Seneca Wallace focuses on protesters’ message after his restaurant is vandalized

Travis HinesAmes Tribune

It wasn’t the broken windows that Seneca Wallace wanted to talk about.

The glass that once separated his business from the outside rested on the floor of his restaurant. There were sharp shards created by the sharper-still emotions of a community on edge.

But it wasn’t the shattered glass that Wallace particularly cared about. It was a broken system that caused so much anger and anguish the former Iowa State star and NFL quarterback-turned-entrepreneur wanted to focus upon.

With George Floyd dead last week under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and the country raging against racial disparities and police violence, Wallace wanted to talk not of the disruptiveness of vandalism, but the reality of inequity.

“Understand the reason why we’re standing up for our rights, because we know the system is flawed,” Wallace said Monday. “The system has always been flawed. It’s not the same if the shoe was on the other foot if it was a black cop that killed an unarmed white person. They would have thrown him in jail probably immediately, as soon as he got his knee off the dude’s throat. We know it’s not the same.

“We’re the ones sitting here dying, and all these things that are being caught on fire and looted, all that stuff can be replaced. They’re material things. People got insurance and this and that, but lives cannot be replaced.”

The Wingstop restaurant owned by Wallace, who is black, was one of the businesses vandalized Sunday evening as a protest at Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue gave way to property damage in some instances. Police used pepper spray at times to disperse the crowd.

“The protesters were throwing things, and they ended up busting one of our windows (early in the evening),” Wallace said, “but then overnight they came by and busted more windows again. They didn’t take anything from the business, but they just destroyed some glass. 

“Everybody, in their feelings, are expressing themselves, and this comes along with it. Even if they would have stolen stuff, we would have kept it pushing. It is what it is. We’re still open, we’re still doing what we do. We’re just praying for everyone that is involved that we can come to a conclusion to this thing and definitely come out better on the back end.”

The front end has been a week of protest in cities across the country after Floyd’s death May 25, when officer Derek Chauvin restrained Floyd with his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes. Floyd could be heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” as Chauvin kept his knee in place. Three other officers stood watch as bystanders took the video footage that quickly spread across the globe.

All four officers were fired, and Chauvin has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Hennepin (Minn.) County attorney Mike Freeman said he expected the other three officers to be charged, but did not elaborate as to what those charges may be.

Minneapolis saw immediate protests. Most were peaceful — like one held by former Iowa State basketball star Royce White — but the city also saw heavy property damage, including the burning down of a police precinct, and activated the national guard to quell days of unrest.

Minneapolis, though, is not alone. From Los Angeles to New York, in Atlanta and Seattle, throughout much of the nation, protests and riots have enveloped the country.

President Donald Trump on Monday night said he would consider sending the U.S. military into the country’s cities if the unrest did not stop.

Des Moines, some 200 miles down Interstate 35 from where Floyd died, was the site of both peaceful protests and vandalism. 

More than 1,000 people participated in a Mothers Against Violence protest. A vigil was held at Union Park. Police joined protesters in taking a knee at the State Capitol.

There were also broken windows and vandalism of businesses in the East Village and the Court Avenue District.

“The raw emotions facing Des Moines surrounding the death of George Floyd are understandable,” Mayor Frank Cownie said at a news conference Monday. “It was a horrific event and unacceptable. We can’t undo what happened, but we can have an impact on how we move forward as a city together.”

Then there was the demonstration at Merle Hay and Douglas, which vacillated between peaceful and destructive for hours Sunday.

“Ninety-five percent of those individuals, as we support civic engagement, were peaceful,” Iowa state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, who was working as a calming presence at the Merle Hay protest, said Monday. “They had a voice that they wanted to say. We have less than 3% of individuals that had a different message and they hijacked the message that these young people had, because their motive was to cause destruction and destroy and disturbance. 

“This could have been a worse situation, but because of the work we have done with the police department, with the governor’s office, with different organizations, we didn’t allow them to hijack it. We knew we had to step in so these young people’s message could get across.”

It’s a message that Wallace hopes is heard by everyone, including Midwestern locales that would otherwise like to believe that racism isn’t a pertinent problem in their communities.

“The (racism) problem exists everywhere,” Wallace said. “People in Iowa — and my wife is from Iowa — they try their best to say, ‘We’re not racist,’ but at the end of the day, the reality is you’ll see some racism, because racism exists. Hands down. Regardless.”

Wallace said he never experienced flagrant racism while at Iowa State, but felt that wasn’t the same experience for every black Iowan.

“The funny thing is most athletes like myself, minority, black athletes — we somewhat get a pass,” he said. “We don’t have to deal with what other, per se, regular black people have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. ‘Oh, you’re an athlete? You’re black? OK, you get a pass. You’re not so much of a threat to us,’ or society, because you’ve worked and you being in the limelight and people knowing who you are. Sometimes you get a pass. 

“That’s how I feel sometimes when I go back. ‘Oh, that’s Seneca Wallace.’ Well, OK, but how do you treat the normal person from the east side or south side of Des Moines?

“It’s a different dynamic.”

A dynamic that Iowa’s leaders now say they want to understand.

“I want all Iowans to know that I hear you,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said at Monday’s press conference. “I hear your frustration and I am committed to listening and having a respectful dialogue about what we need to address the injustices that are felt by so many. 

“That might mean having some very uncomfortable and eye-opening discussions, but they are discussions we must have if we’re going to bring about positive and impactful change.”

Wallace’s message is clear.

“We want justice,” he said. “We’ve been saying that forever.

“We had four cops the other day who sat there and literally let this man choke the life out of him with his knee. You argue the fact that we’re going to give him third-degree murder and it took a couple days to make an arrest. You have the three individuals involved in this still haven’t been arrested. 

“We just want justice for the people that these cops are taking lives. We just want justice for everybody.”

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