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Police officers wearing riot gear corralled anti-racism protesters in Omaha, Nebraska onto a highway overpass over the weekend, blocked both exits, and fired pepper balls into the crowd, according to videos taken of the peaceful demonstration and organizers who spoke to VICE News.
Approximately 120 protesters were then zip-tied and arrested, primarily on charges of failure to disburse or obstructing traffic, although a few also received other charges like resisting arrest or unlawful assembly, according to a police spokesperson.
They were taken to the Douglas County Correctional Center, where some languished until Sunday night, either zip-tied in the parking lot or inside the crowded facility. While there, protesters told VICE News they were routinely denied water, bathroom access, and an adequate explanation for why they were being held even after they had made their bail payments.
Saturday night’s protest in Omaha, one of many nationwide that ended in arrests and brutality this weekend, was held in solidarity with Portland’s uprising and also demanded justice for James Scurlock, the young Black man who was fatally shot by a white bar owner in Omaha while protesting George Floyd’s death in May. The bar owner, Jacob Gardner, was not charged because the Douglas County Attorney’s Office said he had acted in self-defense during a fight.
“It was as peaceful as you could imagine,” said Riley Wilson, a legal observer at the protest, who was clearly identified but detained for about 22 hours on charges of failure to disperse and obstruction of a traffic way. “There was absolutely no violence, no property damage, no vandalism, no fires.”
One demonstrator, Mark Vondrasek, tried to ride his bike through a gap between two officers who had choked off the people marching across the overpass, while many protesters crowded on the sidewalks. He was promptly shoved, shot with pepper balls at close range, and tackled by multiple officers as he “bled profusely, all over my shirt and mask,” he said.
Another protester, who was arrested and jailed Saturday, 28-year-old Cole Christensen, shared a photo of the welts from his pepper ball wounds on Facebook; he was shot while standing near Vondrasek. He told VICE News he had asked police officers multiple times why they were arresting people on the bridge, before being slammed to the ground and zip-tied himself.
“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.
He was charged with resisting arrest, obstructing a peace officer, obstructing the highway, and failure to disburse. While he was in jail, he said one correctional officer took photos of him on his cell phone and mocked him for his effeminate voice.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, said attorneys have been working “non-stop to develop litigation to address what happened in Omaha Saturday night,” concerning both the treatment of protesters and organizers’ concerns that the mass arrests were intended to have a chilling effect on any future demonstrations.
The demonstration had nearly wrapped up when police suddenly blocked off the overpass and began placing people under arrest, according to protesters. By “kettling” the protesters on the bridge — a crowd control tactic that’s been in recent months — police may have prevented the demonstrators from peacefully dispersing since many were so close to their endpoint, Conrad said. They could have been let off with a citation so they could’ve returned home, Conrad said.
“It was only in this last block or two in the march itself — when folks were heading back to the starting point — that really all hell broke loose,” Conrad said. “That’s troubling from a lot of different perspectives.”
Omaha Police Capt. Mark Matuza told the Omaha World-Herald that the protest was stopped because it “leaned toward the potential of getting violent,” but the Omaha Police Department did not respond to a request for comment as to what led them to believe that potential existed.
A spokesperson for the Omaha Police Department, Officer Joe Nickerson, sent over the city’s definition of an unlawful assembly and said the protesters were walking “in the street against the direction of traffic” and told they were “unlawfully assembling before arrests were made.” A more detailed press release will be sent to the media later Wednesday, he said.
While being arrested on the bridge on charges of resisting arrest, failure to disperse, and unlawful assembly, 23-year-old Bear Alexander said officers kneed him in the stomach “MMA style” and threw him on the ground. He said he was told the resisting arrest charge stemmed from him putting his hands up rather than immediately lying on his stomach.
After that, Alexander — one of the leaders of ProBLAC, which helped organize the protest — said he was transported to the jail relatively quickly, while some were made to wait on the overpass with their wrist zip-tied behind their back. But Alexander wasn’t released from the local jail — where he was held in isolation — until about 24 hours after he was first detained. He said he intends to fight the resisting arrest charge.
Emma Mills, 25, said she was one of the protesters detained on the overpass for hours. Once she finally made it to the jail, she was held in the parking lot for at least six hours. There, protesters were not allowed to go to the bathroom and were hardly given access to water except for when they were asked to share from one bottle while still zip-tied, she said.
Once Mills was in the jail’s custody, the holding cells were extremely hot and crowded, she said. At least one person was crying. Bathroom access was still limited — and the toilet in one of the women’s cells was overflowing.
“Police officers would just walk by and laugh like it was a joke, it was pretty gross,” said Brianna Larson, another protester who wasn’t released until about 5:30 p.m. Sunday
Transgender people were also cordoned off into isolated cells, according to Mills and Larson. And most protesters were confused why they were being held even after they posted bail.
“It was just a very harrowing experience,” Mills said. “We had no idea what was going on that whole time.
Wilson, the legal observer, said that for about an hour, about 40 men were placed shoulder-to-shoulder into a holding cell that was designed for 15 to 20 people. While at the jail’s parking lot waiting to be booked, he also witnessed a person pass out, be taken away to a hospital, and brought back. By that point, protesters had been in zip-ties for about five hours.
Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers said that staff members are investigating what went wrong with the facility’s computer system, which went down for routine maintenance early Sunday morning and didn’t fully come back online for several hours. That significantly delayed the release of many protesters because the jail had to process bail payments and release on paper.
As for the conditions of the people who were held in the parking lot for several hours, Myers said they were still technically in police — not jail — custody.
He didn’t deny that protesters may have been held in crowded conditions at times early Sunday morning. By the time he arrived at the jail later that morning, though, he said people in the jail had adequate space, and weren’t being denied water, bathroom access, or air conditioning.
The transgender individuals who were held in isolation were there because the committee that determines placement isn’t available 24/7, he said.
“It was just an unfortunate 24 hours for us and for everybody,” Myers said.
Cover: Left: Cole Christensen takes a selfie of his welts from pepper balls after the anti-racism protest in Omaha, Nebraska, on Saturday, July 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Cole Christensen.) Right: Screenshot of Facebook Live video of the protest taken by ProBLAC.