Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert took the rare step Sunday of declaring a state of emergency and imposed a curfew to suppress protests that played a role in a homicide.
The Nebraska National Guard also arrived Sunday to assist the Omaha Police Department. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said that this did not represent a military action and that the Guard would only “embed” with the police.
The citywide curfew took effect in public places at 8 p.m. Sunday. It came after Omaha was swept up in protests that have broken out in many American cities after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of a black man, George Floyd, for more than eight minutes and killed him.
At 8 p.m. in the Old Market, law enforcement announced the start of the curfew, giving protesters multiple warnings to leave. Later, police fired tear gas and pepper balls into the remaining crowd, and a number of arrests were made.
At the Police Department’s northeast precinct near 30th and Taylor Streets, police turned on cruiser sirens to mark the curfew. Vehicles drove by honking their horns, yelling obscenities and flipping off the police. The police officers did not react.
Schmaderer said the support from guardsmen would increase the presence of law enforcement and take some strain off exhausted Omaha officers.
It has been more than 30 years since Omaha leaders have imposed a curfew, and that involved only a small portion of downtown, Stothert spokeswoman Carrie Murphy said.
The City of Lincoln also put a curfew in place Sunday night, and the National Guard helped there as well. Ralston and Council Bluffs also imposed curfews Sunday night.
Omaha’s state of emergency will last 72 hours, and the curfew was imposed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and will continue Monday and Tuesday nights. Stothert could extend it with Omaha City Council approval. The curfew doesn’t apply to people going to and from work, medical personnel, the press, the homeless and some others.
“Since I became mayor in 2013, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any sadder, darker days than I’ve seen over the past two days,” Stothert said at a press conference.
She said she had to take “extraordinary measures” to quell the violence. She and Gov. Pete Ricketts said most of the protesters had merely exercised their rights in a peaceful way. They suggested that influences from outside the city might be responsible for the violent agitation.
Asked whether the militant leftist organization Antifa was involved in the violence, Schmaderer said he hasn’t found a tie. But the local FBI office will go through the list of those arrested, he said, in part with that in mind.
U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly of Nebraska said he would prosecute under federal law those who have come from out of state with violent intentions.
Ricketts said the violence Friday and Saturday nights rose “to a level of disturbance that we have not seen in Omaha and Lincoln.” Ricketts said that he has heard the message clearly and that “justice must be served for George Floyd.”
Some protesters smashed downtown windows Saturday night. During that chaos, 22-year-old James Scurlock, a black man, was shot and killed in the Old Market about 11 p.m., evidently while in a dispute with another man. The suspect in the shooting is in police custody, Schmaderer said.
Police have not identified the shooter, but The World-Herald has confirmed that the man in custody is Jake Gardner, a downtown Omaha bar owner.
Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and Douglas County Board member Chris Rodgers attended the press conference and said afterward that Schmaderer is a trustworthy police chief. But they said systemic flaws have led to tragedies such as Floyd’s death.
“We’ve got a chance now to do some hard policy stuff,” Rodgers said.
Gray said Floyd’s death went beyond one more police killing of a black man. “George Floyd was the last straw,” he said. Gray said he is perturbed by the claim that society has heard the message and made progress in its race relations. “You want to know how many times I’ve heard that?”
Schmaderer said Saturday was “one of the longest nights the city of Omaha has ever had.” Police arrested one man who had a Molotov cocktail, a crude explosive device, and 50 other people. The majority of those were white, he said.
A crowd of about 500 protesters at 72nd and Dodge Streets, he said, ballooned into 4,000 there and then in downtown Omaha Saturday night.
A violation of the curfew can lead to a misdemeanor and up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Stothert said the public spaces involved include such things as streets, alleys and private spots accessible to the public. She said some exceptions would be made, including for transportation.
During the noncurfew portions of the 72-hour stretch, groups are to be limited to 25 people, she said.
Schmaderer said the city’s plans Sunday had been designed to allow a rally to proceed at the northeast Omaha Malcolm X birth site.
The “signature voices” should come from that rally, the chief said, and the department wants to be sure that those voices are heard.