Published: June 15, 2020
By: Willie Barney, Co-Publisher Revive Omaha
Beyond the Flames: Why I Believe 2020 is a Turning Point
Where Do We Go From Here?
Harlem. Watts. Newark. Detroit. Omaha. Los Angeles. Ferguson. Baltimore. Minneapolis.
“If we don’t learn from history, we are destined to repeat it.”
– Philosopher George Santanya and Winston Churchill
In 2014, as I watched the fires burning in Ferguson, Missouri, I wrote a piece entitled “Beyond the Flames: Will We Get It Right This Time?” Ferguson was burning in response to the devastating scenes following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer. I was so impacted and moved that I had to write down on paper what became a speech I gave at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
This followed the 2012 vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin and preceded the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody which ignited the flames in Baltimore. The frustrating and devastating list goes on and on and continues today.
There have been other shootings of unarmed black men and black women when police officers received no repercussions from their crime. This list also includes Omaha after the officer-involved shooting of Vivian Strong in 1969 that resulted in the destruction of North 24th Street. The once thriving corridor is just now in the process of being rebuilt.
No justice for Eric Garner, New York, 2014. No justice for Sandra Bland, 2015, southeast Texas. No justice for Philando Castile 2016, suburban Minnesota. No justice.
African-Americans have tried to send a message for decades that we are suffering. Suffering from the lingering impacts of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation effects that were never fully addressed. Suffering from unemployment, lack of investment, neglect, poor educational outcomes, low access to capital, over policing, poor housing conditions and so much more. There have been small attempts to fix the situation, but nothing substantial and sustained.
A temporary reconstruction period followed the abolishment of slavery where some progress was made, but abandoned just at the time when freed slaves were finally starting to become integrated into American life. No Justice.
There were promises made beyond the elimination of slavery. Promises for land, property and finances for the freed slaves to get a new start at becoming full citizens. Policies were changed to finally recognize African-Americans as being 100% human, correcting the Constitution which had declared us as 3/5ths of a man.
The original constitutional declaration allowed America to benefit economically for over 250 years from free labor through inhumane conditions. It is referred to as the worst form of enslavement in modern history. African-Americans helped build this country and were paid nothing for it. No Justice.
What’s happening today is not new. Racial tensions have raged before. There has always been a spark which kindled the flames.
These flames have come as city after city and community after community across the nation have been destroyed.
Before Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 on the promise to be a law and order president, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) commissioned a group to find out why the cities across the country were burning. The commission produced a document which became known as the Kerner Report.
Rather than identifying African-Americans as the cause, the report shined the light on white America. The Kerner Commission presented the case that the blame for the riots should be placed squarely on the shoulders of underlying conditions of injustice, neglect, disinvestment, unequal treatment and systematic racism.
The report clearly states the priorities that must be addressed: 1. Unemployment and low wages. 2. Poor educational systems. 3. Poor housing conditions. 4. Bad relationships between police and the community. 5. Lack of services for those in poverty and the structure of welfare system.
The most important conclusion to address the injustice? America needed to make a significant investment to right the wrongs of the past.
Little did I know until recently that the former Mayor of Omaha, A. V. Sorensen, had reached the same conclusion in 1968. He said then that Omaha needed to bring together people from all sectors to form a coalition that would oversee a massive investment to address African-American poverty. Nothing was done.
He left office realizing the city did not have the will or appetite to fully address the issue. The city and nation continued redlining and driving interstates through the heart of black communities under the guise of urban redevelopment.
America chose to make small investments to address the injustice, but with a costly Vietnam War occurring at the same time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that the nation had given black America a blank check. He said the easy part of the Civil Rights Movement was getting legislation passed for voting rights; the hard part was securing the funds to address the economic issues. This was going to cost the nation money, King said.
For a time, mostly through programs enacted by President Johnson, some investments were made through the so-called War on Poverty. The investments were not sustained and were not implemented anywhere near the level required.
One of the most significant statements and conclusions from the Kerner Commission was “to mount programs on the scale equal to the dimension of the problems.” “These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance…”
The report emphasized that if America didn’t respond on a large scale, we would see the creation of two America’s. One black. One white. Separate. Unequal.
Across the nation, we have inherited the promise. Two Americas. One white. The other, everyone else (black and brown).
I wrote in the speech, after watching the flames in Ferguson, that in 1968, the nation had a decision to make. Do we finally invest in helping African Americans become economically sound and full citizens or do we invest more in police, expanding the criminal justice system and building more prisons?
President Richard Nixon answered the question for America. Law and order. No Justice.
For decades, African-Americans have asked for additional investments to address employment, education, housing, health and other needs. Funding was never available at the scale of the problem. Communities were not rebuilt.
African-Americans asked for the promised 40 acres and a mule. African-Americans presented plans such as the Freedom Agenda under Dr. King which proposed to end poverty in 10 years. African-Americans asked for reparations.
It is important to note reparations have been granted across the world after a specific race, ethnic group or nation was on the wrong end of injustice. The answer to these requests for African-Americans? No funds available. No justice.
Where would America ever come up with trillions of dollars to right this wrong? We were always told, it would be absolutely impossible. We were told there is absolutely no way America could ever come up with trillions of dollars to address its original sin. It’s been over 400 years since enslaved Africans were brought to these shores.
But, no recompense. No Justice.
Instead we are told, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and help yourself. Instead we are told, forget about slavery. Instead we are told, you’ve had a black President. Instead we are told, it’s a post-racial society and racism doesn’t exist. Help yourselves, we are told. There will be no hand up, we are told.
