Two weeks ago a two-year-old African-American boy from Omaha, Neb., made national headlines. A family friend had filmed video of the diapered and waddling little boy cursing and being cursed at by off-camera male voices. Someone then uploaded the clip to Facebook.
Next, an anonymous viewer mentioned the clip’s existence to Omaha’s police union, the Omaha Police Officers Association (OPOA), which runs a frequently updated website that features images of area crime and criminals, calls for assistance with missing persons and recognizes Omaha’s victims. The union did two things with the now-infamous toddler video: It re-posted the clip of the cursing baby on its website as a prime example of what it called "The Thug Life Cycle," and, though the video showed no evidence of a crime, alerted child protective services. Then CNN called.
But in the rush of judgment that followed, news reports and far too many observers invariably tossed one salient fact aside: This family was composed entirely of children. The mother of the two-year-old, egged on by off-camera voices to claim Deuce Nine, a local 29th Street gang, had reportedly just turned 17. His father, also 17, was killed last spring. The instigator, whom the mother identified as her brother’s friend, was most likely a teen himself, according to a source familiar with the family. And in their household, the eldest and designated caregiver of three children under the age of 19, including mom and toddler, was a 19-year-old.
From the 50,000 foot view it’s easy to lose important details–but not on the ground in Northeast Omaha where this family lived. How a 19-year-old came be the head of a household of minors is one that some residents are currently wondering about. Still others are awakening to the fact that the police union’s public relations effort resulted in the public shaming of an African-American child and his family, as well as racist conversation and broadsides. None of the aforementioned, residents say, was worth it.
"What turned me off," community activist and criminologist John Crank says, "is that the video generated so much racist hostility."
"I have no idea what the union’s intentions were–and they may have been great. But if you look at the consequences of its posting," Crank says, "they are definitely racist. And for that reason, I wish it weren’t posted."
Leo Louis II is a 30-year-old old former gang member who six years ago began a support group for friends transitioning out of that life. He’s now a board member of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, which he frequently uses as a gathering place for town halls.
"Everyone seems to be okay with demonizing the young men who shot the video," Louis says by phone.
"But this was a kid, not someone’s 30-year-old uncle who shot another video with another kid and thought it was funny. It saddens me to watch how a number of outlets are missing that point."
Search YouTube, he says, and there’s a whole subculture dedicated to inappropriate child swearing videos uploaded by adults.
Pete Simi, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, agrees with the double standard that Louis suggests is taking place.
"Toughen your kid up," Simi says. "That’s not actually all that uncommon for parents to do that with boys. It’s not gold standard textbook parenting and this video is obviously an extreme example."
But what the police union’s site describes as, "The Thug Life Cycle," Simi recognizes from his ethnographic work with some families as "gang enculturation." It’s possible, he says, that the off-camera young men heard goading the child to curse and call out a local set, Deuce Nine, could interpret their behavior as teaching the child what he needs to survive a difficult environment.
Omaha averages about 40 murders a year. Between 1991 and 2011 according to a gang assessment produced in 2012 by researchers Simi and Dennis Hoffman, 85 percent of the city’s homicides occurred in Northeast, which is home to just 12 percent of the population. While nearly 60 percent of gun violence is gang-involved, Simi’s report states that evidence-based research into the reach and breadth of gang activity among all racial groups in Omaha is unknown. By practice and stereotype, however, Omaha’s gangs are presumed to exist mainly in "North Omaha," local code for the African-American section of town.
In 2008 when he moved back to Omaha, Othello Meadows III recalls that in July, there were 30 shootings in 31 days.
"Omaha is doing great overall," says Meadows, executive director of a community development organization, Seventy Five North Revitalization, Inc. "But in North Omaha, poverty is persistent, stubborn, inter-generational and suffocating. People are growing up in desperate situations and, unfortunately, that leads to the self-destructive behavior that we’ve been seeing here for a long time."
While Meadows agrees with involving child protective services in the family, he doesn’t see the benefit of the police union re-posting the video on its site–and doesn’t think a conversation will help him to better understand, either.
"I think re-posting the video implicitly suggests that somehow African-Americans wouldn’t have been just as outraged by what we were seeing," Meadows says.
Sam Walker is an expert in police accountability and emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He says police-community relations in Omaha have been bad for a long time.
"I think the video damaged things," he says. "I think it’s reinforced a perception within the African-American community that police officers–and the union is their voice–is hostile and uncaring and insensitive to race relations."
Walker, on behalf of a coalition group called Omahans for Justice Alliance, has sent three letters to the Department of Justice requesting a federal investigation into Omaha police. The latest, dated last April, reacts to a March incident where more than 20 police officers responded to a parking dispute at the home of an African-American family. The incident, captured on video, has so far resulted in the firing of six officers. The Nebraska ACLU filed a lawsuit this January on behalf of the family, alleging excessive force and illegal search and seizure.
Walker credits new police chief Todd Schmaderer, Omaha’s fourth in five years, with firing six officers involved in the March 2012 arrests. That and Schmaderer’s "willingness to listen," he says, inspire a cautious optimism.
Schmaderer, in a statement posted on the department’s Facebook page, distanced the department from the police union re-posting the toddler video, saying, "I strongly disagree with any postings that may cause a divide in our community or an obstacle to police community relations."
For some residents, like Malcolm X Memorial Foundation’s Louis, that may be a distinction without a difference. And for others, like Meadows, his community’s relationship with their police is more complex.
"There are also examples of cops who go above and beyond and who let residents know that they’re on their side," Meadows says. But he also acknowledges that younger residents have "never really embraced the police presence in Northeast Omaha."
Just days after the toddler video made national and local headlines, questions were raised about the true intentions behind the police union’s re-posting of the toddler video on its site and Facebook page. In interviews with CNN, union president John Wells says the video educates the public for the purpose of having, "a very frank and open discussion on how to tackle these issues and come up with solutions."
A memo written to members by Wells, and obtained by radio host Tom Becka and news station KETV, links the re-posting of the toddler video with contract negotiations over benefits.
"When the public truly understands what we see and do, it becomes much easier to debate the benefit topics," Wells writes to union members, according to KETV.
Wells later denied the connection. He did not respond to numerous phone messages and e-mails requesting an interview.
The toddler and the other children in that Omaha home are in protective custody.