Remembering Vivian Strong: Life Lessons and the Omaha Race Riots of 1969…
On June 24th, 1969, a white Omaha, Nebraska police officer killed an unarmed 14 year old black girl with one shot in the back of the head as she ran home. Her name was Vivian Strong and she lived in my neighborhood.
Just five years old at the time of the shooting, I’m not exactly sure of the sequelae of events following this moment, however I am sure it changed the life course of the entire black community in North Omaha, Nebraska. Without a doubt, Vivian’s murder left an indelible stain on my Soul; affirming there is no safety in the world for black people and even black children are not safe.
Black Rage, Fire and Guns
In 1969; Summer was just starting and the neighborhoods around 24th street, the heart of the black community in Omaha, were bustling with the echos of children playing from every corner. I remember we were taking a late afternoon rest after a long, hard day of summer play. The hot summer Sun had just started dimming the light in the living room when my Daddy rushed into the house. Obviously shaken, he told us a little girl child had just been killed by a white policeman and the neighborhood was outraged. As the angry mobs were starting to gather; he knew he didn’t have long to get his guns and ammunition and get down to 24th and Lake street, before the anger turned in to fire and destruction.
He had to go protect our family business, The Allen Showcase. When he came into the house his purpose was clear, and while describing to my Mother the mob scene outside, he pulled guns and bullets magically from hidden places all over the house. Later, after just a few minutes of whirlwind motion, he was completely armed, locked and loaded with multiple pistols and a shotgun. He would later meet up with Black Panthers and other black men showing up to make sure the black businesses didn’t burn down.
No Such Thing as Safety
Being a five year old girl at the time, it was terrifying to know a white Policeman could just kill a little girl for being black. I realized at five years old a body isn’t safe when its a black body. You could just be playing in the neighborhood being a kid, but if someone calls the police it could make you dead. And then afterwards, your neighborhood might get burnt down out of rage, frustration and anger.
When my Daddy ran out of the house armed to protect our family’s business from a community on fire, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again. Fortunately, the next morning he came home, a dirty, dusty, tired, tail dragger, reporting the good news he and several other community members, had protected what they could.
They successfully protected black businesses without having to shoot someone, which he no doubt would and while many other businesses were lost, he was grateful for this small grace.
The Black Panthers, armed with weapons, made a significant contribution to the North Omaha community, protecting local Black Churches and the cities only black Newspaper. In fact, they were instrumental in helping men like my Daddy, Alfred Allen, protect the North Omaha community from complete devastation. Watch a video of that terrible night of violence and rage here.
This later proved to be monumental in the aftermath, as the ruin bought about by the riots changed the trajectory of the North Omaha community from vibrancy to post apocalypse. Although the crowds were primarily attacking white businesses, the community wide damage was fierce. Black owned and white owned businesses alike suffered greatly after four consecutive summers of rioting from 1965–1969.
Now 51 years later, living as an adult in Omaha, I can only mourn the brilliance of our black community which was forever lost after those fateful summers. Combined with racist city policies meant to punish revolt verses rebuilding the community, the community of North Omaha is challenged until this very day.
More Black Rage, Fire and Guns
Fast forward to the present moment, June 1st, 2020. Almost exactly, 51 years to the day Vivian Strong was killed. Millions of people from all walks of life, in the United States and around the globe have taken to the streets to protest the killings of unarmed black people. In spite of the pandemic, or perhaps exactly because the pandemic has laid open the deeply pervasive structural inequities and wounds of racism for the world to see, people are protesting.
Peoples of all colors are out in the streets, protesting an intensely traumatizing week of innocent black peoples murdered for no other reason than the color of their skin. Mr. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both killed by the police within the last couple weeks.
Peoples are also protesting the public execution of black jogger Ahmand Arbery by white vigilantes who had not been arrested, until the persistence of public pressure forced an arrest. Peoples are also protesting for Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin, my brother Stacy Allen and all the other black bodies taken from us too soon.
