Hannah Michelle Bussa
On February 25, NOISE reported on the records requested by the ACLU of Nebraska that show the Omaha Police Department surveilled Black Lives Matter protestors during the summer of 2020. The ACLU of Nebraska also released their response to OPD Chief Schmaderer. This is an ongoing column with the responses of activists who were surveilled according to these records.
Revolutionary Action Party Organizer Bear Alexander was one of the activists surveilled by OPD last summer in Omaha.
Alexander’s first protest was the George Floyd protest in May of 2020. He said that protest catapulted him into a lifestyle of activism and organizing. After that, he started organizing with ProBlac. He said the night of July 25 was when things started to change on a bigger level.
“That’s when it really skyrocketed on the organizing aspect, connections, networking, people getting involved more, learning about ProBlac,” Alexander said. “Now, my passion has just been hijacked.”
During the summer, as he became more well-known as an activist, Alexander started to notice a heightened police presence.
“They would always be at my old house just chilling out, like late at night,” he said. “At Liberation Square, they would pull me over and harass me, just for extremely petty stuff.”
Alexander was one of the lead organizers of the sustained protests at 11th and Howard late last summer and throughout the fall. This timeframe was not part of the currently reported Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
“It wasn’t to an extent of investigation; I think it was intimidation,” Alexander said. “I don’t think that they were investigating me. I thought that they were intimidating me – or trying to intimidate me. For me personally, I just saw continuous intimidation tactics.”
This FOIA request showed an undercover officer attended a sidewalk chalking event that Alexander attended. This event happened after the mass arrests on July 25.
“I wasn’t even on the lookout for undercover cops [at that event], because it was so PG and family-oriented,” Alexander said. “There was no security risk whatsoever. They even said on the event page, ‘We are just peacefully chalking, I checked the laws, this is legal…’ and it was just little kid, old people, all that stuff. So, I wasn’t even to the point where I was thinking about them doing surveillance on me.”
Alexander said he would notice things like that now, but he is paying attention to them. At the time, he was not paying attention for undercover officers.
Alexander got involved in this FOIA request through the ACLU that covered the time from the George Floyd protests in May of 2020 through mid-August. He said his name was mentioned, especially around the time of the July 25 protest, but at the time, most of the mentions were specific to his work with ProBlac at that point.
“Liberation Square hadn’t even happened yet,” Alexander said. “If we did a FOIA request now, I feel like more things would come up, especially with the Jake Gardner case, the Jacob Blake [protest], and all the Liberation Squares where we would literally see pigs surveilling us every time we were there.”
He said he would be interested to see the information from the protests for OPD to release the footage of Kenneth Jones’ in-custody death as well. However, Alexander believes this FOIA request was still important to recognize that surveillance was happening.
“We needed to do it at that time because it showed the complete misuse of their force and the frivolous spending of taxpayers’ dollars,” Alexander said. “I think is we did another [FOIA request], it would just intensify those facts and solidify them even more in people’s minds.”
The Omaha police and the city attorney released the statement that this was not surveillance. However, Alexander said it was unethical.
“It definitely doesn’t work to protect public safety because we’re not posing any threat whatsoever,” Alexander said. “Throughout the whole summer we were just peacefully protesting. I think their statement is completely contradictory though, because it’s obvious that they did take it a step further from just looking at public records. When you initiate a conversation through private messages, that’s not a public record anymore. You’re trying to probe them, you’re trying to get information from them, and not only that, you’re posing as somebody else. You’re literally going undercover. If that’s not going off from public record, then I don’t know what is. If you are telling somebody that you’re somebody else, then that’s deceitful, and that is unethical 100%.”
Though some activists have highlighted their lack of a criminal record as a reason to not be surveilled, Alexander has a different story. He has been convicted of a nonviolent felony and had been to jail before the mass arrest on July 25. He has served time in two different prisons. However, he said this still does not give the police the right to surveil him.
“All of those felonies that I have are nonviolent and pose no threat to the community, pose no threat to anybody,” Alexander said.
He also pointed out that if the prison system truly rehabilitates people like it claims to do, then once released from prison, people should not be labeled as a threat.
“You did your time, you did parole, you did probation, you took the classes, you have made amends, you paid all your fines, so this should not be a justification for surveilling anybody,” Alexander said. “I strongly believe that that wasn’t the reason they were surveilling us. [With others who were surveilled not having criminal records], it shows that they weren’t surveilling us because of that. It showed that it was because we posed a threat to the privilege that they hold so near and dear.”
Alexander said he feels like the motives, intentions, and objections about the police surveillance should be highlighted.
“They are trying to hide behind the law and disguise their harassment as a part of the job, and then also their propaganda that they try to spew within the public is [trying to] convince the public that this is the right thing to do,” he said.
Alexander pointed to what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as an example. He said most Americans see that and condemn it, but now Congress can implement restrictive tactics against protesting. He said that parallels what OPD Chief Todd Schmaderer said about the proposal to defund the police that there would be “unintended consequences.”
