By Chris Bowling
I started at The Reader on Jan. 15, 2020. And just searching my email to confirm that shows what kind of a year it’s been for all of us. In February I had a story about rifts in the 2020 Nebraska Legislature (boy howdy, I had no idea) and then in March I consolidated a series from The Omaha Star about our city’s racist history and its modern implications (again, boy howdy).
Then COVID-19 hit. At The Reader, our small staff shrank and everyone still around had their job descriptions radically changed.
I launched into the pandemic, and then protests for racial justice. I covered a lot more local politics and moved our newsletter from weekly to daily (if you don’t subscribe, please do).
Meanwhile our cultural staff had to adapt to a year without culture, while Lynn Sanchez, a tireless and beyond reliable editor, kept the whole thing moving.
These stories are the ones that stuck out most to me: stories that asked deeper questions or covered a topic no one else would.
It’s been an honor to hopefully inform you throughout (and let’s all say it together) an unprecedented year. And we look forward to doing the same for years to come. If you enjoyed our journalism or want to help fund its future, please consider becoming a member. Or if this year’s been tough, consider sharing this or any of the stories below. The Reader is growing every day and that’s accomplished in no small part due to the support we receive from you, in whatever form that takes.
So, without further ado, let’s bid the worst year of our lives farewell with a list of stories that chronicled it.
One of our first on-the-ground stories about the pandemic was the view from a drive-thru food pantry. The event was held at Jefferson Elementary School and teachers, who’d just switched to distanced learning, gathered to support the students.
“I was OK-ish Monday and Tuesday,” said Ashley Bunce, a sixth grade writing and social studies teacher. “On Wednesday I had a breakdown. I was crying. It’s not just a routine, this is our livelihood. This is what makes me feel worth it. It makes me feel worth it to be here.”
At the time, criminal justice advocates wanted to know how Nebraska planned on keeping its overcrowded inmates safe from COVID-19. In April, not too many people had gotten the virus. Now it’s spread to 486 staff members, 100 of which have not recovered, though the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services doesn’t say what those outcomes are. The last update NDCS gave on inmates in a press release was September, however, they have updated the media of several inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 who’ve later died.
“I know that sounds dramatic,” said Bob Wiley, who spent 18 months incarcerated in Nebraska. “It’s not like they’re running across a field with live bullets being fired. But if it gets in there, shoot, it’s a coin flip.”
As restaurants closed their doors and switched to curbside pickup, many small business owners were suddenly thrown into dire financial situations. Josh Foo and Lauren Abell sought to give this suffering and uncertainty a voice through their Right Here Right Now video and photo series.
When the pandemic reached Omaha, the hard work of running the city’s homeless shelters only got harder.
“It’s not sustainable without volunteers, if I can be honest,” said Candace Gregory, president and CEO of Open Door Mission. “I am hoping, I am praying that there’s some level of, I don’t want to say normalcy because I don’t know what that looks like going forward but we truly need volunteers to have some relief and we need volunteers to function with quality care.”
“We’re Not Even Close”: Protections for Plant Workers Continue to Lag as Workers Fear Increased Infections
As meatpacking plants became the most infectious hot spots for COVID-19 in the country, advocates ran up against a brick wall in getting the protections workers needed.
“They don’t want to work,” said Gloria Sarmiento, a senior community organizer with Nebraska Appleseed. “They say they have to go to work because they need to feed their family. it’s not safe. It’s not safe inside.”
After a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck and killed him, protesters took to 72nd and Dodge in Omaha. A peaceful protest devolved into a night of tear gas and pepper bullets fired from Omaha Police Department officers in riot gear. Officers say they were quelling violent protesters who were throwing objects at law enforcement. Demonstrators say police escalated the conflict.
The Death of James Scurlock
- Protester Killed Is Remembered As Caring, Goofy; Suspect Still in Custody
- No Charges in Killing of Protester Saturday Night
- “We’re Tired and We’re Frustrated and We Are Demanding Change.” Citizens Support City Council Action, But Say More Needed
- James Scurlock, in His Brother’s Words
- James Scurlock, Out of Omaha, and the Machinery of White Supremacy
On the night of May 31, a white bar owner named Jake Garner shot and killed a 22-year-old Black man named James Scurlock. The incident became a rallying cry for protesters after Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine would not press charges as Garner had acted in self defense, he said.
