A campaign forged in humor brings a chance to highlight serious law-enforcement issues

Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register

Jaylen Cavil was due in court Nov. 3 to answer a charge of disorderly conduct involving his activism with Des Moines' Black Liberation Movement back in September.

Nov. 3 was also Election Day, and Cavil, a 23-year-old full-time BLM organizer, was running for Polk County sheriff. And he wasn’t going to let a misdemeanor charge (wholly unwarranted, in his view) get in the way of campaigning. 

He didn't make it. Incumbent Sheriff Kevin Schneider comfortably won election to the job he was appointed to in 2018. No money, let alone from super PACs, was raised or spent for Cavil's write-in race, which he describes as "the most grass roots you can get." The only campaigning was over social media, chiefly Twitter. The owner of Raygun donated 100 specially designed T-shirts with Cavil's campaign slogan, "Justice Over Jails," but proceeds were donated to nonprofits. Results from the sheriff's race were tallied the same day, with no fraud allegations and no recounts demanded.

But that doesn't mean Cavil's efforts were in vain. Desperate times sometimes demand drastic responses.

Jaylen Cavil

Some might suggest nothing in Cavil’s life has prepared him to be sheriff, a position that in Polk County oversees some 600 people, Iowa’s second-largest detention center, and a $61 million budget. Cavil has zero experience in policing and has taken no courses on it, though the Iowa Code gives a sheriff a year to get the necessary peace officer certification. A 2019 University of Kansas graduate, he majored in political science and journalism and worked as a field organizer on the Democratic U.S. Senate primary campaign of Des Moines’ Eddie Mauro. He works part time at Urban Dreams.

But it's precisely because his experience with law enforcement has been from the other side that Cavil brought a needed perspective. He has never been convicted of a crime, though misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and interfering with official acts hang over him from his participation in protests this summer.

"I've experienced police harassment," he said. "I've been tear-gassed. I'd bring the perspective of somebody who has empathy, and is in the streets trying to fight for justice, who has been an inmate in the jail."

The charge he was in court for Nov. 3 underscores those points. Police claimed a march he attended in September, organized by multiple organizations to protesting federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, blocked traffic. But Cavil said that out of all the organizers, he and fellow BLM member Matthew Bruce, who is also Black, were targeted for arrest, and plucked from their homes four days later. 

MORE REKHA BASU:Under police scrutiny, BLM leader Matthew Bruce stands for equality

He claims the Polk County Sheriff’s Office used its power all summer long to support Des Moines police in threatening protesters with arrest and chemical irritants. Deputies in riot gear were "helping them brutalize young Black men," he said. I reached out to Schneider and his spokesperson for a response but haven’t heard back.

Cavil's candidacy started out as a joke during a protest early in the summer, when he says law enforcement teams were being unnecessarily aggressive. “I’m going to run for sheriff and tell them what to do," he boasted to fellow protesters. "I’m going to be their boss.” Next thing, people were making him campaign pins with his name on them, and Raygun's owner Mike Draper, offered to design a T-shirt.

Draper said he reached out after having run a write-in campaign of his own for mayor in 2011, when Frank Cownie was running unopposed. "It's a challenge for anybody who wants to get involved from the progressive side," he said.  "Some of these things take a long time. It has to start somewhere, no matter how small." 

Draper says he's excited to see people getting involved, especially those coming out of protests. "He's a great guy, the ideal leader," he said of Cavil. "Friendly, easy to talk to, charismatic, positive. Exactly the kind of person Des Moines is lucky to have." 

Schneider had said his top priority as sheriff was strengthening communication between officers and the public. Republican Rick McIntosh stressed mental health, de-escalation training and improvement in officer morale. 

Cavil supports decriminalizing drug offenses with a focus on rehabilitation; ending cash bail in Polk County, which he calls classist and racist; and ending the sheriff's office's collaboration with ICE. After spending time in the Polk County Jail, he called it the perfect transmission site for the coronavirus. Though his bail was paid as soon as he was booked, he was held for eight hours in a cell with eight others. He described the food as disgusting.  He didn't like having to wear underwear recycled from other inmates, as newcomers are forced to surrender their own when they put on jail garb. 

Cavil garnered as many as 2,824 votes to Schneider's 140,836 and McIntosh’s 92,395. Under Iowa law, unless write-in candidates win at least 5% of the vote, they're not identified. There are usually a few write-ins for friends or cartoon character, but as far as Cavil knows, his was the only write-in campaign. So his tally is impressive.

No, there isn't a new sheriff in town, but maybe there's a heightened awareness of issues that need addressing. "The things that are self-evident to us now were rarely self-evident at the time," as Draper puts it. "It wasn't like men in the early 20th century were like, 'Y'know, we've had a good run,'" and voted to give rights to women. There were bombings to stop women's suffrage, he noted.

Even a candidacy forged in humor can lessen some tensions between opposing sides. A few weeks before the election, Cavil had a court date, which put him among sheriff's deputies who he says knew who he was. "I was asking them, 'Will you vote for me?'" he recounted, "and they said 'no.'"

But I love that he asked — and that he ran.