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Frank LaMere: A good man’s work is never done


Frank LaMere
A good man’s work is never done
©by Leo Adam Biga

Frank LaMere, self-described as “one of the architects of the effort to shutdown Whiteclay,” does not gloat over recent rulings to deny beer sellers licenses in that forlorn Nebraska hamlet.

A handful of store owners, along with producers and suppliers, have profited millions at the expense of Oglala-Lakota from South Dakota’s nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is banned but alcoholism runs rampant. A disproportionate number of children suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Public drunkenness, panhandling, brawls and accidents, along with illicit services in exchange for alcohol, have been documented in and around Whiteclay. Since first seeing for himself in 1997 “the devastation” there, LaMere’s led the epic fight to end alcohol sales in the unincorporated Sheridan County border town.

“This is a man who, more than anyone else, is the face of Whiteclay,” said Lincoln-based journalist-author-educator Joe Starita, who’s student-led reporting project — http://www.woundsofwhiteclay.com — recently won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism grand prize besting projects from New Yorker, National Geographic and HBO. “There is nobody who has fought longer and fought harder and appeared at more rallies and given more speeches and wept more tears in public over Whiteclay than Frank LaMere, period.”

LaMere, a native Winnebago, lifelong activist and veteran Nebraska Democratic Party official, knows the battle, decided for now pending appeal, continues. The case is expected to eventually land in the Nebraska Supreme Court. Being the political animal and spiritual man he is, he sees the Whiteclay morass from a long view perspective. As a frontline warrior, he also has the advantage of intimately knowing what adversaries and obstacles may appear.

His actions have gotten much press. He’s a key figure in two documentaries about Whiteclay, But his social justice work extends far beyond this specific matter.

“I’ve been involved in many issues in my life,” he said.

Indeed, he’s stood with farmers, immigrants, persons with disabilities, police misconduct victims, child welfare recipients. He’s opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“I must have marched a hundred times in my life and not always on Native interests. If somebody’s being mistreated and I have time and they come ask me, I don’t care who it is, I’m going to go there. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what drives me in my work.”

LaMere’s fought the good fight over Whiteclay, where he sees a clear and present danger of public health and humanitarian crisis. As a Native person, it’s personal because Whiteclay exists to exploit alcohol intolerance among the Pine Ridge populace. He’s cautiously optimistic things will get better for residents, assuming the courts ultimately uphold the denial of the liquor licenses.

“We’ll see where things go from there,” he said, “but rest assured, things will never be the same at Whiteclay. The only thing I know is that the devastation will never be like it was. I truly believe that.”

Just don’t expect him to do a victory lap.

“There are no wins and losses at Whiteclay. Nobody won, nobody lost, but all of us decided maybe we should begin to respect one another and find a better way. I think we will after the dust settles.”

The state Liquor Control Commission, a district judge and the Nebraska attorney general oppose beer sales happening there again but LaMere knows powerful opposing forces are at work.

“I think Nebraskans have good sense. We know what’s right. But there’s money involved. Whoever controls alcohol at Pine Ridge-Whiteclay controls money, controls county government and until very recently even controls state government. I am unequivocal on that. I understand what’s going on here. You’re talking about tens of millions of dollars and we’re threatening that, and when you threaten that, you know, you get a reaction.”

He said he’s received threats. He and fellow Whiteclay advocate, Craig Brewer, went there the day after the sellers lost their licenses.

“There was a foreboding I had all that day I’ve never had in my life,” LaMere said. “It was strange to me. I’ve been dealing with things my whole life and never been afraid. But this time I was looking at different scenarios having to do with the volatility there and if things didn’t work right what could happen to me. Maybe it’s aging. Maybe it was the newness of the situation. I don’t know.

“We got up there very apprehensive about what we were going to encounter, maybe from the beer sellers or from those who support the sellers or maybe from their hired associates. We didn’t know what to expect, but we went up there because that’s what we do – and everything worked out. The right thing happened.”

The sellers did not open for business.

“I told a reporter we went up to look the devil in the eye and the devil wasn’t there, and I don’t think the devil’s coming back.”

He said attorney David Domina, who represents the interests opposed to alcohol, appeared the same day there in the event something amiss happened.

“It was no coincidence,” LaMere said. “We were to be there that day. A lot of prayers went with us.”

LaMere will maintain a wary watch. “I will continue there to be careful, to be apprehensive, but I’m still not afraid.”

He knows some contentious situations he steps into pose certain dangers.

“I’m a realist, I know how things are.”

He and his wife Cynthia made an unwritten pact years ago not to be at rallies or protests together to ensure they won’t both be in harm’s way.

“I do a lot of things in a lot of places and Cynthia grounds me. She critiques whatever approach I’m taking, always asking, ‘Do you have to do it?’ I’ve learned she’s protective of me. But I also hear from her on many of these issues, ‘Well, why didn’t you say that?’ because she knows Frank, what he’s committed to, and she never questions that.

“I can do something I feel good about and I’ll come home and she’ll tell me the downside that maybe I don’t always want to hear. She’ll give me a perspective I need to hear that sometimes other people won’t give me. She’ll tell me the brutal honest truth. Cynthia’s tough, engaged, committed.”

His admirers marvel at his own doggedness.

“He’s an indefatigable worker and once he latches onto an issue that he sees as a moral challenge, he does not let go, and Whiteclay is a case in point. He’s the most principled man I know,” said Nebraskans for Peace coordinator Tim Rinne.

Joe Starita said LaMere is “hard working for his causes to the point of physical and mental exhaustion.”

“He’s a man who shows up for allies when nobody else is looking,” Nebraska Democratic Party chairman Jane Kleeb said.

Setbacks and losses he’s endured have not deterred him, including a serious stroke that required extensive speech therapy, and the death of his daughter, Lexie Wakan, who was a Creighton University student.

“He’s a man who’s had hardship, yet still continues to get up and stand up,” Kleeb said. “For me, that’s what Frank’s all about – he always shows up.”

For LaMere, it’s a way of life.

“Every day’s a fight, and if you keep fighting you win because others watch that. The impact of Whiteclay will manifest itself hopefully with a win in the Supreme Court and perhaps in some young leader who cares about these things. I’ve been in a hundred struggles in my life, lost almost all of ’em, but I was never afraid, and that’s what I want people to understand.

