On June 24, 1969, a white Omaha police officer killed an unarmed 14-year-old black girl with one shot to the back of the head as she ran home. Her name was Vivian Strong. She lived in my neighborhood.
Just 7 years old at the time of the shooting, the events following that moment aren’t crystal clear; however, I know it changed the life course of the entire black community in North Omaha. And without a doubt, Vivian’s killing left an indelible stain on my soul; affirming there is no safety in the world for black people. Even black children are not safe.
The summer of 1969 was just starting, and the neighborhoods around 24th Street, the heart of the black community in Omaha, were bustling with the echoes of children playing from every corner. I remember we were taking a late-afternoon rest after a long, hard day of summer play when my daddy rushed into the house. Obviously shaken, he told us a little girl had been killed by a white policeman and the neighborhood was outraged.
As the angry mobs were starting to gather; Daddy pulled guns and bullets magically from hidden places around the house. Minutes later of whirlwind motion, he was completely armed, locked and loaded with multiple pistols and a shotgun. He told my mother he was headed to meet the Black Panthers and others determined to protect black businesses, including our family business, Allen’s Showcase.
When Daddy ran out of the house, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again. That night, I went to bed not feeling safe in my home or neighborhood. The next morning, Daddy came home — dirty, dusty and tired — reporting that he, the Black Panthers and many others, successfully protected black businesses without having to shoot anyone.
The Black Panthers, armed with weapons, made a significant contribution to the North Omaha community, protecting local black churches and the city’s only black newspaper, the Omaha Star. In fact, they were instrumental in helping men like my daddy, Alfred Allen, protect the North Omaha community from complete devastation.
So much was lost that summer. The ruin brought about by the riots changed the trajectory of the North Omaha community from the jazz and vibrancy of beautiful black life into a post-apocalyptic war zone. And I lost feeling safe in my body.
Fast forward to this summer, June 1, 2020. Nearly 51 years since Vivian Strong was killed. Millions of people around the globe are protesting the killings of unarmed black people. In spite of the pandemic, or perhaps exactly because the pandemic has laid open the deeply pervasive structural inequities and wounds of racism for the world to see, people have taken to the streets, risking coronavirus to protest against police brutality and white hate in the war against black lives.
When I was child, just the newspaper story detailing Vivian’s shooting terrorized my 7-year-old mind, and I assure you, that terror never left me. Not once.
Now that social media has deputized citizen reporters where brutality is found, the shock and trauma of inhumane violence in a festering environment of injustice has become the new normal for everyone. Now it takes an especially brutal attack like Mr. Floyd’s, Rodney King or Vivian to become a tipping point for change.
Today we are witnessing the tipping point in racial injustice with the global Black Lives Matter movement. Yet while the movement has become more sophisticated with the voices of our young, gifted and black leaders; tear gas, bullets and militarization of peaceful protests is still the response to the people’s rage now, just as it was in the ’60s and ’70s. We are reminded of the Ohio National Guard militarization of Kent State University and imposition of martial law. The result? Four white students dead. May 4, 1970. All in effort to shut down peaceful anti-Vietnam protest.
My advice for you as a child growing up during years and years of violent race riots, social unrest and civic strife?
If you are black or brown, don’t run from the police. It could make you dead.
For those with white privilege, use your power to protect our lives and defend black and brown people from the tyranny of white hate and brutality. Look inside yourself and bring light to all those spaces where the shame and guilt of white oppression live. Bring them out into the light, give them plenty of love and compassion. Then use that same compassion to change the hearts and minds of your white tribe by calling out racism. Educate them gently. Be easy.
Life as you know it is changing with ever increasing intensity. Get ready people, stock your pantry, build your immune system and get ready for this revolution.
It will definitely be televised.
Courtney Allen-Genty, an RN with a master’s in nursing, is a board certified advanced holistic nurse, nurse educator and coach specializing in the integration of science, spirit and plant medicine into public health.