By Chris Bowling
Across nearly six hours of testimony, through tears, shaking voices and pointed words, community members addressed the Omaha City Council on condemning policy brutality, prosecuting discrimination and extending a state of emergency in the city.
But action demanded and grievances aired by citizens went far beyond Tuesday’s agenda items.
“You guys hold the keys to our lives in this community. If we’re going to meet for George Floyd, meet for George Floyd in Minnesota,” said Malik Cotton, speaking about a resolution to recognize reckless policing killed George Floyd. “Meet here, right now, for James Scurlock. Meet here for James. Why are we not here for James?”
The gallery of masked citizens erupted in applause at the name of the 22-year-old who died Saturday night during a downtown protest after a bar owner there shot him. On Monday the Douglas County Attorney deemed the shooter, Jake Gardner, was justified in his actions because he feared for his life.
In testimony for the resolution to recognize and grieve Floyd’s death, which passed unanimously, citizens expressed frustration over the state of race relations in Omaha and questioned where the city, its citizens and leaders, should go from here.
For Tamika Mease, the proximity of the Scurlock’s killing to where a white mob lynched Willie Brown a little more than a century ago, was a coincidence too striking.
“It’s a reminder, and it’s like it’s happening all over again. And we’re tired,” said Tamika Mease. “We’re tired and we’re frustrated, and we are demanding change. We’re willing to work together. Be willing to work with us. But change has to come.”
Tamika Mease addresses the Omaha City Council on June 2, 2020.
Councilman Ben Gray, of District 1, said he knows the resolution, which he introduced is not enough. He introduced the resolution so the city can respond to the violence many witnessed as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. But Gray also brought forth the issue to hear the community speak.
Conversations like these, and additional initiatives Gray said are incoming—from city and county government as well as at least eight CEO’s he’s spoken to—are small steps to accomplish that.
“Have we done enough, absolutely not,” Gray said. “Do we need to do more, absolutely. But in this particular instance what we need to do is stay focused on what’s ahead of us. and what’s ahead of us is the tremendous work of addressing institutional racism.”
One person was scheduled to speak in opposition to the resolution but did not appear when called by the city council.
The council also voted 5-1 to extend the city’s state of emergency for another week. Mayor Jean Stothert enacted the state of emergency on May 31. Deputy Chief of Police Greg Gonzalez said this will give the city flexibility in a time where it’s still seeing unrest. Stothert’s Chief of Staff Marty Bilek said this will allow the city to return to normal faster.
But others said the extension sends a bad message.
“We don’t want to get back to normal, that’s not what we’re trying to do,” said Scott Williams who said extending the state of emergency extension would only antagonize people further. “That’s what I mean when I say this decision is tone deaf.”
Adam Sipple, legal director for the ACLU of Nebraska, also opposed the bill saying the extension is dangerous as it would ban gatherings of more than 25 people and diminish people’s First Amendment rights.
City Councilmember Ben Gray, of District 2, addresses citizens on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.
Councilmembers voiced concerns about extending the state of emergency without knowing the details of the Mayor’s plan. Bilek said there would not be a 25-person limit on gatherings but did not say what the new limit would be. City Councilmember Festersen said there was a communication breakdown when the first state of emergency was enacted and asked that the Mayor’s office be more transparent moving forward.
Councilmember Chris Jerram, of District 3, the sole dissenting vote, said extending the order poses risks to right to free speech and peaceful assembly, “risking the deterioration of all other rights.” Jerram also said he worries this will send the wrong message and could escalate a confrontational tone that may lead to violence.
“I assume we want to get our city into healing mode as quickly as we can,” Jerram said, “and authorizing a whole nother week without knowing what this would look like is too concerning.”
Others who spoke Tuesday, criticized the Douglas County Attorney’s investigation into the death of Scurlock. County Attorney Don Kleine said his office had a consensus that Jake Gardner, who owned two downtown bars until recently, was justified in shooting and killing Scurlock because he was in fear of his life. Gardner had an expired concealed carry license for his gun. Minutes before the incident that ended his life, Scurlock and others had caused property damage, although Kleine said that was immaterial to the case.
Kleine showed two pieces of video evidence that made up the bulk of their investigation, the results of which they announced Monday afternoon less than two days after the crime. Their evidence did not show Gardner using racial slurs or antagonizing anyone, as had been suggested on social media. Kleine and other officials have asked for people to send them more evidence if they have it.
Mekhi Mitchell addresses the Omaha City Council on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.
David Mitchell said he went live on Facebook yesterday and asked his more than 2,000 viewers to send him what videos and other evidence they had relating to the crime. His inbox flooded, he said.
“Are you telling me Facebook works harder than the county attorney?” Mitchell asked. “Are you serious?”
Scurlock’s family and their attorney, State Sen. Justin Wayne, are seeking a grand jury investigation. An online petition has gathered more than 40,000 signatures in under a day while a memorial fund for Scurlock’s family almost $170,000 at this time.
Many others spoke out about law enforcement and the National Guard using tear gas, flash bangs, pepper bullets and other crowd control techniques on protesters. Many said protests have been peaceful until police showed up. Some protesters have thrown items like water bottles and eggs at officers as well as destroying property at 72nd and Dodge streets and downtown, but people say that pales in comparison to what they’ve seen the past few nights.
“Does violence mean the destruction of property? I don’t believe so,” said William Kay. “I think violence means the destruction of human bodies and human lives. The value of a human life could never compare to the value of property.”
Many also lobbied criticism at members of the city council. Some said they need to attend the protests and stay until after curfew to see what happens. Others said they need to get serious about change or resign for other people who want to do their job.
Similar sentiment spilled over into testimony on a separate resolution to establish a Hate Intimidation offense. The ordinance would make hate crimes enforceable by both state law and municipal code as well as increasing the inclusivity of a hate crime’s definition. The ordinance started taking form in late 2019 when city officials saw Charleston, South Carolina pass similar legislation. Stothert, Chief of Police Todd Schmaderer and Franklin Thompson, the city’s director of human rights and relations, signed on to this draft of the ordinance on May 13 of this year.
The ordinance received support on Tuesday from both, Anthony Connor, head of the Omaha Police Officers Association, and Gonzalez called the ordinance “trailblazing.”
Pierce Carpenter opposed the ordinance saying there’s no need for the law and that it steps on people’s first amendment rights. Others said the ordinance is symbolic and lacks the specificity to actually prosecute hate crimes.
Malik Cotton addresses the Omaha City Council on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.
In support of the ordinance people shared stories of discrimination they’ve faced based on race and gender identity. However, many said this is only a small step in fixing systemic issues that have disadvantaged marginalized communities in receiving justice.
Other testimony took aim at comments made by Stothert and Gov. Pete Ricketts. Citizens said they didn’t want to return to the way things were before protests erupted last weekend, as Stothert suggested in a Monday press conference. Ricketts also caused controversy when he used the phrase “My problem with you people,” in a meeting with black community leaders on Monday. He has since apologized, saying he chose his words poorly.
Above every testimony and pointed statement, though, was the question: Why are we here? Older people asked why it feels like thing haven’t changed since crimes like the 1919 lynching of Willie Brown that occured blocks from where Scurlock died. Young people shared stories of their times they’ve experienced racism and asked what they need to do to fix these problems. A parent of 4-year-old black boy expressed fear for the world their children will grow up in.
Councilman Ben Gray said there’s no question this city and society must address racism that affects people of color. There’s no question progress has been made, but the death of Floyd, Scurlock and others, as well as the incendiary reaction that’s taken place nationwide, shows those roots go deep.
“People talk about how far we’ve come,” he said. “But we have a long way to go.”