By Chris Bowling
The overgrown weeds wave in the summer breeze as cars pass worn stoops and handrails that lead to nowhere.
Years ago, in the empty lots of patchy grass along North 24th Street, there would have been homes and businesses in the predominantly Black area of Omaha. Maybe kids would be playing in their front yards as the June heat finally broke into a cool, cloudless day.
Precious McKesson has walked these blocks since she was a kid. For her and others here, this street is a physical reminder of when protesters set fire to those buildings more than 50 years ago after a teenage girl was shot in the back of the head by Omaha police. Now the still-empty lots serve as a metaphor for the static nature of poverty, lack of investment and inability for old wounds to heal.
“You go to Midtown and it’s like a whole new world,” said McKesson, president of the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance. “Everything is being built up around North Omaha, and North Omaha still looks the same. That’s the hard part.”
The North Omaha community has always thrived despite these adverse conditions, the vibrancy reflected in the strength of its families, its growing advocacy and too often in the success of the native Omahans who left to seek opportunities elsewhere. While meaningful work’s been underway for decades to bring investment and close gaps in inequities for Black Omahans across the city, McKesson and others say real change now feels closer than ever.
After weeks of protests that started in Minneapolis with the death of George Floyd and spread like a shockwave throughout America, conversations about the country’s racial inequities have brought people together in a way that has few precedents. A revitalized North Omaha, better educational outcomes, good jobs, equitable health care and affordable housing all seem within reach, or at least more possible than they’ve been in the past.
But opinions on how to get there vary.
For some, this moment should be a wake-up call. The systems that govern minority communities in America are not only fundamentally racist but have made little progress after years of supposed big wins in civil rights. Some say this is the last chance for systems to change before oppressed communities separate and create their own structures.
“There are no other solutions that are peaceful outside of these solutions,” said Leo Louis, president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. “When these solutions don’t work the peace will break.”
For others, those ideas — defunding the police, creating independent systems that would care for people’s health and education — come from a place of emotion, not pragmatism. Change takes hard work, money and working within power structures in order to dismantle them, said Ben Gray, the Omaha City Councilmember representing District 2 in North Omaha. The speed and efficiency by which that takes place is entirely dependent on the engagement of white people who make up most local government positions and represent more than three quarters of Omaha’s population, Gray said.
“All of that is emotional talk right now,” Gray said. “The real conversation is going to begin after the emotion dies down and we’re faced with the reality that we have a structural system that is detrimental to everybody in this community and it needs to be fixed.”
Still others are caught between the two sides. For them, this is a moment that can’t be another step in a long march toward justice. It should be a leap. Big changes can happen; they might just require trying a different tactic and not letting up on the pressure, said Ja Keen Fox, advocacy chair for the Urban League of Nebraska’s Young Professionals and program officer for the Weitz Family Foundation.
“Our opposition is investing every resource — monetary, social, capital, everything they can, time — to make sure we go back to what they were comfortable with,” Fox said. “If we can’t match that, we can’t win.”
No Turning Back
After the first weekend of protests in Omaha and the death of 22-year-old James Scurlock, city leaders spoke about having made great strides in community-police relations. They pined for a return to normalcy.
“I know every citizen in Omaha would like to see us get back to normal,” said Mayor Jean Stothert at a May 31 press conference, but “this is going to take some extraordinary measures.”
But citizens at listening sessions and city council meetings, on social media and the front lines of protests said a return to normal was exactly what they didn’t want.
At one Omaha City Council meeting, Gray said citizens were right to call for more change, but he asked them to not forget progress the city’s made.
By investing in efforts such as the Step-Up Omaha! summer jobs program, the founding of the Omaha Municipal Land Bank and the recent creation of a business improvement district for North 24th Street (as well as projects through Community Development Block Grants, which totaled nearly $3 million in spending during 2018), the numbers have improved in North Omaha.
Omaha City Councilmember Ben Gray at a June 2 meeting.
At its State of North Omaha meeting in January, officials with the Empowerment Network showed that rates of unemployment and poverty among African Americans in Omaha had fallen by greater proportions than other demographics since 2006. Meanwhile, high school graduation rates and the percentage of households with bachelor’s degrees increased.
These are signs that the current process is working. Unfortunately, change is measured in small increments over decades of time, Gray said.
“This is not going to be a sprint,” he said. “It’s going to be a long-term marathon.”
But that doesn’t mean advocates should stop pushing new ideas. Gray is currently working to pass a resolution calling on the Nebraska Legislature to put repeal of the 2008 constitutional amendment banning affirmative action on the ballot. Gray said creating more diversity in every facet of the city — government, schools, companies, nonprofits — is the best first step to take. But to make sure these institutions are held to strict standards about representation from entry level to the topmost positions, the city needs affirmative action as a tool. Without it there’s very little they can do.
