Ja Keen Fox on being surveilled by OPD

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Hannah Michelle Bussa
CONTRIBUTOR

Ja Keen Fox and other protestors at the 36-day demonstration outside of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine’s house for James Scurlock. Photo courtesy of Ja Keen Fox.

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.

Racial Equity Consultant Ja Keen Fox was one of the activists surveilled by OPD last summer, and he had suspected this surveillance since the first day of the Don Kleine protests last June.

“The police were already there when we got to his house that very first day,” he said. “The plan for our demonstration was obviously pretty private. I had just kind of posted that I had a plan on social media. When they were there to meet us on that first day, I felt like maybe there had been something going on.”

Fox became part of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the ACLU of Nebraska. He said the ACLU and the activists that were part of the FOIA request had met in September to discuss what to do moving forward. That request showed surveillance on Fox, including his birthday party.

“It was basically all the events that I was hosting at Culxr House,” Fox said. “My birthday party was one of the ones that didn’t make a ton of sense. But there was a legal clinic, and all of the organizing events that I was hosting, like the organizer lab here for Academy of Equity.”

The flyer for Fox’s birthday party, which was included in the surveillance by OPD. Photo courtesy of Ja Keen Fox.

The surveillance of his birthday party was part of the information discovered by the request. Though officers didn’t go in, Fox said there was an increased presence of police cars outside constantly driving by. There were also unmarked cars being parked nearby to intimidate them.

Fox also made mention of a situation that unfolded with his family. Though they didn’t know about the surveillance until right when the report came out, when they found out, his mom told him there had been a car parked outside of their house for a couple of days. She hadn’t confronted the person, but she said she might have approached it differently had she known about the surveillance.

“So, it might have been, you know, even surveillance on my home,” Fox said. “Which wouldn’t be too far-fetched, because they were doing surveillance on other activists at their homes as well.”

Fox said this incident creates the most concern for him out of the surveillance on him, but he can’t say for sure if that was the police.

Additionally, Fox said he was surprised by the number of resources that were used in the surveillance.

“We would consider [this] to be really fiscally irresponsible and unnecessary, based on the public information they were sourcing,” he said. “Again, no one had ever talked about violence on open sourcing, so the need to follow that didn’t make sense. But we did see an increased presence for sure.”

Fox said he was also shocked by the amount of people that were surveilled and specifically how the open-source surveillance OPD was doing online correlated to their physical presence.

“I know they deny any actual surveillance,” Fox said. “I believe that to be a pretty bold lie, based on the evidence that we saw, and also just based on our experience at Culxr House. We know that North Omaha is already over-policed. But during those events, people coming in would comment on the amount of police cars that they saw in the area. They would comment on how often they were going around us, specifically.”

Fox said that the Black Culxr Matters Block Fest hosted by Culxr House last fall was an event that included that surveillance.

“There were plenty of intimidation tactics being used against the people that were coming to that event, with even Captain Matuza being so bold as to show up at our event, uninvited,” Fox said.

Though Omaha police and the city attorney have said in a statement that this was not surveillance, Fox does not agree.

“From my interpretation, not being a lawyer, what I saw was that they would use open source [information] and then they would have someone physically come confirm or not – like with my birthday,” he said. “You can’t say you’re only doing open source surveillance if you are in our presence confirming whether this is actually a birthday party or not. You had to commit resources to finding that out. I felt like even that small connection proves the lie. But again, I’m not well-versed in the complexities of surveillance, so I don’t know if that counts as not just being open source. But as a resident, I feel like that’s a clear lie. And again, it’s really disappointing when it’s your city officials that are targeting you in that way.”

Fox said even if it is technically legal, it wasn’t about public safety or justice.

“This is about police establishing their power and dominance over people that would speak out against them,” Fox said. “There’s clear historical context to how police do that work and how police want to see themselves in community when they aren’t welcomed with open arms. When they aren’t able to kiss babies, they don’t know their place and that threatens their power, which threatens their money and resources.”

Fox mentioned the news of OPD Chief Todd Schmaderer’s pension benefits. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Schmaderer will earn almost $15,000 a month in pension benefits starting in February until he retires, in addition to his annual salary of $216,923. Schmaderer will receive those pension benefits of almost $15,000 per month for life after he retires.

“We’re going to be making Chief Schmaderer a millionaire,” Fox said. “And we’re fighting as a community for resources around mental health.”

Fox went on to highlight the disparity in life expectancy for Black individuals in Omaha.

“Black Omahans have a decade less life expectancy than white Omahans,” he said. “That’s the conversations that we need to be having, because there are clearly resources to improve that well-being, if people really care about the lives of Black people. We’re working to make Black people live longer.”

Fox said it is a choice to create a millionaire based off of unethical surveillance and brutality the police have shown over decades of bad policing, funds are available to provide better care for the people in Omaha.

“We’re choosing not to,” he said. “That choice is an ethical and a moral one. And police fail, time and time again, in partnership with the City of Omaha.”

Fox said the community should care about activists being surveilled, because it may sometime impact them.

“There’s going to be an issue that [you] care about, and it’s going to threaten a system at some point, because most of us are marginalized,” he said. “Most of us are not the privilege that people defend, so you’re going to be ‘the other’ at one point or another in your life. You want to increase your own safety by increasing others’ – if one person is unsafe, they recreate that model in every system that we’re living in.”

