Flash grenades bursting, helicopters hovering overhead and armored trucks roaming the streets. Heavily armed forces pushing through thick, smog-like tear gas while snipers watch from above. The scene may sound like an old war story but it’s a description of Omaha, Nebraska on May 30, 2020 as people gathered to commemorate George Floyd, who had been killed by Minneapolis police just five days prior.
Rally co-organizer and Democratic senatorial candidate Angie Philips blames Omaha police for the escalation of violence in what she says was supposed to be a peaceful protest of police brutality and call to action for city officials.
“From my view as an experienced organizer, the problem was the reaction of the police,” she said. “I blame all of this on the police. If they would have barricaded the roads like they do for sports events, for the women’s marches, for every other thing that I have helped with… and allowed us to do our protest, the vast, vast majority of the people there would have respected our 9 o’clock moment of silence for George Floyd.”
Since the death of Floyd, millions have gone to the streets to speak out against the brutality perpetrated on Black and brown bodies at the hands of police. Instead, protesters nationwide are being met with the very same brutality as tensions escalate.
Peyton Zyla attended the rally and said police grew increasingly aggressive after warning protesters to stay off of the medians, shooting dozens of tear gas canisters into the crowd. In a Facebook live stream, smoke fills the streets, helicopters loom overhead, and Zyla coughs for air as police covered in riot gear march forward to disperse the crowd.
“I want to make that clear, we were gassed and cleared out of the area. It was like a mass evacuation of just everybody getting in their cars and leaving,” said Zyla, referring to his Facebook live stream. “The gas residue hung in the air and started coming down to the parking lots. People had to literally run past their cars just to wait till the air cleared.”
James Gunter, who attended the Old Market protest on May 30th, says he was also gassed by police.
“For those of you who don’t know, tear gas burns like hell!” Gunter said. “They tear-gassed us yesterday and I caught the back end of it. So I could only imagine what the people on the front caught.”
The widespread use of tear gas, rubber bullets and excessive force has led to many calls to defund police departments across the country. Although cities like Minneapolisand Seattle are attempting to answer the calls, President Donald Trump has taken an antagonistic stance against the protests, which he considers to be nothing more than riots.
The self-proclaimed President of “Law and Order” has propagated the brutalization of protesters, calling governors who fail to crack down on demonstrations “weak.” He has even gone on Twitter to threaten “protestors, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes” who planned on protesting at his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June, 21.
Trump’s war-like rhetoric has not only emboldened police forces and national guardsmen, but has also inspired white vigilantes to attack so-called “terrorist” protestors. In Virginia, an admitted Klu Klux Klan leader plowed his truck through a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters. In Omaha, James Scurlock was shot and killed by a white bar owner who has a well-documented history of racist behavior.
Philips, who has organized several events including the 2017 Women’s March in Downtown Omaha, said she believes police responded violently “because we were standing up for Black lives and against police brutality.”
“I just think that everything could have been prevented, including the tragic death of James,” Philips said, referring to the death of Scurlock, “If they just would have responded like they do when white people protest.”
Racial tensions in Omaha intensified after Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine elected not to charge Scurlock’s killer with any crimes, saying he acted in justifiable self defense. Many point to Kleine’s decision as yet another example of how the city has failed some of its most marginalized residents.
Zyla believes the city needs a new system of governance because the people’s countless cries for justice have fallen on deaf ears.
“We need complete systematic overhaul,” he said. “We don’t have a district attorney who will bring about the changes that I think we really need. We don’t have a mayor who generally cares. We don’t have a police force that listens to us. Unless we’re out here causing destruction or being a nuisance to them.”
In the face of nationwide frustration, racial tension and a general disbelief in the American judicial system, JaKeen Fox, co-organizer of protests outside Don Kleine’s gated community, says the time for real change is now and radical action is necessary for survival.
“There is an awakening that what used to be thought of as radical can only be deemed as necessary right now. And what we used to frame as radical, like, people are starting to understand that this is survival for the most vulnerable people,” he said. “And we’re finally saying no, this has to be enough. I think that has really allowed us to see change in a way that feels new and relevant and fresh and exposes what’s really possible.”
Although he is hopeful for the future, Fox remains fervently focused on the present challenge of tearing down America’s system of oppression “because what we are tearing down has been built over centuries.”
Quoting a collection of essays on political thought titled The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Fox says, “‘We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet. Once we have torn stuff down we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming.”
Omaha journalist Mark McGaugh is the assistant program director at KXNB-LP Mind and Soul 101.3 FM