“Huge. Huge. Huge,” said Gray. “It’s a huge barrier.”
As more ideas surface, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers said he’s confident these issues will have more sustained attention than ever before. Recently, 150 corporate leaders signed on to an Omaha Chamber of Commerce statement promising to hire more people of color and use their platforms to push for racial justice.
“There’s some people that I know, personally trust, know they’re in the game for the long haul,” said Rodgers. “But for the people that are here now, you need to understand this is bigger than George Floyd.”
Neither public official, each of whom is the only person of color on their respective legislative bodies, supports defunding the police — a term that’s gained popularity and means to slowly move funds from police to resources such as social work and health care.
Thomas Warren, president and CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska and former chief of the Omaha Police Department, also asked people to not forget the progress made by organizations such as the Urban League.
Warren also said credit is due to the Omaha Police Department, which is nationally accredited and has made significant progress in reducing gun violence in the last five years. To defund the police and shake up the systems the Urban League and other organizations have built up could set the community back significantly, he said.
But he also understands there are new voices at the table that need to be heard.
“We tend to assume that even the voice from the African American and North Omaha community is monolithic,” Warren said. “There are multiple voices, and I think what you’re seeing is a new generation of leaders emerge.”
But others say big changes are the best options they have. To do anything else will perpetuate a submissive relationship between oppressed communities and the systems that disservice them, Louis said.
“If the system doesn’t get it right,” he said, “then it needs to be dismantled, destroyed or completely ignored.”
What that will look like is unpredictable, said Fox. He doesn’t think it’s possible to work with a system that’s fundamentally flawed, but it’s also not possible to work outside of it either. The goal is to continue to add pressure and get concrete changes achieved.
It also means “staying in your own lane,” meaning to work together with others, focusing efforts into a greater mosaic of activism rather than trying and failing to accomplish too much.
That’s what’s taking place at Culxr House in North Omaha, a vintage clothing and vinyl record shop that has become many organizers’ command center.
For Fox, change right now means the resignation of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine. Since Kleine announced his office would not press charges against Jake Gardner in the death of Scurlock, Fox has organized hundreds of protesters outside Kleine’s home. Every weekday, they gather from 6 to 8 a.m. and again from 4 to 8 p.m. On weekends, they’re there all day.
At first, Kleine’s neighbors supported their cause, but lately they’ve started telling the protesters to be quiet and go home. They want to sit on their patios in peace again.
“Why don’t we get over it?” Fox said neighbors ask protesters. “‘Why do we have to yell?’ ‘We teach our kids not to yell to solve problems.’ There’s a real disconnect between what people are actually experiencing, which is more than just discomfort. Discrimination, violence, racism. These things are comparable in their minds. It’s scary.”
What many people are focused on is getting a larger conversation started around defunding the police. Already, several cities have either pledged to disband their police departments or announced significant cuts in police spending. Omaha has made no such move. But Terrell McKinney, who’s running for the state senate seat in North Omaha’s District 11 and has made frequent appearances at protests, said cutting the Omaha Police Department’s $159 million budget, which vastly exceeds most other departments’ (the city spends about $22 million on parks, $21 million on public works), is a great idea, but he’s skeptical of whether the city would be able to go that far.
McKinney also stands in the center of conversations around abolition versus reform of systems. As someone running for the state legislature, he recognizes the abilities he could have to advocate for legislation such as bans on chokeholds and making officer discipline records more available. But he also believes this moment needs to mark an acceleration or a change in tactics from the way things have been done, and that means being just as open to reforming the systems as dismantling them and starting anew.
“Voting can be the change maker, but it also requires electing the right people,” McKinney said. “You can’t just keep electing the status quo because you feel comfortable … You have to elect people who will really push for change.”
Solutions from the Ground Up
Walter Brooks has seen America through a variety of lenses. He’s a Black man and a product of the civil rights movement, a Vietnam veteran and soon-to-be author comparing the plight of African Americans to Jewish people during the holocaust. Until last year, he lived in Omaha where he promoted diversity as a communications specialist in numerous public and private spaces, including as a former administrative director at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. He now lives in North Carolina.
Brooks said this is a reckoning moment in American history, but he hopes the frustration and anger around inequity go far beyond the police into education, housing, health care and more.
“We don’t get this pissed off about that,” Brooks said.
While the national and local conversation has centered around police brutality, there is heightened focus on many of the social ills that have plagued minority communities for too long.
