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Who are the Omaha protesters? Despite claims of outside agitators, most of those arrested are local
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Who are the Omaha protesters? Despite claims of outside agitators, most of those arrested are local

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As the protests against police brutality and racism grew in strength, numbers and outrage over recent days in Omaha, the rumors and social media posts flew fast and furious.

Among the allegations: Protesters were coming in from out of state. Rioters planned to ransack the Village Pointe shopping center in west Omaha. Members of the anti-fascism movement called antifa were recruiting protesters — and promising pay of $25 per hour — to sow the seeds of chaos in Omaha and Lincoln.

Preliminary arrest data provided by the Omaha Police Department tells a different story.

The 300-plus protesters arrested from Friday through Tuesday nights skewed young — many were under 30. They primarily were men. Just under half were white, while 36% were black and the rest were another race or ethnicity.

And the vast majority — 93% of the 262 people for whom Omaha police had data — lived in Omaha and its surrounding suburbs or just across the river in Council Bluffs. A small number came from other areas of Nebraska or western Iowa — Lincoln, Macy, Columbus, Morse Bluff or Carter Lake. Four had Kentucky, Washington state or Kansas addresses.

Wednesday, City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse, who handles misdemeanor charges, said his office plans to file charges in connection with the hundreds of protesters arrested that “are supported by the evidence.”

But no protests or looting occurred at Village Pointe. The Omaha police debunked social media posts that falsely claimed that a man encouraging violence against protesters was a police officer. On Twitter, Nebraska anti-fascists said the Craigslist ad about recruiting protesters was fake.

“You’re a gullible mark with questionable motives if you believe everything you see on the internet,” they wrote.

Who joined the recent protests locally and nationwide — and their underlying motivations — isn’t always crystal clear, experts said. Protesters are not a monolith.

Looking at demonstrators as a singular group with one unified mission oversimplifies protests and who tends to show up at them, Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor who studies protests and social movements, told the Washington Post.

“There are Black Lives Matter protesters who have been shoved one too many times by the police and are fed up. There are the anarchists who came there to smash capitalism and tear down Starbucks to make way for whatever comes next,” she said. “There are the folks who genuinely want a peaceful protest and all the young people who have over the last several years gotten really good at civil disobedience, which, by the way, does not include throwing rocks at police.”

While overlap exists among the groups, Fisher said, and the categories are fluid, President Donald Trump and others have flattened them into one, conflating groups that might not agree on tactics or why they are participating.

Sunday afternoon, the Trump administration intensified its effort to pin blame on the far-left “antifa” movement for escalating demonstrations, property damage and violence in protests across the country. The president vowed on Twitter to designate antifa a terrorist organization.

Gina Ligon is the director of the Department of Homeland Security-sponsored National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology, and Education (NCITE) Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Researchers there study domestic extremist groups.

She said there’s no evidence that people are traveling across state lines as part of an organized, concerted movement to join or infiltrate protests.

But she said fringe groups affiliated with the far left and the far right, as well as Russian or other foreign disinformation campaigns online, may be co-opting and exploiting the anger over police misconduct for their own anti-government, white supremacist, anti-police or anti-American agenda.

“There are people who are drawn by the violence and the opportunity to engage in it under this socially accepted cause,” she said.

Fake “bots” also troll online, and people set up coordinated social media campaigns intended to provoke mistrust and turn Americans against each other, she said. That pump already was primed — the protests came on the heels of a coronavirus pandemic that has led to illness, death, job losses and more political polarization.

Ligon saw neighbors on her local Nextdoor app sharing rumors that antifa protesters were headed to the suburbs.

“I was like, that is not real, that’s coming from something that was created not in Nebraska,” she said. “That’s how disinformation works. It was classic.”

It doesn’t matter that the rumored incursion never happened. The effect is the same: disruption, confusion, businesses closing early.

In Omaha, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said smaller groups of outside agitators have overshadowed and undermined the message of those asking for police accountability, pointing to an emotional but peaceful rally Sunday night at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Visitors Center in North Omaha that drew about 1,000 people.

Mayors and police chiefs in other cities have used similar us-versus-them language, blaming out-of-towners or outside groups for inciting violence and vandalism. But a USA Today analysis of arrest records and social media accounts in several cities found that most protesters are local.

The World-Herald asked an Omaha police spokesman for more details on Schmaderer’s remarks about outside groups, but he did not respond.

Wednesday afternoon, at a meeting of the anti-violence group Omaha 360, Deputy Police Chief Scott Gray mentioned arrests of people from out of state, including the two Kentucky residents. Gray said he didn’t know if the out-of-state residents came to Omaha for the purpose of stirring up trouble but said the Omaha department and federal authorities are going to look into that.

Patrick Jones is an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies civil rights and social movements. Jones, who attended some of the recent demonstrations, said there’s a long history of officials blaming uprisings on “outsiders,” from labor strikes in the late 19th century to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Historically, the tactic has been used to minimize or question the legitimacy of protests, “despite the reality that those movements were rooted in local circumstances and local people and they were the engine ... everywhere in change,” he said of civil rights era-protests.

