When James Scurlock was killed by Jake Gardner, Omaha was already wrestling with the widespread angst over racial justice in our nation. The subsequent drama from this incident has hurt our wounded community even further. It didn’t start out this way.
The initial decision by the County Attorney’s Office to bring no charges against Gardner was met by anger and hurt, but Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine made the temperate, appropriate decision to allow a grand jury to review the case. At the time, he stated he had “no problem with any oversight about (our) decisions. … I welcome and support the calling of a grand jury to review evidence in this rare instance” (Omaha World-Herald, June 3). This struck a different tone than that of many prosecutors across the country and, indeed, helped to ease tensions in our community. Unfortunately, that moderate tone was short-lived.
What followed the grand jury’s indictment was a series of escalating and needless dramatic events that were as divisive as they were un-Nebraskan. It started out calm enough; when special prosecutor Fred Franklin announced the indictment, he did so with appropriate appreciation for Kleine and his office. Kleine bizarrely responded by publicly panning the special prosecutor whom he had chosen and made comments about Scurlock “terrorizing” others and that he “did not consider him a victim.” These statements were irrelevant and sent a message that was opposite of the reasonable and impartial sentiment that he showed in supporting a grand jury.
Indeed, Kleine’s new message was that he was not afraid of oversight so long as it agreed entirely with his conclusions. This set up a series of additional public statements expressing shock and outrage and caused the Nebraska Democratic Party (NDP) to pass a public resolution condemning Kleine’s statements. This resolution included the incendiary charge that Kleine’s words “perpetuated white supremacy” and was apparently done without any attempt to reach out to Kleine first. In the aftermath, given the respect he has earned from the legal community, it was no surprise that many defended his integrity, setting up a further divide, and lines were drawn.
Kleine then upped the ante by switching parties at a political pep rally and, in a final salvo to the NDP, announced his vote for Donald Trump (he noted they were both “law and order” guys — a phrase well-known for its racial overtones), all while proclaiming that he couldn’t stand by to watch his office “become politicized.”
So here we are, divided as ever. There were several places where small actions could have made the difference. Kleine, given his high standing and deep relationships, could have issued a stand-alone statement about racism, or could have omitted the superfluous adjectives he used to describe a deceased person of color, also a member of our community, whether Kleine saw him as a victim or not. Better yet, he could have said nothing publicly after the indictment.
The NDP could have softened the tone of the resolution, or at least added a statement acknowledging Kleine’s years of service and the esteem he brought to the party from the legal community. They should have given a well-known Democrat an opportunity to respond before publishing the resolution. And while it is his purview to change his affiliation and to vote for whomever he chooses, Kleine certainly could have done this more subtly.
Nebraskans have work to do to engage in a comprehensive discussion about race, law and community. Press conferences and media stunts are as destructive as they are entertaining and will never take the place of authentic conversations. Can our leaders demonstrate kindness and humility, rather than a bloodthirst to get in the “last word”? This current example does not suggest promise.
Rebecca K. Murray, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Creighton University. This essay expresses her views only and not those of Creighton University.
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