Omaha, NE – The Omaha Police Department arrested 120 protesters in one swoop during an unpermitted demonstration in the city last month and now the organizers have travelled to Portland, Oregon to learn how to do it better from the rioters in that city.
More than 150 people gathered in Turner Park at 30th and Farnam Streets at about 7:30 p.m. on July 25 the street near Midtown Crossing and marched to downtown Omaha, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Event organizer Alexander Matthews, who goes by the name “Bear Alexander,” said the group was standing in solidarity with protesters in Portland, Oregon and protesting the fatal shooting of 22-year-old rioter James Scurlock, who was killed by bar owner Jake Gardner in front of his establishment during the George Floyd riots on May 30.
Scurlock was captured on surveillance video vandalizing and looting another business down the block from Gardner’s bar just moments before the altercation with the bar owner.
The Douglas County District Attorney announced that Gardner would not be charged a week after he shot Scurlock, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
“We wanted to march down Farnam and show everybody whose streets these are,” Matthews said of the protest. “There was no malicious intent whatsoever.”
He said protesters noticed police following their march and blocking off side streets.
Police said protesters knocked over construction barrels and cones to block police cruisers from following them and “caused a safety issue for anyone else utilizing the streets after the (protesters’) passage,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Shortly after the march began, Omaha police began making announcements over a loudspeaker and declared the assembly unlawful.
One of the protesters who rode a bicycle in the march – 29-year-old Mark Vondrasek – told the Omaha World-Herald that he heard police announce multiple times that the demonstration was an unlawful assembly and that protesters who stayed would be arrested.
Police said the fifth announcement ended with the order “go home now” and some people left.
The march continued and arrived downtown, and then protesters turned around and headed back to where they’d started, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Police said the unpermitted protest blocked all lanes of the street and filled the sidewalk.
When protesters reached the Farnam Street Bridge over Interstate 480, the police announcement informed protesters that “you are under arrest,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Police said all the remaining protesters were on the bridge at 9:36 p.m. when they used police vehicles to block both ends of the bridge and shut the march down.
Officials told the Omaha World-Herald that the lieutenant handling the protest “had a plan in place to make arrests on the bridge as it had better containment of individuals and was a better safety option.”
Vondrasek, the protester on the bike, said he tried to make a run for it at that point but was caught by police.
The police report said Omaha Police Officer Robert Soldo saw Vondrasek “turn his bicycle towards officers, load his pedal and attempt to flee while riding his bicycle directly at officers,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Officer Soldo said in the report he saw Omaha Police Officer Nicola Bay “attempt to stop Vondrasek from fleeing, at which time Vondrasek crashed his bicycle into Ofc. Soldo.”
The officer wrote that he pushed Vondrasek away and then fired “five direct impact pepper ball rounds to Vondrasek’s right side,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
“The pepper ball deployment was approximately five feet away and appeared to be effective,” the police report read.
Vondrasek told the Omaha World-Herald he was struck in the chest, shoulder, back, and butt cheek, and that the pepper balls caused bruising and bleeding.
“I had sort of moved to the front, and I had an opportunity to try to bike away,” the protester said. “I tried to and [officers] caught me. They sort of started throwing me around, they shot me with some pepper balls and tackled me to the ground.”
Vondrasek called the officers’ use of force “excessive,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
“We were two blocks away from where we had started, and if police had let us continue we would have gone back to the park and immediately dispersed,” he complained. “It would have been over within 10 minutes, but they chose to end it on their terms and commit unnecessary acts of violence.”
Vondrasek was the first of many arrests that night, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Police arrested 28-year-old Cole Christensen next after he ran at officers who were arresting Vondrasek with a leaf blower and a sign.
The police report said Officer Soldo deployed pepper balls at Christensen to prevent him from interfering in the arrest, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Officers arrested a total of 120 protesters on the bridge.
Omaha police said “on-scene command made the decision to book the involved parties into jail out of fear that disturbances and potential further criminal activity would continue in the downtown area if they were cited and released,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
The protesters were charged with a wide variety of charges that included failure to disperse, obstructing passage, negligent driving, obstructing officers, resisting arrest, and unlawful assembly.
Protesters complained afterward that they were subjected to harsh conditions in the Douglas County Jail, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Jail officials blamed computer problems for delays that kept some protesters behind bars until Monday.
Alexander, who organized the protest for the Progressive Black-Led Ally Coalition (ProBLAC), told BuzzFeed that four members of the coalition had traveled to Portland, Oregon afterwards to learn some better tactics.
