History Nebraska Blog

Omaha's Memorial Park Riots of 1971

By David L. Bristow, Editor

July 6, 2021

 

Picture hundreds of White youths facing down police and chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go!” The scene erupts into a “bottle-throwing, club-swinging clash between youths and police,” in the words of the Omaha World-Herald. The year is 1971.

But the protest wasn’t about the Vietnam War—not directly, anyway.

It was about a park curfew. In a larger sense, you could say it reflected the spirit of the times.

Fifty years have passed since Omaha’s Memorial Park became a battleground for four successive nights, July 6-9, 1971. About hundred people were arrested or taken to a hospital, and public response ranged from outrage at today’s spoiled youths to complaints about police vandalism and brutality. This is the story, drawn from contemporary news reports.

* * *

Tuesday, July 6 was to be the first night of an 8 p.m. curfew at Memorial Park, a popular gathering place for young people. Neighbors complained about drug and alcohol use and disruptive behavior. The city council had imposed a similar curfew the previous summer.

Some youths testified against the curfew at a city council meeting. Later, a flyer invited people to a July 6 rally at the park, promising “love and music” and “impromptu theater by the Omaha police” and “door prizes” including “a free ride to the police station, tour of the basement, free photo.”

The flyer encouraged people to “stick up for your rights” but did not give specific instructions.

This was by design, said Timothy Andrews, an “underground editor” and member of the Omaha Yippies (Youth International Party). The Yippies organized the rally—or, in Andrews’ words, “disorganized” it so that there would be “no leaders of the curfew resistance.”

“We thought this would make the people the leaders,” Andrews told the West Omaha and Dundee Sun on July 18.

In practice, this meant that anyone could step forward as a leader, and the crowd would either follow or not.

On Tuesday evening, about 500 people—mostly youths, almost all White—remained at the park when the police arrived in force about 8:30. By then people had blocked the park entrance with park benches and trashcans. Speaking through a bullhorn, Police Chief Richard Andersen warned the youths that they were subject to arrest if they stayed.

“This is the people’s park and we’re the people!” someone replied. Others shouted, “Pig!” and “Oink!” The crowd soon took up the war protesters’ chant of “Hell no, we won’t go!”

By 9:15 the crowd had spilled into the streets, blocking Dodge and Farnam. Police reported that youths were “hitting the cars with clubs, bricks and bottles” and surrounded a police cruiser.

At 9:40 the police charged with nightsticks, driving the crowd back into the park. According to the World-Herald, youths “threw rocks, bottles, full beer cans, apples and other objects at police.” Police reportedly fired their weapons on at least two occasions, but no one was hit.

By the time it was over, thirteen people had been arrested, and eight others—ages 17 to 22—had been treated and released at local hospitals.

Two patrolmen* were also injured. Later that week, Patrolman George Dugan spoke to a reporter from his bed at Methodist Hospital. The 25-year-old Dugan—who had been struck in the chest with a brick—noted that he wasn’t much older than the young people at the park.

“I just can’t understand it,” he said. “They seem to want to kill somebody. Over what? A park closing?”

At a Wednesday press conference, Mayor Eugene Leahy warned that he would “not tolerate violence and anarchy.” Chief Anderson said he would “not lose faith in these young people,” adding that most of the youths would have left the park but that “impromptu leaders” told them to stay.

* * *

Reporters described the second night as more violent than the first, with fourteen young people (ages 16-22) treated and released at local hospitals, including five young women. Two patrolmen were injured. More people brought weapons, including rocks, bottles, baseball bats, tire chains, axe handles, firecrackers, and “slingshots which hurl metal balls.”

The police likewise came better equipped, with every patrolman in riot gear. Using tear gas, police drove the crowd before them along Happy Hollow Boulevard and Farnam Street. Homeowners on Dodge Street stood on their front porches cheering the police. Later that evening a homeowner on Happy Hollow Boulevard fired a shotgun in the air twice. He said he feared for his family’s safety.

Police were afraid as well. From his hospital bed, Patrolman Dugan spoke of being scared on Tuesday night. He said the police could take the verbal abuse. “But when you start getting rocks thrown at you, you lose your temper. I don’t care who you are.”

People began complaining about excessive police violence. Starting Wednesday night, many patrolmen failed to wear name badges as required, which made it difficult to identify individuals.

Some bystanders said that police attacked them without provocation. One was a 25-year-old man who had been watching events from nearby Elmwood Park. When a crowd ran by, he and his family got into their car. He said five patrolmen smashed the windshield and side window. His five-year-old son suffered multiple cuts.

“The cops were enraged,” the man said.

That night, a WOW-TV cameraman named Richard “Pete” Petrashek was filming the scene when a patrolman clubbed him in the head. Police described it as an accident. Petrashek, who needed 15 stitches, later sued the City of Omaha, alleging that the city “encouraged police officers to resort to such acts of violence by laudatory and congratulatory statements” issued after each night. He further alleged that the city had failed to investigate the assault or even learn the name of the patrolman who attacked him.

* * *

By Thursday, some Omaha stores were reporting a run on gas masks and slingshots. Thirteen people were arrested that night, bringing the total to 48. The number of injuries was not immediately clear. Youths egged passing cars, broke out a traffic light, damaged a cruiser, and threw a Molotov cocktail.

