Communities of Greater Omaha Say “No More” at Solidarity Rally
Today, I marched. On this historic day in Omaha, Nebraska I marched for someone other than myself. As an educator and writer, I marched because I understand. I understand because I know what it is to struggle, yet throughout my own struggle I have never had to be Black in America. I have never had to fear for my safety being stripped from me by a police officer at any moment, day or night.
I marched for the destruction of cornerstone institutions in this country that were built to exclusively perpetuate the privileged, further enrich the wealthy, and defend the aggressors. I marched to resist the structural tide of hate and greed that have made a mockery of emancipation for far too long. Today, I moved figuratively and symbolically in solidarity with citizens — human beings who deserve respect and dignity — against injustice.
I marched because it is no longer about opinions or politics, but rather evidence, the law, and the dream of a true representation of justice based on it’s meaning rather than it’s interpretation. Corrupt and fundamentally biased institutions have wronged us all, and if we ever hope to right those wrongs and create a sustainable and peaceful future for our children we must first do what we have never done: listen.
So I marched a mile and a half today to listen. Together, we mobilized so “that we don’t have to have the same conversation 30 years from now,” as State Senator Justin Wayne put it. Wayne, a former OPS board president was one of many to speak at Sunday’s protest, which shut down Dodge from 72nd Street to Memorial Park.
We followed Leo Louis II — the Board President of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation — east towards Memorial park as he led the group with a megaphone in chants as well as breaks and water stops. Once at Memorial Park a local preacher who goes by J. Shannon took up the mic to give shout outs to Mike Davis and Reggie Clark for providing the sound equipment that he used to host the panel of speakers to follow. Shout-outs were also given to Habitat for Humanity, and the people who donated the water bottles that were placed along the route before giving the mic to Lieutenant Sherie Thomas, who gave condolences to the family before speaking from the perspective of the police department that tear gassed peaceful protestors one week ago.
“My heart grieves,” she said in an emotional address to the people she’s sworn to protect, “we need to unite.” Lieutenant Thomas stressed the importance of staying connected by building relationships throughout and between communities. “We know that people are hurting,” she went on after holding back tears, before praising the “peaceful” nature of protests that we all want to see. She called for people to turn over evidence from James Surlock’s death, some of which can be found on Twitter, and then stressed the collaboration necessary between communities and the police. “Do better, be better, and let’s keep going,” she said to conclude a speech that will hopefully breathe some unity into a community once again torn by racial violence.
While the mic was being passed back to J. Shannon, Kendrick Lamar’s unifying anthem “Alright” from the 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly played for a brief moment the energy of the crowd seemed to pause, perhaps in anticipation for the iconic words of the hook of the song that never came. People laughed off the poorly timed transition before returning their attention back to the podium that was not being used. The message was far too important, it seems, as the speakers and leaders of today’s march chose not to stand dignified behind a podium, but rather defiant, on top of the concrete edge of the Memorial structure.
J. Shannon, after enjoying the moment of humor, announced another round of shoutouts for Omaha Metro, who helped bus protestors back to 72nd and Dodge, apparently completing their goal of bussing both sides of the picket line. J. Shannon also gave credit where due to the folks at Parks and Recreation, who had to break their own rules to allow the permit to use the park.
“It’s about bringing attention to action,” Shannon said of the disruptive nature of protests, to bring “the collective love thats in this park right now” to fruition. He followed by touching on his personal stake in the movement: the murder of his own son on March 23, 2007. Emotions were flowing throughout the crowd as the father and namesake of the slain 22 year old took up the mic.
“Y’all got our family to the Supreme Court,” he said. Surlock spoke about wanting the “example of peace” exhibited by those in attendance to continue.
The host then introduced community and political activist and author Preston Love Jr., who just yesterday addressed the “pandemic of racism” in an Omaha World Herald column.
Then spoke State Senator Justin Wayne, who gave a fiery speech were he demanded “No more.” But not before praising the Surlock family, who in the midst of losing a loved one, where one could turn to anger and resentment, but who, within 36 hours, stood up “before cameras and the world, and had to ask for two things. He had to put down his emotion, he and his family had to gather themselves collectively…and ask for two things from this community: no violence, and justice for James.”
It was Wayne who put into context what this movement means. He began by explaining the significance of June 7th as a historical date. He cited the Pennsylvania Assembly ban an the importation of slaves in 1712, Richard Henry Lee’s proposal for independence in 1776 that would lay the foundation for the Declaration of Independence, the codification of segregation that occurred when Homer Plessy (described as 7/8ths white) challenged segregation of trains in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court as Plessy v. Ferguson, and the lynching in Jasper, TX that spurred the passage of a Texas hate-crime law.
Wayne went on to describe and condemn the “two Omahas” and their “systems that have let down this family so many times.” He called for addressing the roots of the problem rather than the symptoms, explaining that we need look no further than Omaha for our racial injustices and disparities. He called for an end to “biases in criminal justice” and fully funded education systems, to “secure mental health beds so we aren’t building prisons tomorrow.” He addressed the injustice and disservice to democracy that comes with criminalizing the possession of marijuana and disallowing felons to vote and work in the community. He called for the expansion of Medicaid to eliminate “health disparities” that adversely affect communities of color. “No more missing Native American and Black children, no more achievement gap, and no more officials ignoring their duties.”
Wayne continued to dismantle the systemic disparities and contradictions of our time by addressing what we can do, as the nearly 67% of white Omaha residents for the benefit of the minority groups. This is a man that understands how to root out a problem, rather than deal with the numerous symptoms, to “be proactive not reactive.”
To us, his white allies, he simply asked: “Are you comfortable with being uncomfortable? Are you willing to give up your seat? When have you hired black and brown contractors and businesses?”
Because when it comes right down to it, it’s money that makes change, and the privileged in this country have had hundreds of years to hoard it. So he continued, by asking where you keep your money, is your banking institution being fair and honest with their loaning practices? If not, you might need to move your money.”
“No more party politics, no more North Omaha, no more South Omaha, no more West Omaha, no more East Omaha. One Omaha, one voice, one move. Change demands resilience, persistence, and resistance,” he concluded, “this is no time for complacency.”
Before the end of the event, J. Shannon made sure to introduce the leaders and organizers of the movement. Their names are: Precious McKesson, Leo Louis, Larry Duncan, Jasmine Harris, Terrell McKinney, and David Brown.
To close out Will Thomas sang “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. As his voice rang out, it was tough not to feel that false sense of progress, the kind where it seems like you’re winning because you’ve already defied the odds. However, the world since Sam Cooke’s 1963 hit grows from the same roots that we now stand against.
The reason I marched and the reason I write is to give my power, whatever that may mean, to the voices quoted and recognized here. I marched, because covering both sides of this in the natural journalistic sense is no longer objective. Ignoring the lessons of history will never be objective. Without looking through the lens of justice and “equality under the law” for all, there can be no peace; and in this state a “Good Life” without any peace doesn’t seem very good and definitely isn’t making anything great.