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More than 2,000 march to Omaha rally, taking the first steps in 'a long journey'

James Scurlock II looked out at the 2,000-plus people rallying for racial justice Sunday at Omaha’s Memorial Park and had a simple message — one that grew from his own pain:

“Continue this, continue it the way we started it, with this example of peace,” said Scurlock, whose 22-year-old son was fatally shot May 30 in Omaha during protests sparked by George Floyd’s death. “We just need this to continue. This is going to be a long journey, it’s a hurtful one for all of us.”

Omaha has seen more than a week of protests since Floyd’s death May 25, and Sunday’s crowd was the largest and most diverse yet.

The march and rally were organized on social media and called the Communities of Greater Omaha Solidarity Walk/Rally. Parents brought their children, some in strollers. People of all ages and races marched the 1.5 miles between two traditional sites of celebration and civil disobedience — from 72nd and Dodge Streets to Memorial Park. In an unusual move, Dodge Street was closed for the march and rally, which was sanctioned by police.

Leo Louis II, one of the organizers, said it was a “beautiful thing to see all the races come together.” Next, he said, comes self-reflection and education.

“People need to … understand their biases, their prejudices and look within, and then work those things out,” he said. “You don’t have to like everybody, but you have to love everyone.”

Floyd was a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd lay handcuffed on his belly on the ground.

Scurlock was fatally shot in a late-night altercation with an armed white bar owner, Jake Gardner, in Omaha’s Old Market. Someone had broken in the windows of Gardner’s bar before the confrontation, which occurred about 11 p.m. on a Saturday. The shooting was captured on video and has been ruled self-defense by Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.

Police are asking anyone with additional audio or video to come forward. Kleine has agreed to convene a grand jury to examine the evidence.

The crowd knelt on one knee as Scurlock’s father was introduced Sunday. He credited protesters for bringing about the pending grand jury.

“Me and my family love you all so, so much, ” Scurlock II said. “You all got us the grand jury, give yourselves a round of applause, don’t applaud us. You all did this.”

Justin Wayne, an attorney for the Scurlock family and a Nebraska state legislator, called on Omahans to do something about the broader issues holding people back. He said reforms are needed in health care, notably the expansion of Medicaid; the criminal justice system; corporate oversight; and banking. And people need jobs.

“Good jobs make a difference,” Wayne said.

“Omaha, here’s what we’re saying today: ‘No more’ to party politics. ‘No more’ to two Omahas. … It is time to come together as one Omaha with one voice,” Wayne said. “We can’t just come together in times of tragedy. We have to come together and stay together to make sure we are implementing changes for the long term.”

Wayne noted how an individual date, such as June 7 (Sunday), can be freighted with history given African Americans’ long struggle for dignity and civil rights. It was on June 7, 1712, that the Pennsylvania Assembly succeeded in temporarily banning the importation of slaves. It was on June 7, 1892, that Homer Plessy, who was described as 1/8 black, tried to take a seat in the white section of a train. His legal battle would go to the Supreme Court and prompt one of the court’s most condemned decisions, Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized segregation and “separate but equal.” And it was on June 7, 1998, that James Byrd, a black man in Jasper, Texas, was horribly brutalized and dragged to his death behind a pickup by three white supremacists.

“My hope is that today, on this June 7 in 2020, Omaha, like the rest of the world, comes together with one simple message: ‘No more,’ ” Wayne said.

Omaha Police Lt. Sherie Thomas was among the first speakers when the marchers reached Memorial Park.

She extended her condolences to James Scurlock’s family and friends.

“As a mother, as a community leader and as a law enforcement officer, my heart grieves,” she said. “To my community, everyone who is here today, I see all races, I see all ages, it’s a spectrum of what the community is.”

Thomas said the protests have resonated with the Omaha Police Department.

“We see you. We hear you and we know that people are hurting,” she told the crowd. She said her first thought, upon being invited to speak, was of the need to unite. She marveled at the crowd, which had grown to at least 2,000. “The large crowd of people that just marched down Dodge Street? That’s history.”

Hard work remains ahead — on both sides, she said.

“Not only do we need to stay connected, we need to communicate,” Thomas said. “Communication is not just me talking to you, but I need to listen as well … but then we may need to have some open, honest dialogue. That means you all need to hear where we are coming from, and we need to hear where you are coming from.”

Among those attending the rally at Memorial Park was Damon Benning, a former Husker football star and radio show co-host. Benning, who is black, brought his family. He said Omaha is in for some “real hard discussions” in the coming months.

“If we can find some commonality that is people-driven, people-led,” he said, “we’ve got a chance to have some real change.”

Those who have been protesting for the past week-plus have made it clear they want more than words. That message was repeated by 23-year-old Elexis Martinez Sunday as she began the march on one of the hottest days so far this year. The heat index throughout the afternoon was in the upper 90s.

“I want to go above and beyond protesting,” Martinez said. “I want laws to change and I want … justice.”