“If you’re not afraid, people see that as a victory because you cause others to take heart, to persevere, to take action.”

He’s glad his resilience to keep agitating, even in the face of intransigence and tragedy, inspires others.

“I’ll accept that because that’s what it is – you just keep working.”

He likes to say Whiteclay’s implications are “bigger than we can ever fathom.”

“Years from now, we will understand it is way bigger than us. I got to be a bit player. The creator of all things, said, Frank, I’m going to have you see what you can do, and along the way I’m going to cause you to struggle. I’m going to knock you down, and I’m even going to take something from you, and if you keep going, maybe I’ll let you change something.

“That’s the greatest work we can do.”

Reflecting on Whiteclay, he said, “This was an emotional roller coaster for all Nebraskans.” He chalks up the recent breakthrough to divine intervention.

“There’s things happening that are so strange,” he said.

He recalled a hearing in Lincoln on LB 407 introduced by Neb. State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks to create the Whiteclay Public Health Emergency Task Force. LaMere testified. His son, Manape LaMear, sang a sun dance song. After finishing his sacred song, Manape asked if someone from Sheridan County was there to speak.

“A big guy got up and testified,” said LaMere. “He was asked, ‘Do you have enough law enforcement to take care of Whiteclay?’ and he answered, ‘Absolutely not.’”

“This man said some things absolutely nobody expected him, maybe not himself. to say. If you’re with those (monied) interests of Whiteclay, you’re not supposed to say that, you’re going to be ostracized. But for whatever reason, he told the truth. I attribute that to the powerful prayers said that day.

“You’re watching at Whiteclay a very spiritual journey. There’s something much bigger than us that has brought us to this point – that we would make such a great change for the Oglala Lakota people. I think it’s God’s work. From that I hope things will be better.”

He’s convinced “the greatest impact will not be felt for generations,” but added, “I’ve seen immediate impact right now.”

“I believe there’s a child whose mother and father were together at home and did not drink. I believe children are feeling very good Whiteclay is not open. I believe there’s been prayers by children that their parents be sober. I believe their prayers are very powerful. I think what we’re seeing may have to do with these children and their suffering and their prayers.”

LaMere has disdain for arguments that banning alcohol at Whiteclay will only move the problem elsewhere, thus increasing the danger of drunk drivers.

“Worrying about someone driving down Highway 87 who might get hurt by a drunk driver can’t be our greatest concern. Our greatest concern has to be the health and well-being of hundreds of children crippled in the womb by fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). I’ve called out many on this. Where are pro-life people? Where’s the church? Children are crippled in the womb tonight and nothing’s said about it because there’s money involved. That’s troubling to me.

“We’ve crippled hundreds of kids in the womb on Pine Ridge – all so somebody can get rich, wrap themselves in a flag, and talk about this model of free enterprise. We cherish that more than we cherish life. It’s ugly to hear that but that’s what we’ve done. But we’ve always been afraid to accept that.”

Attorney John Maisch, whose documentary Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian includes LaMere, said, “I would say Frank’s empathy is what drives him. Frank is in a perpetual state of mourning. Frank has lost many family members and friends to addiction. I think that is partially what drove him to tackle Whiteclay. Frank lost his daughter, Lexie, and I think that is why he’s particularly drawn to fighting for those children, whether Native children lost in our foster care system or suffering from FAS as a result of their mothers drinking on the streets of Whiteclay. He’s drawn to suffering of others because he has also suffered great loss.”

LaMere acknowledged he’s “redoubled” his efforts since losing his daughter.

“And it’s not in any way substitution,” he said. “I don’t see it that way. I look at it very simply that now I stand on the shoulders of my daughter. In all of the things I’m doing right now perhaps I’m as bold as ever, and there’s a reason for that, for that is what she would have me do. If I hedge, she’ll say, ‘Why are you doing that? That is not who you are.’ I even heard her say in her young life: ‘This is my father, this is who he is, and this is what he does, and he does this for the people.’

“All I do for the rest of my life will be done in remembrance of my daughter because she was so committed at a very young age to the things I’m still committed to.”

LaMere’s glad Nebraska may finally own up to its sins.

“At long last Nebraskans have said perhaps it’s time for us to look at this. For once I’m pleased Nebraskans are not going to merely beg the question, they’re going to look at the impact of Whiteclay and maybe we’re going to act and make some of it a little bit better.”

As LaMere sees it, the whole state’s culpable.

“We as Nebraskans are unwittingly, unknowingly responsible for it. We need to act and to mitigate some of those things we’ve helped to cause at Pine Ridge. Even after all this, I say Nebraskans are fair – fair to a fault. Sometimes it takes us so damn long to act.”

The real culprits, he said, are “those in Sheridan County” who’ve turned a blind eye.

“The beer sellers and the rest are going to have hell to pay, not from Frank LaMere, but from the Supreme Court, the Liquor Control Commission, the attorney general, all these other interests, because when they take a good, long hard look at what’s happened, there there’s no way you can reconcile that as being anything close to normal or acceptable.”

As watchdog and conscience, LaMere said he lives out a covenant he made with his creator to serve others.

“I’ve traveled a million miles, spent everything I have, taken time from my family, taken time from myself. At some point, there’s a moral authority you feel. Nobody can give it to you or bestow it on you. Once you acquire it, it means nothing unless there’s a moral imperative that goes with that. I’ve tried to achieve some moral authority and the moral imperative that goes with it.

“I hear every day in my work with different agencies the words ‘by the authority invested in me.’ Means absolutely nothing to me. Doesn’t impress me at all. I don’t care how much authority you have – if you do not use it and if there’s no moral imperative to make things better, it’s meaningless. I meet with those people all the time. They have the authority, but they don’t use it. I’m not being cynical. I have the truth on my side.”

Whiteclay offered duly elected and appointed officials decades of opportunities to act, but they didn’t. LaMere never left the issue or let authorities forget it.

“Sometimes I can go into a room with a hundred people and I have the least amount of authority-power-title, but they have to listen to Frank because he’s put time and energy into it and he’s acquired that moral authority and he uses it. He scares them. They wish he would go away. People have to listen to Frank because he never goes away and there’s nothing in it for him.

