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Cousin of bar owner talks about Scurlock's death as dozens testify at legislative hearing
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Cousin of bar owner talks about Scurlock's death as dozens testify at legislative hearing

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A young woman came to the Scott Conference Center in Omaha on Monday to tell the Legislature's Judiciary Committee she is angry, sad and tired, but will not give up hope on the effort for equity and justice for black Nebraskans. 

"I came here today because I have faith that change will happen in my community and in this nation," said Elexis Martinez. "These past two weeks have strengthened the power in me to be heard, felt and understood."

It was a day for the community to speak to lawmakers about policing, misconduct and racial injustice in Nebraska. Community members told them they wanted to see less money spent on policing, more law enforcement training in de-escalation techniques, decriminalization of marijuana, establishment of citizen committees with actual power, and the demilitarizing of law enforcement. 

It was passionate and disturbing testimony for the senators to hear. 

A cousin of Jake Gardner — who shot and killed James Scurlock, a black man, a week ago in Omaha — came to tell them about the depth of grief that comes with knowing someone in your family has the capacity to do what he did. 

The eight legislators, led by Judiciary Chairman Steve Lathrop of Omaha, listened to the experiences, concerns and ideas for change. 

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In 8½ hours, close to 100 people spoke to the committee. 

Mia Crawford-Gray told them the answers are out there, but not the will to implement solutions, she said. 

A number of those testifying had been to the protests in Omaha and Lincoln and saw police lobbing tear gas canisters at peaceful demonstrators and shooting at them with rubber bullets. 

The Rev. Darrell Goodwin, associate minister of the United Church of Christ, said to the committee: "Good people, I want to be able to do my job."

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Last year when he first arrived in Omaha he was pulled over three times by Omaha police and the State Patrol and given a warning for "driving while black." No other reasons, he said. 

At the protests a week ago, trying to minister to people in the gap between protesters and police, he was invited to help with de-escalation. But soon after the 8 p.m. curfew, police fired pepper balls and tear gas at him and others around him when they were trying to exit in the way police told them to go.

"I stood in the wake and watched an Omaha police person shoot a young person in the back with pepper balls seven times," Goodwin said. "You cannot tell me that that was 'in there doing their job.'"

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He could not even pray for people as a black person in the state of Nebraska without being afraid of being shot at or peppered, even though the police escorted him "safely in," he said. 

"I'm demanding that as a black man in Nebraska I'm able to do my damn job," he said. 

A number of people spoke of changes to funding of police departments.

"Defunding the police is inaccurate phrasing," said Lee Hazer. "Let's reallocate funding so police don't have to be all things to all people. Let's help the police respect, refund and restore our community of north Omaha and truly become Omaha Strong."

Dominique Liu-Sang, of Black Leaders Movement in Lincoln, said Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine and Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer failed to serve justice in Scurlock's death.

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"I'm talking to Don Kleine and Todd Schmaderer. If Mr. Gardner was a black man who killed someone with an invalid weapon, he would have been shot and killed on site," Liu-Sang said. 

Gardner, who had an expired concealed carry permit, could still face misdemeanor charges or citations, officials have said. Kleine, who initially declined to charge the white bar owner later turned over the case to a special prosecutor for a grand jury review.

Jenny Heineman, who has a doctorate in sociology, said she is a cousin of Gardner and encouraged all the white people there to ponder their own family beliefs. 

"Let me tell you what you don't want," she said. "You don't want to be sleepless and disturbed in the ways that I am today." 

Every time she tries to sleep, she can only think of James Scurlock's little girl, close in age to her own child. And she spends all her waking hours knowing her family did this. 

"Knowing that all the times my family members used the n-word, which was a lot, all of the times that my family made racist jokes, all of the times that my family ingrained violence into the minds and hearts and souls of their own babies, all of those things were leading up to the death of James," she said. 

Many of those testifying asked the committee for these actions: 

* De-escalation training for all police officers.

* Diversity training for Gov. Pete Ricketts, mayors, members of the Legislature, city council members and other elected officials.

* Bans on chokeholds and strongholds by police. 

* Decriminalization of marijuana, which can be used as an excuse to pull over black people, even when it is not present.

* Registration of police misconduct.

* Restoration of voting rights for felons after their sentences are served. 

* Requirement for diversity in all jury panels. 

* To strip power from police unions. 

* Changes to mandatory minimum sentences. 

The listening forum will continue in Lincoln at 9 a.m. Tuesday at NET, 1800 N. 33rd St. 

Sen. Ernie Chambers stood up near the end of Monday's forum, saying if he didn't speak he would burst.

"I am fed up with all of this sanctimoniousness by these police, and especially their union, which is like the mafia," Chambers said. 

"Those who make peaceful evolution impossible will make armed revolution inevitable," he said, changing slightly a quote from John F. Kennedy. "You shoot unarmed people. How will you do when armed people come at you?" 

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said it was important to hear the voices of people who are appropriately angry and frustrated. 

Things can be done at all levels of government, and the state needs to do its part in rethinking how it encourages and uses police, she said. 

The last to testify was an 8-year-old white girl. 

"I know you're tired, but I'm tired of black people not being treated right," said Eleanora Marinkovich. 

Her brother is black and treated unfairly, she said. And she hears that senators can make laws to make the world a better place for him to live. 

"I do not know what those laws are," she said, "but what I've learned in school (is) if something goes wrong, you fix it. ... So please do what's right, so my brother can run outside, dressed how he wants to, and have the same opportunity as me." 

Photos, videos: Lincoln protests

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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