Danielle Conrad
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, speaks at a news conference about the lawsuit.

This story originally appeared at NOISE Omaha, and is republished with permission as part of a partnership between Prism and NOISE.

The ACLU of Nebraska is bringing a federal Civil Rights lawsuit against the city of Omaha, the chief of police, and one police captain. They announced the suit Monday in a press conference hosted at Culxr House in North Omaha.

Nebraska’s ACLU claims police brutality suppressed free speech this past summer in Omaha. The plaintiffs represented in the suit are some of those detained in the July 25th mass arrest on the Farnam Street bridge including a journalist, a legal observer, and an out-of-town bystander arrested after stepping out of her hotel to watch the march.

In addition to these eight individuals, the organization ProBLAC – Progressive Black-Led Ally Coalition – is also represented by the ACLU. The suit, primarily focused on the use of chemical irritants, undue physical force, and arrests at the hands of the Omaha Police, was brought against the Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, Police Captain Mark Matuza, and the City of Omaha itself.

During the press conference, ProBLAC organizer Bear Alexander Matthews, shared a testimony of his experience with police and commented on the unconstitutional nature of their actions while he led the protest in July, “We shouldn’t have to put our safety at risk while we are protesting and we’re expressing our first amendment rights. We have a lot of critics who say we should not have been in the streets and they are condemning our actions. Protesting peacefully in the streets should not be an introduction to be met with pepper balls, and tear gas, and excessive force which is a complete infringement of our first amendment rights.”

Nearly 130 people were arrested that day from the march on Farnam Street. While zip-cuffed, they were made to sit for hours without access to water or a restroom in a parking lot before being taken into the Douglas County Jail. Furthermore, the jail itself was not equipped to handle the influx of people in a safe manner during the COVID-19 pandemic as well, according to the ACLU.

The lawsuit alleges the Omaha Police Department (OPD) has met Black Lives Matter protestors with excessive force numerous times this past summer. The suit also questions the vagueness of certain city ordinances used in the arrests. In a press release, the ACLU states, “the lawsuit argues that Omaha Police’s aggressive enforcement of unconstitutionally vague city codes violated protesters’ rights under the U.S. Constitution, chilling peaceful free expression and subjecting protesters to unreasonable arrests and excessive force resulting in injury and trauma.”

Through the authorization of Chief Todd Schmaderer, OPD released a timeline of the protest that took place on July 25 on social media. The statement included the note, “Public streets are not forums for protesting. Extreme danger exists by entering an active roadway, without prior authorization and planning with local authorities.” The posted timeline also claimed officers made multiple verbal announcements stating, “This is the Omaha Police Department; this has been declared an unlawful assembly. You are all subject to arrest.” 

Adam Sipple of the ACLU explained in response to the post, “For the Chief to threaten mass arrests while claiming that streets are not appropriate forums for protesting warrants judicial intervention, and is a significant motivating factor behind this lawsuit.” 

Organizer Matthews was quoted during recorded testimony in preparation for the lawsuit, “I continued to repeat, ‘We are peacefully protesting!’ using my megaphone. I also encouraged participants, ‘Don’t be afraid’ and to ‘Keep your cameras out.’ As I did so, an officer suddenly attacked me from behind, placed his hands on my neck and threw me to the ground as other officers jumped in, repeatedly kneeing me in the mid-section.”

Other plaintiffs also reported either observing others or themselves being thrown to the ground. When protestors watching the arrests became upset, they were then met with chemical agents from officers.

Sipple further explained that the decision to sue the Police Chief, Police Captain, and the city instead of individual officers was in recognition that the mass arrests that took place were a result of a direct order from supervising officials that came down to the officers. The police brutality seen here is not a “one-off,” and Sipple notes, is part of a bigger pattern of law enforcement leadership not being held accountable.

The ACLU is seeking to halt the use of tear gas on non-violent protestors, as well as court intervention on the city ordinances that allowed for the mass arrest to happen. Danielle Conrad of the ACLU said, “This case takes into account successful, similar cases in the Eighth Circuit and beyond. So when Omaha Police Department do their policies, and their practices violate the individual right, that’s exactly why these kinds of theory are available, so that individuals can challenge government overreach and hold the government accountable.” The federal lawsuit requests a full evidentiary hearing and a judgement of plaintiffs’ rights being violated in addition to any damages that are proven at trial.

Emily Chen-Newton

Emily Chen-Newton is the interim managing editor for NOISE.