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City Limits

‘People Were So Stunned That a 12-Year-Old Could Have Been Possibly Holding a Gun’

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: North Omaha, Nebraska.

The tragic May shooting death of Omaha Detective Kerrie Orozco, who was just days away from maternity leave, thrust gun violence in Nebraska’s largest city into the national spotlight. But gunfire has plagued the city of 400,000 for decades: In 2013, nearly 90 percent of the state’s 57 murders were committed in Omaha; more than two dozen of those involved a firearm.

Much of this crime is clustered in North Omaha, a small segment of the city home to just over 40,000 people and an estimated 29 gang cliques. In some parts of North Omaha, nearly half of the residents live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate has been estimated to be as as high as 25 percent, compared to the state’s nation-low 2.7 percent. The vast majority of the neighborhood’s shootings are centered on North 24th Street, a two-way boulevard in the heart of Omaha’s once-thriving African-American community, known in better years as the “Street of Dreams.”

As part of a new weekly series, The Trace shares the stories of Americans living in the midst of the nation’s urban gun violence epidemic.

The reporter asking when the bad news will stop

Alissa Skelton, 26, grew up in the Benson neighborhood in north-central Omaha and has been a crime enterprise reporter at the Omaha World-Herald for two years.  

“Right now a big story in Omaha is one where three teens were involved in a shooting in Miller Park, right along 24th Street, which is kind of a thoroughfare for gun violence. The youngest boy involved is 12 years old. People were so stunned that a 12-year-old could have been possibly holding a gun. It’s shocked our community to the point of, ‘When is this going to stop? When are we going to start intervening in youth’s lives, and how are we going to do it?’

Gang members here get their guns through burglaries. Houses will get hit after they see someone going out to hunt, or if they know there are guns inside. I wrote about one case where someone broke into someone’s apartment and stole the entire gun case. It’s happening all over the city. People in west Omaha, which is a richer part of town, complain more about it, but I’ve seen reports, even in North Omaha, of people getting their guns stolen.

I was also involved in the coverage of Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people in Omaha after he was released from prison in 2013. The killings really shook Nebraska. That was the first case where I was like, “Wow.” Jenkins told prison officials that he planned to kill when he was released — very violent threats written in letters — and he asked to be institutionalized, but that never happened. The psychologist at the prison said he was making it up. There’s really no procedure to put someone in a facility if authorities don’t think someone is mentally ill. The state knew this guy was preparing to go on a killing rampage, and they did nothing. The families of the victims have filed lawsuits, and public policy on mental health for prisoners has changed as a result.

The gun-rights climate is very interesting in Nebraska in general, because there are a lot of hunters here, and the hunters want to keep the gun rights the way they are. They don’t view gun violence the way those in Omaha do.”

The local leader raising uncomfortable truths

State Senator Ernie Chambers, 78, has represented Omaha’s 11th District for 42 years, making him the longest-serving state senator in Nebraska history. He grew up in North Omaha, where he still lives.

“They say guns don’t kill people. Well, these guns do a pretty good job, in a short period of time, of killing a whole lot of people.

Not that long ago, there was a rash of underage drinking at various parties around Nebraska, so they put together a multidisciplinary task force to find the adults who were sponsoring these keg parties: ‘We’re not going to just go after the kids holding these parties. We’re going after the suppliers.’ You know why? Because these parties involved white kids. When methamphetamine became the scourge, they put through legislation so you’d have to sign a registry to get cold medicine so the scourge could be brought under control — once again, in the white community. But when shootings occur in the black community, all of the agencies turn a blind eye to it. I’ve been railing against it for a decade, and nothing is done.

They talk about black-on-black crime. I say, communities commit crime among the people they live around. But since the black community is the enemy — we are the ‘other,’ we are the ones hated more than anyone else, by everyone else — they focus on what happens here, even though it happens in other communities. You tell people a dog is rabid, people in fear will kill it: ‘It needs to be eradicated now.’ Black people are dangerous, black people are killers, all they can do is lock them up and kill them.

I tell people when they have their marches, when they have their prayer vigils, when they build their makeshift memorials, that I will not criticize them — because the community wants to feel like they’re helping. The media are of, by, and for white people. Everything is done to titillate white people, to please them, to provoke them, but other groups are the subject matter: They are studied, dissected, analyzed, and synthesized. And when the white people are done with them, they move on. But the problems remain.

So I offer analogies. If you have an outbreak of malaria, you cannot arrest it or end it or eradicate it by swatting one mosquito at a time. You have to find out where they’re breeding and do away with their breeding ground. Until you get to the source of these guns, the shootings will continue. When I get a chance, in the right forum, I continue to lament, to rail, to beat my head against the wall. So far it’s been futile. But I will still continue in that vein. When I talk to young people, I say a loaded brain is more powerful than a loaded gun.

Not long ago they wanted to pass laws allowing guns in bars. I said, ‘Why do you white people need these guns anyway? Nobody is shooting you. Nobody is coming into your community. You want to carry from your car to your pickup truck? From your house to the mailbox? What are you afraid of?'”

The doctor who doesn’t have the cure

Dr. Renaisa Anthony, 37, is a Detroit native now working as deputy director at the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“I think North Omaha gets a terrible rap. This impacts the community because there are people with resources who are afraid to go there. So they don’t go. When people say ‘North Omaha,’ it’s code for African-American. South Omaha is code for Latino and Hispanic populations. But many different races live in North and South Omaha.

There are multiple factors that contribute to gun violence, and there won’t be just one solution, either. When you have a high concentration of poverty, it’s correlated to a high concentration of lower education levels. You have people struggling to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Whenever you have low educational attainment and high poverty, violence will often result. People will do whatever it takes to survive. I’m not surprised we get gun violence.

Go back 20 years, and North Omaha was thriving. But there’s been little investment in things that are known to contribute to thriving populations — even something as simple as grocery stores. The zip codes that comprise North Omaha are food deserts — people can’t get fresh food and don’t have transportation to get it elsewhere.

I also think culture is a huge piece. When I go back to Detroit, I see that people have been indoctrinated. Things that sound strange to us are, for them, normal. If people in your immediate circle accept something to be true, it becomes normal. But I will always believe that most people want what’s best for their children: a happy and thriving community, a safe neighborhood where kids can ride their bikes in the street. People take pride in that, and there’s literally a couple bad apples in the bunch that taint the whole bushel.

I’ll stay in Omaha as long as they’ll have me. I take a Mary Poppins philosophy: When the work is done and I have no more to give, it’s time to move on. But for now, I’m here, I’m invested, and I’ll stay here until they tell me, ‘You can go.'”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Omaha as Nebraska’s capital. It is Lincoln, not Omaha. 

[Photo: Flickr user Brett Brooner]