It appears that some good has come from the messy end to a peaceful protest in Omaha in July.
Police followed marchers for 47 minutes that night, periodically warning that their assembly was unlawful, as they walked from Turner Park to the Old Market and back. At the end, police corralled them on the Farnam Street bridge over Interstate 480 and arrested 125, deploying pepper spray.
Many spent hours at the Douglas County Jail, which was hit by a malfunction in its booking system. Ultimately, only 25 were charged with obstructing a public roadway under an ordinance that a judge in November ruled violated the First Amendment.
In the settlement, police agreed to loudly announce intention to use chemical deterrents and to target their use only at people they have reasonable suspicion of committing crimes. Police will ask the City Council to revise the public obstruction ordinance and will report annually on use of chemical agents.
Twenty-five individual protesters will drop their claims against the city.
Credit to Omaha police and the city for being willing to negotiate and change practices. Police had earlier agreed to move away from mass arrests. These changes show that police and the city are sincere in saying they support residents’ right to protest peacefully and establish practices that hold the promise of minimizing unnecessary conflict.
Credit, too, to the protesters and the ACLU, which often is seen by governments as an enemy. But it was the ACLU that led sessions shortly after the mass arrests on how to exercise First Amendment rights without provoking arrest. Those sessions appeared to defuse tension last summer, with protesters conducting peaceful demonstrations without incident at police headquarters the next weekend.
Tensions are high in America, and the protests from various factions in recent months appear more likely to become common than a blip of history. We need all sides to operate within acceptable parameters. Violent demonstrations and police excess only beget more of the same and undercut both protesters’ message and respect for police.
Omaha, at least on paper, is learning from the summer’s disruptions and identifying badly needed common ground.
Jessica Wade's memorable stories of 2020: A summer of protests in Omaha
Omahans took to the streets as protests swept across the nation this summer. The movement that began in response to the killing of a Black Minneapolis man by police was further flamed by the death of James Scurlock, a Black man shot and killed by a white bar owner during a night of chaos in Downtown Omaha.
In the weeks and months that followed, a curfew was enacted, more than a hundred protesters were arrested, a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of protesters, and Jake Gardner, the bar owner who shot and killed Scurlock, took his own life.
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