Portraits of James Scurlock remain scattered across Omaha a year after his fatal shooting.
The plywood displaying his likeness that had covered the windows of a downtown coffee shop last summer now are held in the Durham Museum basement archives.
A billboard that demanded "Justice for James," which was briefly posted at 72nd and Dodge streets, now is tucked away at the Great Plains Black History Museum.
And in the neighborhood where Scurlock grew up, a massive mural honoring "JuJu World" has weathered months of storms outside the Easy Drive Package convenience store.
Those permanent relics ensure that a piece of the story of what happened to the 22-year-old will endure — both to remind those who observed last summer’s cascading events and to teach future generations.
For the Scurlock family, the touching tributes are not worth the loss of their loved one's life.
“It’s a very heavy price,” said Scurlock's father, James Scurlock II.
For Omaha, some historians say, the case was reminiscent of past violent events and responses in Omaha’s history and again exposed the city’s racial divisions, raised questions of fairness in the justice system and spurred extended protests.
It also sparked tense conversations online, in person and in the streets.
Scurlock’s killing last year swiftly triggered a local rallying cry amid a national reckoning on race relations and policing after George Floyd was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer.
On May 30, 2020, bar owner Jake Gardner, 38, fatally shot Scurlock after an 18-second struggle in the Old Market outside a bar Gardner owned near 12th and Harney Streets. That launched a tumultuous and tangled web of events, decisions, marches and press conferences for 114 days until Gardner died by suicide, ending the possibility of more answers being revealed at trial.
Even though some reminders remain around town, a person walking by the spot where Scurlock died wouldn't know what happened there last May. Days after the shooting, Gardner was evicted from The Hive and the next-door Gatsby nightclub. The space sits empty today.
“There’s no marker, nothing on the landscape — it’s just something that happened in the past. That is what is dangerous, when we forget these stories,” said Ashley Howard, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who grew up in Omaha. “Scurlock is not a hashtag, Gardner is not a cause célèbre … just like Scurlock didn’t have a chance to tell his side, Gardner didn’t, either. That story is just gone, and people can fill in the gaps with whatever agenda or narrative they want to put in there.”
By the end of May 2020, three factors had created conditions that culminated in thousands of people gathering at 72nd and Dodge Streets for demonstrations that ended in confrontations with law enforcement officers:
• In Nebraska and elsewhere, people already had lived through about two and a half months of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, which led to job losses, school closures and people isolating in their homes.
• The deeply divisive 2020 presidential campaign was in full swing, with Joe Biden the apparent Democratic nominee in the race to unseat then-President Donald Trump, whose words and actions were regarded by many as exacerbating the nation's racial divide.
• And a string of incidents involving Black people had been captured on video: the Floyd killing; a confrontation between a Black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park and a white woman who had let her unleashed dog run free; and the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery as he was jogging in Georgia. (A 911 call about the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, which occurred in Louisville, Kentucky, in March, was released in late May.)
“It was like a trifecta,” said Cynthia Robinson, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “The policing of Black bodies has always gone on, but now people are seeing it. Now we’re home and we have more time, because of the virus. And we have presidential leadership (in 2020) who is really letting it be known, 'Do this. It is OK to do this.'”
Emotions were high the night Scurlock was killed. The evening before, more than 2,000 people had attended a Black Lives Matter protest outside Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge, the spot known for demonstrations and celebrations alike. The peaceful gathering soon turned chaotic, with police in riot gear firing pepper balls and gas canisters while some protesters threw objects at officers, broke business windows and tried to smash police cruiser windows.
Emboldened and angry, many protesters returned to the site again Saturday night. When Omaha police forced them from the area, some went downtown, where more mayhem occurred, including vandalism and graffiti.
Gardner, a former Marine, had gone to protect his bar from vandals and pull a "military style firewatch,” as he put it on Facebook. Scurlock, who was at the initial protest, headed downtown with friend Tucker Randall to let off steam, Randall has told The World-Herald.
Scurlock, who police say can be seen on video from earlier in the evening vandalizing an office near 13th and Harney streets, ultimately collided with Gardner outside The Hive bar. The confrontation started with Randall pushing Gardner’s father, David Gardner, who was pushing a woman and who Randall had said was yelling racial epithets.
Jake Gardner lifted his shirt to reveal his handgun, then grabbed it briefly and put it back in his waistband. Passer-by Alayna Melendez tackled Gardner into the street and ran away when he fired two shots.
Switching the gun to his left hand, Gardner fired one shot, striking Scurlock in the neck.
Gardner told police he acted in self-defense. Scurlock’s family contends that Scurlock is a hero who tried to subdue an armed man.
