The exterior of the Nebraska State Capitol building on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.
Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican gave the State of the Judiciary Address on Jan 21. Photo by Camryn Preston, Nebraska News Service.

By Luna Stephens and Madeleine Grant

One Nebraska state senator is calling for legislative reform to address the racial injustice Lincoln community members testified about at a June 9 legislative forum.

“It’s been some of the most compelling testimony in my six years in the Legislature,” Sen. Adam Morfeld, who represents Lincoln, said. “I’m committed to introducing legislation next session to address some of these systemic issues that should have been addressed long, long ago.”

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee held a listening session in Omaha on June 8 and one in Lincoln on June 9 to let residents talk directly to senators about policing and racial equity following two high-profile deaths of black men.

Two weeks ago, 45-year-old George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. The killing led to protests around the country, including Lincoln and Omaha. During one protest on May 30 in Omaha, 22-year-old James Scurlock was shot and killed by a white bar owner in the Old Market. A grand jury is investigating Scurlock’s death.

During Lincoln’s forum at the NET headquarters, the eight senators on the Judiciary Committee listened to about 50 testifiers. More than 100 people spoke Monday at the Omaha forum.

Some speakers shared their support for police reforms such as those advocated by Campaign Zero, while others advocated defunding the police and turning to alternative methods of public safety.

Campaign Zero, a nationwide collaboration between activists, protestors and researchers, has shared an “8 Can’t Wait” plan of immediate police reforms, which includes ending broken windows policing, more community oversight and the limiting of use of force. The group also wants more independent investigations, more body cameras and filming of the police, training, ending for-profit policing, demilitarization and fair police union contracts.

At the hearing, Kevin Anderson shared his support for introducing the “8 Can’t Wait” in Lincoln as well as diversifying police recruitment. 

“They are, in my opinion, leading the national discussion on police reform, both on a full national level and individual city level,” he said. 

Sierra Karst, a senior journalism major at UNL, said she thinks the police and the criminal justice system should be disbanded in favor of new solutions. 

“Police brutality is only a symptom of the system,” she said. 

Some speakers said they had experienced racism and questionable police tactics. 

Mar Lee has had both good and bad experiences with the police, but pointed out the aggressive use of force against people in the recent protests. Lee said while helping administer first aid at a protest, police fired rubber bullets at peaceful protests and caused injuries.

“There is a reason there is this response that has happened with police presence on the streets to peaceful protesters,” Lee said. “And adverse to the masses of people who showed up at the Capitol with fully loaded weapons to testify on a gun bill, there is an obvious and stark difference there.”

Annie Schenzel spoke on behalf of her friend Riah Person of Omaha, a disabled black person who is concerned with the lack of accessible COVID-19 testing centers available in the state as well as Gov. Pete Ricketts’ responses to the recent protests in Omaha. 

“This is not the first time Pete Ricketts has made it clear that he does not have value for disabled bodies, bodies of color or the marginalized communities that we often belong to,” Schenzel said, on behalf of Person. 

Mother Bobbi Taylor shared her fears for her own biracial children and said her 4-year-old son is already fearful of being shot by the police. 

“His innocence is gone because people in your seats have not done your job to protect our kids from that,” she told the committee.

Speakers in the afternoon emphasized the importance of supporting black communities and black-owned businesses. Seth Mock, the founder of the Midwestern African Museum of Art in Lincoln, talked about the struggles of being a black business owner. 

“Black minority businesses are being targeted with investigations,” he said. “Black men and women are fearful to start businesses and nonprofits, and it’s directly affecting the growth of black neighborhoods.”

Mock, who grew up in Omaha, requested more accountability on the state and federal level. He also called upon citizens to stand up against injustice and question those in power.

“I am a voice speaking on behalf of many,” he said. “My accent might be different, my skin color may be black, but my life does matter and my voice does matter.”