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Freelance journalist caught up in a wave of arrests in Omaha

June 1, 2020

Freelance reporter Megan Feeney was briefly detained by police in Omaha, Nebraska, as she covered a protest against police violence on June 1, 2020, she told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Feeney was on assignment for public outlets NET News and America Amplified, she wrote in an article for NET News, home to Nebraska’s PBS and NPR stations.

Feeney was one of at least six journalists who were either detained, searched or aggressively confronted by law enforcement while covering the protest that evening, according to several journalists on the ground that night.

For days, Omaha officials had struggled to respond to escalating protests that began in Minnesota on May 26 and spread across the country, sparked by a video showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest the day before. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Protesters once again gathered on June 1 after Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced that a white bar owner would not be charged in the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old Black man two days earlier, according to the Associated Press. Kleine said the bar owner had fired in self-defense.

Several hundred protesters peacefully engaged with police and National Guardsmen only a block away from the location of the bar shooting in the Old Market area, according to news reports.

After protesters and law enforcement took a knee together, Deputy Police Chief Ken Kanger attempted to escort a large group of the remaining protesters out of the area so they could return home for the city’s 8 p.m. curfew, according to the Omaha World-Herald. But a water bottle was thrown, pepper balls were fired and the chaos of mass arrests quickly enveloped the block.

Despite the media exemption to the curfew, Feeney knew she risked being detained for continuing to report past 8 p.m., she told the Tracker. She was especially at risk as a freelancer without credentials.

“I felt the need to witness what happened next despite the consequences,” she said.

Feeney was not the only journalist who faced consequences for continuing to report past curfew. At least five other journalists were caught up in the police action as well, including two who were briefly detained. The Tracker documents journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests here.

The incidents occurred despite the curfew explicitly excluding “members of the media.” As police waited to transport the arrested protesters, they asked members of the media to leave the area, World-Herald reporter Mike Sautter told the Tracker. The block was “like a crime scene,” the police said.

In videos by KMTV’s Kent Luetzen, who was nearly detained himself, and Omaha World-Herald’s Aaron Sanderford, a police officer escorts Feeney down the street. Feeney is wearing a yellow reflective vest with “PRESS” written on the front. She identifies as a freelancer for NET News and America Amplified, a microphone resting on her hip and a camera dangling from her zip-tied hands.

Feeney was escorted to a hot police van holding other people in custody, she wrote for NET News. She told the Tracker, “I had no way of verifying to the arresting officer that I was media other than my word.”

NET News learned of her detention on Twitter and contacted Omaha police, Feeney said. Michael Pecha, a public information officer for the Omaha police, tweeted just before 9 p.m. that another officer, Joseph Nickerson, was on his way “to sort this out.”

The detained journalists, including Feeney, were eventually released.

Lieutenant Sherie Thomas, a spokesperson for the Omaha Police Department, told the Tracker that Police Chief Todd Schmaderer had ordered “an overall review of the protests.” Thomas later said that the department sent “clear communication” to news outlets “to make sure employees had visible badges showing that they work for the media” and to “wear highly visible vests.”

Major Scott Ingalsbe, a spokesperson for the Nebraska National Guard, told the Tracker, “Once National Guardsmen and law enforcement were able to quickly and correctly identify members of the news media, they were released without arrest.”

“We appreciate the work journalists do and the service they provide to our community,” Ingalsbe said. He added that he had personally reached out to outlets covering the protests and has yet to hear any indications the National Guard harmed them or interfered with their work.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert did not respond to request for comment.

Two days after the protest, the prosecutor reversed course on the shooting case, according to news reports. A grand jury would review the case after all.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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