The street lights lit the brick roads as protesters walked back to their cars. The demonstration in the Old Market had ended just before 11 p.m. and “Bear” Alexander Matthews walked back to his car on the warm Saturday night in mid September.
But when he got behind the wheel, Matthews noticed a police cruiser parked behind him. As he pulled away, the red and blue lights flashed. Officers cited him for driving with a suspended license and violating city noise ordinance for the use of his megaphone during the protest.
But the Sept. 12 incident didn’t feel like a routine encounter with police.
“It was deliberate,” said Matthews, an organizer with ProBLAC, which has led demonstrations in Omaha. “They were waiting there to catch me in the act of driving.”
Soon a crowd gathered and 10 police cruisers arrived. A friend offered to drive Matthews home. After confirming the friend had a valid license, officers wrote him a citation as well for violating the city’s noise ordinance and sent the two on their way.
Protestors in Omaha believe that police have shown a clear pattern of targeted intimidation and harassment during recent demonstrations, part of which has become the basis of a lawsuit filed against the city by the ACLU of Nebraska. During weekly protests in the Old Market, police stops, searches and citations have become regular occurrences. Protesters feel Omaha police are sending a clear message: dissent is not welcome.
“They’re trying to silence our First Amendment right, and they’re trying to silence any form of criticism,” Matthews said.
For the past few months protesters have met at the corner of 11th and Howard streets in the Old Market, a location they call “Liberation Square,” to demonstrate. ProBLAC member Cole Christensen said it’s served not only as a way to spread their message, but also highlight police treatment of protesters.
“We’ve been using, to the best of our ability, demonstration sites that are in view of the public,” Christensen said.
At a protest on Sept. 5, Christensen said he stepped inside Mr. Toad’s Pub to use their bathroom. As he exited, he was removed from the establishment by three officers.
“They pulled me out by the straps of my backpack,” Christensen said. “They said I was ‘Marked by upper command.’”
The Omaha Police Department declined to comment for this story as the allegations are part of an ongoing lawsuit with ACLU of Nebraska.
Christensen said police tried to search him, but they did not inform him of any crime that would warrant a search. He said fellow protestors helped to de-escalate the situation, and he was released without any legal ramifications.
Another protester, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was arrested at Billy Froggs following a protest at Liberation square on Sept. 4. The protester said nine officers arrested her saying she shined a laser pointer in an officer’s eyes. That amounted to third degree felony assault of an officer, giving police probable cause to search her.
“At the bottom of my bag, they found a keychain laser cat toy,” she said.
Protestors said they’ve used laser pointers to identify possible agitators and people recording without their permission. The protester arrested Sept. 4 said she used her laser pointer to identify a possible plain-clothes officer, but she did not shine it near his face. When she learned police might arrest protestors with laser pointers, she put hers way and did not use it the rest of the night.
Following the search, she was taken to Douglas County Detention Center. The protester said she was not read her rights or told what she was being charged with. Once in jail, she was strip searched, before being told that her charges were reduced to misdemeanor assault in the third degree. She was released on bond, and is currently awaiting her court date.
The continued treatment of protests matches a pattern by the Omaha police of trying to silence free speech. The ACLU of Nebraska alleged that in a lawsuit filed in federal district court last Monday.
“This is about accountability,” said ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad. “When the government infringes about individual civil rights and civil liberties, the courts must step in to check that power, to stop those abuses and to prevent future harm. We cannot accept that police will be allowed to police themselves.”
The basis of the lawsuit started with a mass arrest in late July. For months, demonstrations throughout Omaha had created tension between community protestors and Omaha police, some ending in violence and the use of tear gas and pepper bullets.
On July 25, more than 100 protestors were trapped by police cruisers and arrested on the Farnam Street bridge over Highway 75. After waiting hours for processing at the Douglas County Detention Center, they were sent to overcrowded jail cells or solitary confinement, many for longer than 24 hours despite having bail ready.
Riley Wilson, a law student and legal observer arrested that night, said it seemed clear the motivation for the arrests was to deter protesters from demonstrating again.
“Once inside, I heard a corrections officer agree with protesters about the inhumane treatment they’d received,” Wilson said. “Another corrections officer remarked, ‘What percentage of them do you think are going to do this after tonight? I bet zero.’”
After mass arrests in June and July, OPD Chief Todd Schmaderer announced changes to department policy as well as new training. However, the harassment didn’t stop, protesters said.
In the weeks following his run-in with police, Christensen said he saw Omaha police cruisers parked on his residential street in West Omaha. Two officers took pictures of his house, he said. When Christen started to record the officers with his phone, they started to look stiff and nervous. Through his open window, Christensen heard one of the officers make an off-hand remark about there not being a disturbance in the area after all. The officers left shortly thereafter.
“[Omaha police] mark people that they think they’ll have success targeting,” he said. “It’s a way to invalidate the voices that are speaking truthfully about the oppression they’re witnessing.”
Garrett Denton, a protestor who lives in Bellevue, said he was pulled over on Sept. 24, after driving past a memorial for Jake Gardner near F Street and 44th Avenue.
Denton said he rolled down his window and yelled “Jake Gardner is a racist” at the small group of people there on F street. Shortly afterward, an officer stopped Denton and asked him to step out of his vehicle. The officer cuffed Denton and said that he was impeding traffic and disturbing the peace. Denton said there were other counter protestors present, and he did not restrict traffic or change speeds while driving past the memorial.
Denton did not receive any citation or legal charges from this incident, but he feels that the stop was to discourage him from continuing to protest.
“They’re doing all they can to discourage us from being out there,” Denton said. “It’s ridiculous the lengths they’ll go to trying to prevent us from going to protest.”
As one of the lead organizers for ProBLAC, Matthews said he has been stopped by police and cited for minor violations multiple times over the past month.
On Oct. 3, after a Liberation Square protest, Matthews says he drove by a line of six OPD squad cars sitting at 11th and Jackson Streets. After passing them, officers began following him.
Matthews was issued a citation for obstructing a passageway, as police say he blocked the flow of traffic by standing in the street during the protest that evening. Matthews said even while he was in the street, he allowed cars to safely move past him.
Since the mass arrest on July 25, Matthews has accumulated two citations for obstructing a passageway, two noise ordinance citations and a charge of resisting arrest. The inconvenience of fighting these charges will be a challenge for Matthews, but he says he welcomes it.
“I take responsibility for everything that I do,” Mathews said. “And I take on the challenge of being that person that [police] look at to harass and try to break down. I’m happy to take on that challenge against the enforcers of an oppressive system.”
Christensen also said he and other protesters don’t feel deterred from continuing to protest. He believes that people are waking up to see the oppression being perpetrated by Omaha police, and it has caused their number to grow.
“The show of community has been really beautiful,” Christensen said. “There really is power in numbers.”
Matthews said he is expecting more harassment from Omaha police, especially after the ACLU of Nebraska filed its lawsuit, which names Matthews and other ProBLAC members as plaintiffs. But it won’t stop them from protesting, he said.
“At the end of the day, we just want the police to be held accountable for their actions, and they do not want that,” Matthews said. “They don’t want to look in the mirror, and we are forcing them to do that.”