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Protesters describe being shot, gassed during Black Lives Matter rallies in Lincoln
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Protesters describe being shot, gassed during Black Lives Matter rallies in Lincoln

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When the 8 p.m. curfew passed on May 31, and tension between law enforcement and Black Lives Matter protesters went from a simmer to a boil, Marcel Austin backed off the front line.

The Sunday night demonstration was the first time Austin had joined the protests that erupted across the country and around the world following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“George Floyd really hit home for me,” said Austin, 18, but it was the shooting death of James Scurlock in Omaha by a white bar owner that pushed him to act.

“James Scurlock could have been me, that could have been one of my friends," he said.

Although his passions were running high, the 2019 Lincoln High School graduate and former wrestler said he didn’t want to be where he could get into a scuffle with officers, arrested, or worse.

“Once (police) started walking up, I was like, ‘Nope, I don’t want to get shot,’” Austin said.

Marcel Austin

Marcel Austin shows the rubber bullet wound at the back of his head on June 10. He was shot on May 31 when a Black Lives Matter demonstration turned into a riot near the County-City Building.

Austin watched with a handful of others from the parking lot of the Phillips 66 gas station across from the County-City Building as law enforcement, outfitted in helmets, gas masks and plastic shields, moved toward a group of protesters.

At about 8:45 p.m., deputies under the direction of Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner rushed the demonstration from the south to arrest those in violation of the curfew set by Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, sparking a melee in the middle of 10th Street, the third night of violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement.

Cellphone video taken by protester Teal Briner and shared with the Journal Star shows Austin, dressed in black pants and a gray tank top, with a blue mask over his face, step forward and sideways between the bus stop shelter and the gas pumps as the skirmish unfolded.

Marcel Austin walking away from the scene

A screenshot from a 1400 KLIN live stream shows Marcel Austin walking away from the scene shortly after he was shot with a rubber bullet in the back of the head by law enforcement on May 31.

While law enforcement swept the area, through the Phillips 66 parking lot and onto Lincoln Mall and began, as Austin observed, “roughing people up,” he retreated south around the gas station before something hit him in the back of the head.

What Austin said felt like a baseball was, in fact, a blue foam-tipped projectile, commonly referred to as a rubber bullet.

Projectiles

Some of the rubber bullets used on protesters. 

It's not clear how many so-called non-lethal projectiles or chemical irritants like tear gas were used on protesters and rioters the weekend of May 29-31, as law enforcement sought to quell chaotic scenes east and south of downtown Lincoln.

Lincoln Police Capt. Jason Stille said the department is continuing to reconstruct the weekend's events by stitching together footage caught by surveillance cameras on businesses and available cellphone videos and collecting after-action reports from officers.

"We're still trying to come up with where everyone was at — it was a dynamic situation," Stille said. "I would like to know what happened, too, and I think we owe it to the public and the people who were down there to know exactly what happened."

Jason Stille

Capt. Jason Stille

Police 'walk a fine line'

Early on May 30, during a Black Lives Matter march and protest near 25th and O streets, a pickup driven by 27-year-old Trever Kurtz hit two women, Jaida Graves and Lacretia Contreras, igniting a small riot that injured one officer and led to looting at an EZ-Go gas station.

Stille said the spontaneous events early May 30, plus images of riots in cities across the country led Lincoln police to activate its field force team that night at the County-City Building, a unit of street officers, traffic enforcement personnel, investigators and others from across the department.

The entire field force team is seldom deployed and was last used in July 2004, when about two dozen members of the National Socialist Movement — a neo-Nazi group — held a rally on the steps of the state Capitol.

Members of the field force team must apply and be accepted before going through training, which includes drills in small group formations and tactics, and education on crowd control strategies and dispersal techniques ranging from use of plastic riot shields, firing non-lethal projectiles with crushed or sponge tips, to chemical agents like tear gas.

Stille said having the field force team as an option to respond to large gatherings of people can put police in something of a Catch-22.

"We are in a very difficult decision of overreacting or under-reacting," he said. "Some people will think we didn't react enough, some people will think we reacted too much."

Early Morning Protest

Law enforcement officers stand at the entrance to the County-City Building on May 31 during a night of clashes between police and protesters.

Early last week, Wagner said the sheriff's office policy on use of force was rooted in Graham v. Connor, a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision subsequently cited in several high-profile cases involving law enforcement killings of black men, that says an officer's actions should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer, "rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight."

Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies policing, said police are asked to "walk a fine line" between simply being present at a protest and responding if situations cease being peaceful.

Justin Nix

Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha

But, Nix added, the presence of police in military-style gear and weapons, can be an escalating factor in itself, leading peaceful protests to turn into riots and looting.

