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The district attorney in Omaha, Neb., says a grand jury will take a second look at his work. The DA declined to press charges in the shooting of James Scurlock. A bar owner killed him in what he said was self-defense during a scuffle on Saturday during protests against police violence. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The DA had earlier ruled the shooting here as self-defense. In historically segregated North Omaha, indignation is turning to some hope now that it appears there will be a broader investigation into the death of James Scurlock. This neighborhood is the birthplace of Malcolm X.
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SIEGLER: Not far from his memorial center and museum is the Culxr House, a space for artists and activists. Now it's transformed into a staging area for the demonstrations.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm going to need you to be careful.
SIEGLER: Cases of bottled water and Gatorade are being unloaded, boxes of masks and rubber gloves on the floor and Michelle Troxclair, a longtime local civil rights activist, has come by for a bit of a pep talk.
MICHELLE TROXCLAIR: We've been dancing this dance for 50 years.
SIEGLER: The shooting of James Scurlock is a reminder of what Omaha's African American leaders say is a legacy of violence directed at the black community here, often, they say, by law enforcement. In 1969, Vivian Strong, a 14-year-old black girl, was shot without warning by police. It sparked three days of riots. These last six days of heated protests are a response to what Michelle Troxclair says is the country lurching backwards.
TROXCLAIR: The election of Donald Trump is a backlash and an outward assault on the perceived loss of power of white people in this country. And they are terrified. And there's nothing scarier than scared white people.
SIEGLER: The white bar owner who was in a scuffle with James Scurlock said he shot him because he feared for his life. Eyewitnesses told NPR the atmosphere in front of the bar's smashed windows leading up to the incident was racially charged. Since then, there's been an overwhelming police presence in the streets. Cops in riot gear show up following peaceful protests during the day. You can't not look at the big red hemorrhage in community organizer Morgann Freeman's right eye. She got it after tear gas caused her to fall to the street.
MORGANN FREEMAN: It looks worse than it is. But, to be frank, I am looking forward to seeing and talking to our political leadership because I want them to literally look me in the eye and see what they did.
SIEGLER: African Americans make up about 13% of Omaha's population, but people say this neighborhood has long been victim to overpolicing. Freeman ran for Congress last year, the first black woman to do so in Nebraska. She says the November elections are still the best place for change, but there is a lot of anger on the streets right now.
FREEMAN: Whether they will admit it or not, they have declared martial law on black lives and anyone that is standing in support of them.
BEN GRAY: Wow. They said that? (Laughter) OK.
SIEGLER: Ben Gray is the only black member on Omaha's City Council. In his view, the relationship between police and communities of color has actually gotten a lot better in the past few years.
GRAY: And I'm not saying that we have a perfect police department, let me say that. I know we have some officers that probably should not be on the force. But by and large, the leadership at the top reflects what happens at the bottom.
SIEGLER: Gray says the police chief has brought reforms. There is also now a weekly meeting where a racially diverse mix of cops, business owners and residents of North Omaha get together to talk. And Gray led the pressure to appoint a special prosecutor in the James Scurlock shooting. After initially resisting, the DA now welcomes independent review of his decision that it was self-defense, citing broad public mistrust in the justice system. That's definitely clear in North Omaha where I met Yashica Sanders in leafy Benson Park.
YASHICA SANDERS: And they tired of being silent. Like, people are reeling (ph) to stand up.
SIEGLER: She was getting ready for a walk with her cousin Terrell Von (ph).
TERRELL VON: You know, this nation need to be - it needs some healing. It need a good leader that can at least empathize and sympathize and, you know, talk to the people.
SIEGLER: City leaders anyway pledged to keep doing that going forward. A grand jury investigation into the death of James Scurlock likely won't happen for weeks due to delays from the coronavirus pandemic. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Omaha.
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