The state of emergency declared by Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert over the weekend has been extended by one week, giving her the power to keep a nightly curfew in place through the night of June 9.
The City Council on Tuesday voted 5-1 to extend Stothert’s original order, which she issued Sunday in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and James Scurlock in Omaha.
That order was set to expire Wednesday following a Tuesday curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Whether Stothert will choose to issue a curfew for the coming nights was expected to depend partly on how protests played out Tuesday. By the 8 p.m. curfew, a smaller group of protesters outside the Douglas County Courthouse had dispersed.
Carrie Murphy, Stothert’s spokeswoman, said the mayor will consult with Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and others Wednesday about whether issuing another curfew will be necessary.
“The curfew will be lifted at the mayor’s earliest opportunity,” Deputy Chief Greg Gonzalez said during Tuesday’s council meeting.
Marty Bilek, Stothert’s chief of staff, said the weeklong request was made to allow the city to be flexible in its ability to set curfews. Because the council meets once a week — and must approve extensions of the mayor’s emergency powers — it made sense to ask for a week, Bilek said.
Council President Chris Jerram, who cast the only no vote, echoed the voices of many people who attended the meeting and opposed giving Stothert another week of emergency powers. He outlined concerns about limiting people’s basic freedoms.
“The people who started our country listed the First Amendment No. 1 for a reason, and in a democratic society, if we don’t cherish that right and defend it above all others, then we risk the deterioration of other rights,” Jerram said. “And the right to peacefully assemble and seek redress from your government is so important.”
The Omaha City Charter grants the mayor the power to declare a state of emergency for up to 72 hours if the city “is in imminent danger of suffering civil disturbance, disorder, riot or other occurrence which will seriously and substantially endanger the health, safety and property of the citizens.”
Such a declaration includes the ability to set a curfew. Extending an emergency declaration beyond 72 hours requires council approval.
Discussion on the extension drew several opponents, who said they thought the order was a violation of their rights and an attempt to suppress the voices of minority groups.
Scott Williams, who said he works in a grocery store, said forcing businesses to close at 8 p.m. hurts late-night workers whose shifts have been cut short. Williams also said the curfew essentially creates a new law to target people — such as peaceful protesters — who otherwise would not be breaking any laws.
Councilman Vinny Palermo, who represents South Omaha, voted in favor of the extension, but he expressed reservations about doing so. Palermo said many people do not have a guaranteed 40-hour workweek and rely on work shifts that may come late at night or early in the morning.
“This is affecting the way people put food on their table,” he said of the curfews.
Council members Brinker Harding, Aimee Melton, Rich Pahls and Pete Festersen also voted in favor of the extension. Councilman Ben Gray was not present for the vote.
More than 50 people attended Tuesday’s council meeting to speak in support of a different resolution, one that condemned the actions of the Minneapolis police officers who were involved in the death of George Floyd, who died after former Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
David Mitchell, a black man who spoke in support of the resolution, said he is a father, a son and a business owner, and compared himself to many of the young black men who have died “for simply being black.”
“There’s people that can sit there and stomach (watching Floyd’s death) ... but you couldn’t stomach watching (former NFL quarterback Colin) Kaepernick kneel on the field for two minutes?” Mitchell said.
Former State Sen. Brenda Council also spoke in support of the resolution — which was approved 7-0 — commenting on the rarity of a city council condemning the actions of a police department. But Council said she wants to see people speak up sooner, nodding to the many black men who have been killed by police in recent years.
“What if we had said something then instead of having to say something now?” Council asked.