Morgann Freeman on being surveilled by OPD

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Hannah Michelle Bussa
CONTRIBUTOR

Morgann Freeman at the protests in late May 2020. Photo courtesy of Morgann Freeman.

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.

Since participating in this summer’s protests for racial justice, community organizer Morgann Freeman has been surveilled by OPD.

Freeman said she became aware of the possibility of being surveilled after she spoke at the Mayor’s town hall in 2016, regarding the increase of the police force. She has formally known about recent police surveillance efforts since her friends at the ACLU found the initial email detailing these activities.

“They asked me if I wanted to pursue a FOIA request [a request for federal agency records], and I chose to do that at the time, recognizing that if they were following me, they were also likely following a lot of other people,” she said.

Freeman and her friends at the ACLU then expanded their request to include others’ names and other search terms.

“We knew that going in that this could be a big deal,” Freeman said. “The most concerning piece about all of it is that we were quite aware of the fact that they clearly didn’t include all of the stuff that they had done to monitor both myself and others.”

Some information on OPD’s end was withheld due to ongoing investigations, but specific details were not provided. Freeman said she wants to know why, almost a full year later, she hasn’t heard anything about this outside of the FOIA request.

This FOIA request, which went through in August of 2020, showed that an officer had made a fake account on social media to connect with Freeman.

“After experiencing everything that I [endured] on May 29, May 30 and May 31, and everything from those days on, nothing surprises me anymore,” she said. “I knew that they would be doing something like that. It was just validating to have the confirmation.”

Freeman said that surveillance can be debilitating if people allow it to be, but she has a level of cynicism that allows her to be more settled.  However, she is still mindful of her reality.

“Every time I leave my house, I’m cautious of: Am I walking across the street at a cross walk? Am I driving the speed limit? Are my tags up to date? If I go out with friends, I hope that nothing they do can make us even more of a target. Because they quite clearly are waiting for an opportunity,” Freeman said.

Freeman said that police are committed to proving their narrative and justifying the decisions they have already made about who she is and what protestors want.

“This has been clear all of 2020, but also throughout history, and it’s rooted in white supremacy,” she said.

With the knowledge of being surveilled by the police, Freeman said she does not feel safe in Omaha.

“But to be fair, I don’t feel safe in the United States right now,” she said. “Just look at what happened on January 6. I don’t feel safe in this country, I don’t feel safe anywhere. That illusion of safety has been lifted for a majority of the population.”

Of the surveillance by OPD, Freeman stated, “it’s not ethical, it’s barely legal, and it has nothing to do with public safety.”

Omaha police and the city attorney have said in a statement that this was not surveillance but discussing ‘open source’ information.

“It is surveillance,” Freeman said. “The person that created the fake account [did so] because they couldn’t get to our private information, so they had to create entire accounts and personas and then try to add protestors to be able to see stuff that’s not publicly available. So, it’s not ‘open source’ information. They’re using these terms with the intention of trying to change the meaning to fit their narrative, and that’s not the case. It is surveillance. They were monitoring my social media; they were monitoring my movements.”

In addition, Freeman said that the surveillance was not solely on social media.

“They were showing up at other protestors’ doors, they were harassing the family of James Scurlock, and they’re doing all of this with impunity,” she said. “And doing it to all of us collectively at the same time in an effort to try to suppress the resistance that’s happening. When that didn’t work, they ended up boxing in, corralling, beating, and abusing protestors on a bridge [on the night of July 25].”

The night of July 25 in Omaha. Photo courtesy of Jessica Wade via the World-Herald.

“People were physically abused in this situation,” she said. “And there’s been no real repercussions. The cops that literally beat people, that hit people, that shot them point-blank with chemical weapons, and with rubber bullets, and all of that –there’s no repercussions for them. Every single one of them is still on the force.”

The Omaha Police Department has since settled a lawsuit over their use of force at this protest.

Though Freeman wasn’t even able to attend the July 25 protest due to work engagements, she said that Tony Connor, the president of the Omaha Police Officers Association, made a post blaming her. Less than a day after this public post was made, Freeman was arrested for shoplifting.

