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‘What about James?’ Killing of black protester fuels more anger in Omaha

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/3/2020 Annie Gowen

a group of people on a stage: Omaha police mounted patrol officers are silhouetted in tear gas as they approach protesters at 72nd and Dodge Streets on May 29. © Chris Machian/AP Omaha police mounted patrol officers are silhouetted in tear gas as they approach protesters at 72nd and Dodge Streets on May 29. OMAHA —Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) on Tuesday apologized for calling black leaders "you people" as fallout from the killing of a black protester by a white bar owner in Omaha this week continued to fuel protesters' anger over racial injustices.

On Monday, armored vehicles flanked the Douglas County courthouse in Omaha as County Attorney Don Kleine announced that he would not be filing charges against a white bar owner, Jacob “Jake” Gardner, who allegedly shot and killed 22-year-old protester James Scurlock on Saturday night during a confrontation in the city’s popular Old Market area. The pair had scuffled, Kleine said, and Gardner had acted in self-defense in what he called a “senseless, but justified” killing. 

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The county attorney’s decision not to charge Gardner added fuel to ongoing protests in this Midwestern city — and sparked discussion on its own legacy of racism. An estimated 300 protesters surged through Omaha’s streets for the another day Monday, through searing pepper spray and broken glass, with a new chant: “What about James?” More than 80 were arrested.

Gardner did not respond to requests for comment.

Throughout the day Tuesday, Ricketts was grappling with the fallout from a contentious meeting he had with local ministers and black leaders after Kleine’s announcement.

What was supposed to be a discussion about how to keep the peace deteriorated into a tense exchange that escalated when a pastor pressed the governor on public safety. Three people who were at the meeting said Ricketts became visibly angry and said: “Where the hell were you people?”

Leaders and aides prevented the governor from finishing the sentence, according to two pastors who were at the gathering. Six of the community leaders walked out.

Ricketts appeared on a radio program on the channel 95.7 The Boss — which serves Omaha’s black community — to apologize and say that he “chose his words poorly.”

“In the heat of the moment, I said things that were trigger words,” Ricketts said. “I’m learnin’. I made a mistake. I apologize.”

The governor said his administration is working to set up economic development programs to help those hit by the pandemic-induced economic crisis and has created several dozen contact-tracing jobs in economically affected areas. As with other states, covid-19 deaths have been disproportionately higher in Latino and African American communities than in white communities in Nebraska.

“I chose my words poorly, and apologized when it became apparent that I had caused offense,” Ricketts said in a statement to The Washington Post.

But leaders said the damage was done. Jarrod S. Parker, the pastor of St. Mark Baptist Church in Omaha, said that when he heard the governor’s comment it was a “gut punch.”

“People gasped. There was a collective disbelief,” Parker said. “You saw staff members hanging their heads.” He left the meeting in protest.

As in other Midwestern cities, the relationship between people of color and the police has long been fraught, black leaders said. In 1969, the shooting death of a 14-year-old girl, Vivian Strong, by a white police officer — who was later acquitted — sparked riots that scarred Omaha for generations. More recently, activists cite the death in 2017 of a mentally ill Native American man, Zachary Bearheels, as another killing in which officers used excessive force, shocking and punching the victim. Three of the four officers involved were later reinstated, and a fourth was acquitted at trial.

During protests against police violence on Saturday, Scurlock and some friends were among thousands of demonstrators who choked the streets of Omaha’s downtown. Some protesters broke windows and spray-painted buildings, in what the city’s police chief later called “one of the longest nights Omaha has ever had.”

At one point in the mayhem, Scurlock and his friends got into an argument with a local bar owner, Gardner, and his 68-year-old father, authorities said. The proprietor owns a bar called the Hive, a tribute to local-band-made-good 311.

Gardner, a former Marine, pleaded guilty to a charge of carrying a concealed weapon in 2011, and a similar charge against him was dropped in 2013 in a case in which he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, records show. 

a man wearing a suit and tie: Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine talks about the video playing on several monitors that shows the fatal shooting of James Scurlock on Saturday in Omaha. © Chris Machian/AP Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine talks about the video playing on several monitors that shows the fatal shooting of James Scurlock on Saturday in Omaha.

Kleine presented surveillance camera video at Monday’s news conference that showed Gardner and Scurlock exchange words after someone in the crowd pushed Gardner’s father. The conflict worsened, and two men ended up tussling with Gardner on the ground, during which time Gardner fired what the prosecutor called “warning shots.” Scurlock’s friends fled and Scurlock then jumped on Gardner, who shot and killed him, authorities said.

Kleine said Monday that Gardner later told police he feared for his life. The prosecutor said that while the group might have had a “heated conversation” there was never any “racial tone” to the exchange.

But witnesses told a different version of the altercation.

Derek Stephens, a local bartender who knows Gardner, was passing by shortly before the conflict became violent and said that he heard Gardner say “Kiss my white a**” and that Gardner’s father yelled the “n-word” at protesters.

“I feel like the old man instigated the incident with a racial slur,” Stephens said. 

When reached by phone, Gardner’s father, David Gardner, declined to comment, saying he wanted to consult with his attorneys first.

County authorities said that they are aware of the allegations and videos on social media that might indicate a racial element to the incident and that they are investigating.

Protesters and activists said authorities were presenting just one side of the story and had not investigated the matter fully before deciding to let Gardner go without charges. While authorities saw a white man acting in self-defense, others saw a black man bravely protecting others by jumping on a man firing a gun.

“The kid jumped on an active shooter to stop him from continuing to discharge his weapon, and they are calling his murder justified,” protester Nikki Catron wrote in a Facebook post. “In my eyes, James Scurlock was a hero.”

Protester Danielle Powell, 31, said that she felt “very jaded and defeated” after Scurlock’s death.

“It felt very much like our county attorney decided he was the judge and the jury and eyewitnesses and other evidence from specific people was not included,” she said. “They’re not listening to us. The people in office right now do not care about it.”

Yet, she said, her activism will continue: “We can’t resist momentum. We can’t have these deaths happen in vain. We need something to change.”

Alex Horton, Meryl Kornfield and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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