Omaha police shove, detain freelance journalist during protest

July 25, 2020

Journalist Melanie Buer was detained by police officers while covering protests in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 25, 2020.

Buer told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker she was held for more than two hours by officers who doubted her professional status, but she eventually was released without charge.

On the night of July 25, protesters had been marching for several hours in downtown Omaha while police officers accompanied them and redirected traffic, according to local news reports. The demonstrators were protesting against the killing of a Black Nebraska man, James Scurlock, who was shot dead by a white bar owner during a Black Lives Matter protest in May. They also marched in solidarity with protests in Portland, Oregon, and many other cities against police violence following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Once protestors reached the city’s Farnam Street bridge, police officers announced that the demonstration was an “unlawful assembly and you’re all subject to arrest,” according to local news reports. Buer, who is a freelance journalist and an associate editor at Protean Magazine, which describes itself as a nonprofit leftist media collective, told the Tracker that when protesters reached the end of the bridge shortly before 10 p.m. they were corralled by police officers who began wide-scale arrests. The Omaha World-Herald later reported that of 120 people arrested at the protest, 30 were subsequently charged with criminal violations.

In a timeline of the events on July 25 later published by the Omaha Police Department, the department said the protestors were marching without a permit, were putting others in danger by walking against oncoming traffic and ignored repeated warnings that they were subject to arrest. Many protesters said they heard no prior warnings, according to news reports.

Buer and two colleagues from the magazine were on the sidewalk on the northwest side of the bridge when police officers began firing pepper balls at protestors in the street, she said. The protestors then began jumping back on to the sidewalk, so they were surrounded and had nowhere to move out of the way as officers began making arrests. The other journalists, Ashley Darrow and Kristofer Nivens, declined to comment on the incident.

Buer was filming the events on her cellphone when she was shoved by a police officer and fell to the pavement, she said. In a video she posted to Twitter the next day, police officers can be heard yelling “get on the ground!” and approaching the sidewalk area where Buer and others are gathered. The camera then shakes and the image is blurred and momentarily goes black, before resuming filming from a lower vantage point.

Buer can then be heard yelling that she is a member of the press, to which the officer says “I don’t see anything right now.” Buer yells, “Are you kidding me? I have a press pass!” The officer responds “I don’t know that that’s real, I have no idea that that’s valid. Right now you’re getting detained.”

The journalist’s wrists were then constrained in zip ties and she was made to sit on the bridge for more than two hours, she said.

Buer said she had a press badge clearly displayed around her neck and that she repeatedly told the police officers she was a journalist, but that they didn’t believe her.

“It would defy logic,” that they didn't realize she was press when they shoved and detained her, she said. In another video Buer posted to Twitter in the days after the incident, a police officer can be heard telling another officer that “she is saying she’s press, but I can’t verify that. We’ve got intel that they have fake press cards.”

“This is not a fake press card,” Buer responds.

Shortly before midnight, Buer and her colleagues spoke with a lieutenant who asked them about the media outlet they worked for and told them they “needed to wear hi-vis safety vests in order to not be confused for protesters,” Buer said in an email.

The lieutenant told his officers to cut off the journalists’ zip ties and take down their personal information, as well as that of the outlet they worked for. But “there was no attempt to verify our assignments with our editor or anything of that nature (though we offered it),” Buer wrote.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering protests across the country. Find these incidents here.

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

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