Reporters also witnessed police smashing the windows of an unoccupied car that had the words “love” and “peace” painted on it, and saw patrolmen pull two motorcyclists off their bikes and beat them with nightsticks. Ten to twelve patrolmen—about a third of the police on duty at the park—walked down the street smashing car windows as they went. They pulled some people from their cars and beat them. Reporters said the motorists were apparently trying to leave the area.

“Chief Andersen said that spectators in cars and ‘idiot tourists’ were a problem for police,” the World-Herald reported the next day.

Meanwhile, south of Dodge Street, about a thousand people attended an outdoor rock concert at Elmwood Park. The show ended about 10:30—which was OK because there was no curfew at Elmwood. John Mueller, a 24-year-old Air Force sergeant, walked back to his car with his wife.

“Just as I was starting the engine,” he said, “someone said policemen were coming up the street. I saw two policemen running toward the car. The first one… ran directly to the car and smashed the windshield with his club. I leaned over to protect my wife from glass… and the same policeman smashed the front window on the driver’s side. I got out of the car to protest. I think I said: ‘Hey, sir, we’re not doing anything—,’ Before I could finish, that first policeman raised back with his nightstick and hit me in the eye.”

The second patrolman also hit Mueller, who staggered across the street and collapsed in the grass while his wife screamed. The police left the scene. A group of young men offered to drive Mueller to the hospital.

Mueller had previously worked as a Stars and Stripes reporter while serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. With his head bleeding, he told his companions to take him to the World-Herald offices, where he spoke to reporters before being taken to St. Joseph Hospital.

Mueller’s story ran on page one the following afternoon. A World-Herald editorial said that police behavior on Thursday night “marred what has otherwise been a good job of law enforcement in a difficult situation.”

* * *

Friday night saw 26 arrests, but the crowd was smaller and less violent. Most of the arrests came from a group throwing firecrackers at passing cars from a Dodge Street overpass.

With that, Memorial Park was quiet again. The city council refused to reconsider the curfew. The protest, such as it was, had made compromise politically toxic.

In all, the World-Herald estimated that a little more than 100 people had been arrested or treated for injuries, 92 male and 82 giving an Omaha address.

“I’ve always felt we had a good relationship with the kids,” said Patrolman Dugan. “I’ve never had a single problem with the young folks… until now.”

On July 11, the World-Herald featured interviews with some of the young people from the park, trying to understand why it all happened. One 21-year-old man said that youths had been hanging out at the park for years. He didn’t think that most of the Tuesday night crowd had come to fight with police. A small number of self-styled leaders had stirred them up. And after the first night, “there were people out there wanting a fight, people on both sides spoiling for violence.”

* * *

Only one patrolman was fired from the Omaha Police Department, a man who was nearing the end of his six-month probationary period. He had been one of the windshield-breakers. The Omaha Police Union defended him, blaming the police administration for sending an inexperienced cop into such a situation. In a July 17 editorial, the World-Herald quoted with approval the words of a deputy chief: “Anyone with any common sense knows not to destroy other people’s property.” Chief Andersen said on July 28 that he had “no evidence” to discipline any other patrolmen.

On July 19 the World-Herald reported that various civic groups were commenting on proposed new police policies for handling public complaints. Most were positive, but the Rev. John Whittington, pastor of Mount Nebo Baptist Church (a Black congregation) was unimpressed. He said police complaints had long been a “sore point” in his community. Regarding Memorial Park—a disturbance that involved few if any Black people—he observed: “A policeman was fired for breaking windshields of cars. We have complained about them breaking heads.”

* * *

In the World-Herald’s “Public Pulse” letters column, no one defended the behavior of the rock-throwers and police-taunters, but some writers exonerated the police, emphasizing the need for law and order. Others lamented the sad state of today’s youth, blaming parents for a lack of discipline. Still others faulted the City Council for its earlier failures to compromise or listen to the youth.

By then, any chance that the City Council would amend the curfew was gone. Council members were determined not to allow the youths to gain anything from the riots.

In hindsight, one of the striking things about the riots was the reluctance of city officials to blame local youths generally. Even after the second night, Mayor Leahy remained convinced that the violence was the work of out-of-town agitators. Chief Andersen, however, estimated that only 25-50 of the youths were from out of town, and said there was no evidence that they were the ones inciting the violence. Yippie leader Timothy Andrews blamed “short-haired weirdos” from west Omaha, meaning “straight” (non-hippie) kids who were just looking for trouble.

The World-Herald reported some of the convictions and fines, but soon tried to change the subject. A July 28 feature titled “Our Peaceful Youth” profiled several young people (all of them White) who were working summer jobs, doing volunteer work, or training for sports. The article’s main point was that for all the blood and ink spilled over Memorial Park, the great majority of Omaha youths had stayed away.

 


*Omaha police were known as “patrolmen” until 1974, when they became “police officers.” OPD began using the gender-neutral term when it hired its first female police officers.

 

Sources:

Except where noted, this article is based on the Sunrise and Metropolitan editions of the Omaha World-Herald, July 7-10, 1971.

 

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