In wake of Baltimore, Omaha must exorcise its own demons

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By Phil Brown, Reporter

Nebraska is now the second most dangerous place in America to be black. 
 
For a white student in a safe campus, it’s easy to forget nearly 35 out of every 100,000 black neighbors will be violently gunned down this year. Nebraska is given the silver medal in the black homicide Olympics over its Midwestern neighbor, Missouri, but held the crown last year with 34.4 per 100,000. 
 
That’s right, even though Nebraska managed to kill almost a whole, additional black citizen since the last measurement, those pesky Missourians still somehow managed to come in quicker in the self-destruction time-trials.
 
As the paroxysm of violence between police and unarmed black citizens sweeps the country, it is becoming less easy to ignore the conspicuous place in the emerging pattern where Nebraska, and more specifically, Omaha, where 80 percent of the state’s homicides occur, finds itself. The most obvious parallel given the above paragraph is to the violence in Missouri. 
 
The shooting of Michael Brown last summer was an incredibly notorious and polarizing event that touched every corner of the nation in some way. 
 
It was the easiest thing in the world for a white liberal to shake their head at the excesses of the Ferguson Police Department. But the reality is that Michael Brown wouldn’t have been any safer in Omaha. 
 
34.98 percent of Missouri’s black citizens are killed, compared to Nebraska’s 34.93. And even if you’re .05 less killed than you’d be in Missouri, you’re still the victim of another senseless homicide.
 
Perhaps “senseless” isn’t the right word for it, however, because black homicides in the modern era make a cruel kind of sense. 
 
We know well enough what breeds this violence: poverty. And if black poverty was another event in the vice Olympics, Omaha and Nebraska would again find them-selves well-represented. 
 
Two years ago, Willie Barney, president of the Omaha Empowerment Network, was quoted in the Omaha World-Herald as stating, “That area of northeast Omaha has the highest level of concentrated poverty in the state; it has the highest concentration of unemployment. If you look at any map across the country that has heavily concentrated poverty, heavily concentrated unemployment—in places like Cincinnati, Newark, Baltimore, Chicago—you’ll see the exact same thing.” 
 
Barney’s words are backed up by a study conducted by our very own university earlier this year. David Drozd, our head researcher at the Center for Public Affairs Research, found that 31.3 percent of black Omaha and Council Bluffs citizens are below the poverty line, a jarring number that registers 30th out of the 100 largest metro areas. 
 
Drozd’s work also revealed that the Hispanic/Latino population in the metro has beaten the national average when it comes to poverty.
 
Barney’s two-year-old quotation seems oddly prophetic in the context of the news today. He mentions Baltimore in the World-Herald quotation, and the intersection of poverty and violence.
 
There are other factors that have emerged: the spectra of police brutality and the larger problem of marginalization, as illustrated in red by Baltimore. 
 
The brutal killing of Freddie Gray by “rough ride”—a somewhat common tactic of the Baltimore PD as it turns out—has sparked a period of protest and crackdown in the city, resulting in six officers charged with homicide for their role in the near-dismemberment of the unarmed, innocent Gray.
 
Omaha seems destined to arrive at the same end. A higher percent of Omaha’s black population lies below the poverty line than in Baltimore, and the cities both suffer from a sizable food desert (an area that lacks of access to readily available quality food). Omaha’s police have demonstrated a similar carelessness in regard to black life and freedom as the Baltimore cops charged with homicide this week. 
 
In particular, there are two recent episodes of police brutality in Omaha that echo the recent, highly publicized national incidents. 
 
For the first, you have to return to March of 2013. A neighbor captured an arrest on video in which OPD officers violently threw Octavius Johnson to the ground, repeatedly punched him and held him down in a stranglehold. 
 
In a story that eerily foreshadows the recent, deadly Eric Garner incident in New York that occurred years later, Johnson stated to local station KPTM that he “couldn’t breathe,” and that the officer struck him in the face and  asked him if he wanted to die. The cause of the altercation? A parking violation. 
 
The OPD fired six officers for the attack, and Johnson suffered no lasting injuries, which would seem to bring the unfortunate incident to a close. But earlier this year the OPD’s violent inner demons returned to torment the city’s black citizenry. 
 
Jazmyne McMiller and a friend were in town for the Terence Crawford fight and booked a room at the downtown Hilton. However, the night turned sour quickly when the police confronted McMiller in the elevator. In an unbelievable display of prejudice, the police demanded proof that the pair actually had rooms in the hotel. 
 
It somehow got worse than that. Video evidence shows an officer slamming a handcuffed McMiller onto a surface with a chokehold after discovering from the front desk that she was indeed a patron of the Hilton. McMiller spent her holiday evening in jail for disturbing the peace. 
 
After the OPD dropped charges and admitted there was “evidence to support” McMiller’s claims of violence, it would be easy to dismiss this incident as a bizarre outlier, a bad apple in a bushel of good ones. 

But the fact that these bad apples still exist after the promises and staffing purges from two years ago is deeply troubling, and points to departmental, citywide problems rather than individual apple rot. 
 
It seems Omaha police are comfortable bringing extreme force to bear over trivial or nonexistent issues.
 
That’s a troubling factor for a city whose black neighbors are already poorer and die more violently than the cities in the news for cop-killed innocents. 
 
If Omaha is to avoid their fates, drastic action must be taken to reverse the trends that the city has already surpassed the nation in.

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