Peoples have taken to the streets, risking Corona Virus to protest over their complete exhaustion of police brutality and white hate in the war against black lives.
Progress is Just a Better Picture of Brutality
Now in the year 2020, we have protections granted under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1967 and have even had our first black president, Barak Obama in 2008. However in spite of these “modern reforms”, communities of color STILL need to protest the depravity of white police brutality and the systemic structures supporting the oppression of black and brown peoples. Yet the one thing that has changed?
The advent of Social Media, and the power it has given citizen reporters to televise black brutality.
When I was child, just looking at the newspaper story of Vivians shooting; outlining the exact details where Vivian was shot in the back of the head. The proximity to her home, the trajectory of the bullet, it all felt almost too taboo for my five year old eyes, and I assure you, the terror of that day has never left me. Not once.
Now with advent of cell phone cameras everywhere, ready to record every moment of our lives, we have gotten really good at filming black brutality for everyone to see.
However, when the killing of black peoples is news almost everyday, the constant trauma of witnessing such inhumane violence in an environment of injustice and brutality is “normalized”.
The shock we felt over the vicious police beating filmed of Rodney King, has now become just another regular evening news story.
Effectively, the desensitization of black killings has made it convenient for white people to both live with, and at the same time, turn away from the constant brutality without demanding change.
Once something becomes normalized, regardless how egregious, it simply becomes part of the environment and dare say “entertainment”. That was until an especially brutal murder, without accountability, like Mr. Floyd’s enraged the white public.
Meanwhile, in this postmodern time, protests rage across the globe over #policebrutality and #BlackJustice and the response from the U.S. government hasn’t changed in the last 51 years. Tear gas, bullets and militarization was their solution in the 60’s, just as it is now.
Yet, we are reminded of the militarization of Kent State University in Ohio and the murder of white student protestors May, 4th 1970, by the Ohio National Guard with imposition of Martial Law on campus.
Meanwhile, the wheels of racism and injustice simply keep churning while the next generation of black activists step in.
If the current time proves to be anything like the past then surely, we are in for a very long hot, summer.
Today as I sit here in Omaha, just a five days after an unarmed, 22 year old black protester, James Scurlock was murdered during protests by an armed white, ex marine. I am yet again not surprised to witness the same white supremacist story line play out time and time again. Even while black people rise up in protest supported by their white brothers, the murder of a black life is given a seal of approval from the U.S. “justice system”. Apparently District Attorney of Omaha, Don Kliene felt this former Marine, aka trained killer, could not handle a fight without shooting to kill.
What this says in his confidence about our military is frightening enough, but the thought this District Attorney living in a city notorious for being the deadliest city in the US for black men, could not be bothered to muster a simple charge for any of the basic laws broken by this known White Supremacist is sickening.
This ritual proves time and time again that black lives really do not matter. While more parents and now a global community, morns another young, black life, #JusticeforJamesScurlock is the latest call to action in a long string of #hashtags calling out and bringing attention to the burden of injustice black and brown peoples.
Now as a 57 year old adult, I have the wisdom of time on my side and I can tell you from this vantage point, the current protests sparked by the death of Mr. Floyd are the modern day magnitude of the Watts Rebellion, in 1965.
And by all indications, it’s going to be another long hot summer. Just like it was in 1969 when Vivian was shot and killed.
My advice for you as a child who grew up during years and years of violent race riots, social unrest and civic strife?
If you are black or brown, don’t run from the police. It could make you dead.
For all others with white privilege, use your white power to protect our lives and defend black and brown peoples from the tyranny of white hate. Look inside yourself and bring light to all those spaces where the shame and guilt of white oppression live. Bring them out into the light, give them plenty of love and compassion. Then use that same compassion to change the hearts and minds of your white tribe by calling out racism. Educate them gently. Be easy.
Life as you know it is changing with ever increasing intensity. Get ready peoples, stock your pantry, build your immune system and get ready for the revolution.
It will definitely be televised.