More than 100 community members voiced their frustrations Monday to Nebraska senators during a day-long forum about racial injustice.
The Omaha listening session came two weeks after a 45-year-old black man, George Floyd, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. The killing prompted protests around the country, including Lincoln and Omaha. The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee organized the listening sessions, which were held at the Scott Conference Center.
“I’m just furious as I listen here today, all these things that these cops have done,” Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said at the end of the hearing. “You heard the fear expressed by some of the women and the contempt expressed by some of the men.”
Starting at 9 a.m., Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha called up participants one-by-one to the microphone. Eight hours later, the last number called was 108. Chairs were spaced out, people wore face masks and the microphone was cleaned in between speakers.
“It sounds a little bit like a deli when I’m calling people up by number, and it sounds impersonal,” he said. “But, I hope you understand it’s to try to maintain some fairness in this process.”
The forum provided an opportunity for the public to speak directly to lawmakers. Their concerns ranged from mass incarceration rates to police brutality and lack of health care coverage for black Americans.
“I’m here today because I want to fight against the possibility of my son becoming a victim of police brutality and racial inequality,” said Shani Dozier, an Omaha resident who spoke in the afternoon. “It’s time to move beyond empty rhetoric.”
Like some others at the forum, Dozier wanted funds reallocated from prisons to initiatives aimed at improving black lives, such as education and housing.
Many also expressed outrage over the death of 22-year-old James Scurlock, who was killed during an Omaha protest by a white bar owner on May 30. Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine declined to press charges against the bar owner, Jake Gardner, prompting outrage from the community. He has since said he’ll call a grand jury to investigate.
Speaker Derek Stephens said he witnessed Scurlock’s murder while protesting as well as cops unleashing tear gas and pepper balls onto a peaceful crowd of protestors.
“We need police reform,” Stephens said. “I want justice for James Scurlock.”
Speakers shared stories of injustice, which began for some at a young age. Paska Juma, a 25-year-old who is from Lincoln and spoke at the hearing, said her family was homeless growing up. She could not afford to pay for transportation and therefore was constantly late to school.
“Nobody ever asked me why,” she said. “There’s nobody for us to talk to.”
Juma proposed making more services free to low-income residents, such as mental health care and peer-support networks. As someone who felt neglected by the system, Juma said she wishes she had access to more resources.
“This was my reality, and this is the reality of so many other people,” she said.
A similar forum will be held Tuesday, June 9, in Lincoln at 9 a.m. at NET, Nebraska’s PBS & NPR Headquarters, 1800 N. 33rd St. A live stream video will be posted on the NET website, netnebraska.org.