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.
After taking part in Black Lives Matter protests this summer, UNO graduate student Bri Full became one of the activists who has been surveilled by OPD ever since.
Full has a bachelor’s in public health from UNO and is currently studying for her master’s degree in public administration. She is also a community organizer and activist and had been organizing an event last summer with her organization, BlackOut Omaha.
When she learned what the OPD had gathered on her, she said it included information about where she went to school, her degree, her advocacy at UNO and projects she had worked on. The findings also featured her political views on defunding the police and police reform, as well as comments she had made at a listening session with the Nebraska Legislature.
In addition, Full later learned that OPD had gathered correspondence and emails between her and a contact with the Parks and Recreation Department in trying to get a permit for the event she was planning.
“Some of the things that they were collecting on me, like about my political views, that has nothing to do with anything I was doing in regard to planning BlackOut Omaha.”
Unlike some organizers for events last summer, Full had decided to try to work with OPD in planning her event.
“I decided to work with them because after the events of July 25 when all of those protestors were arrested, they gave the excuse of ‘well, the organizers of that event didn’t let us know what was going on, so we had to take matters into our own hands’ basically,” she said.
She decided that she didn’t want OPD to be able to use that as an excuse at her event.
“I don’t want to seem hostile to OPD because I’m not, I just want reform and changes,” she said “So, I decided to work with them. I thought that was the best option considering there was going to be so many people there.”
Despite her attempt to keep OPD in the loop, they did not do the same for her.
“It made me very angry when I found out that they had SWAT and RDF teams on deck, ‘just in case something goes wrong,’” she said. “They never notified me that they were going to do that. I stayed in constant contact with OPD the entire time we were planning BlackOut Omaha. They knew everything, I updated them when we needed to move venues, all that stuff. And they never told me that they were going to bring SWAT to the event.”
Though she eventually had to cancel the event last summer in order to keep people safe from the risk of spreading coronavirus, Full did not like knowing the risk that SWAT could have been there. She said that the people planning to speak at her event trusted her to have a safe event, but that OPD surveilled them too.
“These people trust me with safety that nothing bad is going to happen to them, and this event was not the kind where I was going to let something like that happen,” she said. “It was very frustrating to me to hear that I potentially put my speakers and my attendees in danger because of the police.”
She said she felt violated and confused about the surveillance. There was not any evidence to suggest she was doing something against the law.
“I’ve never advocated for anything criminal or violent,” she said. “Why did they feel the need to broadcast my information to all of these other police officers? Now, all these police officers in the community know who I am, even though I didn’t do anything wrong. Why? Why was that necessary?”
Full said the report deemed her “not a threat” and that there was “nothing to worry about” with her. This makes her question the surveillance.
“Why [would] you need to go to that extent of collecting so much information on me if I’m not a threat?” Full asked.
Full added that the person compiling the profile didn’t need to share the information but could have just said they didn’t find anything of concern.
“It just makes me feel mad and frustrated that there’s really no trust anymore with them, because I gave them the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
Full believes that OPD has continuously put the civil liberties of her fellow activists at risk.
“They just didn’t respect their civil liberties or their civil rights in regard to being able to gather and protest,” she said. “I gave them the benefit of the doubt even though they were doing that stuff. And they completely ruined that trust, any trust that was going to be able to be made with my cooperation with them.”
Omaha police and the city attorney have said in a statement that this was not surveillance but discussing ‘open source’ information. Full said she does not think some of the information gathered on her, like her correspondence with the Parks and Recreation department, was ‘open source’ information or public knowledge.
“They didn’t seem to care about [if it was public knowledge] or acknowledge that at all,” she said. “So, I would question the legality of it. And it’s definitely, definitely not ethical.”
Full said she believes the surveillance is unethical and possibly dangerous.
“I think it’s actually really harmful, because they are supposed to be the ones protecting my right to speech, my right to freedom, and they are doing the exact opposite. I just think they keep contradicting themselves, and they can’t be trusted.”
Above all else, Full emphasized how frustrated she is.
“When this was happening, I had no idea,” she said. “Then after this happened, and after OPD acknowledged it, there was still no outreach to me, or apology, or explanation, or anything like that. They have my number. They have my email. They didn’t try to do any follow-up with me. That just lets me know that they don’t care.”
She believes OPD does not appreciate the people who want to change the community.
“That feels really disappointing and really sad,” she said. “They don’t take it seriously. They only want to engage with the community how they want to do it. They don’t really take input from the community and how they’re feeling.”
Full said she is disappointed with how things turned out for her relationship with the OPD.
“[This] makes me feel like I can’t work with OPD again in the future if I want to do BlackOut Omaha again, or anything else,” she said.
As for her safety, Full said she feels somewhat safe due to her community.
“My community has my back, and I know that,” she said. “So, I do feel safe because of that – not because of the police – because of the other people in my community who would never jeopardize my safety and play a very important role in making sure that I am safe.”
Full said she thinks the community should care about police surveilling Black activists in Omaha.
“I think [the community] should care, because it’s a bigger-picture thing,” she said. “It’s not really about me. It’s about what OPD says and how they continuously keep contradicting themselves with their statements they put out. They can’t be trusted, and they lie, blatantly. That should really worry the community.”
Full also believes that the community should want to look into these reports of surveillance.
“This could happen to you,” she said. “I’m just a regular person, I’m a student at UNO. I’m not fancy in any sort of way. I’m just a Black activist who got profiled because of her projects that she wanted to work on. It could happen to anyone, it really could.”
Full wants to see changes in how Omaha policing works, like a police oversight board. She said that the current citizen review board does not have enough power to actually look into police misconduct and are given internal investigation reports by the police.
She said she supports the police oversight bill in the Nebraska Legislature, LB 515 by State Sen. Terrell McKinney.
“I would also love to see a police oversight board at UNO,” she said. “I’ve actually talked to some people in student government, and they are very interested in potentially starting a police oversight board for UNO, and I would be the one leading that. So, I am excited about that work. Hopefully that’s something that we’re going to be able to develop over this summer and maybe have a plan in place.”
Students interested in getting involved in that work should look for more information by the start of next semester.
Though the surveillance has frustrated Full, she said she knows this can help bring about reform
“There are changes that are going to come of this situation,” she said. “That’s also why the community should be invested in this, because things are going to change, and they should be a part of it.”
Full pointed to the historical context of police surveilling Black activists. She said that this connects to situations like the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the assassination of Malcolm X and the FBI monitoring him. She also discussed the recent reports about the role they played in his assassination.
“The surveillance and the profiling of Black activists in Omaha have real potential consequences – deadly consequences – and that’s just not acceptable,” Full said. “And OPD did not acknowledge that in any way; they don’t seem to acknowledge the historical precedents for a lot of the things that go on in Omaha. And they just don’t seem to understand it.”
Full said that she thinks the lack of understanding of the historical significance of their actions plays into a lot of the decisions OPD makes.
“It has real world implications and can be seriously damaging, to Black activists in particular.”