Okay, there’s literally no way we can talk about the town hall meeting that Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert attended last week without talking about the single greatest quotation from a sitting City Councilman this city has ever seen.
If you haven’t heard, an angry community member confronted Councilman Ben Gray. After some heated words, Gray barked “Check your facts, fool. I’m out!” I mean this: If I could find a way to make that my ringtone, I would. Is it the ideal dialogue between a frustrated citizen and a government representative? No. Not at all. And rest assured, we’re going to talk about the dramatically unfunny reason why this exchange took place in a moment. But for now, I give you this.
Now, to the REAL story at hand: Nobody gives a shit about North Omaha.
The Omaha World Herald reduces the issue to this:
The mayor and other city officials fielded questions and a few angry comments about development, crime, street resurfacing and other issues.
It’s a little worse than that. http://demographics.coopercenter.org/DotMap/index.html put out an awesome, interactive map that shows how segregated our city is. This is Omaha.
We are one of the most segregated cities in the country. When that happens, resources and developments can be routinely and unfairly allocated. Crime becomes concentrated. Opportunities become scarce in some areas and plentiful elsewhere. One part of our city can basically be ignored. That’s exactly what’s happening.
Mayor Stothert made the decision to cut property taxes by 2%. It’s a pathetic pittance. A gesture more than anything. If your home is worth $150,000, you save $15. Spoiler alert: No homes in North Omaha are even near that. In fact, the median value is about a third of that. Translation: They see no benefit. What may they have seen the benefit of? The $2.7 million that Stothert removed from the annual income by making this cut.
To his credit, Gray fought this cut. He tried to argue that there are many things that money could have been used for. But see, when your city is segregated like ours is, the people out West (rich white folks) don’t want their tax money going where the money is actually needed in North Omaha (where a staggering percentage of our black citizens live).
So there’s that. Then there’s this: Earlier this year, the International Business Times declared Omaha “The Most Dangerous Place in America to be Black.” Ah. Well. Shit…
The Violence Policy Center (VPC), a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group that promotes gun control, determined that in 2011 (the latest year in which comprehensive national data are available), 30 blacks (including 27 in Omaha) were murdered that year in Nebraska — meaning, the state had a black homicide rate of 34.4 per 100,000 people, double the national average of black victimization.
They can be even more specific now if they want to. The overwhelming majority of those deaths happened in North Omaha. At the Town Hall meeting, the Mayor pointed out that there have been less homicides compared to last year at this point. This is true. We’re down from 26 in 2013 to 17 in 2014 (although the August report is probably going to shrink that gap). But it’s important to note that homicides aren’t the only indicator of gun violence. They only mark fatalities. Aggravated assault (which would include assault with a gun where the victim survived) is up, from 849 to 873 (again, August was a rough month too).
I’m going to write about Ferguson soon here, but it’s important to recognize that what happened there can happen here. When you trap minority communities in tight quarters, deny them assistance, ignore their very real concerns, and focus on crime punishment and not prevention, you create the conditions in which racial tensions can explode.
The people in North Omaha deserve to be mad. They deserve to be heard. What they deserve, more than anything, are the same opportunities and chance at “The Good Life” that the rest of us can expect. So long as we have a Mayor who would rather give $15 to her West Omaha friends and not invest $2.7 million in a part of our city that could desperately use it, nothing will ever change.