Still, there’s nothing to stop a car full of college students or clergy in Kansas City from heading up to Omaha to protest this weekend.

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“Protest is organic, and we’re dealing with legitimate anger and frustration and rage right now,” Jones said.

Many protesters, without resorting to violence, have taken to the streets over the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police.

In Omaha, the demonstrations that started Friday night morphed into a homegrown display of sorrow and fury after the death Saturday night of James Scurlock, a 22-year-old black protester who was shot and killed in Omaha’s Old Market by Jake Gardner, a white bar owner.

The initial decision by Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine to not charge Gardner, whom he determined was acting in self-defense, further inflamed tensions. Kleine has since said he would support a grand jury review of the shooting.

But some protesters, particularly on Saturday night, became destructive. They damaged police cruisers, smashed windows and doors downtown and spray-painted anti-police graffiti and homages to Floyd. Police said they were pelted with rocks, bottles and eggs over the course of several nights, and confiscated two handguns Monday night.

Downtown businesses, many already reeling from coronavirus-related closures, said the damage was yet another setback.

Omaha resident Markell Riley protested in Minneapolis after Floyd’s death and returned home to do the same. She described the protests in Omaha as loosely organized, with the exception of the Black Agenda Alliance and Malcolm X Memorial Foundation rally.

She appreciated white allies who joined people of color to speak out but said they also need to step aside sometimes, listen and let the voices and experience of black people be front and center.

For some, their first serious encounter with police may have been at the protests, Riley said, but there’s a deeper history of mistrust between police and the black community.

“The whole fight is about the fact that we fear the police on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “We’re not trying to march up to the police and yell in their faces and throw water bottles, to act a fool. That’s not what the community wants.”

During protests and riots, Ligon said it can be difficult to discern different types of rabble-rousers.

“What you’re seeing in these riots is a mix, and that’s what makes it so troublesome for police and security to know who’s who,” she said. “Which ones are swept up in throwing rocks versus those who came with the purpose of doing nefarious things.”

Some protesters said the demonstrations grew tense and confrontational only after police in riot gear fired tear gas, pepper balls and flash canisters.

“The police obviously escalated,” said Black Lives Matter activist and former congressional candidate Morgann Freeman, who helped organize Friday’s protest. “We’re agitating for justice for both George Floyd and now James Scurlock, and I absolutely believe none of this would have happened if police stood with us.”

Schmaderer said officers, joined on Sunday by the Nebraska National Guard, were responding to crowds that became increasingly unruly, throwing objects at officers, blocking streets and refusing to go home after hours of protesting.

During Monday’s protests, a few overtures of solidarity occurred. Guard members passed out Gatorade to protesters to fight the late-afternoon heat, and a line of police officers and soldiers knelt after protesters asked them to.

Freeman said that from what she witnessed, a number of protesters who were more aggressive Friday and Saturday nights seemed to be younger men, many of them white. Friday, a group refused police orders to move from the median at the intersection of 72nd and Dodge.

“I literally told them the police will shut down the protest, you may get arrested, please move because I don’t want to put everyone else at risk,” she said. “They said they were all right with that.”

She and her fiancé, a doctor, came upon a small group Saturday night that appeared to have attacked a counter-protester who was lying on the ground. In a video she took, Freeman yells at the crowd to find a medic as her partner tends to him.

“I don’t know what they were there for, but I sincerely doubt they were there for Black Lives Matter or police brutality,” she said. “I think they were just trying to get in trouble.”

“People have given me unconfirmed reports that there were antifa people and white supremacists in Lincoln and white supremacists in Omaha just trying to cause chaos,” Freeman continued. “And while I don’t have any confirmation of that, I also don’t find it hard to believe.”

Gaby Barbosa, a 21-year-old from Omaha, was one of dozens arrested Monday night on suspicion of unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor.

She showed up to her first-ever protest on Friday, at 72nd and Dodge Streets, with just her boyfriend, not any particular group, after being moved by Floyd’s death. They returned Saturday and Monday nights.

“This was my first go-around,” she said, “but I’m a very outspoken person, and if I believe in something, I’m definitely going to speak on it.”

Monday night, she ended up in a group of about 40 people who marched toward 15th and Leavenworth Streets 30 minutes past the city curfew. The group was hemmed in by police, she said, who shot some sort of projectile toward the group. Some of the crowd did start shouting and throwing things at the officers after that, she said.

She said her boyfriend was kicked during his arrest, and they were all taken to the Douglas County Jail. At first, she was mistakenly charged with a DUI, she said, even though she was walking, not driving, and hadn’t been given a Breathalyzer test.

She paid $250 to get released from jail, 10% of her $2,500 bail, and was refunded out of a bail fund created by the Nebraska Left Coalition. A preliminary court date is set for the week of June 22, and she’s hoping to get off with just a fine.

“I sat there, I did the time,” Barbosa said. “I’m still glad that I did it. I had to go to jail and everything. ... We want our voices to be heard.”

- World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report, which includes material from the Washington Post.

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