“That’s why we made some changes at Whiteclay and that’s how we’re going to make change in our society – gain that moral authority and act.”

LaMere said his greatest asset is the truth.

“Any issues of change, even Whiteclay, you stand with the truth. I’ve learned that over many years. Because once the press conferences, the conventions, the rallies are done, the arrests are made, the petition drives are over, the legislative efforts go by the wayside, the only thing that’s left is the truth. It’s very important you stand with the truth and be recognized having stood with it.

“That’s the only thing that keeps me going. I’m firm, forthright and respectful and always telling the truth. Of late, it has worked in some respects for me.”

If Whiteclay confirmed anything, he said, it’s that “nothing changes unless someone’s made to feel uncomfortable and you have to make yourself uncomfortable.” In dealing with Whiteclay, he said, he expressed his “healthy disrespect for authority.”

“Maybe it’s a character flaw,” he said, “but you can put me in a room with a hundred people and if there’s a bully, before the night’s over I’ll probably butt heads with him.”

As a young man he was active “on the periphery” of the American Indian Movement. Later in life he got close to AIM legends Russell Means and Vernon Bellacourt. The men became allies in many fights.

“I saw Native people and non-Native people be bullied simply because somebody felt they had a position of power over them and whenever I see that I naturally react to that. I don’t care what the issue is, I’ll ask, ‘Who do you think you are? Why are you doing that? Why are you treating him or her that way?’ I’ve said that. I’ve always grown up with that feeling that if somebody is being mistreated, I will always speak up for them.”

Whiteclay offered a microcosm of predatory behavior.

“When I first went to Whiteclay 20 years ago, I took one look and you could see the Natives who went there did not have a voice and were not held in high regard. The owners and residents paid little attention to them. The other thing I saw there was the lawlessness and the mistreatment of vulnerable people being taken advantage of. I saw it and so could everybody else. Then I saw how nobody acted, so I thought perhaps I should give some voice to them.”

The still unsolved murders there of Little John Means, Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk weighed on him. The alcohol-related illness and death of others haunted him.

“The alcohol coming out of Whiteclay has killed scores of Lakotas and we’re still waiting for that one white man or white woman, God forbid, who dies on the road between Rushville and Whiteclay.’

The documentary The Battle for Whiteclay shows LaMere at a hearing railing against “the double standard” that overlooks Native deaths.

“It means we feel there’s two classes of citizens here in this state. Would we allow the things in Whiteclay in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln? I don’t think so. Scores of our people … victimized, orphaned, many of our people murdered. God forbid that one young white woman, one white man, die at Whiteclay tonight. We’d shut the damn thing down in the morning, and the pathetic thing about that is we all know that’s the truth.”

LaMere feels that double-standard still exists.

“We want everything at Whiteclay to be just right, but we cannot even take care of the clear and simple. There’s one thing you know you can do under the law – you can shut them down, and they’ve done that, and they’re having problems keeping them shut.”

He refuses to be patronized because he’s learned from experience that playing the game doesn’t get results.

“You’ll pat me on the head and say, Frank, you’re a great guy, I appreciate what you’re bringing to us, but I know in the back of your mind you don’t want to change anything. You’ll even give me a permit to march or picket. But I bet you won’t do that for 20 years. You can handle a year and then say – this damn guy never goes away, perhaps we should sit and listen to him.”

LaMere regrets the one time he took things for granted.

“I made a mistake many years ago. I raised the issue of Whiteclay. We got a lot initiated with then-Gov. (Ben) Nelson. He put together groups of officials from Sheridan County, Pine Ridge, state agencies, and we talked about the lawlessness issues up there. So we got something in the works a long time ago and I appreciated that process. I made the mistake though of thinking it’s a no-brainer. I thought all I have to do is bring this back to Lincoln and Nebraskans will change it.

“I was too hopeful. Many Nebraskans would change it but those in power did not. Where there’s money involved, nothing is a no-brainer. People are going to weigh the money and the impact. Those with influence and monied interests are probably going to win out. That’s what I watched. Whiteclay is perhaps the poster child for greed, not in Neb. but maybe in the whole nation. It ranks up there with Flint (Mich.).”

For too long, he said, the attitude about Whiteclay was, “We know what we’re doing but it’s going to cost us money, it’s going to cost me to do my job in the public trust. Just leave it the way it is.” Because the problem was allowed to persist, he said, “Whiteclay will go down in our history as something we tolerated and that we will forever be ashamed of, and we’re only going to understand that when the Supreme Court makes that final decision to shut ’em down. Then we’re going to take a look at what we’ve truly done.”

Meanwhile, LaMere won’t rest easy. When well-meaning people offer condolences about Lexie and lament her unfulfilled promise, he said he accepts their sympathy but corrects them, saying, “There’s no unfulfilled promise – it’s more for you to do, it’s more for me to do.

“That’s how it is. That keeps me going. That’s the way I’ll be until I’m not here anymore.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Justice Champion Samuel Walker Calls It as He Sees It

May 30, 2014 1 comment

UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article.  As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out.  My choices may not be what another writer would choose.  That’s the way it goes.  What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present.  That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father.  My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.

 

 

 

Samuel Walker

Samuel Walker

 

Justice Champion Sam Walker Calls It as He Sees It

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.

He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.

“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”

As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.

The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.

“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.

All to no avail.

“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”

After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.

Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.

He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.

 

 

Counter notes
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.

“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”

His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.

“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.

“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”

Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.

As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.

“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”

He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.

As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.

“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”

Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.

“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”

Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.

“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”

In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.

More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.

“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.

“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”

[© Ellen Lake]

Photo caption:

Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.

 

Mississippi burning

He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.

“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”

Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.

“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”

Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.

Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.

“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”

He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”

Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.

“The training was very intense.”

He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.

“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”

In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.

“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”

Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.

The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.

Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.

“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.

“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”

While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.

“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”

Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.

Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.

“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”

The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”

The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.

Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”

The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.

As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.

“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”

 

One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy

 

Police watchdog
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.

His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.

“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”

Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.

By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.

“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”

Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.

“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.

He says policing’s come a long way.

“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.'”

Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.

“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”

In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”

In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”

He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.

“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”

He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.

 

 

He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”

(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)

He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”

In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”

At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.

“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.'”