Photos: Solidarity rally in Omaha

Protesters flood streets in huge, peaceful push for change

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tens of thousands of protesters streamed into the nation's capital and other major cities Saturday in another huge mobilization against police brutality and racial injustice, while George Floyd was remembered in his North Carolina hometown by mourners who waited hours for a glimpse of his golden coffin.

Wearing masks and calling for police reform, protesters peacefully marched across the U.S. and on four other continents, collectively producing perhaps the largest one-day mobilization since Floyd's death 12 days ago at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

The dozens of demonstrations capped a week of nearly constant protests that swelled beyond anything the nation has seen in at least a generation. After frequent episodes of violence following the black man's death, the crowds in the U.S. shifted to a calmer tenor in recent days, and authorities in many cities began lifting curfews because they experienced little unrest and no arrests.

On Saturday, authorities in some places seemed to take a lower profile and protests had a festive feel.

On a hot, humid day in Washington, throngs of protesters gathered at the Capitol, on the National Mall and in neighborhoods. Some turned intersections into dance floors. Tents offered snacks and water, tables with merchandise and even a snow cone station.

Many groups headed toward the White House, which has been fortified with new fencing and extra securitymeasures. Inside the presidential mansion, their chants and cheers could be heard in waves. President Donald Trump had no public events on his daily schedule.

The demonstrations extended to his golf resort in Doral, Florida, just outside Miami, where about 100 protesters gathered.

Peaceful marchers filed across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and theBrooklynBridge in New York. They walked along the boulevards of Hollywood and in downtownNashville, Tennessee.

In Raeford, North Carolina, a small town near Floyd's birthplace of Fayetteville, people lined up outside a Free Will Baptist church, waiting to enter in small groups. At a private memorial service, mourners sang along with a choir. On display at the front of the chapel was a large photo of Floyd and a portrait of him adorned with an angel's wings and halo.

"It could have been me. It could have been my brother, my father, any of my friends who are black," said Erik Carlos of Fayetteville. "It was a heavy hit, especially knowing that George Floyd was born near my hometown. It made me feel very vulnerable at first."

Protesters and their supporters in public office say they're determined to turn the extraordinary outpouring of anger and grief into change, notably overhauling policing policies.

Democrats in Congress are preparing a package of police reforms that are expected to include changes to police accountability laws, such as revising immunity provisions and creating a database of police use-of-force incidents. Revamped training requirements are planned, too, among them a ban on chokeholds.

Meanwhile in New York, two Buffalo police officers were charged with assault Saturday after a video showed them shoving a 75-year-old protester, who fell backward onto the pavement and was hospitalized. Both pleaded not guilty to second-degree assault and were released without bail. The two were suspended without pay Friday.

'We are nowhere near out of the woods': Experts urge Nebraskans to keep social distancing

The novel coronavirus is a good news/bad news story in Nebraska these days.

Since a peak in early May, new daily case counts have decreased in many former hot spots and in the state as a whole. However, cases have remained higher than desired in Douglas County. The county’s weekly count of new cases stood at nearly 700 on Friday, on pace to be down slightly from 1,126 the week before but still on par with the 700- to 800-case weeks recorded earlier in May.

In addition, the state remained among the top 10 nationally in terms of daily case counts per capita. Nebraska’s seven-day average of 139.6 cases per million people on Thursday ranked higher than former hot spot New York with 61.7 cases per million, according to a tally maintained by a University of Illinois professor.

Dr. Bob Rauner 

“We’re not getting worse, but we’re not getting all that much better,” said Dr. Bob Rauner, a Lincoln physician who has been tracking the outbreak. “We’re sort of smoldering right now.”

Nebraska reported a total of 15,634 cases and 188 deaths as of Sunday evening. Douglas County has reported 5,152 cases and 47 deaths.

Getting through the summer without a surge will require additional testing and contact tracing in order to find and isolate those who are ill and quarantine their close contacts, said Dr. James Lawler, a director of the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

But it also will require individual Nebraskans to stick with the steps they have been asked to take to limit the virus’s spread. Those include the old standbys: avoiding large gatherings and wearing cloth face masks when out in public.


Dr. James Lawler

“We’re really not out of the woods,” Lawler said. “We’ve done well managing the epidemic so far, but we are nowhere near out of the woods.”

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a Friday interview that the good news is the state is in a much better position to monitor and manage the coronavirus than it was three or even two months ago.

“We are really well-positioned in Nebraska to manage this outbreak,” he said.

Ricketts described the testing, tracing and social distancing measures as “a lot of blocking and tackling on a daily basis.”

Those steps, however, also are what it will take to further ease restrictions on commerce and activities and allow Nebraskans to live a “more normal” life.

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Ricketts said his administration’s North Star continues to be maintaining adequate hospital capacity so that any Nebraskan who needs a hospital or ICU bed can get it.

Case counts in the state have “pretty much stabilized,” he said, and so has hospital capacity, including in the Omaha area.

Lawler said the Nebraska Medical Center last week still was close to the maximum for its inpatient counts, particularly in critical care. But the numbers were down a bit from the previous week’s peak.