Part of that has to do with COVID-19, which has highlighted the fact more people of color are catching and dying of the disease due to reasons such as inadequate access to health care, living in densely populated areas, working in low-wage service jobs without sick pay or the ability to work from home. The disparities also showed in jobless rates, evictions and the potential for more mental health issues.
Teresa Hunter, executive director at Family Housing Advisory Services, said she hopes the current reckoning raises more awareness about housing inequity and the need to invest in education about paths to housing stability, homeownership or economic independence.
At her organization, which serves about 9,000 mid- to low-income people per year, they help people work toward addressing their debts, building wealth and eventually improving their living situations.
While homeownership has fallen citywide, it’s struck particularly hard in minority communities. She wonders whether the city can make more opportunities available to people by, for example, reinstituting $1 houses — a method of revitalization still practiced in many states in which federally acquired properties are sold to people for a low payment with the assumption the homebuyer will use their own money to fix it.
The government could also work to get rid of payday lenders. Those institutions charge high rates to people who may not have access to traditional banks and end up putting a disproportionate number of people of color and poverty in high debt.
“If they’re really wanting to make a difference, there needs to be funds that are made available to help people get out of the situations they’re in financially,” Hunter said.
More financial investment also needs to be made in physically building up the community, McKesson said. As it stands, building homes in North Omaha is rarely a profitable venture for individuals.
Mike Gawley, with Holy Name Housing Corporation, which builds new homes and rents them to families for low payments said on average their homes are valued at $100,000 less than they are paid to build them.
Each house is a big investment, both in the lives of the families who live there but also in the grander scheme of improving North Omaha — bringing more people will lead to more resources such as grocery stores and eventually rising property values. But that’s a slow process and one that rarely meets the community’s needs. Gawley said their current list is still filled with names added two years ago.
A lot of investment has come into North Omaha in recent years. Seventy Five North has spent millions building mixed-income housing and chic spaces for coffee shops, restaurants and community meeting spaces.
But that still pales in comparison to how much is spent in other sections of the city. Between 2000 and 2016, projects in Aksarben and Midtown each outpaced spending in North Omaha by about $20 million in tax increment financing.
When private dollars do come to the area, they often generate anxieties about outside influence. The Sherwood Foundation, a main philanthropic arm for Susie Buffett, recently bought up $4 million worth of properties in North Omaha with little indication of its plans, according to the Omaha World Herald.
McKesson, who serves on the city’s land bank, said there needs to be a more transparent process for purchases like that.
Still, it baffles McKesson that the area can’t get more attention from a city that has one of the highest rates of per-capita billionaires and where the wealthy routinely invest back into the community. In a matter of days, donors pledged $700,000 to open five public pools for a little more than a month, from July 1 to August 9. The hurdles in North Omaha are more dire than getting kids swimming — let’s not forget we are in a pandemic — and it’s hard not to question the priorities.
“There’s people in the community who don’t have food, who don’t have quality housing,” McKesson said. “Why couldn’t we put that money into saying, let’s look at these lots, let’s build some homes. Let’s put this money toward helping people.”
Who Decides When Change Comes?
The June heat broke in Omaha right around the time the bulk of protests started to wind down. Suddenly with time to reflect, it became apparent just how much had happened in the past few weeks.
A young man died. A city rose up. Hundreds of people were tear gassed and shot with pepper bullets by officers sworn to protect them. A business tied to racist online remarks shut down as protests convened outside of it. Mayor Stothert got a COVID-19 test after a protester spat on her.
Nationwide, the raw emotion is having a noticeable effect. Marks of racism around the country, from confederate monuments to Aunt Jemima pancakes, are toppling, while leaders across the nation propose police reform bills.
But as the work looks past policing and toward the issue of poverty, a diversity of opinions has surfaced about what needs to change and how quickly that can be done.
There’s also no shortage of positivity about the future. It comes in some officials’ hopes that white Omaha will finally stand behind their minority neighbors to change the city’s structures or other activists’ excitement that communities can break free and harken a new era of self-sustainability.
But Gray’s not optimistic. He’s also not pessimistic, though.
He’s just cautious.
He said he thought the world would change in the ‘60s, and it didn’t. As a reporter for KETV, the native Clevelander chronicled the city’s inequities for decades before entering the city council and watching how slow change could happen.
Time and again, Gray said, the greatest obstacle has been a lack of attention and commitment from the larger community. The difference-maker this time could be how long people keep this issue at the forefront of their mind.
If that happens, the gears can start to churn, he said. If it fades, so will the prospects for change.
“I’m committed to doing it tomorrow, I’m committed to making a change tomorrow. But it’s not up to me. It’s primarily up to people who don’t look like me. So the question is, ‘What is your commitment?’”