Fox said knowing he’s been surveilled does not help him to feel safe, though he never feels safe.

“I think safety for a Black person is just unrealistic, because we know from our government that white supremacist domestic terrorism is the number one threat to Americans,” he said. “I think, knowing that I’m an activist and an advocate against very strong systems of power, I have to be willing to take that risk and inspired around the work that I do in a very personal way to be able to continue that work and keep my sanity and mental health.”

He mentioned activists going missing and having been killed, like the six Ferguson activists who died without any accountability or real follow-up. He also noted black sites in Chicago and the corruption in the Boston Police Department. Fox said he knows police are involved in situations like this that harm activists and Black individuals.

“I won’t pretend that it isn’t scary to know that you advocating to live a better life could be such a threat to people that they would want to harm you,” Fox said. “There are obvious relevant, current examples of police harming communities, and I would not think that Omaha’s any different and we know based on it with any knowledge of history that they aren’t.”

With that knowledge, Fox said it can be difficult. He said seeing his family scared in this way has been hard. He also thinks the impact on the community is hard.

“It’s tough to see people think that they have to offer me their homes, just in case anything happens,” Fox said. “It’s hard to see my community members afraid for me in that way. I think that’s the biggest toll that’s been taken, that people are obviously worried for me, but they’re worried in the broader sense. They feel that they have to participate in each other’s safety.”

He said he knows people who have felt like they needed to take a CCW class because they didn’t know when they would have to protect themselves and loved ones from the people who are supposed to protect them.

“I think that’s the tougher part,” Fox said. “It’s not really a concern about my own safety, because I agreed to this risk when I started doing advocacy work and activism work. But I think the toll it takes on people that just want to live normal lives, and fair and equal and equitable lives – it’s tough for me to see the impact on them.”

Fox at the Culxr House, where many of the events he held that were surveilled by OPD took place. Culxr House became a hub for protestors during the summer of 2020. Photo courtesy of Ja Keen Fox.

He said anti-Blackness in Omaha goes back to Vivian Strong and Will Brown.

“I think anti-Blackness in Omaha is very pervasive, and they’ve never had to really answer for it,” Fox said. “People were lynched, killed, in Omaha, specifically because of the color of their skin. And when we have never had to really answer or account for those things, we can’t just believe that it has somehow disseminated from the social psyche.”

Fox also discussed the historical context of police surveillance of Black activists.

“It’s a weird kind of universal synergy to see the Fred Hampton story come out, you know, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ to put in the public eye the things that we’re concerned about as regular people and to see the lengths that they’ll go to incept, to intimidate and to kill when necessary,” Fox said. “And this is government – all levels of government working together, to the detriment of Black people specifically.”

Fox made sure to explain how former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover proved it was a necessary part of the advancement of white people’s careers in law enforcement to ensure white supremacy and be racist.

“[In ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’], they show a really important conversation when they asked, ‘What would you do if your daughter came home with a Black man?’ and it would have been unacceptable for him to say, ‘I’d be okay with that,’” Fox said. “I think we have to really make sure that those attitudes gone unchallenged have no catalyst for change.”

Fox then said this historical context connects to the current view. Without those ideas being challenged, they have lived.

“And now that they’re being challenged, we see a white lash, in a way,” Fox said. “Just like with the insurrection at the Capitol. We see a struggle to maintain those ideologies, and they’ll use violence to do it.”

Fox said that ideas can’t be freely exchanged while living in a police state, with people living in a constant state of violence. Ideas and creativity wither under fear.

He said during the civil rights movement, college students organized, and campuses were places to share those ideas. Fox challenged young people to be bold and brave and take advantage of their time on campuses as a training ground for how to exist in the larger world.

Fox and other protestors at the 36-day demonstration outside of Don Kleine’s house for James Scurlock. The rally around Scurlock’s life highlights Fox’s work to improve Black lives. Photo courtesy of Ja Keen Fox.

In order to move forward, Fox said he thinks it is important to get on the pathway to abolishment. For him, the accomplishment of the goal of preventing crimes by fulfilling people’s needs.

“Police should be on board to say, ‘I don’t want my job to always be necessary,’” Fox said. “If you always want your job to be necessary, you will never do the work that it takes to decrease the thing that people think that they need you for. You can’t say you want to prevent crime, but not invest in the real reasons that people are committing those crimes, there’s a real opportunity for police to facilitate their own departure from society, because, don’t we all want good?”

He said police deeming themselves as necessary and heroes is part of the problem, because they always have to prove that narrative through violence. That’s something they demonstrated over the last summer.

“Policing as it is in America is a relatively young institution, and not necessary, if people were provided for in the way that they should be provided for,” he said. “Again, we’re making one person a millionaire… We could have given that straight to community and they could be investing in their mental health. They could be extending their life expectancy by being able to make healthy choices. We could create anchors in our neighborhoods with grocery stores with healthy food, with gardens. We could be planting trees, increasing the oxygen in our communities, reducing the heat and the impact of climate change. We could be doing real things that would lengthen Black people’s lives, and we’re choosing not to.”

Fox said the only way to move forward is by creating a city budget that is a moral and ethical document that prioritizes the life of Black people and living as Black people.

“I want to increase the amount of time that Black people spend on this earth,” Fox said. “I want to reduce that life expectancy gap. We should be able to live just as long and we’re not because we’re stressed, and we’re killed, and that has to change.”

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