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Tear gas and gunshots: Two nights of Omaha protests
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Tear gas and gunshots: Two nights of Omaha protests

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Stinging tear gas and screaming protesters swirled around me for two nights as anger over the death of George Floyd spilled out onto Omaha streets.

I watched a 16-year-old girl cry after she was knocked down by officers. I saw protesters grimacing on the ground after being hit with tear gas and pepper balls. I saw protesters break windows and hurl projectiles and insults at police.

And I stood yards away from my downtown apartment building and watched as a shooting victim strapped on a gurney was wheeled away by Omaha firefighters, with a crowd of protesters screaming and crying as police officers worked to clear a path for medics. Then another gunshot rang out further up the street.

“Get down, they’re shooting,” an officer said.

What began as a peaceful demonstration on one of the city’s busiest intersections on Friday devolved into chaos that continued Saturday night into Sunday morning, and spread into downtown Omaha.

When I arrived a little after 6 p.m. Friday at 72nd and Dodge Streets, hundreds of people were gathered on all four corners of the intersection. They waved signs and cheered as cars honked in support.

Omaha Rally

Protesters walk through a barricade to rally in response to the killing of George Floyd.

Patricia Bridgeman’s voice could be heard over the others.

“No justice, no peace!” she shouted.

“I’m out here, I’m black and in my heart I know I’m supposed to be here, cheering with everyone else,” Bridgeman said. “There’s all different shades, sizes, colors, all beautiful people out here.”

With much traffic diverted, a protester placed a bouquet of flowers with a cardboard sign that read “George Floyd” in the middle of the 72nd and Dodge intersection just before 8 p.m.. The flowers would be trampled minutes later as more protesters quickly took to the street.

Brianna Full and her boyfriend, Jesse Campos, unloaded boxes of water and Gatorade from a van near the protest. The couple had gathered donations from the community for the purchase.

“Black and brown people are dying every day and it’s unacceptable,” Full said.

Omaha Rally

Omaha police fire tear pepper balls as they approach protesters in the eastbound lane of Dodge Street just west of 72nd Street on Friday.

As the protest continued Friday evening, the situation became more tense. By 8:15 p.m., tear gas had been deployed and police lined Dodge Street in riot gear. At least two people were taken down by officers.

By 10:30 p.m., graffiti had been spray painted on the Target store near 72nd and Dodge, and one of the glass doors had been broken. More than 20 police officers stood in front of the store, and police worked to clear protesters from the parking lot, telling them to leave or be arrested. They took down and handcuffed at least three people.

One man entered the greenhouse area in the corner of the parking lot and began smashing clay pots. He was soon stopped by fellow protesters.

Saturday’s protest began much the same as Friday’s. Protesters stood at the northwest corner of 72nd and Dodge. They chanted and held signs. Omaha police blocked off the street and placed blockades on the medians. Things escalated quickly.

By 8:15 p.m., officers were rapidly firing tear gas canisters, a tactic they continued as protesters were driven out of the Target parking lot and west along Dodge. While protesters soon dispersed, many headed downtown.

I did, too, heading back to my apartment in the Old Market to wash the tear gas off my face. But as I did, I heard reports of a large group gathering at the Omaha Police Department’s downtown headquarters. I attempted to make my way there at 10 p.m., but was stopped a few blocks away as the protesters clashed with officers. The tear gas was so thick I knelt on the sidewalk, retching.

Then came the fatal shooting nearby — and the sound of shots fired elsewhere.

I retreated into my apartment building and watched as a helicopter aimed a spotlight on a group of protesters on the corner of 14th and Harney. I heard the sound of flash bang grenades blocks away and the ringing of security alarms as protesters broke the windows of businesses.

By 1 a.m. Sunday, I was ready to turn off my police scanner and end my shift. But I still could hear the alarms that kept ringing, a helicopter as it continued to circle the Old Market and the distant shouting of protesters.

Photos: Second day of protest leads to damage in Omaha, 402-444-1067

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Omaha’s state of emergency will last 72 hours, and the curfew will go from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert could extend it with Omaha City Council approval. The curfew doesn’t apply to people going to and from work, medical personnel, the press, the homeless and some others.

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