Twenty-nine-old Morgann Freeman’s right eye is still alarming to look at. It’s blotched bright red after 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, Omaha, Neb.
“When the warning shots were fired, I was standing right where that grate is,” she says, pointing down the block toward the now permanently shuttered Hive Bar.
Late on the night of May 30, as protests in the city’s Old Market District heated up, the owner of the bar, 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.
As a protest leader and community organizer in Omaha, Freeman is shattered.
“I believe my whole purpose in life is to try to protect our people,” she says. “Not one block away a young black man in support of our movement was literally murdered.”
The local district attorney ruled the shooting was self-defense, not murder, saying at one point Scurlock had his arm around the bar owner’s neck. Eyewitness video that’s surfaced so far is inconclusive, though it does appear that at one point Scurlock had Gardner pinned to the ground.
Gardner, a veteran, had posted on Facebook that night he was going to his bar for a “military style fire watch,” as local protests were getting bigger. Gardner’s concealed carry permit was also expired, and he’s since been evicted from the building where he owned two bars.
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.
“We have a lot of healing to do as a community,” she says. “But we can’t do that until conversations about minimal justice start to happen.”
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 over-policing in the predominantly black neighborhoods north of downtown.
The bar owner has so far not been charged. But as the protests continued, Douglas County District Attorney Don Kleine welcomed a special prosecutor to take a further look at the case. A judge African-American attorney Frederick Franklin. The local DA cited broad mistrust in the justice system in agreeing to call for a grand jury in the case.
Freeman took that as an opening.
“I believe that in order to build a system that works for all people you have to dismantle the system that is inherently corrupt,” she says.
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, among other demands. She’s also watching what happens next in nearby Minneapolis as that city begins a debate on disbanding its police force.
“I want to see what that looks like, how it’s implemented,” Freeman says. “I want to see if that’s the model that can work across the nation.”
Freeman ran for Congress last year in Nebraska’s second 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.
One morning at North Omaha’s Culxr House, a center for arts and activism in the city’s black community, volunteers were organizing aid and supplies for protesters.
An impromptu talk about the election broke out.
Freeman said she thinks that in light of recent local and nationwide protests, there is finally momentum to elect new leaders in the city that she says will represent all of Omaha.
As for the presidential race, the consensus here appeared to be a reluctant “yes” for former Vice President Joe Biden.
“We have no other choice,” Freeman says. “But understand this is the last time that you’re going to give me a substandard candidate and tell me that he’s the only option.”
She then assured the small group of activists perched on stools and chairs that unlike after Ferguson or the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, this moment isn’t going to fade.
“The difference is the whole world is with us and the whole world is watching,” Freeman says.