As social reform protests sweep the world in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, America’s at a crossroads. Millennial energy feeds this movement taking to the streets, social media platforms and seats of power, demanding to overhaul oppressive dominant white culture systems.
This organic coalition to remedy injustice is aligned independent of political party or center of influence. Omaha joined the outrage over the wrongful deaths of Auhmad Abrey, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Local fervor grew after James Scurlock was shot and killed by a bar owner downtown and the county attorney declined pressing charges despite damning video evidence and a history of racist behavior by the shooter.
The June 12 police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta added fuel to the fire.
The movement here mirrors its expression elsewhere as diverse voices make themselves heard at marches, vigils, meetings, legislative listening sessions and in posts, op-eds, signs and murals. Calls to defund-dismantle police forces, including Omaha’s, propose shifting monies to social-human services and deploying more public health workers than cops.
Why this synergy for change now?
A long struggle reached a trigger and tipping point when generations-old patterns of injustice got brought to graphic light by video evidence of African Americans being wrongly killed.
“People are really beginning to see in stark relief what that actually looks like in real time,” University of Iowa historian and Omaha native Ashley Howard says.
Powerful visuals of racism abound. Black Votes Matter head Preston Love Jr. equates Floyd’s killing on video to Emmett Till’s disfigured body in a 1955 photo in Jet Magazine – times 10.
“Seeing a person literally murdered in broad daylight is a whole other thing,” Abide Omaha director Josh Dotzler says. “A lot of times when tragedy happens people are quick to get back to life as we know it. I think we’re so much on pause due to the pandemic that we have an opportunity to not just see but to feel the weight of these killings, and to stop, listen and learn.”
Streaming images fast-forwarded the woke agenda.
“That’s part of the reason why the movement is happening now
and why it took so long because we not only needed a critical mass of people interested and caring, but we also needed a critical mass of resources to talk about the history and issues,” says local Black Lives Matter activist Morgann Freeman.
“We don’t have to now argue for the same change and to have those preliminary conversations, Generally, across the board, even people ideologically on the opposite spectrum agree policing has been corrupt.”
Branded symbols of oppression are falling. Business owners outed for racist statements are being boycotted.
Freeman sees broader “investment in the work” to make change.
“People are now seeing this affects more than just a specific group of people. It affects every single one of us. It’s systemic, it’s institutionalized, it’s taught. I think a critical mass of people now paying attention don’t care about preserving the systems because it’s quite clear these systems are so inherently broken they do not deserve to be maintained ”
“I think we are on the dawn of a revolution.” says Howard. “There’s a sense of cohesion around these protests in that groups are putting forth grievances – things they actually want to see changed in their community. These just aren’t piecemeal, stopgap measures but fundamentally revolutionary things.”
“In such a brief time for the idea of abolition or de-funding of police to seem like a tenable, reasonable goal and for people in regular circles to have a new political vocabulary is remarkable.
Over-policing critiques are nothing new. Minorities nationwide, including Nebraska, have long decried police misconduct. Police relations with minority communities are historically strained. The same with a criminal justice system that mass incarcerates minorities and rarely holds whites accountable for even targeted attacks against them. No one served time for the 1919 Will Brown lynching downtown despite scores of witnesses and indictments.
In 1969 an Omaha police officer shot and killed 14-year-old Vivian Strong. With no action taken against the officer, a riot ensued on North 24th Street. Officers killing unarmed African Americans and minorities here routinely escape legal consequences. Pleas for independent oversight are largely ignored or opposed.
“If cities are truly serious addressing citizen complaints of police brutality,” Howard says, “they must be willing to think beyond the same reforms which have proven ineffective.”
Excessive policing is part of a larger problem minorities face.
“We need to think about not just physical violence but structural and institutional violence as ways in which the systems, the structures and the mechanisms are designed to keep some citizens on the margins of society,” Howard says
Redlining practices, discriminatory lending and insurance policies and destructive urban renewal projects effectively suppressed Omaha’s black community.
Protests to address embedded wrongs have coalesced before. The DePorres Club staged demonstrations for fair public accommodations and hiring in the late 1940s-early 1950s. The 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties) tackled housing and education in the ‘60s.
Following a 1966 riot that exposed police-community tensions and a lack of recreational opportunities and jobs for black youth, programs to address these issues were enacted.
Many more programs and dialogues followed over the years.
Representations of Omaha racism and unrest include films, plays, books and exhibits.
Two documentaries made 50 years apart here, A Time for Burning and Out of Omaha, show the city’s de facto segregation. The first depicts the rupture of a white mainline church afraid to do fellowship with black neighbors. The second follows a young black man doing what he can to escape societal profiles and traps.
In 1970 Lois Mark Stalvey’s book The Education of a WASP delineated how some black friends in Omaha exposed her white privilege assumptions and blind spots.
