As the sun began to set Saturday, diners clinked silverware on plates as they sat on the patios of Old Market restaurants. But the sounds of protest drowned them out.
Instead the evening was filled with cowbells, chanting and a pounding drum circle as 100 protesters gathered on 11th and Howard streets for the second night of a two-night protest in a section of the city organizers now call “Liberation Square.”
The intersection in the heart of the Old Market has a distinct strategic advantage, according to Alexander Matthews, an organizer with ProBLAC who goes by Bear Alexander.
“There is an immense amount of foot traffic and vehicular traffic,” Matthews said. “And they’re all stop signs. Every car has to stop, so you get that interaction with them. They see our signs.”
Saturday marks the seventh time that ProBLAC has occupied the downtown intersection. That night’s demonstration was a response to recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, including police shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back and Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old, shooting and killing two protestors.
Rittenhouse’s vigilantism hit close to home for Omaha protestors, who’ve never stopped calling for Jake Gardner to face judicial action for shooting and killing James Scurlock on May 30.
“Kyle Rittenhouse is locked up right now, and Jake Gardner is still free, roaming around the streets. That’s something we want to remind people,” Mathews said.
While the mood of the protest was positive, demonstrators had an air of caution following reports on social media that local right-wing agitators might plan confrontation with the protestors, although no such group came out to Saturday night’s protest. Despite the threat, however, protestors were not deterred.
Trevor Stutzman, a local tattoo artist who’s protested several times this summer, said that he was aware of the danger, but he refused to back down.
“The threat is always present because that’s what we’re out against, white supremacy,” said Stutzman. “But to stay home and act afraid is allowing them to win.”
Matthews said he is concerned that right-wing militia groups might feel emboldened by Rittenhouse’s actions in Kenosha, but their anger speaks to the strength of what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing.
“We are doing something right when the right-wing agitators come out of the woodworks. That’s us disrupting their comfort,” Matthews said.
Even with the possibility of confrontation with agitators, Matthews said that ProBLAC is committed to keeping protests peaceful, insisting that protestors ignore those who might try to escalate with violence. Matthews believes that the group’s peaceful tactics are the key to controlling the narrative surrounding their demonstrations.
During one of the breaks between chants, the crowd’s attention was drawn to a traditional Indigenous drum circle that was being performed on one of the corners. Multiple tribes were represented in the drum circle, including Ponca, Omaha, and Topeka.
Leading the ceremony was an elder named Mitch, who declined to give his last name. Mitch said they decided to attend the protest to show solidarity with ProPLAC and the Black Lives Matter movement. Members of the drum circle sang in turns, calling on spirits and ancestors to protect the protestors and offering up other prayers.
“We prayed for [James Scurlock], Jacob Blake, and all the people who cops have murdered and brutalized,” Mitch said.
The display of unity was powerful for many demonstrators in attendance, including Doug Paterson, who has been attending Indigenous ceremonies for 25 years, although he was not officially affiliated with the drum circle group.
“Politics is not just electoral politics,” Paterson said. “Politics is power, and this [protest] is power.”
This weekend’s protest in the Old Market follows a significant setback for protestors, as Omaha City Council voted not to divest $2 million from the Omaha Police Department’s budget. This development was frustrating to those protesting on Saturday.
“They’re giving us absolutely nothing, which is why we continue to be out here,” Stutzman said. “I don’t feel we’re being heard.”
Despite the setback, the movement still feels that momentum is on their side, as more and more people are showing up for demonstrations.
“It’s growing,” Matthews said. “People are getting pissed off. People are starting to realize, ‘Wow, they’re still here for that.’”