Nearly 100 Seek Legal Advice from Nebraska ACLU After "Troubling" Accounts of Omaha Protest

(Photo courtesy of ACLU Nebraska)
July 31, 2020 - 5:11pm

Nearly 100 people who were arrested at an Omaha protest last weekend attended a legal aid clinic hosted by from ACLU Nebraska this week.

Many attendees are exploring legal options after alleging misconduct by police, unsafe jail conditions, and difficulties posting bail.

Sam Petto at the Nebraska ACLU says most face charges of failure to disperse or obstructing passage. "In many cases we are funding private representation," he explained. "By far the most common question concern that we fielded yesterday at the clinic was, 'What are the lasting consequences that I'm going to have to deal with because of this charge?' ... It is not a small thing to get wrapped up into the criminal system."

The money will come from the organization's "Freedom Fund", which started from an investment of $100,000.
The Omaha Police Department says officers moved to jail protesters late Saturday night after dozens occupied part of Farnam Street, which OPD Chief Todd Schmaderer said is illegal. 

The Nebraska ACLU sharply criticized the decision, saying officers overstepped by bringing peaceful protesters into custody.

"Written into statute is an explicit preference for citation instead of arrest, and there are very few circumstances that allow for continued detention," Petto said. "From our perspective, we just did not see those at night."

After many protesters reported unsafe conditions at the Douglas County Jail, including overcrowding and limited access to water and bathrooms, Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers disputed those claims. Many also cited concerns that jailing such a high number of people created a COVID-19 risk. Douglas County Jail Director Michael Myers said it was not clear to him why police felt it was necessary to undertake a mass arrest, and that the Douglas County jail "was not built" to accommodate so many new people.

“I don't want to throw OPD under the bus, because they typically do the right thing,” Myers said. “I don't know what happened Saturday night.”

Petto says these anecdotes will inform the organization's litigation.

"That's just another factor mixed in with protester accounts and things that they heard from officers that deeply concern us, that tell us that perhaps the content of their speech and their protest led to that reaction, versus real concern for public safety," he said. Organizer Bear Alexander arranged the protest in solidarity with protesters in Portland, Oregon, and in honor of James Scurlock, who was gunned down during Black Lives Matter protests in June. 

OPD later said protesters were jailed due to officers' concerns that "potential further criminal activity would continue in the downtown area if they were cited and released". Aside from a knocked over barrier, no reports of vandalism or violence have surfaced.



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