“Those ‘unintended consequences’ are their justifications for implementing these fascist and restrictive and constructive rule, ordinances, and policies,” Alexander said.
Alexander also highlighted the history of Black activists being surveilled by police.
“We know about COINTELPRO and we know the harassment, and the terrorization, and the traumatization that they inflicted upon Black activists,” Alexander said. “From the executions, the assassinations to the incarcerations, and that was the decimation of our Black liberation movements [at the time].”
He said at the time, this was all behind the scenes while it looked like progress was being made with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Then, we fast forward to about five years ago, we see Ferguson protestors being murdered, we see Louisville protestors have died, prominent activists have died in the last five months, six months or something like that,” he said.
He said that though there are glimpses of that same violence, as well as intimidation tactics and incarceration being used to slow down activists, the systems in power currently see people as divided.
“They don’t have to inflict that repression because they’re living off of the divide and conquer tactic, which was not as possible in the ‘60s when we were the most unified as a race as we ever were,” he said. “And then look at what happened – look at the crack epidemic, and all these things that the government has put in place. I don’t want to even point out the tremendous similarities from COINTELPRO into now, because the extensiveness and the disparities are vast. You do see a tremendous amount of executions – after 1969 when J. Edgar Hoover said that the Black Panthers were the most dangerous threat to national security, the next year, 77 high-ranking ranking Black Panther officials were killed by local police and federal police, and over 750 members were incarcerated on top of that as well. That’s how you kill movement.”
Alexander said that this kind of pressure upon the system is possible and likely at the rate movements are building because the atmosphere is tense.
“Right now we are in our second civil rights movement,” he said. “It is up to us to finish what our brothers and sisters in the Civil Rights Movement didn’t accomplish… they did everything that they thought would prosper us, and that’s commendable and I appreciate that and respect that. But now, in retrospect, we see that there was a lot of holes that they did not fill.”
He said the current movement is picking up the pieces and putting them back together. He believes as this movement continues to grow, the government will show that same kind of repression, incarceration, and resistance.
“But right now, I just think that what OPD did was a very small glimpse of what the government is capable of,” Alexander said.
Alexander said that the surveillance hasn’t deterred him from his activism.
“I feel some fear, in a sense, if I do put enough pressure on the government that they will try and incarcerate me, repress me, all of that stuff, but right now, I don’t feel any type of fear of my life,” he said. “Stuff like this is always going to push me to more organizing and putting pressure on our system.”
He said that it is imperative that people, especially Black and brown people, come to the conclusion that the times of traumatization is over. Now is the time to organize, to feel angry but facilitate that anger into action.
Alexander focused on the problems of individualism of the current capitalist society. He said disparities have been increasing for years, like racial disparities and the wealth gap, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
“We need a system where the Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, all of them, they’re not making decisions, the workers are,” he said. “The blueprint of the future is up for questioning and debate, and that’s for future dialogue and for us to discuss and implement. But the common understanding is that capitalism has reared its ugly head.”
Alexander is one of the main organizers in a new organization called the Revolutionary Action Party. They plan on doing community outreach and programming. Their vision is to make civic engagement a norm. Their canvassing efforts begin this weekend. Alexander plans on these ideas spreading to other cities as well.
“We will have started to create this movement where we are interconnected through cities, we start exchanging tactics, we start standing in solidarity with each other with boycotts, and we start seeing strength in numbers,” he said.
This would be different than the Black Lives Matter organization. Alexander said they can be shady, but that this would be more of a revolutionary consciousness in different cities to change the atmosphere.
Alexander would like to see changes to how policing is done in Omaha. He said his overall goal is abolition, but he wants to see progress like taking officers out of schools and implementing adequate mental health response by defunding the police. He mentioned the Stars and Cahoots programs in other cities as examples. He said funding the community and focuses on the root causes of crime is a non-negotiable first step.
Alexander said he does not agree with the new diversion program for protest charges.
“I think that it’s super symbolic,” he said. “It doesn’t do anything whatsoever. Body cam footage has shown to not be a deterrent to police brutality, police killings whatsoever, so all these reforms that try to silence the masses and seem like they’re doing something [I don’t agree with].”
With the recent news about the Kenneth Jones grand jury, Alexander pointed to the importance of changing the way policing is done in Omaha.
“We as a community should do nothing but repudiate these results until we as the community determine justice or not,” he said. “Release the videos and transcripts.”
OPD had said they would not release the footage until after the grand jury, but that is now over. The footage has yet to be released.
“They’ve boasted about [transparency] but shy away from it time and time again,” Alexander said.
Alexander said police departments withhold evidence when they kill community members, wait until momentum dies, and then make the community jump through hoops to make the police be transparent.
“We will not let this go unscathed, and the more pressure we put on the pigs, the more we reveal the repression they enforce with absolute impunity,” he said.