James Scurlock, Out of Omaha, and the Machinery of White Supremacy

An Op-Ed from the Producer of "Out of Omaha"


Photo by Andre Sessions

[Editor’s Note: Chief Deputy County Attorney Brenda Beadle strongly disputes the characterizations of her approach described in the third paragraph below at the Omaha Film Festival screening. See her response below.]

Last spring, the film Out of Omaha – a documentary I produced with my fellow filmmakers for the better part of a decade – made its Omaha debut to sold out crowds at Aksarben Cinema during the Omaha Film Festival. The film spans eight years in the life of Darcell Trotter, a young man from North Omaha struggling to survive generational poverty. It depicts a barrage of injustices wrought upon him during this time, including multiple arrests for charges that were later dropped – although not before they had been reported by media in Omaha and throughout the state, doing irreparable harm to his life and reputation.

After the screening, Darcell received a tearful standing ovation from a hometown audience grateful that he had shared his story – the pain, the trauma, the mistakes, and the love – in such vulnerable fashion.

Darcell Trotter embraces friend and fellow Out of Omaha cast member Skylar Reed after Out of Omaha’s premiere at Aksarben 
(photo credit: Kaleb Duncan Photography)

In attendance that night was Omaha’s Chief Deputy County Attorney, Brenda Beadle. She made a beeline to Darcell, who was surrounded by a crowd of moviegoers eagerly waiting to meet him. As multiple onlookers would later report to myself and others, Ms. Beadle angrily confronted Darcell about the film’s perspective. Beadle emphasized what she felt was the film’s failure to present “Black-on-Black crime” as a primary driver of Omaha’s social ills, referring to cases of Black violent crime that had no relationship to Darcell or to our film.

Ms. Beadle could have approached me, the film’s 42-year-old white producer, or any of the three white filmmakers who were actually responsible for the cinematic perspective to which she objected. Had she done so, we might have explained to her our understanding of concentrated urban violence as an outcome not of race, but of the poverty and desperation that results from racism. We might have explained our belief that use of the phrase “Black-on-Black crime” signals a willingness to blame Black people for their own poverty and desperation, instead of blaming the racist laws and practices that have intentionally marginalized them.

But, Ms. Beadle did not approach us. Instead, she directed her indignation at Darcell, who had no part in editorial decision making, accosting him in public in the midst of one of his life’s proudest and most vulnerable moments. The encounter left audience members buzzing throughout the theater.

Notably, multiple representatives from Ms. Beadle’s office declined to be interviewed for the film.

Ryan Johnston. Photo by Alexandra Vaccino

I had not thought about Ms. Beadle in over a year. But in early June, there she was again, on my computer screen, standing at a live press conference alongside Omaha County Attorney Don Kleine, who appears in Out of Omaha as the prosecutor of Darcell’s brother Charles, found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder in 2015.

Beadle nodded as Kleine announced to the press that there would be no charges against Jake Gardner, the white man who, just 36 hours before, shot and killed unarmed Black Lives Matter protester James Scurlock. Gardner, who has a notable criminal record, has been repeatedly accused of bigotry and racism by customers of the bar he once operated, and his own family members have described him as a white supremacist.

One piece of video, which Kleine played over and over, shows Scurlock wrestling Gardner to the ground, after Gardner had fired shots in close proximity to a crowd of protestors. To any objective viewer, it is unclear whether Scurlock’s intent is to harm Gardner or to subdue him. Indeed, multiple bystanders have stated publicly that Scurlock died protecting others from Gardner’s armed menacing.

But Kleine described unanimous certainty among prosecutors and detectives that Gardner killed Scurlock in self-defense. He pointed repeatedly to Gardner’s statements in his own defense. He did little to address the conflicting narratives that echo throughout the community.

The concealed carry permit for the weapon that killed James Scurlock was expired, information casually delivered by Klein as if it were an insignificant detail.

I watched all of this unfold on KETV.com, anchored by yet another Out of Omaha character, Rob McCartney. In our film, McCartney delivers a Crime Stoppers segment featuring Darcell as the suspect of a robbery and assault. Darcell was not found guilty of the charge, but the damage of having one’s face plastered all over the television as a violent criminal is not easily repaired.

In covering the Scurlock press conference, McCartney offered no meaningful challenge to Kleine’s rapid decision not to charge Gardner, or to convey to the public any narrative other than the one issued by police. Subsequently, Omaha’s largest media outlets have continued to project white voices that unquestioningly support police narratives, while the most impassioned opposing voices are relegated to blogs and social media.
Under tremendous public pressure, Don Kleine has agreed to support a special prosecutor and grand jury investigation into his decision not to charge Jake Gardner. But he stresses that his view of the situation has not changed.

In late June, Kleine was sharply criticized by Scurlock family lawyer Senator Justin Wayne for his decision to release James Scurolock’s toxicology results. “Through his actions,” Wayne said, “Kleine continues to color the public’s perception of a Black victim, while protecting the public’s perception of a white shooter.”

From left, Out of Omaha director Clay Tweel, Executive Producer J. Cole, Darcell Trotter, and filmmakers Ryan Johnston, Steven Klein, and Tim Grant, at Out of Omaha’s festival premiere at DocNYC in New York City

Omaha’s largest paper, the Omaha World Herald, has faced scrutiny for its coverage of the case. In early July, former World Herald editor Matt Savener pressed current Executive Editor Randy Essex, via email, regarding what he perceived to be the World Herald’s “lack of critical coverage of Jake Gardner’s killing of James Scurlock and the aftermath,” citing specifically the “omission of any kind of investigative journalism,” particularly around Gardner’s history of racism.

As part of a longer response, Essex wrote that “people need to choose their heroes and narratives carefully,” saying “if your chosen narrative is basically that this is a sweet father who’s changed his life around and you ignore or gloss over information to the contrary, you aren’t being complete in your reporting.” Replying to that, Savener pointed out, correctly, that “Gardner’s racist history is relevant to the shooting. Scurlock’s drug use is not.” The exchange provides a revealing glimpse into the mindset of one of Omaha’s most influential media voices.

How are we to believe that the city of Omaha has any regard for the lives of its Black citizens when a case of this magnitude, with so many competing narratives, can be decided so quickly? Why does Omaha’s media appear so subservient to police narratives, and so disinterested in those of Omaha’s Black citizens and leaders?

As we await the outcome of the grand jury investigation, which could take months, the machinery of white supremacy in Omaha churns on, in plain view of anyone with the will to look. In Out of Omaha, we showed the damage that machinery caused to the life of Darcell Trotter. Now, the same powerful institutions and people representing them find themselves in the national spotlight once again, as people cry out for justice for James Scurlock.

At any point in our film’s story, Darcell Trotter could have suffered Mr. Scurlock’s fate. And he still could – because he is Black in Omaha, in Nebraska, in America.

[Beadle’s Response: After watching the film, I went to the front of the theater and spoke with Darcell. I congratulated him on the film and introduced myself. While speaking with him, I expressed my criticism of the film and its failure to properly address the victims of violent crime within the black community. During my 25 years as a prosecutor in Omaha, I have been an advocate seeking justice for persons of all races, but predominantly (and disproportionately), black victims and their families who are impacted by violent crimes committed within the black community. I have never met Ryan Johnston nor was he or anyone else a party to my conversation with Darcell that evening. Furthermore, although the film focused on the criminal justice system in Omaha, Mr. Johnston did not reach out to me or the Douglas County Attorney while making the film.]


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