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Omaha Police release details of Midtown protest

Published: Jul. 29, 2020 at 7:21 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 29, 2020 at 7:23 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Omaha Police on Wednesday issued a timeline the department says accounts for the actions of officers during and after the Midtown protest last weekend.

The events came under scrutiny online and on social media after those arrested were detained for a number of hours because of a delay Douglas County Corrections authorities later attributed to a planned system outage and other technical problems.

Wednesday’s report, which names the protest organizer and two other individuals, notes particular events in the timeline as law violations, saying OPD officers “were stationed nearby and did not interfere with the legal protest activity at the park.”

According to the OPD accounting of events, the supervising lieutenant was notified during the event scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Turner Park that “some protesters may be carrying shields, and some type of action from the group was going to occur in 30 minutes.” The demonstration, according to those in attendance, was held in solidarity with the Portland protests while drawing attention to deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and James Scurlock, and continuing the call to “defund the police.”

According to the OPD accounting of events, about 150-200 protesters started leaving the park around 8:40 p.m. Saturday. They were observed blocking traffic on Farnam and appeared to be occupying gall lanes.

“The event organizer did not contact police for safety assistance and had not obtained a parade permit,” the OPD statement reads.

That was when officers began noting law violations.

Noting that “public streets are not forums for protesting,” and citing the dangers of entering streets without giving authorities the ability to plan for such group movements, the OPD statement related a similar incident that night in Austin that left an armed protester dead.

As the group marched down Farnam Street, according to the OPD report, protesters were given multiple verbal warnings starting at 8:50 p.m. Saturday that the group was unlawfully assembled and therefore all were subject to arrest.

Just before 9 p.m., OPD radio reports indicated some groups were milling around in various locations in the Old Market, making particular note of The Hive, which is where James Scurlock was killed.

Omaha Police photo shows road cones knocked over in the street, obstructing traffic during a protest on Saturday, July 25, 2020.
Omaha Police photo shows road cones knocked over in the street, obstructing traffic during a protest on Saturday, July 25, 2020. (Courtesy of Omaha Police Department)

At various points in the Old Market, groups were seen knocking over or moving construction barrels into the streets, and otherwise obstructing police vehicles, according to the report. Police vehicles were also ordered to move closer to the group in order to block traffic “coming right at them” and that others were “following the group with emergency lights activated.”

After several more verbal warnings from police, the report states, organizer Alexander “Bear” Matthews yelled at officers through a bullhorn: “We are peaceful protesting.”

The OPD accounting does not mention “kettling” but does note that at 9:36 p.m., all the protesters were on the 29th Street bridge over Interstate 480, and that another verbal warning was given — this time stating they were under arrest.

At 9:37 p.m., pepperballs were deployed after a bicyclist “rode his bike at the officers.” While officers were taking him into custody, another man was arrested for attempting to “interfere with officers.”

Omaha Police photo shows a bicyclist in the street in the Old Market. OPD said Wednesday, July 29, 2020, that they deployed pepperballs after the bicyclist ignored their verbal commands and rode his bike at officers in the hours following a protest on Saturday, July 25, 2020.
Omaha Police photo shows a bicyclist in the street in the Old Market. OPD said Wednesday, July 29, 2020, that they deployed pepperballs after the bicyclist ignored their verbal commands and rode his bike at officers in the hours following a protest on Saturday, July 25, 2020. (Courtesy of Omaha Police Department)

Officers then arrested Matthews, who police say resisted.

According to OPD: “On-scene command made the decision to book the involved parties into jail out of fear that disturbances and potential further criminal activity would continue in the downtown area if they were cited and released. It should be noted that at least 10 clearly audible warnings were given to the group. Most of the group disregarded the warnings and continued to violate the law.”

Chief Todd Schmaderer has authorized the release of the timeline to the media. A review of the protest event from...

Posted by Omaha Police Department on Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Read the full text of the OPD response

Chief Todd Schmaderer has authorized the release of the timeline to the media. A review of the protest event from Saturday, July 25, 2020 is on-going.

On Saturday, July 25th, at 7:30 pm, a protest event was held at Turner Park, 30th and Farnam. The event was organized by “Bear Alexander” (Alexander Matthews) and was purported to call for justice for James Scurlock and support for protesters in Portland, Oregon. The description of the event stated, “On July 25th, youth abolitionists are calling for a national and global march against the institution of policing…The time for discussing reform is over, we need full abolition for our communities to be safe and free from rampant police terror. We are calling on all abolitionists, youth or non-youth, to coordinate mass protests on July 25th to show the world that the fire of this uprising is still burning strong, and that flames will just keep getting bigger until the police state has been dismantled once and for all.”

Omaha Police Officers were stationed nearby and did not interfere with the legal protest activity at the park. At one point, the Lieutenant supervising the event received information that some protesters may be carrying shields, and some type of action from the group was going to occur in 30 minutes.

At approximately 8:40 pm, a group of 150-200 protesters began to leave the park and entered the street. NOTE: The event organizer did not contact police for safety assistance and had not obtained a parade permit.

8:43 pm: Protesters are observed walking eastbound in the westbound one-way traffic on Farman Street at 29th Street and appear to be occupying all lanes. NOTE: Violation of law.

