In Omaha, Protesters Vow To Keep Pushing For Systemic Policing Changes Omaha, Neb., community organizer Morgann Freeman believes this year's election is still the best place to affect change.

In Omaha, Protesters Vow To Keep Pushing For Systemic Policing Changes

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The country has seen more than two weeks of large protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, so we've been asking protest leaders around the country what they want to happen next. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Omaha, Neb.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Twenty-nine-year-old Morgann Freeman's (ph) right eye is still alarming to look at - blotched, bright red, a hemorrhage from exposure to tear gas. She's come back to the scene of where protests over the police killing of George Floyd turned violent in her hometown.

MORGANN FREEMAN: When the warning shots were fired, I was standing right where that grate is.

SIEGLER: Freeman points down the block to the Hive Bar, where the owner, a white man named Jake Gardner, shot and killed a 22-year-old black man, James Scurlock, during a scuffle that eyewitnesses said was racially charged. Community organizer and protest leader Morgann Freeman is shattered.

FREEMAN: I believe my whole purpose in life is to try to protect our people. And not one block away, a young black man was literally murdered.

SIEGLER: The local district attorney ruled the shooting was not a murder but rather that Jake Gardner acted in self-defense, saying at one point, Scurlock had his arm around the bar owner's neck. Gardner, a veteran, had posted on Facebook that night he was going to his bar for a, quote, "military-style fire watch" as local protests were getting bigger. Morgann Freeman is still trying to process what happened. But it's clear she's also hoping all the momentum, all the people willing to come out into these streets to protest against injustice, keeps going.

FREEMAN: We have a lot of healing to do as a community, but we can't do that until minimal justice starts to - conversations about minimal justice start to happen.

SIEGLER: Police were not involved in the killing of James Scurlock. But Omaha civil rights activists point to decades of systemic racism, violence against minorities and overpolicing in the predominantly black neighborhoods north of downtown. The white bar owner has not been charged. But as the protests continued, the DA welcomed a special prosecutor, a judge appointed a longtime African American attorney. The DA acknowledged broad mistrust in the justice system. Morgann Freeman took that as an opening.

FREEMAN: I believe that in order to build a system that works for all people, you have to dismantle this system that is inherently corrupt because it is corrupt in every facet of its core.

SIEGLER: Freeman says the movement wants changes large and small in Omaha, cultural sensitivity training for police and elected officials on deescalating violence and an independent auditor to oversee the police department.

FREEMAN: I'm going to watch very carefully what happens in Minneapolis now because the city council of Minneapolis is having conversations about specifically disbanding the police force. And I want to see what that looks like. I want to see how it's implemented, and I want to see if that's a model that can work across the nation.

SIEGLER: Freeman ran for Congress last year in Nebraska's 2nd District. She was the first African American woman to ever mount such a bid in this largely conservative state where 88% of residents are white. She still thinks the ballot box is the best way for real change.

FREEMAN: Oh, that's our five year (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

SIEGLER: At north Omaha's Culture House, a center for activism in the city's black community, volunteers are organizing aid and supplies for protesters. An impromptu talk about the election breaks out. Morgann Freeman thinks there is now momentum to elect new leaders here in the city that she says will represent all of Omaha. She tells the group this moment won't fade.

FREEMAN: The difference is the whole world is with us, and the whole world is watching.

SIEGLER: As for the presidential race, the consensus at least right here appears to be a reluctant yes for Joe Biden.

FREEMAN: I have to vote for him, but because we have no other choice. But understand, this is the last time that you're going to give me a substandard candidate and tell me he's the only option.

SIEGLER: The view from a heartland city where protests are continuing, and pressure is building for something more than just incremental change.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Omaha.

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