Around 120 anti-racism protesters were arrested in Omaha, Neb., Saturday after police officers in riot gear blocked off both exits of the highway overpass that protesters had marched onto. Surprising to absolutely no one, police officers and protesters have very different accounts of what happened that night.
The Omaha World-Herald reports that protesters marched from near Midtown Crossing to downtown Omaha and were headed back to Farnam Street where they first gathered. By the time the demonstrators had gotten a couple of blocks from where the march started, police officers reportedly began announcing that the march was an “unlawful assembly” and eventually began making arrests and firing pepper balls into the crowd.
According to the Herald, the event was organized by 23-year-old Alexander Matthews, one of the leaders of local activist group, proBLAC. The march was meant as a show of solidarity with protesters in Portland, Ore., as well as an opportunity to demand justice for James Scurlock, an Omaha protester who was shot and killed by a bar owner on May 30. The bar owner was not charged in Scurlock’s death.
The Omaha Police Department released a statement Wednesday saying that Matthews “did not contact police for safety assistance and had not obtained a parade permit.” They also said they spent nearly an hour warning people that their protest was illegal before they started making arrests.
From the Herald:
The protest began at 7:30 p.m. as a gathering in Turner Park at 30th and Farnam Streets.
After the rally at Turner Park, Matthews said, he and other proBLAC leaders planned to go to the City-County Building for another rally but decided to mount a full march instead.
“We wanted to march down Farnam and show everybody whose streets these are,” he said. “There was no malicious intent whatsoever.”
Matthews and other protesters told The World-Herald that they noticed police cruisers blocking cross streets and following them as they marched downtown, around the Old Market and back along Farnam.
No acts of vandalism were reported by police, but they said protesters knocked over construction barrels and cones. Doing that impeded cruisers from following the group and “caused a safety issue for anyone else utilizing the streets after the (protesters’) passage.”
Police said they repeated the warnings at 19th and Farnam, 13th and Howard Streets and 12th and Howard. At the Farnam Street bridge over Interstate 480, the announcement changed to “you are under arrest.”
At 9:36 p.m., police said, all remaining protesters were on the bridge over I-480. Police then blocked both ends of the bridge. Police said the lieutenant supervising the protest “had a plan in place to make arrests on the bridge as it had better containment of individuals and was a better safety option.”
Police said a police sergeant yelled 12 times that the group was under arrest while Matthews yelled with a megaphone: “We are peaceful protesting.”
Some protesters deny that they heard any warnings at all until they had returned to the Farnam bridge. Others say they were planning to disperse but were arrested before they got a chance.
“We were two blocks away from where we had started, and if police had let us continue we would have gone back to the park and immediately dispersed,” 29-year-old Mark Vondrasek said. “It would have been over within 10 minutes, but they chose to end it on their terms and commit unnecessary acts of violence.”
Vondrasek was among the first protesters to be arrested. Officers say he blocked a police cruiser with his bicycle in the Old Market and that they saw him “turn his bicycle towards officers, load his pedal and attempt to flee while riding his bicycle directly at officers.” According to the police report, officers made an “attempt to stop Vondrasek from fleeing, at which time Vondrasek crashed his bicycle” into an officer.
What Vondrasek said happened was that he “sort of moved to the front, and I had an opportunity to try to bike away. I tried to and (officers) caught me. They sort of started throwing me around, they shot me with some pepper balls and tackled me to the ground.” He called the actions of police officers “excessive.”
Another protester, 28-year-old Cole Christensen, told Vice that he was shot by police with pepper balls while standing next to Vondrasek.
“I know for damn sure that I was not once warned before they walled us off on that bridge and said, ‘You are being detained,’” Christensen said.
Protesters also complained about the conditions at the Douglas County Correctional Center where they were detained after the march.
They were taken to the Douglas County Correctional Center, where protesters told VICE News they were routinely denied water and bathroom access. Those arrested were also told the jail was experiencing issues with its computer system, which made officials unable to quickly process and release them, and some languished until Sunday night, either zip-tied in the parking lot or inside the crowded facility.
25-year old Emma Mills told vice that she and other protesters were detained on the overpass for hours and that after she finally got to the jail she was left zip-tied in the parking lot for another six hours.
“It was just a very harrowing experience,” Mills said. “We had no idea what was going on that whole time.”
Video journalists Melanie Buer and Jazari Kua told KETV 7 that Omaha police escalated tensions during what was a peaceful protest.
“The entire time they [protesters] were marching, OPD was a block down on each side of the protesters, redirecting traffic,” Kual said.
“I think it was a disproportionate response, truly,” Buer said. “The department has put out a lot of de-escalation literature in the last couple of months and I don’t think they went through the points there.”