A Year On, Nebraskans Weigh In On George Floyd's Legacy

May 24, 2021, 5:09 p.m. ·

People gather for a rally on the steps of the Nebraska Capitol.
Photo By William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News

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In the hours following George Floyd’s murder on May 25th of last year, few could have predicted the impact his death would have on the national conversation over the role of police in society.

During the wave of protests against police brutality that sprung up across the nation after Floyd’s killing, protesters in Nebraska took to the streets too.

Dozens were arrested, officers and sheriff’s deputies were pelted with fireworks and bottles of gasoline, curfews were implemented in Lincoln and Omaha and in some cases law enforcement used tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators.

“In my 15 years in law enforcement I have never really seen anything like the events that unfolded following the events of George Floyd last summer,” said Lincoln Police Officer Luke Bonkiewicz, a 10-year veteran of the department.

Bonkiewicz says he’s been in law enforcement for about 15 years total, joining up during what he terms “the 9-11” era of policing, characterized by broad support for law enforcement following the September 11th terrorist attacks.

“ I think it’s safe to say that era has probably ended,” Bonkiewicz said.

In the year since the George Floyd demonstrations against police brutality rocked Lincoln Mall, Bonkiewicz says officer reactions have been nuanced, with many having to come to grips with a wide range of emotions as well as increasingly vocal calls for police reform.

He says his department has doubled down on community-based policing since Floyd’s death, including the creation of a number of programs meant to establish a line of communication between residents and police. He says that has paved the way for frank conversations among minority residents.

“And the response is frequently where we understand that Lincoln police officers did not murder George Floyd….But the Lincoln Police Department is nonetheless part of a profession that has a tumultuous history with people of color in this country,” Bonkiewicz said.

Bonkiewicz says over the past year, morale has taken a hit at the department and recruitment is a struggle, but police officers are not feeling sorry for themselves. In fact, Bonkiewicz says there’s never been a better time to join the force as the industry enters a new era.

“Police departments all around the country, every state, every jurisdiction, they are listening. They're listening. Now they have the public's attention. They're opening new training. They're open to new philosophies. They're open to cultural changes. There has never been a better time to get into law enforcement and change the profession for the better. To really be a positive force for good,” Bonkiewicz said.

From a state perspective, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson says Floyd’s murder has led him to listen more intently to the concerns of people of color regarding law enforcement. Peterson says in the days that followed he reached out to six black friends, ages 35-65, who had expressed their pain at the situation on social media.

“And I was struck having known the guys the depth of pain that they were expressing and frustration. And so for me, that was a very helpful process,” Peterson said.

As an example, Peterson says the youngest of his group of friends talked to him about a traumatic incident that occurred when he was a child and how it affects his perceptions today.

“When he's five years old, the police knocked down the door and come and take his dad out. His dad was a drug dealer. But then he later saw them come and knock down the door (when) Dad was no longer in the house and (he remembers) how his mom was treated.”

Despite his many years in law, Peterson says he was surprised by his friends’ stories.

“From my perspective, what the Floyd situation did is caused me to go a lot deeper in thinking about these things,” Peterson said.

Peterson points to LB 51, which he says was crafted as a direct result of Floyd’s murder, as an attempt by the state to answer the calls of demonstrators for changes in policing. The bill, according to its statement of intent, would improve standards of policing statewide, especially regarding the use of force.

“We wouldn't have LB51 to the extent that we have it with regards to the degree of training but for the Floyd case, and it's sad, obviously that it took the Floyd case to have this awareness,” Peterson said.

One person who is a bit more skeptical about how things have fared since Floyd’s death is University of Nebraska at Omaha Black Studies Professor Preston Love Jr. Love was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and is the founder of the nonprofit Black Votes Matter.

“So I'm giving you two sides of my mouth, one side, so it's the same. The other side says it's worse, but both sides say it's not better,” Love said.

On the positive side, Love says there is now an expectation from society that police officers should be held accountable for their actions and that video has made doing so easier. But he says Floyd’s murder is part of a longstanding trend of black people being killed by police.

“And so you would think that Black Lives Matter would have just brought us all to our knees because George Floyd and all the many before and right after him in these recent years would be so unique to this point in history, and it turns out that it is not. And that's shocking.”

As for the up-and-coming generation of activists who helped fuel last summer’s protests? Love says that while he’s encouraged by the activism, he believes that for many, protesting simply became trendy last summer and fears many who joined in won’t keep up the fight.

“When these young people go to the next phase in their life, will they be activists and be agents of change? And the answer to that is I have no idea, but there is no guarantee; there is not an automatic yes on that”, Love said.

It’s change that could still come slowly after a long year of tragedy and hard lessons for a state and nation coming to grips with a death that should never have happened.