‘They Awoke a Sleeping Giant’: The Fight Is Far from Over for Omaha Protesters


Ja Keen Fox, right, speaks to a protester arrested on July 25 at an ACLU-sponsored legal clinic on Thursday, July 30. Photo courtesy of ACLU of Nebraska.

By Chris Bowling

While Calvin Graeve sat in his orange jail jumpsuit, he alternated between fear and anger. He cried and lashed out at guards watching over him and about 120 other protesters arrested Saturday night in Omaha. One of the few things that kept Graeve grounded, was a melody he couldn’t get out of his head.

After 23 hours in the Douglas County jail, he was released on bail. He took his first deep breath of fresh air and as he got into his car, he pressed play on the song.

“We’ll take ourselves out in the street,” The National’s Matt Beringer drones on “The Geese of Beverly Road.”

“And wear the blood in our cheeks,

Like red roses.”

Graeve, along with 95 other protesters gathered at Culxr House on North 24th Street Thursday afternoon to organize and connect with ACLU of Nebraska legal sources. There they expressed anger at their arrests, fear in experiencing law enforcement’s power. But they all dissolve to a single fact.

This movement is far from over.

“I can’t help but feel incredibly hopeful,” Graeve said. “I feel like what they did was they awoke a sleeping giant.”

The legal clinic Thursday afternoon was originally organized to help arrested protesters from late May to early June. Ja Keen Fox, who led 36 days of protests outside the home of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine following his decision not to charge Jake Gardner with the killing James Scurlock, was shocked the need for this resource he helped organize would be so great again. But then again, not that surprised.

“It really reaffirmed that this is a culture of suppressing constitutional rights in Omaha,” Fox said, “and that most of the city officials are complicit in that suppression.”

The arrests were surprising for Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. 

It didn’t add up: the non-violent nature of the protest, the violent response, the unnecessary move to overload the county jail with people charged with misdemeanor offenses. But like Fox, she said it also made perfect sense.

“I think it’s important to contextualize that we’ve seen almost 1,000 arrests in our community in a really short period of time where people involved in peaceful free expression that are crying out for racial justice and an end to police brutality are met with criminalization and militarization,” Conrad said. “And it keeps happening. And it keeps escalating. And it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, speaks to arrested protesters at a legal clinic on July 30. Photo courtesy of ACLU of Nebraska.

This round of arrests also yielded more painful stories to hear. A 10-year-old girl stood outside Douglas County jail for hours waiting for her mom to be released, ACLU staff said. In videos of the night when Omaha police trapped about 150 people on either side of the Farnam Street bridge over Interstate 480, children scream as police fire pepper bullets and tackle protesters to the ground.

“People are in pain,” Fox said. “They’re in emotional pain and they don’t know how to verbalize it yet. They don’t know how to cope with that so we’re trying to scramble together resources to address the amount of trauma they’ve experienced.”

OPD said they warned protesters to disband for 47 minutes and fired pepper bullets only once. Protesters from the back to the front of the block said they never heard a police warning. They also said multiple people were hit with pepper bullets from multiple guns. 

In addition to connecting people to free lawyers through the ACLU’s Freedom Fund and educating protesters of their rights, Conrad said part of the legal clinic’s purpose was to identify potential plaintiffs for future legal action.

“[We’re] trying to make sure there’s justice for people who were harmed by excessive responses by law enforcement in response to peaceful protests and also to try and stop and prevent that harm moving forward,” Conrad said, “whether it’s an injunction, or a consent decree or more informal advocacy.”

The story’s also perplexed national media who ask why no one nationally is paying attention to Omaha. VICE, Buzzfeed and Yahoo News have posted pictures like Cole Christensen photographing himself in the mirror, three golf-ball-sized wounds on his back. It’s encouraging to get the story out there, but the exposure has a drawback. 

Cole Christensen shows photos of pepper ball wounds along his back. Photos courtesy of Cole Christensen.

Christensen started receiving threatening messages on Facebook. One messenger said if he’d been there that night, he would have shot Christensen with real bullets. Other fake accounts with names like Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer will try and add him. Christensen rented a dumpster and dismantled the deck in his backyard to limit intruder’s access points. He sleeps with a katana laid across his couch (a misguided gift from his aunt when he was 12) and has visions of channeling Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.

But for Christensen, a self-proclaimed gay, vegetarian who’d never even had a lunch detention before he was thrown into jail twice so far for protesting, fear is present but not a guiding force.

“I was scared [the night of the first protest] and I was nervous,” he said. “I’d never done anything like that before. This was prior to even thinking I was going to be arrested. But I was like…I’m going to be scared but I’m not going to let fear steer the ship.”

Christensen said events like Thursdays give him hope. As people walk by, they shout out the names of friends they met at protests or people they spent a night jammed next to in a Douglas County jail cell. Inside Culxr House, neo soul plays on the speakers as people grab Gatorades and chat with their friends. 

The mood is not somber. Instead Christensen said it feels like the movement in Omaha has new direction. After protests outside Don Kleine’s home ended earlier in July, Christensen said many didn’t know where to turn next. 

There was a preliminary city budget hearing on July 21 when Mayor Jean Stothert announced she would increase OPD’s budget by $1.96 million or 1.2%. Another hearing will be held on Aug. 13.

But Christensen said these arrests have reignited passion for many.

“There’s a fire instilled again and there’s a clearer sense of priority,” he said.

Fox said while Saturday’s arrests only showed him the continued authoritarianism of OPD, it’s nothing new. He’s been leading protests, organizing at Culxr House and dealt with public criticism from Stothert over comments he made commending the Black sniper who shot police officers in Dallas, Texas in 2016. Fox is tired. But he keeps going because supporting the community of protesters is more important. And after these arrests, his community may have just gotten bigger.

“It takes a lived experience to really understand how important issues can be and unfortunately you have to feel it for yourself sometimes to understand the urgency around the issue,” he said.

Graeve used to have dreams of moving to Colorado, but now he wants to stay in Omaha to fight with this new found family and change the city. Like The National song that gave him solace inside his cell, he’s ready to take himself back to the street, to feel the blood beneath his cheeks as he and others continue fighting.

“It finally feels like we have a sense of direction as far as fighting this back,” Graeve said. “I knew this was coming, but to experience it and come here it feels good.”

As they walked out of Thursday’s legal clinic, Audrey Holbeck, Samantha Danielson and Ashley Benissanh carried t-shirts that read “Justice for James” and signs emblazoned with phrases like “BIPOC Trans Lives Matter.” They had no intention of stopping either.

The 20-year-old college students experienced their first arrest. They spent the night in a small cell with 50 women where the drain in the middle of the floor started pumping out murky toilet water. They watched as corrections officers gave preferential treatment for phone use to the men in the other cell and talked down to them. 

But all of that doesn’t matter.

“This fight is not over,” Benissanh said. “It’s not going to be over any time soon. Pepper balls didn’t stop us, tear gas didn’t stop us and going to jail is not going to stop us. Unless things change and they’re actually fighting for what we’re talking about then it’s not going to end.”

“And all this is doing is bringing in more and more people.”

 


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