He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.

“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”

He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.

 

 

 

His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”

He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”

He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”

He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”

His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.

With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.

He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.

Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.

As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.

 

 

El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System

July 22, 2012 3 comments

 

When people refer to “the grassroots” in communities they are generally describing average men women busy living their lives, working jobs, raising families, and thus mostly disconnected from the official city apparatus, such as law enforcement, in place to protect and serve them.  This is especially true of inner city neighborhoods with a high proportion of residents for whom English is a second language.  There’s often a built-in distrust of The System.  One attempt to bridge he divide in South Omaha’s barrios is El Puente, a joint effort by a local minister, Rev. Alberto Silva, and a local journalist, Ben Salazar, with deep ties to the Latino community there.  This is their story.

 

 

 

photo
Grace United Methodist Church, ©photo by The Bouncing Czech

 

 

El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

Experience has taught two longtime South Omaha community activists that a gulf exists between some residents and those assigned to protect and serve them.

Nuestro Mundo publisher Ben Salazar and Grace United Methodist Church pastor Alberto Silva recognize the need for a confidential, community-based advisory service that operates independently of police or government.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out there is this fear on the part of many immigrants and Spanish speakers to come forward and speak to the police when an issue arises, so we know there’s a void there that we hope to bridge,” said Salazar.

That reality led Salazar and Rev. Silva to form El Puente or The Bridge as a conduit that links community members with professionals. A March 29 press conference at Grace announced the nonprofit, a companion project to the church’s Latino empowerment outreach program, La Casa Del Pueblo. Both are based at the church, 2418 E Street.

The men say many things explain why individuals remain silent rather than contact officials: a person’s illegal or undocumented status; fear/distrust of authority; language barriers; and unfamiliarity with the social service, law enforcement, justice systems.

Salazar and Silva say they and other volunteers staffing El Puente can directly assist inquirers or refer them to experts.

Already, Silva said El Puente’s fielded complaints of racial profiling, discrimination and domestic violence. Tips about criminal activity are welcome. Whenever possible, a person’s identity is kept private. As necessary, information is passed onto authorities or agencies. In many cases El Puente connects people to social and/or legal services.

 

 

Picture

 

Rev. Alberto Silva

 

 

 

Journalists and ministers don’t often work together, but this newsman and preacher saw they could do more together than apart.

“Since we both worked almost exclusively with the Latino community in different ways we knew that if we merged our experiences together in this effort it would be beneficial to the community because we know the void exists,” said Salazar.

Both want the community and police to view each other as allies, not adversaries.

“The whole thing for me is I want to see collaboration between the police and the Latino community,” said Silva. “The domestic violence issue is very prevalent right now, but there’s such a fear.”

As illustration, he said a young Latina at the press conference testified she did not report her former partner’s domestic violence against her because he was a U.S. citizen and she was not. Rather than jeopardize her residency status, her abuse went unspoken. Silva said the woman went on to say she and others in such predicaments would welcome a resource like El Puente.

Silva has a sense there’s a big problem out there. “I have been dealing with a lot of domestic violence cases. People keep calling with these types of issues, especially immigrant women,” he said. Ideally, he said, El Puente can link men or women or families to counseling or shelters or other assistance they need.

 

Nuestro Mundo publisher Ben Salazar, ©nuestromundonewspaper-nebraska.com

Nuestro Mundo publisher Ben Salazar

 

 

 

The need for a discreet sounding board may be greater than ever because the anti-immigrant climate imposes a chilling effect on people volunteering or reporting things, say Salazar and Silva. They feel the recent “green card” incident targeting South High athletes and fans was a symptom of racist fervor that “gives license” to prejudice.

“My opinion is that discrimination has been holding on fast like Jim Crow for years, maybe just not as blatantly as now,” said Salazar.

“It just went underground for a little bit,” said Silva. “It wasn’t socially acceptable to display it or talk about it like it is now again.”

Silva said soon after El Puente’s launch, several people reported loved ones being detained after traffic stops. Those kinds of incidents, he and Salazar say, diminish trust and discourage some Latinos from expressing their concerns or asserting their rights.

“How are they going to have that trust to come forward when they hear that people are getting stopped on the Interstate and being taken directly to the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office and held for deportation?” Silva asked. “People are disgusted with the graffiti problem. They would love to come forward but how are they going to go to the police when you have this immigration enforcement mentality permeating the thought of the immigrant community?”

The absence of an Omaha police auditor office is a barrier to people reporting possible law enforcement misconduct, say El Puente leaders.

Southeast precinct captain Kathy Gonzalez acknowledges that “sometimes people don’t feel comfortable coming directly to the police department.” She endorses El Puente, terming its bridge or mediator role “a huge asset” and “a working partnership between the police and the community. She added, “Sometimes people don’t know where to turn…so it’s just one more step that can assist us with community outreach and it’s one more place they can go to get connected to resources.”

Retired Omaha Police Department officer Virgil Patlan sees El Puente, which he volunteers with, as “an extension” of the community policing efforts of the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association he headed up. “We can work with people in ways the police can’t,” he said. “It’s just better to have someone not in uniform that the community may feel more comfortable with. He frees up the police also.”

Patlan, Silva and Salazar say they have ample street credibility but “building trust” is an ongoing process. Silva said it’s critical people know what they say will be held in strictest confidence. Patlan said he and his El Puente compadres each bring something unique to the task: “We’re not from the same mold and yet we all complement each other in certain ways. We just love the community, there’s no doubt about that.” Each boasts extensive community connections.

Despite not being immigrants themselves, Salazar said they don’t feel “completely removed” “because our parents and grandparents were a part of that experience. And it’s not purely an immigrant experience per se we’re responding to. It is a Latino experience of living in this country. Discrimination is not limited to legal status. Often times even Latinos who are second-third generation born here are treated as outsiders, as immigrants, as not fully a part of the Anglo society.”

El Puente contact numbers are: (Silva) 650-0848, (Salazar) 731-6210 and (La Casa) 614-2820.

Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Model

July 21, 2012 2 comments

 

Gang prevention-intervention efforts run the gamut.  One that’s drawn lots of attention is Homeboy Industries, an East L.A. program founded and directed by Rev. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has serious cred on the mean streets there for helping gangbangers find pathways to employability.  I wrote this article in advance of a talk Boyle gave in Omaha a couple years ago.  His experiences working with gang members and getting many to give up that life are told in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

 

 

 

 

Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle‘s Homeboy Model

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

The gang intervention efforts of a Jesuit priest in East Los Angeles have grown into Homeboy Industries, which provides mostly Latino participants work and life skills training, counseling and, most importantly, opportunity for hope.

The much profiled program has many communities, including Omaha, looking to its founder, Rev. Greg Boyle, for guidance in dealing with their own gang issues. Boyle, an acknowledged expert in the field, will be in Omaha Feb. 24 to discuss the successful therapeutic and employability approach his nonprofit takes and how it may be a model for Omaha.

From 1 to 4 p.m. at Creighton University‘s Harper Center Boyle will consult with community leaders engaged in gang intervention, prevention and workforce development efforts. At 5 p.m. he meets with Mayor Jim Suttle and Omaha City Council members. At 7 Boyle will deliver a public lecture and sign copies of his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, at Metropolitan Community College‘s South Omaha campus, in Room 120 of the Industrial Training Center, 27th and Q Streets.

Rev. Howard Dotson, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Omaha, invited Boyle after hearing him speak last year in L.A., where Dotson also did gang intervention work. One thing Boyle says he’s learned from 20-plus years dealing with gang bangers is that “just like recovery in alcohol and drugs,” where “it takes what it takes to finally stop getting high,” it’s the same for gang members leaving The Life. “It can be the death of a friend, the birth of a son, a long stretch in prison. Like in recovery you don’t have to hit bottom, but maybe it will take that.”

He says gangs are not a crime issue but a community health issue like other social dilemmas (homelessness, addictions, prostitution).To address the complex problems gang members present he says Homeboy offers mental health services, along with employment opportunities, life coaching, “plus every imaginable curricular thing, from anger management to parenting — you name it, we have it.”

The program operates businesses that employ gang members, including a bakery, a cafe, a silkscreen shop, a merchandise store and a maintenance service. More than a job Boyle says Homeboy provides an avenue for “healing to take place.” Enemy gang members work side by side to break down barriers.

“Once they have a real palpable experience of community then it will shine light on the dark corners of gang life,” he says. “They realize how empty and hollow all that had been in the past. The community trumps gang.”

He says suspicion and animosity dwindle amid shared goals and cooperation.

“Their common interest is that they want to work. Before too long they become fast, wonderful friends. It’s one of those things you can actually take to the bank — it’s going to happen. They’re going to bond in a way they’ve never known in their family and they’ve never known in their gang certainly.”

 

 

 

 

Boyle says the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of Homeboy is why cities like Seattle and Wichita adopt some of its methods. Some observers credit Homeboy and community policing with helping dramatically reduce L.A.’s homicide rate.

“No nonprofit in L.A. County has a greater impact on the public safety than this place because we engage so many gang members,” says Boyle, who estimates “all 1,100 known gangs in the county have had somebody walk in here at some time or another.”

“I would say what makes us unique is this therapeutic model — attachment repair and a secure base is what we call it. We try to help people engage in their own healing so they can re-identify who they are in the world. Then they can go out in the world and the world will throw at them what it will but it won’t topple them because they’ve had this palpable experience of community and the chance to figure out who they are. It works.”

Dotson’s convinced Boyle and Homeboy have something to offer Omaha.

“To get jobs and to get rehabilitation for kids coming out of correction is the best way to stop the bullet.,” says Dotson. “You need to invest in these kids. If you give them a sense of hope and a sense of agency and some of that unconditional love many of them never got, then you reduce the gang problem.

“As church and community we have to meet people where they’re at and Fr. Greg and the people who support Homeboy understand that.”

South Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs gang prevention specialist Alberto Gonzales says the need for a Homeboy model here is greater than ever in light of recent cuts. Funding for anti-gang work he did in local schools has been eliminated. The Latino Center of the Midlands has disbanded its substance abuse counseling program.

“Where’s the Latino community going to turn to?” says Gonzales. “People need a place they can go to where they can cry out, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’ve done, I need help.’ These programs are definitely a must.”

Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha

July 17, 2012 7 comments

 

Omaha’s had a problem with gangs for a quarter century now.  Most American cities share the same scourge, more or less.  It’s good to be reminded that law enforcement efforts to deal with the problem don’t begin and end with patrolling hot zones or investing crimes or making arrests, they also include grassroots community engagement to try and steer young kids away from the pull of gangs into positive activities.  The following story I wrote for El Perico a few years ago describes the community prevention-intervention work of one cop in Omaha, Det. Tony Espejo with the gang unit.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

For Omaha Police Department Gang Unit detective Tony Espejo, being honored as National Latino Peace Officers Association Officer of the Year in Austin, Texas earlier this month brought full circle the community service his parents modeled for him.

As long as he can remember, he said his folks, Juana and Ezequiel Espejo, “have been advocates in the community…Growing up, we always opened our house up to people. My mom is a big advocate in the YWCA. A lot of people know her. She’s had a huge hand in helping a lot of immigrant families.”

Today, Espejo, who’s married with two children, serves that same community working out of the Southeast Precinct. It’s a different environment than the small, tight-knit environment he knew as a boy. Families then were more cohesive, youth activities more numerous.The Gross High grad dropped out of college, then entered the military.

“I wasn’t doing bad things but I wasn’t doing great things. Boy, the Marine Corps got me on the straight and narrow, it got me organized. I grew up is what I did.

When he returned home, he found a new immigrant population reenergizing the area. But there was a new problem: unsupervised youths running the streets, trafficking in drugs, engaging in driveby shootings.

“The graffiti and gang problem was probably the biggest shocker for me,” he said. “When I left in 1992 it was just starting. I think there was one Hispanic gang in south Omaha and I knew all the kids in it. We used to play sandlot baseball and football together. I came back and these guys were full blown gangsters and there were three or four different gangs by then. Before, there was not the violence I all of a sudden walked into here. This wasn’t the south Omaha I knew.”

Back home his desire “to make things better” prompted him to become a cop.

“There weren’t a lot of Mexican police officers at the time, you rarely saw any on the street,” he said. Eventually assigned his old stomping grounds, he joined the gang unit in 2004. He said, “I kind of looked at it from a problem-solving aspect. Why are these kids doing this? What is the root of the problem?”