“I was slammed against a wall for ‘shoplifting’ a $10 pair of sunglasses, when the actual register video showed that the register just glitched at the same as I was ringing things through,” she said. “Because I had headphones on, I didn’t hear the beeps that I would normally hear. And I was rushing to [get on] a flight to go to Vegas. So, I just didn’t pay attention. And I was arrested for it; I was ticketed for it.”

Freeman said she now has a record that pops up when her name is searched, making her a system-impacted person.

“Any background check will now show that I shoplifted something that I didn’t shoplift, even if the charges were dropped,” she said.

Freeman wants to see meaningful change in the city of Omaha. She said she was reminded of what Assata Shakur said: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”

“If we don’t have people that are really passionate about making sure that the things that we paid for are working for us, then there is no saving our society or our city,” she said. “When we are that morally bankrupt where we don’t even care about pregnant mothers and elderly folks getting shot at and gassed with chemical weapons, literally in our streets, then how do we move forward?”

Freeman said she thinks the upcoming local elections are a good place to start.

“If you have this group of people that believe they are above the law and they are the people that are responsible for upholding the law, who determines when they’ve stepped over a line, other than the people?” Freeman said. “And the only way that you can actually hold them accountable for it is by voting, and making your votes heard.”

Beyond voting, Freeman said policies are key in making change.

“We can protest all we want, but if protest isn’t followed up with policy, then there’s nothing that will change,” she said. “And vice versa, just focusing on policy isn’t going to change anything either.”

Freeman supports Jasmine Harris as the next Mayor of Omaha.

Jasmine Harris and Morgann Freeman (prior to the coronavirus pandemic). Photo courtesy of Jasmine Harris via www.voteforjasmine.com/omaha.

“Jasmine is another system-impacted person,” Freeman said. “She gets how deeply important these issues are.”

Harris works as the director of advocacy and policy for Nebraska’s largest reentry organization. Born and raised in Omaha, both Harris and Freeman have been focused on a trauma-informed, public health approach to meeting the needs of the community.

“We’ve been focused on trying to figure out other ways to try to minimize and do root-cause analysis for why people are coming into contact with the system, and how can we change that?” Freeman said.

They have looked at programs in other communities that focus on community organization collaborations. In Omaha, this would mean creating a network that connects people to the services they need to change outcomes.

“The more time that you have between when someone is looking for assistance and the time that they actually receive assistance can make the entire difference when it comes to people coming into contact with the justice system,” Freeman said. “We’ve seen studies that reflect that, and we have lived realities that reflect that.”

Freeman said that she also supports the changes Harris wants to make in how policing in Omaha is done.

“A few years ago, after Michael Brown, the Omaha Police Department did de-escalation trainings,” Freeman said. “Supposedly, they continue to do it. But I think we’ve seen evidence that whatever they’re doing is insufficient, because if they would’ve done thoughtfully designed de-escalation trainings, then we probably wouldn’t have seen some of the altercations that we’ve seen in the past year.”

De-escalation and demilitarization are parts of Harris’ public safety plan for Omaha. Freeman said the plan is based on data.

“85% of arrests in 2019 were for nonviolent charges,” she said. “We have armed police showing up for nonviolent charges.”

Freeman also said that 1 in 5 traffic stops were of a Black resident in 2019, when Black people only make up 11% of the population in Omaha.

“Then, you look at the clearance rates, which is the reasoning that the police chief uses for increasing the number of police,” she said. “But our nonviolent crime clearance rate is only 23%. We clear 63% of violent crimes, but we only clear 23% of nonviolent crimes. So that says that whatever we’ve been doing for the past eight years that we’ve been increasing the police force every single year isn’t working.”

The clearance rates for 2019 are included in OPD’s Annual Report. Clearance rates for each quarter of 2020 can also be found online.

“Apparently, putting more cops out on the streets isn’t actually doing anything to make us more efficient at solving crimes,” Freeman said. “This just means that we’re arresting more people, not that we’re actually clearing more cases. We’re just putting more people into our system, feeding our criminal industrial complex, and we’re not actually doing anything to make our community safer.”