He said they were being taught best practices for protesting and organizing by the same rioters who have worked to destroy that city every night for more than two months.
Alexander said the march for Scurlock was the first he had ever led, BuzzFeed reported.
The 23-year-old, who spent a year in prison for selling marijuana, said the city waited too long to protest for Scurlock.
“The night James Scurlock died, the next day we didn’t do anything. It goes to show the type of city Omaha is,” Alexander said. “We were told by our local Black leaders to not do anything — to calm down and go home and to rest, and to let them all handle it.”
Surveillance videos showed that less than an hour before Scurlock was shot by Gardner, he and a friend vandalized the RDG Planning and Design architectural firm in the former Omaha Chamber of Commerce building located on the corner of 12th and Harney, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
Videos obtained by the Omaha World-Herald showed Scurlock entered the building through a smashed window, picked up an office chair, and threw it into two computer monitors.
Then he tore a phone from a desk and hurled it at the wall where it stuck, hanging out of the broken drywall.
The video showed that the other rioter with Scurlock in the video smashed another computer monitor, and then Scurlock pulled a mask back over his face and both men left the destroyed business, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
Just down the street, Jake Gardner, the owner of bars The Hive and The Gatsby which are located next door to each other, was inside his business with his father, David Gardner and one of the bouncers who worked at the bars, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Gardner, who served as a U.S. Marine in Haiti and Iraq, had posted on Facebook about having to protect his business.
“Just when you think, ‘what else could 2020 throw at me?’ Then you have to pull 48 hours of military style firewatch,” he posted.
At about 10:55 p.m., rioters began breaking the windows on other nearby businesses, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Someone threw rocks and an Old Market signpost through the windows of The Hive.
Gardner and his father both told police that when the windows suddenly shattered, they thought somebody was shooting at them, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Both Jake and David Gardner ran outside and confronted a group of people in front of the bar, one of whom was Spurlock.
David Gardner got into a shoving match with somebody else in the group, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
A law enforcement official said that at 10:56 p.m., the video showed the same rioter featured in the video with Spurlock smashing computer monitors at the architecture firm pushed David Gardner to the ground.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said Jake Gardner rushed over to his fallen father and asked what happened, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
Then the video showed Jake Gardner backing up at 10:57 p.m. as Scurlock and another man approached him.
Jake Gardner lifted his shirt in the video to show he had a gun at his waist, then he pulled the pistol out and held it down at his side, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
“That (expletive) got a gun,” someone in Scurlock’s group said in the video and then waved at the bar owner, as if to shoo him away. “It’s not worth it (expletive) you stu–.”
Seconds later, a woman – later identified as Alayna Melendez of Omaha – tackled Jake Gardner from behind, landing him on his back in a puddle in the middle of Harney Street, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
At 10:58 p.m., the video showed Jake Gardner fired two warning shots into the air and then attempted to get up from the ground.
The video showed that’s when Scurlock jumped on Gardner from behind and put him in what authorities have called both a “headlock” and a “chokehold,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
“Get off me, get off me,” Jake Gardner screamed in the video, according to the district attorney.
Scurlock had Gardner’s right arm pinned so the military veteran switched the gun to his left hand.
Then he fired over his shoulder and shot his attacker in the neck-shoulder area, killing him, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
The entire struggle lasted 20 seconds and left Spurlock dead.
Police took Jake Gardner into custody and he was questioned with his attorneys present before being released late the next night, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
The district attorney said he and his chief deputy, Brenda Beadle, reviewed the videos and witness statements for 12 hours “with all of the homicide detectives.”
“There was a consensus that the actions of the shooter were justified,” Kleine said. “We certainly wish that none of this would have happened. It’s a senseless death.”
He said no one in the room felt Jake Gardner should face charges, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Nebraska law says that a person may use justifiable deadly force to protect themselves or others, but not property.
Kleine and Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said they had methodically broken down five videos of the incident, but said they would be happy to review any other video to look for different angles, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
But the district attorney and the police chief told reporters at the press conference to announce their decision that they felt the initial five videos had given them solid view of the incident.
Kleine, who has been a prosecutor for 30 years, said he didn’t think it was necessary to take the case before a grand jury, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
He said that whatever may have led up to the skirmish, Scurlock pouncing on Gardner from behind was what led Gardner to fire his weapon to protect himself.
Kleine, a Democrat elected to office four times, condemned people – including a local Democratic congressional candidate – for distorting the facts of the case on social media, the Omaha World-Herald reported.