"These things are peaceful at the start, but underneath that, everybody is out there because they truly are angry," Nix said, "and all it takes is the wrong words to be spoken or wrong message to be sent, either intentionally or not, and these things can escalate."

Plus, there is very little in the way of a set of national best practices for protest policing, and police departments train for those situations differently, he said, leaving many officers inexperienced for how to respond to tense situations.

While use of force by police against protesters in the 1960s and 1970s transitioned to more collaborative approaches in the 1980s and 1990s, where each side would work out the parameters of a protest ahead of time, law enforcement have again moved toward using force against protesters, researcher Ed Maguire wrote in the Saint Louis University Public Law Review in 2015.

teargas1.JPG

A teargas canister used on protesters.

"For proponents, these new approaches are necessary to confront the violence and disorder associated with transgressive protesters who are unwilling to obey the law or cooperate with police in arranging mutually beneficial solutions," Maguire wrote in his study of protest policing following widely seen clashes in Ferguson, Missouri.

"For critics, these new approaches represent a significant threat to free democratic expressions and other foundational rights that are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution," he added.

The renewed approach of police using force against protesters has also led to costly legal settlements, Maguire said, particularly from "protesters, journalists, and innocent bystanders who allege that police violated their constitutional rights."

Bones in nose like 'broken eggshells'

Ready to wave a sign freshly painted with "No Justice, No Peace," Elise Poole went to the Capitol on May 30 to be a part of the Black Lives Matter protest, a movement she said is working for a positive change.

"They are so beautiful and accepting, and just really amazing people and I wanted to be a part of that," Poole said.

The 18-year-old took part in the march from downtown to central Lincoln and back on May 30, and was at the County-City Building until law enforcement responded to plastic water bottles and other objects being thrown at them with a round of tear gas.

Poole said she returned for the next afternoon and evening's protest, anticipating a clash could break out once more and wanting to be in a position to help others keep taking a stand against racism and police violence if it did.

She joined an ad hoc medical squad equipped with first aid gear and homemade tear gas antidotes and rendered aid to a half dozen protesters for more than an hour as law enforcement worked to enforce the mayor's curfew.

Just after 10 p.m., as the field force team attempted to move protesters from the intersection of 12th and H streets, Poole attempted to help a man struggling against the effects of tear gas, putting her in close range to the line of law enforcement.

The man managed to escape the thick cloud of chemical irritant, and as Poole turned to leave, something hard — initially she believed to be a thrown tear gas canister — hit her square in the face.

"I felt blood in my mouth, and I went to go touch my nose and it wasn't there," she said. "I thought 'Oh, I probably got shot.'"

Elise Poole

Elise Poole, 18, was struck by a rubber bullet during a protest on May 31. 

Street medics pressed a scarf against Poole's face as they ran nearly a half mile to a car that drove them to Bryan West. The look on the emergency room nurses' faces told Poole how serious her injury was.

Doctors found a gash where her nose should have been, Poole said, and the bones in the bridge of her nose resembled "broken eggshells."

Stille said the field force team is trained to fire projectiles directly at an individual's legs or lower body first, and gradually move upward if the threat level posed by that person increases.

But, he said, mistakes happen.

People move and can be hit in a place where officers weren't aiming, projectiles can ricochet or glance off people or objects and hit someone they weren't intended for, or a weapon's sights can be off — a mechanical malfunction, he said.

Lincoln police said two dozen officers were injured over the course of the weekend, hit by bottles, rocks, fireworks and other things thrown by protesters. But many protesters who were unarmed and peaceful called law enforcement's use of projectiles into question.

Leo Celis was kneeling in front of the County-City Building on May 30 with his hands in the air when he said he was intentionally shot in the face.

Leo Celis Protest

Leo Celis raises his hands in front of the County-City Building on May 30. He was hit several times by rubber bullets, including one that struck him near his right eye.

"I was right at the front, right there linking arms together to show how strong we were," said the 2020 graduate of Lincoln East.

Celis, 18, had already been shot twice with what he described as rubber bullets, once in the leg and once in his chest.

As he keeled over to brace against a volley of tear gas, a projectile tore through Celis' right cheek, shattering the bone underneath and blinding him in his right eye — an injury doctors said may be permanent.

"We're here to stop the violence, to stop the brutality," he said. "I'm here for a good reason and that's the way the police react? It's just ridiculous."

Leo Celis

Leo Celis was hit in the face with a rubber bullet on May 30. Celis is still unable to see out of his eye and doctors are unsure if he will regain his vision.

Nico Merritt, a 21-year-old Lincoln Southeast alum, was among a group of protesters in the crowd who helped Celis get medical attention.

"You see in the news all these injuries around the country of rubber bullets or canisters hitting people in the face," Merritt said. "It's really different to look at someone up close and see an injury like that."

