Legal Observer Arrested During Protest, Held for 22 Hours

A neon yellow safety vest worn by Creighton University School of Law student Riley Wilson to be a legal observer of a protest that marched from midtown to downtown Omaha on June 24, 2020. (Riley Wilson)
Molly Ashford
The Daily Record

Outfitted in a neon yellow safety vest with “Legal Observer” written in bold black letters, Riley Wilson arrived at the corner of 29th and Farnam streets at around 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Wilson is a U.S. Air Force veteran and a Creighton University School of Law student who aspires to become a public defender. He attended the protest to take note of police actions, working as a legal observer pro bono for a civil rights attorney in Scottsbluff.

He was arrested and held for 22 hours before being released following the protest, he told The Daily Record in an interview.

At the beginning, Wilson described the scene as calm, with about 100 people chanting and holding signs on the corner. The protest sought to show solidarity with Portland, Oregon, where federal agents have clashed with protesters. The Omaha demonstration also demanded justice for James Scurlock, an unarmed Black man killed in the Old Market in May.

“It was just a peaceful protest,” Wilson said of Friday’s gathering.

Wilson followed the crowd as they began to walk downtown, often falling behind the group as he stayed on the sidewalk and observed crosswalk signals. The protest was declared an unlawful assembly, as traffic was obstructed as the march proceeded into the Old Market.

For the entirety of their walk, Wilson said that the police escorted the crowd with cruisers, cutting off traffic from the north and south.

Wilson said that he saw Omaha police vehicles parked farther down the street that would circle away from the crowd and move along their route.

“At the time, I assumed that the police were helping to keep safety for everybody – people in traffic and the protesters,” Wilson said.

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., protesters returned to the area where the march began and were preparing to walk across the overpass that leads over the interstate into Midtown Crossing. Wilson said that this was the anticipated end of the demonstration.

Once the protesters reached the bridge, however, Wilson described police using a tactic that’s known as “kettling” to corner protesters on the bridge with no way out. The Omaha Police Department did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the tactic.

With a large police presence at both exits, police announced that everyone on the bridge was subject to arrest, according to Wilson’s account. Police arrested more than a hundred people on suspicion of charges that included failure to disperse, obstructing a passageway, resisting arrest and other misdemeanors.

Despite his clearly marked apparel, Wilson was detained and arrested. He is facing one count of failure to disperse and one count of obstruction of a passageway.

“A police officer came up to me, put his arm on my right shoulder with one hand and kick-swiped me and pushed me to the ground and yelled at me to stay there until someone came around to zip tie me,” Wilson said. “I was never asked, ‘Who are you?’ or ‘What’s a legal observer?’ They just lumped everyone together.”

Video posted online by independent journalist Melanie Buer shows the members of the media were also detained. In the video, the journalist yells, ‘I’m media.” A police officer responds, “You know what, I don’t see anything right now.” As she reiterates that she has a press credential, she is tackled to the ground and zip tied.

“I don’t know if that’s real,” the officer tells her. “I don’t know that that’s valid. Right now, you’re getting detained.”

Wilson said that police questioning the legitimacy of an journalist is “very scary, because it’s not the police’s job to say which press outlets are or are not legitimate.”

The Omaha Police Department also did not immediately respond to questions about the detaining of legal observers or members of the media.

Although he was only able to take a couple notes before he was zip tied, Wilson said that he witnessed police misconduct as he sat on the bridge waiting to be taken to the Douglas County Jail.

“There was a group to my right of eight to 12 people, mostly women in their early to mid 20s, zip tied on the ground” Wilson said. “There was a police officer bragging to them that he was strong enough to beat any of them up. I just thought that was an absurd thing for a police officer in this situation – or in any situation at all – to say.”

Once they arrived at the jail, protesters were kept outside in a parking lot, zip-tied, for hours before they were booked. In Wilson’s holding cell, he said he counted 43 people in a space that he estimated was supposed to hold no more than half that number.

It took hours for protesters to be booked into the jail, as computer systems went down for routine maintenance and some systems failed to return to service. The jail used a paper process to release about 50 people on bond, according to a county news release.

The Douglas Omaha Technology Commission said that the outage also affected computer systems used by the police and the county treasurer’s office.

People gathered outside the Douglas County Jail on Sunday questioning the delay, the conditions those who were in custody faced and the inability of some to reach their loved ones who had been arrested.

The ACLU of Nebraska posted a statement on social media that accused the Omaha Police Department of going against state policy that requires citations be used when possible, instead of continued detention. The group said that its legal team is reviewing videos, witness reports and media stories.

“Make no mistake, police knew what they were doing sending dozens of people to a jail that isn’t prepared to handle a mass influx at the best of times,” the organization said on its Facebook page. “Freedom of assembly is a fundamental right enshrined in our Constitution. There can be limits when protests move to the streets but police can’t unreasonably abridge or deny free speech based on minor traffic concerns.

The organization is offering free legal services and bail support, along with the Nebraska Left Coalition, for any arrested protester. Spokesperson Sam Petto said the public should be disturbed by the actions of the city’s police officers.

“All Nebraskans should be deeply concerned with how the Omaha police responded to a peaceful protest, and that they decided to do so with a mass arrest,” Petto said. “We are focused on undoing as much harm as we can by offering direct legal support to protesters, but we are also focused on protecting protester’s rights. That means holding people accountable for any and all violations of civil rights and civil liberties that we find.”


Editor's Note: This article originally misstated the service branch in which Wilson served. The Daily Record apologizes for the error.


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