Senator and attorney Justin Wayne: Omaha on verge of change or destruction

Protestors in Omaha last week (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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June 3, 2020 - 5:34pm

A state senator and lawyer for the family of James Scurlock, a black man shot to death by a white bar owner during a protest in Omaha, says the city is on the brink of change  -- or destruction. This comes as a prosecutor who declined to file charges is now calling for a grand jury.

When he’s not attending to his legislative duties, Sen. Justin Wayne works as a lawyer in Omaha. In that capacity, he represents the family of James Scurlock, a black man who was killed by white bar owner Jake Gardner Saturday night. Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced Monday he was not filing charges against Gardner. Kleine cited video evidence he reviewed with his staff. 

“We viewed it with all the homicide detectives that were involved in this case, the command staff of the Omaha Police Department and that was that the actions of the shooter, there was a consensus about the evidence that we had at this time in this case, and that was that the actions of the shooter --the bar owner -- were justified,” Kleine said.

Kleine said those videos show Gardner in a confrontation with two people who knocked him down, after which he fired what Gardner called “warning shots.” Scurlock then jumps on Gardner, who struggles and shoots Scurlock, killing him.

Wayne has a different interpretation.

“The story that was laid out by Mr. Kleine was very incomplete, and there is a different picture – a picture of James actually being a hero and trying to protect his friends from an aggressor,” Wayne said.

Wayne said as more eyewitnesses and videos emerge of events and confrontations leading up to the shooting, that may change views about whether Gardner was justified.

“Let’s say that the aggressor happens to be the bar owner. By definition and by legal definition, you can’t be the aggressor and then claim self-defense later,” he said.

Attempts by NET News to reach Gardner or a lawyer who has represented him in other matters were unsuccessful.

Wayne said people in his north Omaha district are very upset. But even before the shooting, Wayne said, many of his constituents were saying looting and property damage were taking away the original focus of the demonstrations on police mistreatment of minorities.

“Most of the people that I talked to that night felt like ‘I went home, I didn’t go downtown, because the message has been hijacked.’ It’s been hijacked to this anarchy, to this against-all-government, just to be against something. Not the narrow focus of police brutality,” he said.

But Wayne said Scurlock’s death has restored that focus, originally sparked by the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, and broadened that focus in Omaha.

“The message of George Floyd was lost. It has now reemerged because of this murder, but it’s not quite the same. The message has changed to ‘Now it’s about the system,’” he said.

Asked how these events have affected him personally, Wayne, the son of a black father and white mother, got philosophical.

“I’m biracial. And I say that to say I grew up with the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds. That when you’re on social media and you have family members from all spectrums, from Trump supporters to anti-Trump supporters, from ‘We love Biden’ (to) ‘We hate Biden, you can’t escape it,” he said.

And he also said he feels tremendous responsibility.

“As a state senator, you’re sitting there watching this protest saying that ‘We are on the verge.’ We are on the verge of making a change or we are on the verge of burning down a city. And you’re kind of the one who is holding the stop sign saying “Go” or “Stop.” And it’s – it’s heavy,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Sen. Wayne will be one of the guests tomorrow on a special edition of Speaking of Nebraska, along with Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and Lincoln Pastor John Harris. The first half of the program will be a discussion about the protests and the issues they raise; the second half will be about Nebraskans personal experiences during the corornavirus pandemic. The program will air at 8:30 Central Thursday night on NET Television and NET Radio.







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