The geometry of the police headquarters’ exterior juts overhead as “Bear” Alexander Matthews steps through the snow.
Since the summer, Matthews, 24, has organized demonstrations just blocks away in the Old Market and spent a night in the Douglas County jail nearby. In November, he and others shouted “Defund the police” on these steps after law enforcement shot and killed a Black man in a traffic stop.
“I don’t think the officers inside like me very much,” said Matthews, an organizer with protest leaders ProBLAC.
Since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May, protesters in Omaha haven’t kept quiet. Officers have fired tear gas and pepper bullets at them, elected officials have shamed them and the county jail has swelled with them during mass arrests.
But some wonder what good it all did.
“The police weren’t defunded,” Matthews said. “We failed tremendously in those regards. We didn’t organize enough in Omaha.”
In 2020, Omaha’s police got an increase in spending and a new union contract despite protesters’ pleas. Community members begged a state committee of the Nebraska Legislature to address racial injustice. Instead, a few weeks later, a petition to bring back college football during COVID-19 gathered more senators’ signatures than a bid to form a special session to address policing.
But even though it’s hard for protesters to call anything in 2020 a win, the movement has just started.
Community advocate Ja Keen Fox said elected officials have never had to be this accountable. Members of the Omaha City Council, Mayor Jean Stothert and Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine were all big targets. With city elections set for May 11 — with 30 taking a petition to run for city council and 11 for mayor — many hope to see fresh faces.
“2020 was a reminder that we haven’t made any gains of consequences for Black people and the rights we have as human beings,” Fox said. “And there needs to be radical change that really speaks to the urgency of our issues and that there have to be people who are willing to enact that radical change.”
But it’s going to be an uphill battle. City leaders have said protesters are unwilling to work with them. Others say Omaha has one of the most innovative and conscious police departments in the country and the city government listens and cares.
But this new wave of protesters is looking for more. They want results.
“I’m 32 years old,” Fox said. “Nothing has changed in the way that I can feel relaxed or at peace here in Omaha. Is that the life they’re asking us to live?”
Rising from the Streets
Matthews remembers the feeling he had after the first night of protests on May 29. Disgust.
He wasn’t there, but he watched on his phone as people held signs through the smoke of tear gas.
“I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror,” Matthews said. “It was always in my mind. ‘Why weren’t you out there? Why weren’t you out there? Why weren’t you out there? Why weren’t you there?’”
This summer, a lot of people took their first steps in protesting. Teenagers, parents with kids, young professionals, they all marched together. Many didn’t have experience, but the more adversity they faced, the more they codified.
“I can’t help but feel incredibly hopeful,” said Calvin Graeve in late July after he was arrested with about 120 other people. “I feel like what they did was they awoke a sleeping giant.”
Throughout the year, protesters were arrested and harassed with unnecessary citations.
Mayor Jean Stothert publicly called out Fox. He lost his job as he organized 36 days of protests outside Kleine’s West Omaha home. The Douglas County Attorney declined to press charges against Jake Gardner for shooting and killing James Scurlock during a protest on May 30.
But the movement didn’t stop. The Nebraska Democratic Party agreed to a resolution stating Kleine perpetuated white supremacy, which Fox pushed. The ACLU of Nebraska sued the City of Omaha and OPD on the behalf of ProBLAC for the July mass arrest.
But one date was circled in everyone’s calendar.
Aug. 18: the Omaha City Council’s vote on the city budget.
When the day came, the building tension deflated. A proposed amendment to block the police department’s $153.7 million budget failed.
Councilmember Vinny Palermo, of District 4, said OPD probably needed more than the proposed $1.96 million increase, that its 902 sworn officers were driving rusty cars around a sprawling city they didn’t have the numbers to adequately police. Councilman Ben Gray, of District 2, said OPD didn’t deserve to be the scapegoat.
“I’m 32 years old. Nothing has changed in the way that I can feel relaxed or at peace here in Omaha. Is that the life they’re asking us to live?”Ja Keen Fox, organizer
“Prior to COVID-19 [OPD] was one of the best in the country. There’s no question about that,” Gray said at a Nov. 24 Omaha City Council meeting, stating the department had reduced police-involved shootings, adopted body cameras, diversified its leadership and listened to feedback. “And for people to try and lump this department in with other police departments around the country is simply unfair.”