Merritt was later shot several times, including in his thigh and shoulder, as he was performing first aid on another protester who had been shot as police tried to clear Lincoln Mall between 11th and 12th streets during a riot early the morning of May 31.

Despite wearing a thick leather jacket, Merritt said the bruises lasted for days: "When they actually do smack you, it really freaking hurts, man."

Fire-producing capability

Still other injuries suffered by protesters were caused by tear gas canisters, either thrown or launched by law enforcement.

Briner, who lives near the County-City Building, said tear gas hung in the air outside her apartment building as law enforcement and protesters squared off on a residential street.

 Jackson, 19, said the protests were a way to channel the anger and sadness over George Floyd's death into action. The Lincoln High and Career Academy graduate said protesters on May 31 were trying to remain peaceful before "things got really scary."

She was in the line of protesters as police closed in and was caught between a pushing match between riot shields and other demonstrators before someone in the crowd yelled "tear gas" and the protesters started running.

"I was looking around for my boyfriend while I was running, and immediately something hit me on my arm and it really hurt," Jackson said. "I screamed and then all this tear gas started flooding my face."

Naomi Jackson

Naomi Jackson was struck on May 30 with a tear gas canister, which burned her arm and left her with a bruise that worsened for days. At a Black Lives Matter event later that week, she showed the deep purple injury to the crowd.

A warning label from Defense Technology, which manufactured several different types of chemical weapons used by law enforcement, says the Spede-Heat 40 mm short-range round, designed to be fired 75 yards from a grenade launcher, "has fire-producing capability."

Video from late May 31 taken by Wes Staley and shared with the Journal Star shows a round fired by the Nebraska State Patrol from the lawn of the state Capitol briefly catch a small bush on fire on the corner of 14th and H streets. Protesters quickly doused the flames with water bottles.

Burning bush

A tear gas canister launched from the law of the state Capitol burns in a bush near the intersection of 14th and H streets during a Black Lives Matter protest on May 31.

The canister that struck Jackson burned her arm and left her with a bruise that worsened for days. At a Black Lives Matter event later that week, she showed the deep purple injury to the crowd.

Nearly a dozen other people told the Journal Star their stories of law enforcement using tear gas on May 30-31. Each described the scratchy eyes and coughing fits it gave them.

Dr. Ron Kirschner, a physician toxicologist and the medical director at the Nebraska Regional Poison Center, said CS gas, more commonly known as tear gas, is an aerosol designed to incapacitate people by causing irritation and discomfort in the mucous membranes of their eyes and upper airways.

Most won't need hospitalization, but the effects can vary depending on the individual, he said, and the mechanism by which CS gas works is not fully understood, even if it is mostly reversible.

"There really hasn't been a lot of research into it, because the research has been into the more dangerous things like chemical nerve agents that cause a lot of fatalities," Kirschner said.

Aniyia Moss, 20, said it "felt good" to be at the protest, marching and raising awareness for a cause she's passionate about, until she was knocked down by protesters attempting to escape a tear gas canister thrown by police into the crowd on May 30.

Unable to see, the University of Nebraska at Omaha student was struck and run over by a motorist who was also fleeing the chemical agent, leaving her with a shattered ankle.

'I refuse to get help from the SWAT'

The quarter-sized wound behind Marcel Austin's left ear poured blood almost immediately after he was hit by a non-lethal projectile, he said, as the pain quickly increased tenfold.

"He's dying," a panicked man yells on a livestream captured by 1400 KLIN reporter William Padmore. Another man's voice from off screen calls: "Someone is bleeding severely over here, we need a medic."

Protesters, gathered on the south side of the gas station, poured water into the bloody hole in the back of Austin's head, as a deputy standing next to Padmore tells the reporter: "I'm not going in that crowd, tell them to bring him to me."

Marcel Austin

Marcel Austin shows the hole where he was hit with a rubber bullet.

According to Austin, and independently corroborated by Briner, who watched the scene unfold, he started walking toward a military-style vehicle used by the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office parked on 10th Street, before spinning around and returning to a group of protesters.

"I started to walk toward them and said, 'Wait a second, your homies just shot me,'" Austin said. "That's really how it is for me. I'm bleeding out, and I refuse to go get help from the SWAT."

Austin's mother, Brenda Kulawik sped to Bryan West “bawling and praying” with her daughter after a friend called to tell her that her son had been shot by police.

“There was blood all over him, on his shoes, his hand was a puddle of blood,” she said. “It was a horrible thing to have to see.”

Doctors cleaned the wound and gave Austin a half dozen stitches. They also diagnosed him with a concussion, a result of the blunt force of the rubber bullet, and advised him to take it easy for awhile.

Kulawik watched as at least four other protesters arrived in the emergency room with similar injuries incurred as officers enforced an 8 p.m. curfew.

