue, but the council ignored residents' pleas and approved the agenda as it was proposed by city staff.
What followed, as depicted on video shown at his two-day trial, was a chaotic scene as Noble joined other protesters in shouting down the council's decision. The group refused repeated orders to sit and be silent and were eventually escorted out by police as the council took a short recess.
Mayor Frank Cownie, who testified Monday, said the protesters' conduct made it difficult for the council to function.
"We expect good decorum and respect from the citizens as we conduct the people’s business in this city," he said.
Noble's charges stemmed from the events that followed in the hallway outside the council's chambers, where Des Moines Police Capt. Mark Wessels told the group they would need to leave the building, but when they protested, told them they needed to remain behind a roped-off area away from the door. An officer guarding the entryway, however, testified that Noble tried to reopen the door repeatedly, to the point that officers had to hold it shut against him.
Eventually, Wessels testified, he returned to tell people registered to speak during public comment that they could enter one at a time, but footage from his body camera showed Noble and others immediately interrupting and shouting over him. When Wessels tried to close the door again, Noble held it open with his leg, and officers arrested him after he refused repeated orders to step back.
Noble's attorney, Gina Messamer, argued in court that Noble thought he was authorized to remain in the building, and that the confrontation over the door was not enough to merit an interference charge.
"You might find that Mr. Noble was being annoying and persistent, and you might not like how he went about things, but I think, at the end of the case, the evidence will show his actions were not criminal," she told the jury.
Messamer also asked the judge to dismiss the charges on First Amendment grounds.
"He is engaging in protected speech (at the meeting), and this criminal charge would infringe on his First Amendment rights in an unconstitutional way," Messamer said, adding that residents have a right to petition their governing officials.
Judge Jeffrey Farrell rejected that request, saying "there is evidence the city acted legitimately" in the context of a chaotic and disrupted city meeting.
"Once there’s a disturbance in the City Council meeting itself, where the council can’t proceed with their meeting, then the city can take steps to remove people from their meeting, and that is an appropriate manner of limiting speech," Farrell ruled.
The contract in question was the city's second attempt to organize training to help officers "safely and professionally resolve critical incidents" after an earlier plan to use several current Des Moines police officers as trainers was met with harsh criticism.
Despite the city finding an outside provider for the training, Noble testified Monday he had concerns — "specifically on the amount that was being spent and the amount of oversight with that police training contact."
The charge of interference with official acts carries a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail, but Messamer said prosecutors indicated they planned to only seek a fine. Noble could be fined more than $1,100 between the two convictions.
Security at City Council meetings remains a controversial topic after multiple meetings were disrupted by protests this summer. The city this week ended its relationship with The Conley Group, a private firm whose CEO had offered to testify against Noble, among other emails to city leaders, many of which were frequently explicit in nature.
Noble, who spoke again at Monday's council meeting, says the verdict will not dissuade him from further activism.
"I think that it’s more important than ever that folks continue to come to come to City Council meetings to call out the reckless spending on DMPD that the city continues to do," he said. "I plan to continue talking to my elected officials, demanding they make real change, going back to city council meetings. ... I hope more people show up."
William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at email@example.com, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.