While protesters are upset with every city council member, Gray, who did not respond to requests to comment on this story, particularly drew their ire. The former KETV journalist turned politician has long pushed for racial equality. So when he sided with the city over protesters, it hurt. And Gray is not the only established Black community leader who protesters feel did not come to their aid.
“Right now what the police are doing is siphoning money from the community and taking it for themselves,” Matthews said. “That’s neglect. And any Black man that supports the neglect of their community has turned their back on their community.”
Why Not Here?
Protesters didn’t have to look far to see where activism like theirs won. Minneapolis, Austin, Portland, New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and other cities made cuts to their police budgets.
To protesters here, it felt like Omaha leadership ignored them. But to OPD Chief Todd Schmaderer, it felt like officers couldn’t get a break.
“There is a group that will not talk to us on any level,” he said in November. “I wish we could break ground…but it doesn’t seem likely at this point.”
Schmaderer declined to talk for this story.
There might be something to that exasperation, said Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Nix, who studies law enforcement agencies across the country, said it’s hard to find a department doing more community engagement than OPD.
Programs like Omaha 360, a weekly meeting for community members and OPD officers to hash out issues, is not typical. However, this summer showed there are still gaps.
“More and more it seems like we shout into our echo chambers and nothing ever gets done,” Nix said. “I read all this old sociological literature from the ‘60s and ‘70s and the people who wrote it, I’m like, could they see into the future, or do things never change?”
One of the chief obstacles is transparency.
The 79-page report OPD released about its response to protests, which cites instances of people throwing bottles, bricks and pipes at officers as well as a need for additional training within the department, didn’t satisfy protesters. It’s still the police investigating themselves, they said.
While the new police union contract makes it easier to file complaints, the Citizen Complaint Review Board has been ineffectual. The new committee tasked with overseeing police reprimands has no citizen input.
“At the end of the day this is a democracy and policing in this country is by consent,” Nix said. “We empower the police to do their jobs so they do ultimately answer to us.”
But elected officials have been unwilling to consider protesters’ demands, especially when it comes to defunding the police.
“If you want more social programs, you have to have them up and running and successful and effective before you ever cut down on police,” Stothert said in August. “You can’t cut down on a quarter of the police department and hope these programs work.”
Stothert said protesters didn’t have a plan. Fox balked at that. He said people are doing their part to voice their opinions and elected officials need to figure it out. But Matthews of ProBLAC said she has a point.
“That resonated,” he said. “She was 100% right.”
In 2021, ProBLAC is making its own budget, scanning through hundreds of pages of the city’s revenues and expenses to find where they can move funds around.
Having your own plan helps, but Nix said decisions about decreasing policing have to be a community conversation.
“There is a group that will not talk to us on any level,” he said in November. “I wish we could break ground…but it doesn’t seem likely at this point.”Todd, Schmaderer, Omaha Police Department Chief of Police
While cutting back works for some, other cities have seen increases in violence, with a debatable root cause. In Baltimore, when police pulled back after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, people who lived in neighborhoods where protesters said police needed to leave actually wanted for more protection.
“It’s easy to look around at other cities and see what they’re doing rather than seeing the clearest path forward, to me, which is what’s going on in Omaha,” he said. “What’s broken and needs to be fixed?”
The Path Forward
The sun’s shining in San Diego, California, but Jahne’ Maddock’s mind is back in Nebraska. Though she moved out to California for law school, which she recently graduated, she still wants to advocate for racial justice in her home state. But she’s doing it a little differently than many others.
“A lot of the focus right now is on policing, which is a huge problem,” she said, “but when you think about racial justice and justice reform, it starts with policing and it ends with the courts.”
Maddock is the policy director for Racial Justice Coalition of Nebraska, which is lobbying the state to pass the Racial Justice Act, giving incarcerated people the opportunity to challenge racially biased sentencings.
Fox has also pivoted in his fight against systemic racism. Instead of organizing protesters, Fox has begun organizing politicians. With city elections coming up, he and others want to clean house in the Omaha City Council and mayor’s office.
