Omaha Protesters March for Justice

Protesters in Omaha, Nebraska, on Sunday. (Courthouse News photo/Ted Wheeler)

OMAHA, Neb. (CN) — A loud but peaceful crowd of over 1000 people Sunday marched from Crossroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, where the city’s most intense protests originated a week ago, to a nearby park to protest police violence and mourn the death of James Scurlock, a 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a white business owner during unrest last weekend.

“There are times when it seems there’s nothing we can do,” said Jilaya Dailey, an Omaha native who participated in the march to show solidarity. “Today we will show the city, state and nation that it’s time for a change to come as far as injustices done to black men and women. I have a black husband, son, grandson. I don’t want them to be the next hashtag.” 

As the march was led up the city’s busiest street by Leo Louis, board president of the Malcolm X Foundation, the group chanted “the people united will never be defeated” and “justice for James.”

Louis stopped every couple blocks to address the crowd over a bullhorn. “We are tired,” Louis said. “Physically, spiritually, literally. We are tired of having these over and over again. We are tired of having this conversation over and over again. Who’s ready for change?”

Despite a heat index that approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and continuing threats from the spread of Covid-19, a group of more than 1000 people made the 1.5-mile march uphill and rallied in Memorial Park. Almost every marcher wore a mask, as free masks were available for those who lacked their own. Bottles of water were also made available along the route.

“We want to show unity in the community and show we can unite, no matter who we are,” organizer Precious McKesson said. She added that safety and maintaining the peace were a big part of the organizers’ goals.

The demonstration was coordinated with local police and the city parks department to ensure the route was blocked to traffic and the gathering was legal at a time when no park rentals are being granted due to concerns with the pandemic. 

Organizers, the Scurlock family, police and city officials saw this particular gathering as necessary.

“This event closes out another weekend of protests to show that we are all ready to move in the right direction to create systemic and systematic change in the greater Omaha area,” Jasmine Harris, a community advocate and one of the organizers said.

At the rally, the speakers included James Scurlock II, the father of the slain young man; Justin Wayne, an attorney representing the Scurlock family; and Lt. Sherie Thomas of the Omaha Police Department.

Thomas, a black woman, choked up when she told the crowd that her heart grieves because of everything that has happened. “We see you. We hear you. We know that people are hurting,” she said.

When Scurlock took the mic, everyone in the crowd took a knee to honor his son.

“I want you to continue this, continue it like we started it,” he said. “You all got us the grand jury. The wheels of justice just started.”

Wayne mentioned in his remarks that a petition to compel the creation of a grand jury to investigate the killing of James Scurlock gathered 50,000 signatures in two days. Donald Kleine, the county attorney who initially declined to press charges against Scurlock’s killer, ceded to public outrage later in the week and said he would request a special prosecutor be appointed to present the case to a grand jury.

A memorial for James Scurlock in Omaha, Nebraska. (Courthouse News photo/Ted Wheeler)

“True justice for James means we don’t have to have the same conversation 30 years from now,” Wayne said. “Omaha and the rest of the world is coming together with one simple message: ‘No more.’ We can talk about Eric Garner, but we don’t have to look any farther than Omaha to say, ‘no more.’”

This is the ninth day of protests in Omaha. The protests began, as they did across the country and world, to object to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The protests in the city have also focused on the 2017 killing of a mentally ill Native American man, Zachary Bearheels, who died after being repeatedly shocked and punched while in police custody.

Demonstrations intensified and refocused over the week after the death of the younger Scurlock and the announcement that no charges would be levied against his killer. Early in the week, on the same day the decision was announced, passions were stoked further as reports emerged that Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican, heatedly used the phrase “you people” when addressing community leaders from north Omaha’s traditionally black neighborhoods. Ricketts apologized for the remark.

The most intense demonstrations in Omaha occurred last weekend. On May 29, peaceful demonstrations near Crossroads Mall turned violent when police officers in riot gear attempted to remove protesters with a combination of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

Protesters who returned the next night were met with swifter police action, then turned their focus downtown to police headquarters, two courthouse buildings and the city’s Old Market entertainment district. A mix of protesters and belligerents sparred with police into the morning hours that Saturday, as many watched the events unfold via livestream feeds on social media platforms.

The windows of numerous buildings were shattered and tagged with anti-police graffiti. 

It was also on Saturday, just before midnight, when James Scurlock was shot and died in the Old Market.

Scurlock and several others came into conflict with Jake Gardner, a nightclub owner, and Gardner’s father. According to surveillance video and various recordings posted to Twitter shortly after the shooting, a scuffle ensued after Gardner and his father attempted to remove a group of young men from the sidewalk. Gardner fell onto the street and fired what the county attorney termed as “warning shots” before he was tackled by Scurlock. After shouting to be let free, Gardner shot over his shoulder and fatally wounded Scurlock.

On Monday, Kleine called the killing “senseless but justified” when he declined to press charges against Gardner. Although Nebraska does not have a Stand Your Ground law, Kleine determined that Gardner was justified in acting to defend himself, as he believed his life was in danger. Scurlock was unarmed.

On Sunday, Vickie Young, president of Omaha NAACP, called for the demands for justice to grow.

“African-Americans are battling two pandemics at once, the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the infiltration of racism in our communities,” Young said. “In order to advance as a society, we must unite around the outrage we feel and fight for the justice we demand. Now is the time to stand up and speak out as we guide our city and our nation to the right side of justice.”

Others at the demonstration expressed optimism that the Black Lives Matter movement will succeed.

“I’ve seen so much turning out,” said Shawntelle Smith, a native Omahan who has participated in protests all week. “It’s ridiculous that we’re here again. But I’m optimistic after seeing the turnout at peaceful protests.”

Meanwhile, a young man named Marcus said he is looking for real change and not more talk.

“I’m hopeful things will change, but still skeptical,” he said. “Time will tell.”

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