Cue the Coronavirus.
The virus may not be racist, but the impact surely is disproportionately destructive to African Americans and other people of color. Health and economic inequities have been laid bare. Consequently, the virus called for a critical response. A national response.
What does COVID-19 have to do with this justice and systemic racism? As soon as the nation began to experience the negative economic and health impacts of the virus, immediate legislation was drafted and approved by Congress. The Treasury Department rewrote the rules. Trillions of dollars were miraculously found and infused into the economy to address suffering corporations, small businesses and most U.S. citizens.
In a moment of crisis, leaders can find the money.
The message this sends is that it matters who is suffering. African-Americans have been suffering for centuries. Native Americans have been suffering for centuries. However, when the unemployment rate for white Americans hit the same level as the African-American unemployment rate which has languished for decades, Congress and the Treasury department have taken actions to produce what is estimated at seven trillion dollars of economic activity.
The question is where did the money come from in this instance? It’s been made abundantly clear that the nation could have made the right decision in 1865. We could have made the right decision in 1918. We could have made the right decision in 1968. We could have made the right decision in 1992 after Los Angeles and Rodney King. We could have made the right decision after Ferguson in 2014. We could have made the right decision after Baltimore in 2015.
No justice. No peace. Fast forward.
Cue the final spark.
Watching an unarmed black man, George Floyd, die a horrific death with the knee of a white police officer on his neck, and 2 other officers on his prone body behind the car, the image was finally too much. African-Americans have experienced police brutality and violence for decades, but this was filmed, became a viral moment on social media, and impossible to ignore, deny or cover up. Breaking point.
In the midst of a pandemic which has killed over 100,000 Americans and disproportionately impacted African Americans and people of color, we once again are face to face with injustice and racism.
After being locked away in their homes for nearly three months and watching the video from Minneapolis and dozens of other racial events within a few weeks, cities across the country and internationally have erupted with protests and flames are once again burning in America.
What to do now? Where’s the hope?
We know what needs to be done. We have known for decades. Case study after case study, commission after commission and book after book, have boiled down to economics, education, housing, equal access to health care and people working together to address poverty and systemic racism.
Be sure to check out Part II: Moving Forward with Solutions
Ted Lampkin: Rising to Meet the Challenge
Charles Drew Health Center
Growing up down the street from Charles Drew Health Center, Inc., it was no question for Ted Lampkin to give back to the community that helped raise him.
“I’m passionate about public health because I am a product of public health services. Coming up, my family and I used the services at Charles Drew.”
As the Associate Director of Behavioral Health Services, Ted has been on the front-line teaching and training team members in new approaches to behavioral health. It’s no surprise that when COVID-19 struck, Ted was front and center.
“My role was to help transition the Behavioral Health department from doing face-to-face therapy to telehealth therapy.”
While COVID-19 began to escalate, increasing evidence highlighted racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
“We made it easy for the patients, providing traditional face-to-face, telehealth, and when needed telephonic sessions. A lot of patients had anxiety about COVID-19 and being in the middle of a pandemic, in addition to their other stressers.”
“The benefit of telehealth is we can continue to provide quality service during a pandemic. You take out the barriers to care with telehealth.”
Brenda Avant: Providing Quality Healthcare in the Midst of COVID-19
Charles Drew Health Center
As a North Omaha native, Family Nurse Practitioner, Brenda Avant, understands educating her patients about their healthcare choices is a foundational principle to accessing safe and quality healthcare.
When the pandemic shut down Omaha metro schools, Brenda and the team members at Charles Drew Health Center, Inc. School-based Health Centers had to switch gears. While still providing in-person care, the SBHC Medical providers began utilizing telehealth to remain in contact with their patients.
“The telehealth program at Charles Drew really grew at that time. As Medical providers, we were able to continue serving our student patients through telehealth. The parents really enjoyed it because they felt even through a pandemic their child’s provider is still in tune with their needs.”
As the pandemic surged, the healthcare inequalities within the American health system began to come to the foreground. “It made me proud to see that Charles Drew was a front runner in COVID-19. The community was looking to us to help guide them through.”
“Charles Drew made it very easy for the population we serve to continue receiving care. We may be small, but we are mighty.”
Larry Duncan: Resiliency in the Face of a Crisis
Charles Drew Health Center
Hailing from the south side of Chicago, Larry Duncan, Director of Behavioral Health Services at Charles Drew Health Center, Inc. has always had a passion for helping others. “My passion, at first, started off with a drug and alcohol emphasis based on my own experiences and knowledge. As I grew and received more education, mental health became the next umbrella. It rests with my understanding that there are unique issues that affect black and brown people, and people who are marginalized.”
Within the first year serving at Charles Drew, Larry faced his biggest challenge yet, leading a team while in the mists of coronavirus. “The number one thing we did quickly was become active.” As COVID-19 began to highlight the care gaps within marginalized communities, the Behavioral Health team at Charles Drew looked to bridge those gaps within the community.
“For our population it was a dual threat. On one side of the coin, the crisis becomes an additional stress to a population of people who already live with stress. On the flip side of the coin, the lack of community and social interaction increased depression, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness.”
The message was simple, but practical: Practice the Five Cs–Connection, Commitment, Communion, Contain, and Continue.
Looking back, one of the greatest strengths of Charles Drew, in Larry’s eyes, was the ability to remain active. While most were waiting, frozen in their activity, Charles Drew advanced forward.
“We got better and better at it. We were doing testing on the front line when testing was just starting. As masks began to be required, we were handing them out to the community members in need. Whatever needed to be done in the face of this virus, we did it.”