By Alex Preston and Chris Bowling
After the demonstrations, arrests, court dates, more arrests and finally hours of testimony in front of the Omaha City Council, city officials ushered a response in the form of $2 million to be redirected from the Omaha Police Department’s toward mental health and unemployment training services.
But that’s not what happened. As each councilmember listed why they wouldn’t support the amendment, advocates like Cole Christensen, who’s endured two arrests and threats against his safety for protesting, felt like he got punched in the gut.
What made it worse that everyone agreed that the city needs to do more to fund the programs protesters have called for.
“But [they said] not right now,” Christensen said. “Well when then?”
The opportunity to defund OPD’s $162 million budget—nearly 40% of the city’s operational spending—by $2 million in Omaha never really had a chance. In his opening remarks, Council President Jerram said he didn’t believe the budget amendment would pass and rather, wanted to start a conversation on what the city can do to fund community resources that protesters have called for.
Even an amendment the council passed to fund the programs through $1.8 million from the city’s cash reserves narrowly passed a 4-3 vote. Councilmember Pete Festersen, who introduced the amendment, said Tuesday’s discussion did not inspire confidence that the amendment had enough support to override the mayor’s expected veto.
Still, council members said this is the first step in a longer conversion. One by one, each said it’s necessary to fund programs for employment and mental health, but defunding the police is not the answer.
Councilmember Vinny Palermo said the cops he sees are driving around in rusted vehicles. If anything they need more money for more officers and better equipment. Councilmember Ben Gray said much progress has been made in building relationships between the police and his community. To cut $2 million, effectively keeping them at the same budget as 2020, would set that back as well as possibly mean layoffs of officers of color who’ve recently been hired by the department.
Councilmember Brinker Harding suggested the city pair with the county to access CARES Act dollars that could give these programs financial backing. Councilmember Aimee Melton said the mental health needs of the community outweigh what $1.5 million could do and that there needs to be more discussion about where to obtain funding and how to implement it.
For Christensen, it was too much. They all agree with what the protesters are fighting for, but refuse to meet them halfway, he said.
“[They] just gave this very vague, undefined, nebulous, ‘Oh well we want to support that,'” he said. “I feel like that’s a very consistent theme. Local leadership has been learning how to say the ‘right thing’ while doing the absolute opposite, or nothing.”
Despite the setback, protesters say they’re not deterred.
“They are still benefiting from the broken system that kept their knees on the back of George Floyd’s neck,” said Alexander Matthews, who goes by Bear Alexander and organizes with the group ProBLAC. “And while they still benefit, we will be there putting pressure on them.”
Outside of City Hall during the Tuesday meeting, a protest organized by ProBLAC gathered on the sidewalk along Farnam Street. The protestors carried signs calling for defunding Omaha Police. Not only did their chants echo throughout downtown, but they also brought cowbells and whistles to make sure they would be heard.
Matthews led the group in chants, using his megaphone. While Jerram’s proposal represents a step in the right direction, Matthews said that he sees it as a “hollow gesture,” especially because Mayor Stothert promised to veto the resolution if it were to pass.
“That’s just a slap in the face,” Bear said.
Matthews said that Jerram’s proposal shows that the movement’s demands are being heard. Now that they know their voices do carry weight, they want to focus on how to get money and resources to the city departments that can be more receptive to their message.
“That’s what we’re fighting for,” Matthews said. “The Human Rights and Relations Department needs more funding, more resources.”
Matthews took issue with Councilmember Melton’s criticism of the $2 million divestment from the police as a punishment for the police.
“You’re taking money away from [the Black and Brown communities] and putting it into the police department,” he said. “Isn’t that punishment toward the Black and Brown communities? It works both ways.”
For Christensen the movement has become even more personal as he faces a jury trial related to his arrest at a July 25 protest. He faces possible jail time for charges including obstructing a highway, though the arrest occurred on a Farnam Street bridge over U.S. 75. Christensen hopes decisions like the Omaha City Council’s or the penalties he faces for protesting will catalyze the movement.
“If [someone] had a spark of doubt in this whole process to begin with,” he said, “watching that occur largely unopposed by local leadership is going to turn that spark into a bigger flame.”
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