On July 27, the Omaha World-Herald covered for and minimized the brutality of Omaha Police Department. [LINK]
As part of the white power structure in the city, the newspaper presented statistics of self-reported police action as progress when they plainly show a deep problem that we are not willing to discuss. I am breaking with that silence and calling on you, dear reader, to do the same.
The reporter — and the editors and board, who surely reviewed the story — provide figures to placate us by showing a reduction in police violence. The graphs are misleading, in part, because they present year-to-date data for 2020 which are easily interpreted as equal with prior years. But that’s not the worst offense: it’s normalizing the expectation of police brutality.
Each use of force—each shooting, each punch, each chokehold, each canister of tear gas — is used against a resident of our city. Or in the case of Zachary Bearheels, an unfortunate person passing through. By saying, “Police are hurting you less frequently,” OWH minimizes the effects of police brutality. OWH minimizes the trauma. OWH ignores the well-documented racism displayed in annual traffic stop reports, where Black motorists are pulled over 2.7 times more often than white counterparts. [LINK] OWH is part of the system of oppression.
The news organization is doing this during a surge of police brutality being waged on protests against police brutality. People are in the streets because we have a problem, not just because of what happened in another city. Omaha City Councilmember Ben Gray missed the mark by a mile when he said, “We’re not Minneapolis. We’re not New York.” [LINK] That line of thinking glosses over our own experiences of police abuse.
As a news organization, OWH should be especially sensitive to police abuse because law enforcement is targeting them, too. During protests in June, an OWH reporter documented an illegal search of his belongings. [LINK] During the same protests, an OWH video journalist was carried away from her spot [LINK] while documenting officers beating a protester [LINK]. But, as part of the white power structure in Omaha, OWH is willing to overlook individual injustices and breaches of freedom of the press because, on the whole, the news organization benefits from their relationships with OPD, the City, Heritage Services, and other organizations that reinforce the racial segregation and oppression that holds us all in line.
Let’s reframe a statistic used in the story. “The number of unique officers who used force in one year has ranged between 182 in 2017 and 212 last year.” That means 23.5% of the 902 OPD officers used force against us in 2019. OWH wants you to accept that as normal.
Another one: “Officers used pepper ball guns 157 times in the first half of 2020 — more than the previous seven years combined. They deployed chemical agents, which include tear gas and pepper spray, 37 times this year — already more than the full-year totals for any of the past seven years.” That means that OPD is aggressively using chemical weapons against us when we gather in the streets. OWH wants you to accept that as normal.
A third: “The number of times an officer shot a person has plummeted, from 11 victims in 2010 to one last year to zero so far this year.” This implies that all the shootings of the past don’t matter because they didn’t happen this year. OWH wants you to accept that as normal.
The police officers in these statistics are the same people walking the hallways of our schools, the same people who show up at Walmart to arrest shoplifters, the same people who play basketball with your neighborhood kids. They didn’t disappear in 2018, 2015, or 2011. They are the same people.
As freedom fighter and former Omahan Malcolm X said so brilliantly, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
Omaha has a problem with police brutality. OPD dropped their community policing model as soon as we gathered in numbers. When people came together to mourn George Floyd and acknowledge our own city’s issues, OPD came dressed in riot gear and positioned snipers on the roof of Do Space. They escalated the situation and have continued to do so, even this Saturday. [LINK]
Have you asked yourself who was rioting?
In his NY Times editorial, The Police Are Rioting. We Need to Talk About It., Jamelle Bouie stated, “What we’ve seen from rioting police, in other words, is an assertion of power and impunity. In the face of mass anger over police brutality, they’ve effectively said So what?” [LINK]
By publishing these statistics as improvements, Omaha World-Herald has effectively said So what? By using the bold headline “Use of force rare among Omaha police,” Omaha World-Herald has effectively said So what? By trivializing the fact that “peace officers” are ramping up their attacks on people — and the press — Omaha World-Herald has effectively said So what?
“I’m comfortable with our use of force in the city,” Omaha Police Chief Schmaderer said. [LINK]
So what are we going to do?