The next day community members begged the Omaha City Council to address issues of racial justice. Meanwhile friends and family mourned the loss of a young man and father. His brother wrote a touching story for The Omaha Reader in July.
The Farnam Street Bridge Mass Arrest
- Arrested Protesters Spend Confusing, Fearful Night in Douglas County Jail due to Computer Malfunctions
- ‘They Awoke a Sleeping Giant’: The Fight Is Far from Over for Omaha Protesters
As protests continued, arrests became more common. But on the night of July 25, the Omaha Police Department detained more than 120 people, trapping them on a bridge for violating traffic laws as they were marching in the street without a permit. Many sat in overcrowded prison cells for more than 24 hours due to a computer glitch that wasn’t allowing their bail to be paid, Douglas County Corrections said.
A week later, protesters gathered again to share their stories with the ACLU of Nebraska who later sued the city and its police department. They were unperturbed.
“I can’t help but feel incredibly hopeful,” Colin Graeve said. “I feel like what they did was they awoke a sleeping giant.”
‘A Blessing and a Curse’: How $166 Million in COVID-19 Relief Has Challenged Douglas County Government
Even as protests continued, The Reader took a look at how Douglas County was spending the $166 million in CARES Act funds it received to combat financial fallout from COVID-19. What we found was a process that challenged the fundamentals of county government and would eventually keep too many from getting the help they needed.
As many Omahans demanded its police force be held accountable, The Reader wanted to find out who officers should ultimately answer to. The short answer is that citizens have little to no power in this city to check police. But advocates and accountability experts say if any real progress is to be made, good citizen oversight is key.
“You have police policing themselves,” said state Senator Justin Wayne from District 13 in North Omaha. “So if there’s a rabbit hole they don’t want to go down, what stops them from not going down it?”
As protests continued throughout the summer, demonstrators faced harassment by the Omaha Police Department in the form of seemingly unnecessary tickets, surveillance and more.
“They’re trying to silence our First Amendment right, and they’re trying to silence any form of criticism,” said “Bear” Alexander Matthews, a leader of the protest organization proBLAC.
It’s hard to imagine a time when so many social issues coalesced in a material way for nearly every American voter. But that’s the theme of 2020, and it brought a record number of people to the polls (or pushed them to vote by mail). In our story chronicling election day in Omaha, we talked to voters across East Omaha. They were different ages, represented varying political persuasions and had different, but deeply personal, reasons for voting.
“If I needed war, I would have stayed in my country,” said Farhayo Ali, who immigrated to Omaha from Somalia. “I’d never come here. I would have died there. That’s why I’m looking for peace.”
The importance of home can’t be understated when talking about solutions to social inequity, something that COVID-19 and protests shone a stark spotlight on in 2020. In this story, we looked at lopsided private and public lending, the effects of housing instability on families and the solutions that can ensure everyone can live well in this city.
“We continue to make excuses for our inability to increase access to low-income housing,” said Erin Feichtinger, community outreach and advocacy coordinator for the nonprofit Together Inc. “And we do it knowing full well that we have a crisis on our hands in affordable housing. And I don’t understand it.”
As 2020 came to a close, Nebraska saw a spike in cases multitudes higher than it had ever seen in the pandemic. Suddenly some of the best pandemic preparedness doctors in the country had to face the reality that citizens and local government hadn’t done their part to quell the spread of COVID-19. Now, they had to beg for help.
“This is real,” said Dr. Kelly Cawcutt, associate medical director of infection control and epidemiology at Nebraska Medicine. “This is absolutely happening in our hospitals. We’re not crying wolf. The wolf is in the house.”
Thanks for reading and for supporting us in 2020. We look forward to continue asking deep questions and searching for answers in the muddle of information to offer valuable perspectives on this city we all cherish.