NOTE: Public streets are not forums for protesting. Extreme danger exists by entering an active roadway, without prior authorization and planning with local authorities. There are numerous examples across the country of protesters taking to the street and being struck and even killed by motorists. In addition, motorists who suddenly become trapped in a swarm of protesters may panic or feel threatened. On the same night as this protest (July 25th), in Austin, TX, an armed protester was shot and killed by a motorist that turned into a group of protesters.

8:48 pm: An officer announced that the crowd is at 26th Avenue and Farnam Street continuing to march eastbound on Farnam Street, which is the wrong way on the one-way westbound street.

8:50 pm: A Sergeant requested a cruiser to begin making announcements to the crowd regarding the unlawful assembly. An officer began making the announcements over a police cruiser public address (PA) system, as the protesters arrived at 24th Avenue and Farnam Street. The announcement was, “This is the Omaha Police Department. This has been declared an unlawful assembly. You are all subject to arrest.” This was repeated several times. The fifth announcement ended with, “go home now.” At least one protestor is seen flipping off their cruiser during the announcement and others look over. (See picture). There are about a dozen people walking on the sidewalk as part of the march. You can hear echoes on the video from the announcements being made. One officer says on the radio that after the announcements, a “handful of them left.”

8:56 pm: An officer began making announcements over the cruiser PA as the protesters arrived at 19th and Farnam Street. The announcement was, “This is the Omaha Police Department. This has been declared an unlawful assembly. You are all subject to arrest.” This announcement was repeated twice. Some protesters can be seen on the sidewalk as part of the march. Echoes from the announcement can be heard on the video from the announcements being made. It appears at least one male raised his fist and yelled towards the cruiser.

8:58 pm: An officer working downtown advised over the radio they are getting suspicious activity in the Old Market area with several small to medium size groups of 4-5 people carrying backpacks and walking up and down Harney Street. The officers also advised that there were people sitting in cars outside of The Hive, one specifically with out-of-state license plates, and it appeared to be a gathering place.

9:01 pm: An officer announced the group is continuing to march east on Farnam and is past the DC Courthouse without stopping there.

9:05 pm: The group is marching SB on 13th Street from Harney Street towards Howard Street.

9:07 pm: An officer advises the group is now EB on Howard Street from 13th Street. Another officer announces that the protesters are knocking barricades over at 13th Street.

9:08 pm: An officer makes two announcements over the cruiser PA at 13th & Howard stating “This has been declared an unlawful assembly. You are all subject to arrest.” The next announcement was “This is the Omaha Police Department; this has been considered an unlawful assembly. You are all subject to arrest. Failure to disperse now will result in your arrest.” You can hear echoes on the video from the announcements being made. Protesters are walking and blocking the entire road with a small number also walking on the sidewalk. A bicyclist with a mask (Mark Vondrasek—See picture) blocks the cruiser intentionally then takes off when they get out to apprehend him. There is also other vehicular traffic trying to move through the Old Market and unrelated citizens on the sidewalk.

9:09 pm: An officer made one announcement over the cruiser PA at 12th & Howard stating “This is the Omaha Police Department; this has been declared an unlawful assembly. You are all subject to arrest. Failure to disperse now will result in your arrest.” The group continues their march EB on Howard blocking the road.

9:13 pm: An officer located one barrel knocked over in the middle of Harney Street at 12th Street and they move it from the road.

9:14 pm: Several construction barrels and construction candlesticks are knocked over in front of The Hive, as well as at 13th & Harney St. (See picture). An officer advised the group is moving barricades to prevent cruisers from following. The group is at 14th and Harney St westbound.

9:15 pm: Protesters can be seen moving several construction barrels into the traffic lane to prevent cruisers from following.

9:16 pm: An officer can be heard asking for cruisers to get in front of the group since traffic is “coming right at them.”

9:28 pm: An officer announced the crowd is at 24th & Farnam Street. Several police cruisers are following the group with emergency lights activated.

9:36 pm: All protesters are on the bridge over I-480, (29th Street), a public address system announcement is made stating, “This is an unlawful assembly, you are under arrest.”

9:37 pm: A sergeant on scene makes several loud verbal commands that the protesters are under arrest…..yelling at the group that is within a few feet of him, stating they are under arrest, this is an unlawful assembly and to get on the ground. The orders are ignored by the crowd. A male with a bullhorn (“Bear Alexander”) yells repeatedly “we are peaceful protesting.” The sergeant yells that the group is under arrest 12 times while the male with a bullhorn continues to yell “we are peaceful protesting.” Suspect Mark Vondrasek ignored the verbal commands and rode his bike at the officers resulting in PepperBalls being deployed. During the arrest of Vondrasek, suspect Cole Christensen, attempted to interfere with officers and was arrested.

Organizer Alexander “Bear” Matthews was then approached and advised he was under arrest. He resisted officers’ arrest attempt, but was eventually placed under arrest.

On-scene command made the decision to book the involved parties into jail out of fear that disturbances and potential further criminal activity would continue in the downtown area if they were cited and released. It should be noted that at least 10 clearly audible warnings were given to the group. Most of the group disregarded the warnings and continued to violate the law.

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