A Bryan Health spokesman said the hospital didn't have specific numbers of patients treated for injuries sustained during the protests May 29-31.

While Kulawik empathizes with police and the stress they are under following civil unrest across the country, she said, “I just can’t see how it would be OK to randomly shoot people.

“There’s just nothing about that that seems OK to me.”

'This is nothing new'

The curfew set May 31 and June 1 by Gaylor Baird would likely meet constitutional muster, according to UNL's Eric Berger, a professor in the College of Law, adding that doesn't mean it was necessarily a good idea, particularly when the outcomes of each night were radically different.

Enforcing the 8 p.m. curfew on May 31 — established a night after windows were broken and buildings set ablaze, causing an estimated $10 million in damage along Lincoln Mall — led to a third night of violent unrest.

Gaylor Baird earlier this week said she was working with the city's law department to consider granting pardons to peaceful protesters who were arrested at the County-City Building on May 31.

The next night, June 1, the Black Lives Matter demonstration continued several hours beyond the 9 p.m. curfew, with no effort by law enforcement to break up the crowds gathered at the Capitol.

"If the purpose of the curfew was to keep the peace and minimize violence, and there was more violence when the curfew was enforced than when there wasn't, that calls into question the wisdom of the curfew," Berger said. "And it undermines the argument that the curfew serves a government purpose."

Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the organization is monitoring the responses by cities and counties all across the state to the protests.

What they saw in Lincoln and Omaha is disheartening, she said.

“To have a youth-led movement of so many crying out for justice be met with militarization and criminalization and pain and injury is a violation of their rights,” Conrad said. “It’s chilling and has no place in a working democracy.”

Video of law enforcement using tear gas, rubber bullets and physical force against demonstrators both in Lincoln and across the country was watched by millions live on television and over the internet, echoes of a not-so-distant history of race relations in the U.S.

Jeannette Jones

Jeannette Jones, an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"This is nothing new," said Jeannette Jones, an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "We've seen heavy-handed tactics being used on predominantly black protesters expressing their grief and rage at what was happening in America before."

In 1965, for example, Americans watched as Alabama state troopers beat and used tear gas on civil rights marchers outside Selma as they walked to Montgomery to rally for voting rights and against racial segregation.

The level of violence seen in Lincoln in late May does not rise to the level of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Jones said, where water cannons, dogs and officers on horseback were also used against demonstrators, but the goals of the state in deploying law enforcement with military-style gear and weapons appears the same.

"It is meant to quell protest, it is meant to silence protesters, or make them seem illegitimate, even in the case of clear racial injustice," she said.

Aftermath for police, injured protesters

The effects of the use of force against protesters, many of them in their late teens or early 20s, lingers nearly three weeks later.

Austin was diagnosed with a concussion after being shot in the back of the head with a non-lethal projectile. He said he still has dizzy spells, trouble sleeping and difficulty hearing in his left ear.

Similarly, Celis has been out of work since his injury, which also included a concussion.

Leo Celis protest injury

Leo Celis was hit in the face with a rubber bullet on May 30. Celis is still unable to see out of his eye and doctors are unsure if he will regain his vision.

Doctors inserted a plate and several screws into Moss's ankle after she was run over amidst a tear gas-induced panic. While she doesn't regret taking part in the protest, saying it meant a lot for her "to participate in something like this," the injury has left her harboring doubts.

Poole has suffered from regular nightmares and lives with persistent anxiety of large crowds and loud noises, she said. While she's healing from her injury, she could need future surgeries.

Elise Poole protest injury

Elise Poole was struck by a rubber bullet during a protest in Lincoln on May 31. 

Several of those injured said they understand most law enforcement officers are good at their jobs and trying to serve their communities.

"I've dealt with some really cool cops," Celis said, "and I've dealt with some who abuse their authority."

Austin said he respects police who do their jobs right. "But they shouldn't be using the riot shields on peaceful protesters, tear gas on peaceful protesters," he said.

Nix said the Lincoln Police Department is generally viewed favorably for its progressive policing strategies that use best practices.

"But all it takes is one incident that goes sideways, or a video of something, to lose all that," he added. "That's how quickly it takes to lose all that trust that has been built up."

Stille said the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly 9 minutes "was absolutely terrible."

While many of the problems surrounding the protests appear to have stemmed from individuals determined to sow chaos, Stille also said he was surprised by the anger shown toward local law enforcement by the demonstrators.

That signals police need to reengage groups they were already engaged with and look for new groups they haven't engaged, he said.

"I thought we were doing a good job in the community," he said. "It certainly has been eye-opening for me and maybe we haven't done as good of a job as I think we have done."

'We are our own solution to our problems' — Lincoln youth lead local protest movement

Photos, videos from protests in Lincoln: