Kimara Snipes loves where she lives. The 45-year-old is president of the neighborhood alliance in South Omaha, an area of corner stores, aging apartments and turn-of-the-century stucco homes. She’s its representative on the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education and stays active with her church near her home on S. 30th St.
She never thought she’d want to leave. Then she found a bullet casing on her front step.
“I’m living in this,” Snipes said. “I’m the one who has to come up to my house and I have a frickin’ gun shell on my doorstep. I’m the one who has to wake up because there’s shooting outside my window. The lady across the street from me ended up with a bullet in her window. That could have been my house.”
Crime is on the rise across Omaha. The number of shooting victims so far this year was the second-highest its been since 2016, barely beaten only by 2020 which set a record in July with 38 victims to gun violence. In total, 100 people have been injured or killed, nearly twice the numbers from 2019. Other crimes like rape, burglary and theft are up compared to last year while robbery and aggravated assault are down.
Explanations for the spike, which has occurred across the United States, vary from pandemic stress to police cutbacks spurred by the “defund the police” movement. One thing all can agree on: The situation is serious.
“It just seems like it’s getting worse and the kids keep getting younger,” said Steve Smith, 59, a lifelong resident of North Omaha. “So we got to try to touch them, you know what I mean? It can’t get much worse than 13, 15-year-olds dying and getting murder cases.”
To some, Omaha embodies 21st century law enforcement. OPD Deputy Chief Ken Kanger hardly broke a sweat while coaching a team of kids through Operation NETS. The police-community partnership focused on building relationships through sports is just one program the 24-year veteran can highlight along with a mental health co-responder program and constant policy re-evaluations.
“It'll take time,” Kanger said. “I mean, it's not like a light switch. You can't reverse the effects of a pandemic in one year.”
Others look at OPD’s $161.8 million budget and ask why that money can’t be invested elsewhere. For them, more policing doesn’t solve crime. But in 2020, the department easily secured a $1.9 million budget increase. Mayor Jean Stothert’s 2022 budget includes a $5.3 million increase for police.
Most people, from activists to OPD administrators, also admit public safety goes beyond policing 一 the community is stronger when it works together. But who defines “the community” is up for debate.
Qasim Shabazz Asad, a co-founder of the Black Agenda Alliance, a Black nationalist group in North Omaha, said he’s felt misrepresented by politicians like former Omaha City Councilmember Ben Gray and organizations like the Empowerment Network. Efforts like theirs have increased education, employment, homeownership and life expectancy in North Omaha, but Asad isn’t satisfied.
“These people are totally invisible,” said Asad, 36. “We don't see them. We don't know where they're getting their numbers from and the radical lies about solutions that they've produced. We've seen none.”
Omaha has no shortage of people who want to help. The problem is, Snipes said, they don’t work well together. She wants to start a group that can facilitate that. But where will the funding come from? And can Omaha shift the conversation from law enforcement to crime prevention?
Those questions worry her. But this is Snipes’ home. She has to try.
“What we don't need is someone running away from something,” Snipes said. “We say all the time, ‘You don't operate in a spirit of fear.’ And I can't be scared. I just can't be.”
Suffering in Silence
In 1973, when Roscoe Wallace was 6 years old, a bully took his big wheel tricycle. His mom told him to either get it back or she’d beat him. So he found the other boy and dragged a broken Coke bottle across the side of his face.
“‘What's on your hand?’” Wallace remembered his mom saying when he got home. “I looked and it was blood. So she said, ‘Go wash your hands. I'm a cook you something.’” And I looked at her, and I had never seen such a look of [pleasure].”
That set the tone for Wallace, now 54. Fear, credibility and power meant everything. In the ‘80s he joined a gang. But after losing a son to gang violence and leaving the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1999, Wallace dedicated himself to helping his neighborhood by working with programs like Coalition Rx and the Community Justice Center, two organizations focused on community advocacy and restorative justice.
A lot has changed for him. He can’t say the same for Omaha.
“The leaders are younger. The followers are younger. And the adults don't see the trauma,” Wallace said. “The adults just see the effects of it, the behavior… [The kids] suffer silently. And we haven't helped it. And it's almost like we forgot about what actually precipitated this thing.”
Shakur Abdullah, a trainer and outreach specialist for the Community Justice Center, remembers when an Omaha police officer shot and killed 14-year-old Vivian Strong in North Omaha in the summer of 1969. Mobs burnt down buildings along 24th Street. Before that redlining kept many Black people from obtaining home loans outside North Omaha.
Today many of the buildings burnt down 52 years ago remain empty lots. The neighborhood is still predominantly African American, the median income is some of the lowest in the city, and a Reader analysis of private home loans since 2007 found while predominantly white census tracts received about $12 billion in private home loans, majority-minority census tracts received about $275 million, about 45 times less money. White-dominated census tracts outnumber minority tracts, but the proportion of funding is out of balance.
Meanwhile, government funds to rehab blighted areas, known as tax increment financing, have largely gone to building commercial districts in Midtown like Midtown Crossing and Blackstone instead of North and South Omaha where most of the city’s aging buildings are located.
These factors probably aren’t top of mind when someone commits a crime. It wasn’t what Abdullah thought about when, at 16 in 1975, he shot two men, killing one and blinding another. He was placed on death row at 17 and released due to changing state laws about life sentences for minors. When he was released in 2016, Abdullah wanted to help people like himself find purpose.
“There may be segments of the society that believe that they are throwaways and castoffs and rejects and misfits and all those things,” Abdullah said. “We take the opposite approach. You are still important; you still have value; you still have something to offer to society. We all make mistakes. None of us should be or are the worst mistake that we have ever made.”
Through the Community Awareness Program, the Community Justice Center gives incarcerated people a chance to share their stories. In August, Wallace said they’ll bring the program to Omaha police officers and, eventually, teenagers.
Bridging those worlds, hurt and healing, is Wallace’s life focus. He drives between his home in Sioux City, Iowa, and Omaha about three times a week to mentor kids. One day he hopes to open a center for people to break down the real reasons they turn to crime.
“My brother hate me more than anything now because when he looks in the mirror, he don't like himself,” Wallace said. “And then we have all this ugliness perpetuating. That's what we’re starting to deal with.”
Losing Grip and New Ideas
Kimara Snipes used to run an after-school program at Omaha Public Library’s Charles B. Washington branch. Since the pandemic halted that, several kids she mentored have been arrested.
One 17-year-old is charged with a double murder. A teenager Wallace mentored is charged with shooting and killing someone at the Westroads Mall. Kanger also saw an Operation NETS kid arrested.
“Really [the pandemic’s been] a direct impact because he was going to school every day. And he was involved in basketball; he was involved in football,” Kanger said. “So it's impacted a lot of kids and families all across the board.”
Up until last year the police department had seen a decline in crime. Kanger thinks the city will get back there, but Snipes doesn’t think that will happen absent serious change.
She wants to see people from the neighborhood, who know poverty and violence personally, go door to door talking to people. Everyday people need to take ownership of their communities, she said, finding solutions together.
“We need enforcement,” Snipes said. “We have to have the police department. But I think the community is often left out of decision-making in so many things, and yet it’s the community that really is the one who can solve the problem.”
Wallace’s imagined healing center, Snipes’ organization, scores of nonprofits, the police department, they all require money. Organizations like the Empowerment Network, which did not return requests to comment for this story, raised nearly $4 million in 2019, according to tax filings. Since filing for nonprofit status in 2013, the organization has helped thousands of kids find summer jobs through the Step Up! program and upped key socioeconomic metrics in Omaha’s Black community. Meanwhile, large, established organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands brought in about $12 million the same year and helped more than 5,500 kids in 2020, according to their tax filings.
The funding is out there. Snipes hopes to find her slice of the pie by selling something unique. When she ran for mayor of Omaha, she wanted to bridge barriers in the city. The Empowerment Network’s program Omaha 360, which Snipes participates in, connects community advocates weekly with OPD. Lately Snipes feels like it’s fallen short as crime continues worsening in her neighborhood. The city needs more.
“The biggest thing is coming together as multiple organizations to present a united front,” Snipes said. “That just has not been done, especially between North and South [Omaha]. And we have to get out of that. What about just east Omaha, period? Or all of Omaha together?”
By the Community, For the Community
Qasim Shabazz Asad towered over the football field. His frame cast a broad shadow as he hyped the huddled players.
“I am my brother’s keeper, right?” Asad yelled.
“Yeah!” yell about 20 kids between 6 and 11 years old.
“We all love each other, right?”
Two teams faced off on July 16 through the Urban Flag Football League, a rec organization Asad started as a positive outlet for Black kids completely run by Black people.
The chants hammer home brotherhood. Black families crowd the sidelines. Even the team names are intentional: the Timbuktu Kings, El-Hajj Bulldogs, Harlem Hellfighters and Garvey-ites (a reference to Jamaican civil rights advocate Marcus Garvey).
“We're not Vikings. We're not Cornhuskers. We ain’t jets, bulls or bears,” Asad said. “If we play as hard as we do in the sport, man, we deserve a mascot or something.”
Asad thinks autonomy can solve the societal ills pushing people toward crime. Through his organization, the Black Agenda Alliance, Asad runs this football league as well as a Black Studies Boot Camp and Black boy scout troop. The goal is to rebuild the Black community, because despite after-school programs, summer jobs and grants, Asad said North Omaha feels the same as when he was a gang enforcer years ago.
Taking control of their community is the goal of an upcoming Black Agenda Alliance program called the Warrior Society.
“If you're Black, and you want to run around here shooting and you don't want to change, because I've had youngsters look me in my eyes and tell me they love what they're doing, then you gotta go,” Asad said. “We've got it. We're gonna work with who we need to work with to get you up out of this community.”
Asad didn’t elaborate on how they’d achieve that, although he said enforcement doesn’t have to be physical. But showing strength is one aspect of it.
Asad legally carries a concealed weapon and encourages his members to do the same. When asked if he worries how police might perceive that, he wasn’t phased. Asad said he’s talked to administrators with OPD about the Warrior Society. They know his intentions. And they know he doesn’t hate police. He’d be happy to see the kids in his programs become police officers. Asad said that beats what’s happening now.
“There shouldn't be white boys from Gretna, Papillion, Ralston, Council Bluffs, patrolling North Omaha,” Asad said. “That would be the same as 1,000 of us going to patrol Elkhorn or Gretna. If you're going to patrol the community you should belong to that community.”
The message is resonating. Black Agenda Alliance is constantly adding new members, Asad said, adding there’s “phenomenal” interest in the Warrior Society. Two candidates backed by the Black Agenda Alliance recently won political office, State Sen. Terrell McKinney and Omaha City Councilmember Juanita Johnson.
But what matters most to Asad remains the small, personal connections.
For Janae Peak, playing in the flag football league has filled a void left by her son’s father, who Peak said is absent most of the time.
“They make sure my baby is motivated,” Peak said. “They make sure schoolwork is good. You know, they make sure at home he respects his mom.”
“It's more than football,” said Whitney Jackson, a parent. “They’re trying to make them brothers.”
No Silver Bullets, No Easy Answers
Basketballs smack against pavement as the sun sets over North Omaha in mid-July. Not far away, people laugh over paper plates stacked with Domino's pizza, part of a community event at the Bryant Center on 24th Street.
While kids run layups, Darnell Jackson watches. The former gang member turned community advocate doesn’t know how to stop crime. But the answer might be here.
Not far away, his dad, Roscoe Wallace, reminiscences with an old friend, Steve Smith. Years ago OPD’s Ken Kanger used to chase Jackson; now they coach Operation NETS together. In the crowd there are politicians as well as members of the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, Black Agenda Alliance and Empowerment Network.
It’s easy to get caught up on who’s right and who’s wrong. What’s working and what isn’t. But Jackson focuses on the big picture. Everyone wants the same thing. It doesn’t make the issue less complicated, but it offers a little hope.
“Sometimes people get into that mode,” Jackson said. “But there's sometimes you got to think about the great things that you are doing, versus the powers that be. And what I mean is, and it’s sad to say, you're gonna always have [crime], right?...We just had murders on 24th Street. But look where we’re at on 24th Street, with all these kids after the murders. So I get it. I get it. It's so tough, man.”
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