 

 

 

 

In 2005 the example of two men he met planted a seed. In Chicago, Bob Muzikowski channeled kids from the notorious Cabrini-Green projects into baseball. Locally, Stoney Hays funneled kids into Boys and Girls Club activities. Espejo liked the idea of recruiting at-risk kids away from gangs into something structured and positive. His first inclination was baseball, but the youth he ran into had other ideas.

“I would drive around on patrol and see all these different groups of kids playing soccer.

I didn’t know anything about soccer, but it’s huge for these kids.”

He formed a soccer league with help from the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association. It’s grown from six to 18 teams. He enlists kids he happens upon.

“There’s always a leader,” he said.”I find that kid and make him responsible. I let the group pick their own team name, colors, uniform. It means something to them. I want the kids to be proud of being from south Omaha.”

He said young people crave “a sense of belonging. They’re ripe for the picking.” His intervention program tries reaching kids before gangs do.

He and fellow officers volunteer as coaches. The consistency of positive adult role models, he said, “is probably the biggest thing missing in a lot of families nowadays.”

 

©photo by Jose Francisco Garcia

 

 

 

Participation’s free. Uniforms provided. But, he said, “we aren’t just giving it out, they have to put out and practice.” They have to act right.

“We emphasize we’re not just coaches, we’re police officers, so if you do get in trouble we’re going to find out about it, and we’d hate for you to embarrass us because we’re here to help you guys out. I’ve had my disappointments. Two leaders turned out to be little gangsters. I recently arrested one of my guys. I take it personally, because I took my chance to change them. I can’t be there every day for them. You can only carry them so far. At some point you gotta let ‘em go, and hopefully that little bit of time we spend with them, they’re going to make the right decision.”

The relationships built, he said, allow kids “to see officers in a different light. It humanizes us. And it gives officers an idea of what it’s like to live down here for these kids. A lot of them come from dysfunctional homes. They tell us their problems.”

The kids he started with are graduating high school and moving on with their lives.

He’s since added a baseball league. He wants to expand his efforts into north Omaha.

Along with mentoring kids, he educates parents about the dangers of gang involvement. He said his bilingual skills and respected family name “open up doors for me.”

He described his award as “huge.” Meeting distinguished Latinos in Austin, he said, “was a big inspiration. Now I know I can achieve higher, I should achieve higher. It means a lot for me to be even considered that caliber of person. But I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t have other officers and volunteers helping me out on their own time.”

With 300 kids participating, he needs more fields, volunteers, sponsors. “This thing’s only limited by funding,” he said. “It’s a huge commitment, but it’s the right thing to do.”

To donate or volunteer, call 402-510-1495.

Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet

July 15, 2012 6 comments

The heartbeat of any strong neighborhood is committed residents taking positive action to improve conditions.  The South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance brings together the leaders of several neighborhood associations in the South O district, together with representatives of police, community, and political entities serving the area, to focus on doing what’s necessary to keep the neighborhoods safe, clean, and welcoming to residents, business and property owners, and visitors.  My story appeared a couple years ago in El Perico.

Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance (SONA) meetings at the Omaha Police Department’s Southeast Precinct bring together neighborhood association leaders with public servants for a Frank Capraesque community forum.

It’s classic American democracy in action. Dozens of participants at an August 5 meeting listened to reports from Southeast Precinct captain Kathy Gonzalez, mayoral liaison Roger Garcia, Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt and various SONA members. Anyone who wanted an opportunity to speak was afforded the chance.

Violent crime, graffiti, robberies, burglaries and drug-prostitution activity have been on the rise this summer, Gonzalez reported. Some neighborhood association presidents confirmed the same, posing specific questions about police response.

Frank, yet measured discussion ensued for two hours, even on hot button topics like Mayor Jim Suttle’s proposed tax hikes. Gernandt, who represents south Omaha’s District 4, addressed the city’s budget woes, fielding questions and recommendations. Neighborhood leaders also announced activities happening in their neighborhoods.

SONA serves as sounding board, network, organizer and catalyst for neighborhood residents and local government in addressing issues and sharing news.

“The advantage is anytime you bring people together to share information, best practices or activities then it can spur ideas that enhance neighborhoods” said Hanscom Park Neighborhood Association president Mike Battershell. He said SONA neighborhoods like his often “team up” to tackle cleanup and beautification projects.

SONA members are volunteer activists and advocates dedicated to making their community more livable. President Duane Brooks said, “It’s a labor of love.”

Battershell said he finds satisfaction in helping affect change in “my own backyard.”

For a neighborhood association, especially a small one, having its lone voice heard above the din is difficult. SONA amplifies things with its coalition of 45 neighborhood associations and community service organizations. Together, they raise the roof and speak as one unified voice to public-private partners and members.

“If you only have a hundred households, you don’t carry the same weight or clout with city hall or the state legislature that you do with more people, a larger constituency base,” said SONA member Don Preister. He should know. He served the interests of south Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature. He currently serves on the Bellevue City Council.

Back in the ‘90s Preister set in motion events that led to SONA.

“It was apparent we needed a greater area of south Omaha represented,” he said. “If one part of south Omaha had a problem then if we stood united we could bring more resources, more people, and we could get more city, county, state assistance. I invited all of the neighborhood association officers to a meeting and asked what they thought of the idea of us all banding together. It was unanimous, so we formed the organization.”

Originally called SONAR (South Omaha Neighborhood Action and Response), the group merged with the South Omaha Neighborhood Association to form SONA.

By whatever name it’s gone, Anita Rojas has seen the power of collective action. Her home looked out on the abandoned Wilson packing plant, a massive eye sore that posed safety problems and drove down property values. As Highland South Neighborhood Association president, she joined SONA’s efforts in getting the city to clear and abate the site. Today, it’s home to the $75 million Salvation Army Kroc Center.  She said SONA helped turn a once “hopeless” scenario into something “beautiful.”

Currently, SONA’s Preister and others are working with public and private interests in the search for a south Omaha lead staging area. SONA members contributed to the South Omaha Development Project master plan. Some, like Preister, are working on its implementation. SONA’s keeping a close eye on the project, all part of holding themselves, project leaders and elected representatives accountable.

