Tony Chudomecka had been nervous to come to Saturday night’s protest. As his grandmother’s caretaker he worried about catching COVID-19. But as the voices in the crowd joined to become a powerful chant, he felt empowered.
But he still couldn’t stop noticing the police cruisers passing by or dismiss the rumors that officers were watching them from the rooftops.
“I had a feeling that they were going to mass arrest us,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure where it was going to happen.”
Then as protesters crossed the Farnam Street overpass near midtown, police cruisers blocked the road on either side. Soon Chuomecka and about 100 others were sitting on the sidewalk in handcuffs.
What followed was a night of confusion, anger and fear as many protesters waited at the Douglas County Department of Corrections for more than 12 hours to be released on bail. A scheduled computer system reset caused jail staff to revert to paper processing, which bottlenecked their process and caused problems taking electronic bail payments. Protesters said they waited in crowded cells with little to no water, air conditioning or food.
Chudomecka, a trans man, was placed in a solitary confinement cell by himself, separated from other detainees. Too bright to sleep on the cell’s hard metal bench, he watched through his cell’s small window as others walked back and forth to get water or make phone calls. When he asked jail staff if he could make a phone call or have access to water different from what he had in his cell, they ignored him, he said.
“It was the most dehumanizing experience of my life,” he said. “For me it was very obvious I was sitting in this room alone because I disclosed that I was trans.”
Finally at about 2 p.m. Chudomecka found out his bail had been posted by a bail fund and within 30 minutes was outside the county jail. He was one of a handful that had trickled out by mid-afternoon on Sunday.
Although the Omaha Police Department could not say how many protesters exactly were arrested, they estimated it earlier to be around 80. However protesters say the number is above 100.
Most were charged with obstructing traffic and failure to disperse during a protest calling for justice for James Scurlock, a 22-year-old man shot and killed by Jake Gardner, a former downtown bar owner, in late May. Protesters also wanted to raise awareness of federal agents occupying cities around the country.
An OPD statement says the protest began peacefully but protesters began blocking traffic and throwing barricades at police officers at 8:45 p.m., though protesters interviewed outside the jail Sunday morning disputed that claim.
The ACLU of Nebraska will hold legal clinics for arrested protesters at Culxr House in North Omaha starting Thursday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. A representative with the organization said its lawyers had demanded the jail release arrested people still being held due to computer issues. Bail for many had started being posted around 2 a.m. Sunday morning.
Mergo Petrichor, a trans woman, was also separated into a solitary confinement cell with another trans woman. Throughout the night she felt terrified and confused. The recent Omaha transplant from Sioux City, Iowa was getting ready to move to Portland, Oregon but feared now she might lose her job and the opportunity to start her life over.
“You suffer one indignity after another as a trans person in this country,” she said.
When she found out her bail had been posted, a male jail staff member came to get her. He misgendered her and Petrichor corrected him, at which point the staff member slammed the door in her face, causing Petrichor to fall backward onto the toilet.
Throughout the night she’d thrown up, sobbed and suffered through intense anxiety, but that experience really shook her.
“It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life,” she said. “The way he looked at me was just [pure] anger.”
Jordan Corbin got to the jail shaking in pain as the contents of pepper bullets police shot at him mixed with the sweat soaking his t-shirt. He was crowded into a holding area with 41 other protesters so hot he said it was hard to breathe.
When he waved at some female protesters standing in another holding area, jail staff put him in solitary confinement, he said.
And as the night wore on his mood changed too.
“At first [I felt] confident because we knew it was wrong what was happening,” Corbin said. “Then it kept happening so we started to get nervous and scared. Then it just turned to anger because people kept telling us one thing after another and it was excuse after excuse.”
For many it was the length of time they were held that was hard to understand. Chudomecka said he and many others waited on the sidewalk on the Farnam Street overpass for hours before being handcuffed and taken to jail. As they were waiting to be processed, everything felt disorganized as hours went by without many having any idea what was happening. Chudomecka said at one point he even heard the familiar sounds of Candy Crush coming from one officer’s phone.
Others like Mahmud Fitil, who had an existing injury causing deafness and hypersensitivity to sound, sat in the corner of a holding cell with his hands over his ears. He’d attended the protests with protective headphones that were confiscated by Corrections staff. When he asked for ear plugs or his headphones back, he was denied.
For him, this moment shows why Omaha needs to defund the police and take a serious look at its criminal justice system. Months after the last mass arrests in early June, this shows that without serious repercussions law enforcement will continue to wrongfully arrest protesters.
“This is so inhumane,” he said, “there’s no reason to treat people like this, and for such a petty offense.”
For others like Petrichor, this moment strengthened her resolve to speak up even more about these injustices.
“It heartens me, it makes me want to be even more vocal about it,” she said. “Because I got a fraction of awful it could be, and I was just in holding overnight.”