Brenness Long, 33, who with his mother owns the Easy Drive Package convenience store at 24th Street and Camden Avenue where the Scurlock mural is displayed, offered a distant observer's view of what happened:
“They were both in the wrong, in my eyes,” Long said. Neither Scurlock nor Gardner, he said, should have been outside the bar that night, taking matters into their own hands.
Long agreed to let someone paint the mural on his building because he wanted to do something to help the community. The mural was designed and painted by 29-year-old artist Hugo Zamorano and others, including one of Scurlock’s brothers.
“I wanted to do something, and I wasn’t going out to the protests," Zamorano said. "I have a little more pull and power with my art than I do my physical appearance.”
Two days after the shooting, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced that he would not bring charges against Gardner, determining that Gardner had shot Scurlock in self-defense.
Public outcry over Kleine's decision was immediate. As rallies, police-protester clashes and a curfew continued for two more nights, Kleine relented and filed a petition for a special prosecutor and a grand jury to review the case.
“Had it not been for the pressure, this guy could have just killed James Scurlock and moved on,” said Robinson, the UNO professor.
In late September, former U.S. federal prosecutor Fred Franklin, serving as a special prosecutor, presented the Gardner case to grand jurors. They decided to indict Gardner on manslaughter and three other felony charges.
On Sept. 27, the day his attorneys said he was set to return to Omaha to be arraigned on the charges, Gardner fatally shot himself in Oregon. It was a jarring and unexpected end to the dizzying turn of events.
“It’s not a victory that Gardner is dead,” said Howard, the University of Iowa professor. “Him being dead is not justice served, either.”
The shooting had prompted immediate calls of racism, not just because Gardner was white and Scurlock was Black but also because Gardner’s former employees and a relative had said Gardner had a history of racist actions and talk.
“It goes back to whites thinking they can police Black people," Robinson said. "That really is historical. The origins of that go back to slavery.”
Howard, who studies race in the Midwest, had closely followed the news of the Scurlock killing and watched live video feeds of the Omaha protests. Speaking to Black Omahans during recent visits to her hometown, she found that many people brought up the 1969 fatal shooting of Vivian Strong, a 14-year-old Black girl who was killed by Omaha Police Officer John Loder, a white man.
“Even though the circumstances were very different — the victim profiles, who was doing the shooting — those two instances told the same story for Black Omahans,” Howard said. “This is a cautionary tale that is told down generation to generation. I would suspect many white Omahans would not know who Vivian Strong is. There’s two very distinct experiences that Black Omahans and white Omahans face in the city.”
Barbara Hewins-Maroney, a UNO associate professor of urban studies, brought up the 1919 lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse as a comparison to Scurlock's slaying because of the strong community response elicited by each killing.
“Both happened at a time when things seemed, on the surface, to be OK, between Black and white relationships, but when you get down to under the crust of it all, no, it wasn’t,” she said. “I think each of these incidents gave emerging leaders a chance to speak up and do more and ask for more and start questioning, ‘Why? Why? Why?’”
Eric Ewing, the executive director at the Great Plains Black History Museum at 24th and Grant streets, said Scurlock's shooting should be remembered to help prevent similar situations from occurring.
“We can either say it’s repeating itself or we can say that it’s never changed,” Ewing said. “Different times, but still the same or similar outcomes. What we could say is we definitely are not learning from the past. In a sense, I say that’s because we’re not learning about the past.”
A coalition of local organizations, including the Great Plains museum, sought to collect physical remnants and interviews from local Black Lives Matter protests to mark the significance of the moment. The Durham Museum, at 801 S. 10th St., last year put out a request to the public for items related to the pandemic or the protests, a rare contemporary history haul to add to the museum's more than 80,000 archived objects that date to the 1850s, collection manager Becky Putzer said.
Durham officials collected the colorfully painted plywood that had covered the windows of Culprit Cafe & Bakery. They also have a black-and-white photo of 7-year-old Zuri Jensen, who was photographed by Dalton Carper as she held her fist in the air at the first 72nd and Dodge protest. Artist Anthony Peña’s stylized poster of that photo and others he created relating to the movement also are part of the museum's collection.
Putzer said that as of now, the items can provide educational moments on social media or be viewed in virtual tours. But she said she would love to create a dedicated exhibit or collaborate with the other organizations.
“Items like this, it really will make a visual impact," said Putzer, referring to the image painted on the plywood. "This is such a beautiful example of the reaction to what happened,” she said. “I’m excited to display this someday because I think it is a focal piece for our conversation about Omaha’s response to James Scurlock and George Floyd and the summer of 2020.”