“SONA’s been an excellent conduit for sharing information, for uniting and bringing additional resources together,” said Preister. “Prior to SONA it was rare that elected officials would be a part of these meetings and activities but since the forming we’ve had the mayor attend somewhat regularly. We have state senators and city councilmen attend nearly all the meetings. We have the ear of elected officials, we have the ear of business owners for cooperating and being good neighbors and working with neighborhoods. We’ve got action on code enforcement.

“It was largely through SONA the police decided they could do something about graffiti. We worked with the police, we worked with prosecutors, then we got the judges on board and they recognized this is a crime against our community and the neighborhoods. Now we’re getting prosecutions.”

Gernandt regards SONA as a vital collaborative between government and citizenry:

“What better place could an elected official go to get 30 leaders of various neighborhood groups and organizations in one room for information and feedback? It’s a very open forum. If there’s anything the alliance can do to help government and if there’s anything government can do to help the alliance, we have the ability to make that connection.”

It’s not about bashing elected officials or making complaints.

“One thing SONA has done exceptionally well is not focus only on the problems,” said Battershell. “We’re as much about solutions and responding to neighborhood needs and being a pro-active partner with the city rather than only calling when there’s problems.”

Gernandt appreciates SONA’s approach, saying, “This group has never played the blame game. It’s always had constructive criticism.”

 

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Dream Police


Like a lot of folks I have a wary attitude when it comes to the police and I’d rather only see them when I need them but I must say that the few encounters I’ve had with them have been positive. They obviously do an important and often thankless job and it’s certainly one I wouldn’t want to do myself.  The following Omaha Magazine feature from the mid-2000s profiles some distinguished Omaha Police Department officers at the time.  Some of them have since moved onto new positions.  I recall being impressed by these law enforcement professionals as individuals and as a group.

 

 

police officer law enforcement picture and wallpaper

 

 

Dream Police

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Devotion. Desire. Duty. The men and women in uniform with the Omaha Police Department share these qualities in performing their public service mission. Each has his or her own story of what led them into law enforcement and what keeps them there. Some followed family legacies, others became the first in their family to carry the shield. Some worked different careers before coming to OPD, others joined right out of high school or college.

However they arrived at taking the oath to protect and to serve, they all regard their work in blue as a calling they can’t imagine their lives without.

Five OPD officers who’ve distinguished themselves on the job recently shared their stories. At a time when the department is still responding to last year’s sudden, massive wave of retired veterans, these five represent the current and future leadership of OPD. They are Omaha’s Dream Police.

Sgt. Anna SewellSgt. Anna Sewell

Dayton, Ohio native Sgt. Anna Sewell grew up an only child to a single mother who served as a volunteer neighborhood assistant officer with the Dayton police. Sewell cherished the close bonds of her small, cohesive family, whose ties she found the equivalent of in law enforcement.

“It was just something I was raised around and always knew,” she said. “Were there other options? I’m sure there were. Did I ever consider them? No.”

After high school she signed up for the law enforcement end of the Air Force. “I figured I would join the military and go see the world, and boy did I ever,” said Sewell, whose service career continues as a reservist.

The globe-trotter finally settled at Offutt Air Force Base. After giving the business world a whirl she applied with OPD, she said, “as a challenge to myself.” She passed with flying colors and joined the force in 1999. Being a cop felt right.

“We are in so many ways just like the military,” she said. “We have that brotherhood, that sense of family — territory I’m familiar with.”

About the time she entered the Omaha Police Training Academy she began accelerated studies at Bellevue University, where she made the Dean’s list and Who’s Who among college students. She graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s in human resource management. Already the first in her family with a high school diploma she became the first with a college degree. She’s since earned a master’s in management and is now working on a second master’s in business.

The single Sewell is also an entrepreneur with her own security company.

“I’m basically breaking a whole lot of new ground in my family. In my mom’s eyes I am the example for my cousins to follow, which is fine.”

The Internal Affairs investigator reached the rank of sergeant in only six years. She learned of her promotion while in Iraq as a volunteer reserve medic.

The biracial Sewell said while her ethnicity has never been a barrier she feels she must work harder to stay competitive.

“As a minority I have to put my ethnicity and gender aside so that when you line me up I’m standing toe-to-toe right alongside everyone else,” she said. “You always have to prove yourself as a female in a predominantly male work field. It’s up to me to make sure I’m at the top of my game, that I’m not perceived as weak.”

She’s sampled many aspects of the department to prepare for her dream job. “Somewhere in my future there’s an office up on this floor that has lots of windows,” she said from the administrative suite. “It may not be top dog but it might not be too far. I’m thinking deputy chief.”

Officer Dawn Chizek
It’s easy for 24-year veteran Dawn Chizek to relate to the troubled kids she encounters as Millard South High School’s School Resource Officer (SRO). She grew up in a “pretty dysfunctional family.”

“I think the best police officers are people who’ve been a little on both sides. Empathy is probably one of the necessary requirements as a police officer. You’ve got to be able to put yourself in that situation and help effectively deal with that person and their need at that moment,” she said.

“I tell kids all the time, whatever that situation is they’re in, no matter how shitty it is, they can use it as an excuse to fail or as a reason to succeed. That’s my mantra, it truly is. It’s definitely about personal choice.”

Chizek’s hard times influenced her interest in being a cop. Why? “I think I saw a lot of injustice and unfairness in what I was dealt,” she said. Being a cop meant she could “go out and kick butt, take names and save the world.”

The Bellevue East High School grad attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha and applied with OPD. She made the grade and joined the force at 19.

“All the studies say I should been a high school drop out, but I wanted more. I wanted better than the surroundings and the situation I was thrust into,” she said.

Proving herself was another thing.

“It was not easy,” she said. “You talk about three strikes against you, try being a blond, female 19-year-old recruit in 1984. But they didn’t know my story. I was much older than my years. I had a lot of real life experience.”

She jumped at the chance to be Millard South’s SRO, a job she calls “the most rewarding and fulfilling” of her career.

“This is where I live, this is where my kids go to school. I want to work in my community, where I have a stake in what happens. I want to have an impact where it means the most,” said Chizek, who’s married with two children.

