Early this year, the City of Omaha, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and a group of protesters reached an agreement that’s important for Omaha as a community. Police and protesters each acknowledged their obligations, aiming to promote an important goal: People can assert their free speech rights as protected under the Constitution, while keeping protester conduct within orderly limits.
The agreement served the public interest and defused tensions. The ACLU earlier had helped by hosting sessions on how to exercise First Amendment rights without provoking arrest. Afterward, protesters conducted peaceful demonstrations without incident at police headquarters.
All this was major improvement from last summer, when Omaha police corralled protesters on Farnam Street and conducted mass arrests, sparking the lawsuit that was resolved by the police/protester agreement.
But recent conduct by a group of protesters and the Omaha police union threatens to undermine this important progress for our city. The police union stooped to race-baiting in a City Council election mailer criticizing candidate Cammy Watkins, who is Black. Protesters last weekend marched to the police union hall to vent their anger, leaving three pig heads in costume police caps on the grounds. Police arrested seven protesters.
Both the flyer and the protest were free speech protected under the First Amendment, the former prompting the latter. That doesn’t mean that either was the right way for the police union or the protesters to conduct themselves. The pig heads were gross and inappropriate; the union’s campaign flyer was inflammatory and false.
We acknowledge each group is disgusted by the other’s actions.
But these incendiary actions foreclose the kind of conversations that make real progress. They raise the temperature just as our country is marking the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.
In Omaha, the proper way to respect that sobering anniversary is twofold: Police should show they understand their duty for proper conduct, and the union should not undercut the department’s efforts. Protesters should exercise their speech rights in ways that aim to build support and not spark tumult.
Omaha will be taking a major step backward if it throws away the progress it’s made on this issue through irresponsible actions by either side.