Dr. Cliff Robertson, chief executive of CHI Health, said the system in Nebraska and southwest Iowa has been on a slow five-week decline in COVID-19 patients. Thursday, the system counted 100 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients. At the peak in the third week of April, hospitals in the health system were treating 160 confirmed and suspected cases.

Now CHI Health, like others, is planning for a future in which the virus is still out there. That means finding ways to safely care for COVID-19 patients and those with other conditions.

Dr. Cliff Robertson

“It may wax and wane over time,” Robertson said. “But we’re always going to have COVID patients to take care of.”

Ricketts said his administration has sought to support hospital capacity by raising six pillars — testing; contact tracing; isolation and quarantine lodging; supplies of protective gear; assistance for at-risk populations such as those in long-term care, food processing facilities and homeless shelters; and the health measures aimed at slowing the spread.

Testing has increased, with nearly 118,000 Nebraskans tested through Friday, more than 28,000 of them through the TestNebraska initiative. While that initiative has not reached its target of conducting 3,000 tests a day, Ricketts said it has been a big part of the increase. He said he continues to look at ways to further expand testing.

The state announced last week that it would begin phasing in testing for all Nebraskans through TestNebraska, including those ages 15 to 35 and those who haven’t qualified previously.

The state also is looking to boost its ability to do contact tracing, with the goal of having 1,000 people available to do the work. As of Friday, the total stood at 734 when figuring in additional staff hired by local public health departments, repurposed state employees and three area companies contracted to help.

In Nebraska, like the rest of the nation, the coronavirus has taken different paths in different places. Initially, Lawler said, cases generally were centered in Omaha and other urban communities. Then, they shifted to rural ones with meatpacking facilities. Today, they have boomeranged back into Omaha, concentrating in some minority communities, with the Latino community being particularly hard hit.

Recently, state and local public health agencies, UNMC officials and others have stepped up outreach to those communities, including setting up additional testing in North and South Omaha and providing information and guidance in languages other than English.

Lawler said case numbers could increase with the easing of health measures, including steps that allowed bars and other venues to reopen at 50% capacity as of June 1.

States such as Georgia, which reopened earlier, already have seen a rebound effect.

But Lawler said the potential for increased cases due to opening isn’t so much a matter of timing as how well Nebraskans practice social distancing and mask wearing.

Mary Ann Borgeson

Mary Ann Borgeson, a longtime Douglas County Board member, said she is concerned that the large area protests over racial inequality could drive an increase in COVID-19 cases. She also worries that the influx of arrested protesters into the County Jail could seed a surge there.

“That does not take away from our belief that everyone has the right to peacefully protest, and we encourage people to do that,” she said. “But it does cause us concern with these large groups huddled very closely (together),” she said.

The good news, she said, is that many of the protesters have been younger, a group that so far appears to recover with fewer health issues. And there is some thought that the fact that protests are occurring outdoors, where the virus can dissipate, may mitigate the risk of spread.

“We still need to caution folks and continue our public health message,” Borgeson said. “People may be tired of hearing it … but it’s important to get that message out there, to wear your mask, wash your hands and not be in large crowds if you don’t have to.”

Teresa Anderson

Teresa Anderson, director of the Grand Island-based Central District Health Department, also is planning for possible future surges.

The hard-hit district, which covers Hamilton, Hall and Merrick Counties, had about 70 new cases of COVID-19 last week, Anderson said. Not long ago, it was counting 70 new cases a day.

Testing was down in the district last week — only about 300 vs. 1,500 the week before — but TestNebraska will be back in the area this week. The district’s positive rate still is running about 11%, down from 46% at the peak.

“We’re trying to take a deep breath and look back,” Anderson said. “We got hit so hard, we were just trying to make it through. We’re really using this time where we’re lower on cases to explore and prepare for the next round.”

A big focus is case management. That means helping those who test positive to isolate successfully by making sure they have shelter, food and any other needs met.

The state, she said, has done a good job through the Nebraska Accommodation Project of making housing available to people who can’t shelter at home. The district also plans to make its own push for cloth face coverings and social distancing.

“It may have caught us the first time,” she said, “but we don’t have to let that happen again.”

Lawler said social distancing measures have worked to slow the spread of the virus, better even than many experts foresaw.

But the state and the nation still have a long way to go, he said. He has been seeing mixed adherence to social distancing guidelines at best, particularly as case counts have begun to come down, fatigue has set in and people have begun to yield to the natural impulse to relax.

“Until we get widespread vaccination, we’re going to be dealing with this on a daily basis,” he said.

A global race is on to produce one or more vaccines, with at least one or two versions already being tested in humans. Some reports indicate some doses could be available as early as this fall. Lawler said that’s possible but optimistic.

Making and distributing enough for the United States, as well as the rest of the world, will take time. And in a worst case, an effective vaccine may never come.

“This is not over,” Ricketts said. “What we’ve got to do is manage it.”

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020