“Omaha systems, like the police, like the mayor we have now, they didn’t learn anything [from 2020],” Fox said. “And that’s really scary to see.”
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said disparities in Nebraska, and plans to fix them, will be front and center on many voters’ minds come city elections.
“It’s fair to say that if elected leaders are not going to chart a new course and are resistant to the realities that exist in our community, it’s time to explore new leadership,” she said.
Fox said he’s acting as a liaison between the community and candidates, helping newcomers build better platforms that focus on racial equity. He’s also working on a package of racial equity policies for the Nebraska Legislature.
The change isn’t happening as fast as many want. But this summer has had an indelible impact on its trajectory.
“One summer can’t change everything, but it has [made an impact],” Fox said. “The way people look at accountability, the way people are responding in the areas where they do feel more powerful. They’re paying more attention and they’re acting in ways they haven’t acted before.”
In addition to organizing its own city budget, Matthews said ProBLAC is building a food pantry service and implementing a cop watch. They’re also canvasing residents in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods to see what issues are important to them. While protesting is still vital, Matthews said ProBLAC realized it needed to branch out. But that doesn’t mean they stop pushing.
“So many times America has shown you can not morally compromise with them, because they believe in order rather than justice,” Matthews said. “And once you believe in order rather than justice, you’ve already lost any compromise you can progress with at the end of the day.”
Simret Habte adopted that mindset as a senior at Omaha Central High School. Last year, the 19-year-old helped organize What YOUth Can Do, a student organization to fight systemic racism in Omaha Public Schools. On July 11, a crowd gathered on Central’s lawn. Facing Dodge Street from the building’s staircase, Habte and others, including her friend Lauren Anderson, 18, read a list of demands through a megaphone:
- Cancel OPS’s contract with OPD.
- Focus on prevention instead of reaction when it comes to school safety.
- Invest in schools and mental health resources for students.
- Emphasize Black history in the curriculum, including the Black history of Omaha.
- Diversify honors, advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes.
Ultimately they hit dead ends when too few members of the school board or administration wanted to talk about their proposals. But they’re still moving ahead.
“[We realized] we shouldn’t be relying on administration to back us up on all of this,” Habte said. “Because it’s a big thing to ask school districts to get behind this right away, and we found that if we do rely on them our message would get a little convoluted.”
Habte and Anderson are still in Omaha, but they’re college students now, taking classes remotely for universities in Los Angeles. It’d be easy to give up, but they can’t. The movement’s grown beyond just them.
At their weekly meetings, they’re attracting students from across the district, including middle schoolers who already see racism influencing their education. It’s a mixed feeling for Habte.
“I don’t think teenagers should have to worry about a lot of these things,” she said. “But this is just the life we live and the world we’re in. And that makes me sad to think that middle schoolers and even younger are burdened with all of this.
“But also I feel a lot of hope for our future,” she continued. “If they feel this strongly and passionately right now, I can’t imagine what they’re going to do when they’re older.”
Here to Stay
Bear Matthews walked through the snow past the memories of protests. It’s plain how much has changed. His hair’s longer. His beard’s fuller. But still, so many things are the same. Despite calling last year a failure, Matthews is just as quick to add a caveat.
“We haven’t seen anything change policy wise or politically wise from ProBLAC demands…[but] we wanted to instill a culture of resistance,” he said. “We wanted to get people used to protesting, we wanted to get people used to holding our political leaders accountable instead of just regurgitating whatever they feed us.”
For Fox, there’s optimism that things can change by building new relationships and systems. But there’s also an exasperated question:
How long will it take?
“The sense of hopelessness is valid because these things are daunting,” Fox said. “The sense of hope and pride in what people have done is valid because it was necessary and the moral thing to do.”
If there’s a single thing that does give people hope, it’s how far the message has spread. Habte used to dream of leaving Omaha. But this summer she saw a side of the city that didn’t seem to exist before and now she’s thinking about staying.
“Even with everything that’s happened and with how upsetting a lot of things in Omaha are, I think I saw a lot more good than I ever have in all the time I’ve lived here,” Habte said. “I think I like Omaha a lot more.”