FBI Questioned Omaha Bail Fund Runners in Late May, Activists Say

Kristi Johnson, special agent in charge of the Omaha Field Office, said the FBI has investigated the protests, focusing on those instigating violence, not peaceful protesters.


Protesters gather on 72nd and Dodge streets on May 29, 2020. Photo by Chris Bowling.

By Chris Bowling

Federal agents interviewed a protester in late May, asking questions about his political beliefs, the local organization he associated with and whether he considered himself “Antifa.”

On the night of May 31, Brendan Leahy and Abby Swanda were running cash bail money back and forth from a downtown apartment to the Douglas County Department of Corrections. Following the institution of a citywide curfew that day, law enforcement arrested people outside after 8 p.m. and brought them to the jail. Leahy and Swanda’s organization, Nebraska Left Coalition was one of many collecting donated bail funds and delivering them to the jail.

Leahy and Swanda had run the money all night, so when they walked outside the apartment together at 11:30 p.m. they didn’t think anything of it. But law enforcement vehicles quickly surrounded them. Swanda said she immediately found the arrests strange considering they weren’t near the protests and had permission from the jail to deliver the money.

“Everything that we’re doing is legal and above board,” Swanda said. “We’re literally just using community donations to help support protests that the community supports.”

They were loaded on a city METRO bus that law enforcement slowly filled with protesters, they said. Once inside and processed into the jail, they said members of multiple law enforcement agencies began asking them and other arrested people questions.

Leahy said two men, who identified as FBI agents, took him aside and asked him more in-depth questions. The agents asked him what his political beliefs were and whether he identified as Antifa, a term meaning anti fascist and applied to a variety of groups dedicated to fighting fascism.

“You don’t want the FBI to be looking at you, even if you’re not doing anything wrong. And unfortunately we live in a country that has scapegoated people for their political beliefs before.”

Brendan Leahy

Leahy responded he was left leaning and against fascism, but he wasn’t a part of a group called Antifa.

“I’m Jewish so I don’t like fascists if that’s what you mean,” he said. “But why am I in a position where I have to answer that question? It is scary.”

The agents then started asking him about Nebraska Left Coalition, a group of activists of which both Leahy and Swanda are members. Nebraska Left Coalition is a socialist organization that promotes community building, collective action and has programs to address needs like food insecurity. Their Facebook page dates back to 2016.

Recently it’s become a central organization in collecting bail funds for jailed protesters. Aside from protests in late May, members of the organization used donated bail funds to release protesters after the most recent mass arrest in Omaha on July 25. 

Leahy said the agents asked questions about specific members of the group who’d been bailing people out of jail the night before as well as where the group got its money.

Kristi Johnson, special agent in charge of  the the FBI Omaha Field Office, said local agents had investigated protests as it does routinely with local and state partners when there are possible federal criminal violations.

“Our focus has not been on peaceful protesters, but on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property,” she wrote in a statement. “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals who are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity.”

Johnson did not respond to further questions.

Leahy and Swanda said it makes no sense why they were receiving questions from the FBI.

“The fact they think we’re nefarious or trying to be violent is absurd,” Swanda said. “We’re just trying to help.”

Both of them spent hours in jail after being arrested late Sunday night. Swanda was released after 12 hours while Leahy was released after 20.

Swanda was not interviewed by the FBI after she asked for a lawyer to be present during the interview. However, she was told by Omaha police that her phone was being held as evidence by the federal agents for evidence.

A few hours after she was released she went back to Omaha Police Department headquarters to retrieve her phone. When she got it back, the phone had a different battery, Swanda said. She did a hard reset of the device but still didn’t feel safe.

“I did just end up getting a new phone and a new phone number in case there was something I missed,” she said. “I’m not a tech person. I just like helping people with the bail fund, which is all we were trying to do.”

Leahy said being interviewed by the FBI, though it didn’t last longer than a few minutes and hasn’t resulted in any imminent concerns, has had a lasting impact on him. 

“You don’t want the FBI to be looking at you,” he said, “even if you’re not doing anything wrong. And unfortunately we live in a country that has scapegoated people for their political beliefs before.”

It feels to them like a form of political suppression that goes hand in hand with events they’ve seen recently. The mass arrest of protesters who “leaned towards a potential for violence,” as Omaha Police Department Captain Mark Matuza said on July 25, and jailing hundreds of them on misdemeanor seem like tactics to get protesters to stop, they said.

But both say they were only more emboldened after their first arrest. After being arrested on May 31, Leahy was arrested again on July 25. He said this time around, the anxiety and fear surrounding a night in jail disappeared. Instead it was replaced with the need to support those being arrested with him.

To them this work is “scary but worth it.” Worth it because in their eyes, the questions about their organization, the arrests, the way it’s been framed by institutions of power is a page straight out of a dystopian novel.

“I just hope people realize how far the situation has gotten if people are being arrested because they’re ‘Leaning into the potential for violence,’” Leahy said. “Is that not thought crime? People like to talk about how bad communism is because they’ve read 1984, but they’re comfortable living in this world as long as the names are different.”

Contact the writer at chris@thereader.com

 


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