The vinyl billboard displaying the original Scurlock portrait art by Kat Morrow is now folded in a bag on the floor of the Great Plains museum. Ewing would like to hang it outside the museum every year but said he wants to get the Scurlock family's permission first. The museum also is working on video interviews to document the pandemic and social justice and plans to publish those conversations.
Ewing said people have expressed more interest in the museum and its resources because of the increased awareness of racial justice issues. Despite the in-person restrictions of the pandemic, the organization recorded 1,000 more guests, mostly virtual, in 2020 than in 2019.
But Ewing and Robinson said it’s draining and anxiety-inducing for them to keep talking about the Black lives that have been lost.
Scurlock's family is still grieving his death, and it's sometimes hard for them to drive past the mural at 24th and Camden and see Scurlock's face smiling back.
“Although he is getting all this recognition for who he was and what he stood for, we do have to go on without him,” said his sister, Rajeanna Scurlock, 21. “And it’s just so bittersweet, because we’re definitely hurting without him. We wish he was still here with us.”
A week after Omaha’s Black Lives Matter protests and Scurlock's killing, more than 2,000 people marched along Dodge Street from 72nd Street to Memorial Park as part of a walk and rally for racial justice. The demonstration was sanctioned by police, who blocked off traffic on Dodge.
Jackie Font-Guzman, who worked at Creighton University for 15 years, most recently as the director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program, said she saw the community come together that day and throughout the summer. She said she thinks the show of unity helped push the Douglas County Board of Health in mid-June to declare racism as a public health crisis and other local institutions to pledge to make improvements.
“Omaha is not a place where people would go out to the streets to gather and protest. It really brought it home,” said Font-Guzman, who now is the executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “I think people were ready to listen to that and grapple with it and say we need to do more.”
The “Justice for James” movement was born out of the frustrations that police never booked Gardner into jail and Kleine declined to file charges. Ja Keen Fox, the group's lead organizer, held daily protests outside Kleine’s west Omaha neighborhood for 36 straight days, which Fox said symbolized a quick 36 hours between Scurlock’s death and Kleine’s no-charge decision.
The group’s priorities have broadened since then. Fox said racism occurs in many areas — housing, infrastructure, economic development — not just in the justice system.
“We’re not looking for symbolism, we’re not looking for just words,” Fox said. “We’re looking for a real policy and systemic chance that shifts the way Black and brown people are able to live their lives.”
The organization is preparing for the election of the Douglas County attorney in 2022 and speaking to prospective candidates. Kleine switched his political affiliation to the Republican Party in October after a resolution adopted by the Nebraska Democratic Party said his handling of the Gardner case “perpetuated White supremacy,” something he vehemently disputes. Kleine hasn’t publicly announced whether he will run for a fifth term.
Gardner’s suicide put an end to what likely would have been years of court hearings and potential appeals.
But just as the case had been litigated, dissected and argued about on social media last summer, various conspiracy theories swirled that Gardner was not actually dead, although Franklin obtained and filed Gardner’s Oregon death certificate so a judge could officially dismiss the case.
Many online commenters thought the man with red, shoulder-length hair who happily carried out Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s podium at the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection bore an uncanny resemblance to Gardner. Yet that man, from Florida, was identified and arrested days later.
Hewins-Maroney said her students and friends have floated ideas that Gardner's death certificate was forged, that Gardner fled to Canada or is hiding out in the Pacific Northwest.
Despite the rumors, all evidence shows that Gardner died by suicide.
Some recognized that no matter what might have been the resolution of the criminal case, the matter wouldn’t have been settled in many people's minds.
“An unnecessary death and murder of a Black man can never be resolved,” Hewins-Maroney said.
Said Robinson: “There will be closure when we don’t have to fight for social justice again.”
“The Black community is a part of Omaha," Ewing said. "So how can Omaha move forward? We all are part of the community of Omaha. Omaha has a responsibility for the ugliness … if part of the pie is bad, then the whole pie is bad. So it’s everyone’s responsibility.”
And it’s just one case, those interviewed said. A systematic change is what’s needed, and while Scurlock’s killing may have prompted some discourse, more work is needed. Font-Guzman said the case showed people need to get out of their “affinity groups” and reach out to make connections with others.
“I should be willing to sit with that discomfort, be able to acknowledge that I will not be able to fully understand someone or where they’re coming from, but I will still have some sort of relationship,” Font-Guzman said. “There’s so much emphasis on convincing someone that your position is the correct one, which leads to polarization … those are not healthy approaches. We should be able to have conversations and be in existence and thrive in a community together.”