“I think of some of the other people that are in this race for mayor that have no idea about what’s going on with our local law enforcement.,” Freeman said. “They don’t really care to know. And the ones that do know, don’t think that this is a priority, and they don’t see the importance of making sure that this one line item – that’s almost 40% of our entire Omaha city budget of our general fund – is running efficiently. And that’s just astounding to me, because how can you say that you care about fiscal responsibility and you aren’t prioritizing where you’re spending the majority of your money, to make sure it’s running efficiently?”

Freeman said that if increased funding for mental health services was prioritized, taking just 1% of the overall police department and dedicating that to mental and emotional health services, Omaha would be a better place.

“We would see – as other communities have seen – an increase in our clearance rates, it would be an increase in overall satisfaction in our communities, an increase in overall feelings of safety in our communities, and a decrease in critiques of the police department and a decrease in complaints,” she said.

Harris’ plan also advocates for a three-strike rule. If a law enforcement officer has repeated complaints against them, they cannot continue to harm people. Freeman compared this to doctors or people in many other professions.

“And you don’t get your job back” she said. “That’s what’s happened with the cops that killed Zachary Bear Heels, is that they were back on the force because of the police union.”

Three of the four officers who were involved in the death of Zachary Bear Heels were reinstated to the department.

Zachary Bear Heels was killed by Omaha Police in June of 2017. People in Omaha have not forgotten his name and story. Last summer, a march was held on the anniversary of his death, retracing his final steps. Photo courtesy Anna Reed via the World-Herald.

“You should not be able to get your job back when you have killed somebody,” Freeman said. “You should be held accountable for killing somebody. It wasn’t even a situation where Zachary was a threat to them.”

Another aspect of Harris’ plan focuses on the Citizen Review Board. Freeman said in 2020, there were only five complaints. Only four were reviewed, and no action was taken on any of the complaints. Freeman said police not being required to show their badge number on their riot gear was a main reason for so few complaints.

Freeman said the Mayor of Omaha has a lot of power in fixing some of these problems. That is why she is so focused on getting Harris elected.

“I think there was a misconception over the past year that the Mayor just doesn’t have any control over what’s happening,” she said. “No, she has a ton of control over what’s happening, she just chooses not to exercise it.”

The Chief of Police is hired and fired by the Mayor, and the budget is approved by the Mayor.

“At the end of the day, the police chief has to report to the Mayor’s office,” Freeman said. “The buck stops with Mayor when it comes to a lot of what’s happening with the Omaha Police Department.”

Freeman said she met with Mayor Jean Stothert last summer.

“I sat down with the Mayor on the day of James Scurlock’s memorial,” Freeman said. “I showed her the videos of the protest, I talked to her about what the experience was. My husband was with me, and he was telling her about his experiences.”

They showed her videos and told her of their first-hand experiences. Freeman said that the Mayor explained everything away.

“I showed her the video of me on the that night James Scurlock was murdered,” she said. “[In the video,] I’m walking down the street a block away from where he is when he is shot. I have a video that captures the shots. I didn’t realize it at the time – I had no idea what was happening at the time. You can’t see it, but you can hear the shots go off. And I’m less than half a city block away from it when it all happens.”

Freeman said she told the Mayor that James Scurlock’s death was on her, the City Council, and every community leader that failed to act by enabling the police department to respond violently to a nonviolent protest that was almost over.

Morgann Freeman speaking, wearing a “Justice for James” shirt. His death prompted action throughout the city. Photo courtesy Gary Brown photography.

“Rather than actually just letting people grieve, you shot them, and gassed them in the streets, and then you called them the abusers,” she said to the Mayor. “I looked at her in the face and I told her that every single member of the community failed James Scurlock and that his death is on our shoulders – and I said ‘our’ shoulders, because I was including myself in that.”

Freeman also said she told the Mayor that if she would not do something, “we will replace you.”

She also spoke at a City Council meeting and said the same: “If you do not act, we will replace you.”

After all of her experiences with being surveilled by OPD, Freeman is still working for change in Omaha.

“I am just trying to do everything that I can to make sure that the people of this community have the representation that they need,” she said. “Because these people have shown that they have no interest in actually doing anything to support or empower or protect the people of the community. And, in my opinion, if I as a taxpayer am paying for your salary, and you don’t care about making sure that my family and I are safe, then cool, you deserve to lose your job. And we deserve somebody in there that will actually protect us.”

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