Omaha activist Matthew Stelly published several treatises taking the city’s white power structure to task.
The recent stage dramas, More Than Neighbors, The Blues of Knowing Why and Red Summer capture the disruption of the North Freeway expansion, the context of Vivian Strong’s wrongful death and the hysteria behind Will Brown’s lynching, respectively.
Traditional organizations advocating change included the Urban League of Nebraska, NAACP, Omaha Star and black churches. The Black Panthers, BLAC and Triple One Neighborhood Association led grassroots efforts. The Empowerment Network emerged as a change broker in 2007.
Leaderful defines today’s new collective movement.
“I feel the way previous generations functioned is not how the future of black America will function,” Freeman says, “because there is no gatekeeper and no individual leader anymore. It is a community of leaders.”
“This is a whole new day,” Howard says, “and while we can look to the 1960s to see some glimpses of what may happen, this is a whole new context and type of protest.”
Veteran activist, spoken word artist and Mind & Soul morning radio host Michelle Troxclair notes “protestors are shifting the narrative,” which she hopes leads to a “shift of (America’s) consciousness.” “We need to seize upon it. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m so heartened to see things moving faster than I ever thought possible. That is the biggest take away.”
“The most powerful part of this movement for me is meeting all of these new people getting activated by the work of social justice and change.” Freeman says. “We’re really looking at how we can build a different leadership model on the local level so that communities can advocate for themselves rather than having to go through a spokesperson. We don’t need that old model anymore. It’s obviously not worked well for us in the past.”
Malcolm X Memorial Foundation has convened community forums. Abide Omaha hosted a We Are For North Omaha rally. UCA printed Black Lives Matter signs. Culxr House is “the hub” for protesters to learn peaceful tactics and to source water-snacks.
“Anything we can do for our community and for people standing for justice and change we’re going to do it,” Culxr House founder-director Marcey Yates says.
New media outlets NOISE, Mind & Soul Radio and Power 95.7 FM, Freeman says, “empower our community to tell our stories the way we want them to be told.”
“In crisis leaders emerge and voices get heard in ways maybe they otherwise weren’t,” Dotzler says. “There’s an opportunity for leaders from within the community to take a stand and let people know what we believe in.”
With so many voices raised, Howard says, “We can’t lose sight of the objective. After this street phase of the protest and movement ends we need to continue to invest in long-term organizing by building capacity, mobilizing resources and community building.
“How this is actually implemented, whether it’s followed through on once protesters leave the streets, is the true test. But I think people are beginning to imagine a more radical future in which we don’t look to reform the system that has proven to be time and time again broken but to find wholly new systems to deal with society’s problems. I think that’s very hopeful.”
Yates sees the new paradigm taking shape.
“We’ve always had this conversation. It’s been going on for a long time. But no specific action plans. Now I’m seeing young people getting up and talking about how they feel but also about things that can help the economy grow in our community,
“We’re encouraging our young people to get registered to vote and to run for elected office. We’re pushing them into areas where they can grow, get educated and be supported so they can make decisions that lead to changes.”
Lessons from the past can inform this moment. Yates leans into the strength past activists displayed. “I just want to see us to continue to be resilient and not be scared. That’s something we can take from them. They were fearless.”
Preston Love Jr. lived through the civil rights struggle and likes what he sees now.
“I affirm the protests. They are spontaneous, real and effective
and they are having the necessary effect.”
“We are there at that question now,” Love says. “Each of us should be, in every corner of the city, asking ourselves what is next and what part am I going to play in that.”
Nearly everyone supports more investment in northeast Omaha, whose endemic poverty and under-development is rooted in the same racist systems activists seek to transform. More than a say at the table, black citizens want to own that community’s destiny,
“This moment has created a window of opportunity for listening, learning, assessing and participation in solution,” Love says.
“That window is open but it will close, If it closes after we’ve done some things, okay. But if it closes after too much time has gone by with more dialogue than action, the shade will be pulled down.”
Unless the Democrats win the White House and Senate, changes are likely to come at the local and state levels first.
“It’s hard to imagine the federal government launching some revolutionary legislation, support or even investigation in this moment,” say Howard, who adds President Trump’s antagonistic stances “mark this moment as a line in the sand.”
Activists allege protests that turned criminal were provoked by outside agitators and police, who used tear gas. They add when armed, verbally abusive white protestors opposed Covid-19 shut downs, police did not engage or escalate.
Howard asserts that “in fighting for their rights, protestors not only give freedom to themselves but to us all” and “those on the margins create far more change than those in the center. We have to believe in people power. If not. we’ve lost our souls.”
In the scheme of things, Dotzler says, “it’s one thing to have policy change, it’s another to change the minds of the masses and get people to start living differently as a result of what we’re learning.”
For Troxclair, the mandate for change is clear: “We’ve always been told to wait, the country’s not ready. Well, the country will never be ready unless we make it ready and make it so.”