Officially there to dismantle barriers between youth and police, she said she can be kids’ best buddy, but “if they cross the line they know dang well I’m going to hold them accountable. I do make arrests. Just like in the real world we spend 90 percent of our time dealing with 10 percent of the population.”

“I take very seriously my role here. I am very much in tune with what’s going on out in the community because the kids talk to me and tell me what goes on on the weekends, and what happens on the weekends carries over to school.”

 

 

 

 

Capt. Mark Martinez
Police work is a family inheritance for Mark Martinez. His father Al retired after 33 years with OPD. An uncle was a cop. His brothers Al and John are cops. Four cousins as well. Yet he said it was not a foregone conclusion he would be, too.

“I really didn’t know until I went to UNO and decided to study criminal justice,” he said.

He acknowledges this lineage in blue gave him a valuable perspective.

“My father was always community-oriented, civic-minded, always a contributor. So I think I had an idea I wanted to be a public servant, which is much more than arresting bad guys,” he said. “That attracted me.”

The South High grad only entered law enforcement after getting his degree at UNO. He was a Douglas County Sheriff’s Office crime lab technician before joining OPD in 1984. That same year he and wife Cindy got married. They have four children. “She’s the rock,” he said.

He terms his present duty as Southeast Precinct Captain “a dream job. I grew up in this precinct. I have family and friends here.” He said his “passion and ownership for the area” allows him to “get more done. I know the importance of building a relationship between the police and the community. It’s critical.”

Being a Latino in a predominantly Latino district helps.

“I think it goes a long way when the captain has a Spanish surname. I think it’s good for the people of our community. It’s good for our youth. I think I have the advantage of being able to reach out and do some things to build that bridge. I think we’re doing that.”

Martinez is proud of being a trailblazer.

“When I first came on I think the highest ranking Latino was a sergeant. I really felt the need to set some goals and to try to achieve those goals and one of them was to get promoted,” he said.

As the department’s first Latino captain consider that mission accomplished. Along the way he earned a master’s degreee. The Omaha Public School board member emphasizes school-police cooperation.

Retirement was an option last year but he stayed on for a reason.

“There’s at least one other goal I want to achieve here,” he said. “I applied to be chief and I didn’t make the final cut but I’m still in line for promotion to deputy chief. We’ll see what happens.”

 

 

Officer Jonathan Gorden
Following the footsteps of a father (Michael Gorden) who logged 30 years with OPD, Jonathan Gorden felt the pull of police duty.

“Needless to say I grew up around the badge,” he said. “It was in my blood and it never left me.”

The 24-year-old just passed his first anniversary on the job.

“If you’re signing up for the gunfights, chases and wild and crazy things, this isn’t that,” he said. “I found out real quick you’re going to make a reputation for yourself more with a pen and paper than you are anything else. No investigation, no arrest is worth anything unless you know how to write a good report. It’s absolutely crucial to every part of the judicial system.”

The Creighton Prep-Creighton University grad draws on his education every day.

He tested the waters in the business world but a cop’s life called to him. “I just knew in my heart it was something I had to try. Until I did try it I would never be satisfied.”

His dad’s experiences told him “it’s not a normal 9-to-5. It’s a lifestyle. You’re a cop 24 hours a day and you’re held to a higher standard by your employer, by your city, and because of that you have to hold yourself to a higher standard. It takes a complete commitment from your family” he said.

Every day on the job he learns something.

“The biggest thing as a young officer is learning to be patient,” he said. “I’ve picked up from the veteran officers you have to let people vent a little bit. Emotions are usually pretty high and by just listening it does wonders.”

He can attest that rookies are scrutinized.

“You’re not immediately accepted into your crew and the job,” he said. “You’re definitely watched. Little by little, day by day, your skin gets a little bit thicker, you get a little more comfortable. It is a powerful bond being with ordinary men and women doing an extraordinary job. We’re trusting each other with our lives and that’s something you hold very dearly.”

Commendations are nice, he said, but the real rewards come from proving one’s self in the line of duty.

“Having your crew believe you’re capable really builds confidence,” he said.

Gorden has designs on one day teaching at the academy like his dad. He’s also “intrigued by” the detective bureau.

Lt. Tim Carmody
Going from a broken home to successful husband, father and commander of OPD’s Emergency Response Unit, Tim Carmody is proof one can overcome challenges.

“Even those negative environments can have a positive effect if you focus in the right direction,” he said.

He feels his background gives him insights into people and their issues. Said Carmody, “It helps me understand things.”

His path to law enforcement came via retail loss prevention work, which saw him identify and apprehend shoplifters for discount chain stores.

“I’ve always felt like serving people. I don’t like people being victimized.”

He studied criminal justice at UNO and Bellevue University. He first wore the badge at 22 as a deputy sheriff with the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office. He joined OPD in 1988. It’s where he feels he’s meant to serve.

“I know the city, I’m a home grown kid. I love serving this community. I believe in this place. It’s a passion for me.”

His OPD career has been everything and more he thought it could be.

“I’ve been blessed with some of the best jobs this department has to offer.”

Today, as Emergency Response Unit commander, he oversees the SWAT, bomb response, canine explosives detection and Homeland Security teams. Much of his work involves collaborating with other agencies and disciplines. Cooperation is key. That goes for police-community relations as well.

“We can’t do this alone as a department,” he said. “Neighborhood associations, precinct committees — they are the key role players that help us understand what’s going on and what needs to be done.”

In the wake of so many OPD senior officers retiring he’s preparing young officers for future leadership roles. “I’m trying to mentor and lead people more,” he said, “and to share that knowledge to help them grow faster.” He enjoys teaching, which he’s also done away from work as a Boy Scouts Master and lay leader at his church. Faith and family are the anchors of his life.

“Spending time with my family and friends has a tremendous value in renergizing my batteries,” he said, “and in just staying grounded. It makes a huge difference.”

He needed that support after the Von Maur shooting last year. His command post was called to the scene and in the melee, he said, “everything’s on auto-pilot — you’re just functioning. Then, when I finally took a breath it all hit me, the reality of it all, and the people that died that day.”

“Those are the things that you’ll never forget.”

He calls the special fraternity he’s a part of “very fulfilling and rewarding. There’s nothing that compares to it.”


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