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News Brief: Black Men's Deaths Resonate, Trump's Response To Unrest

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The death of George Floyd resonated in part because it was one of many deaths where race was a factor. And today, we have new testimony in another of those cases.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're talking about the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man. His family said he was out for a run through Glynn County, Ga., when three white men chased him down. They claimed they thought he had committed a crime. A witness now offers some new details of what Arbery did and what his attackers said. And just a word of warning here - some of these details that you're about to hear are disturbing.

INSKEEP: The information came out during a hearing where a judge affirmed the men will stand trial. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Emily Jones was at that hearing and is on the line. Good morning.

EMILY JONES, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are the new details?

JONES: Well, we learned a lot more detail really filling in the final moments of Arbery's life. The most striking really was that, according to the third defendant in the case, the shooter, Travis McMichael, used a racial slur after the shooting before police arrived. William Roddie Bryan told investigators that Travis McMichael referred to Ahmaud Arbery with an expletive and the N-word. The one witness at yesterday's hearing was Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Richard Dial. He's the lead agent on the case. And he said McMichael used that same slur many times in texts and on social media prior to the shooting as well. We also learned a lot more about Roddie Bryan's alleged role in this. He's the person who filmed the video that went viral and set off the protests over Ahmaud Arbery's death. But Dial detailed how Bryan and Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, allegedly pursued Arbery in their two pickup trucks and essentially penned him in. Dial also testified that Bryan struck Arbery with his truck at one point.

INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness. And, of course, the racial slur is meaningful here because people are trying to figure out what was the intent of these individuals who chased him down and shot him. What does this hearing do for the legal status of the case?

JONES: The hearing yesterday was in a lower court. It was basically to determine whether prosecutors have enough to back up their charges in a trial. And the judge found that they do, so it now moves over to Superior Court. And I'm told the next step is likely going to be a bond hearing to determine whether or not the suspects will be released before a possible trial. As of now, they're all still in the Glynn County Jail.

INSKEEP: You know, I've been covering the protests here in Washington, and Arbery's name is one of many that had been chanted at these protests outside the White House. I know there are protests where you are. What have you heard from protesters in Georgia about how they're responding to this new information?

JONES: Right. Well, there was a small group outside the courthouse yesterday, maybe a couple dozen people as the court let out. And when the district attorney came out on the courthouse steps and announced the murder charges are going to move forward, that group let out cheers. But this also is just one step in one case. Ahmaud Arbery's name also in Brunswick is not the only name on protesters' lips. And those same protesters went on to rally for racial justice more broadly. And the I RUN WITH MAUD group on Facebook that's been organizing protests for Arbery also posted a statement saying, we have a long way to go.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks for the update.

JONES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Emily Jones of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Omaha, Neb., is one of many cities where people have been protesting the killing of George Floyd. The death of a man during those protests is adding to Omaha's unrest.

GREENE: James Scurlock, a 22-year-old black man, was among a group of protesters when a fight broke out in front of a bar. Scurlock was shot and killed by Jacob Gardner. He's white, and he says he feared for his life. The district attorney initially said he was declining to press charges because Gardner was acting in self-defense. But now that DA wants a grand jury to take a second look.

INSKEEP: NPR correspondent Kirk Siegler joins us now from Omaha. Hi there, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why did the district attorney decide on that second look?

SIEGLER: Well, Steve, I mean, I think we have to look that we're in this moment nationally, right? And I'm sure he was under a lot of pressure after initially resisting. He now says he welcomes an independent review of his decision that it was self-defense, initially, the shooting. He stood by his initial findings, though, let's be clear, but he welcomed a grand jury and special prosecutor. He did cite broad public mistrust in the justice system here in Omaha's black community and nationwide. I'd say it's worth noting that any grand jury investigation isn't going to happen for weeks, though, at least due to delays from the coronavirus pandemic.

INSKEEP: That is remarkable, though. He's saying I believe what I believe. I've looked at the evidence, but I know people don't trust me. They're not going to trust this finding and so let's have a second look to reassure people or to just check on what I've done here. How are people in the streets or elsewhere responding to this?

SIEGLER: Well, Steve, I've been spending a good deal of time reporting in North Omaha. It's a historically African American neighborhood. And I'd say the indignation over the shooting of James Scurlock is turning to some hope. Now, of course, while Scurlock was not shot by police, the mistrust in the system and law enforcement I spoke about earlier comes from what Omaha's African American leaders say is a legacy of violence and police brutality going back more than 50 years at a minimum to 1969 when Vivian Strong, she was a 14-year-old black girl, was shot without warning here by police. It sparked three days of riots. We've now had about seven days of protests this week. Some were very tense, some got violent. African Americans make up about 13% of Omaha's population, but people say the neighborhood of North Omaha has long been victim to overpolicing. In Benson Park, I met Terrell Von (ph) and his cousin while they were out for a walk. They said the discrimination has gone on too long. Here's what Von told me.

TERRELL VON: You know, this nation need to be - it needs some healing. It need a good leader that can at least empathize and sympathize and, you know, talk to the people.

SIEGLER: City leaders anyway, Steve, pledge to keep doing that going forward. A grand jury investigation, of course, may be part of that.

INSKEEP: Are protests continuing in Omaha?

SIEGLER: In a word, yes, though, they're, I'd say, quite a bit smaller and quieter now. We're not seeing the arrests or the violence at least to the scale for sure that we did a couple days ago. Some are expected this weekend. There's a curfew again downtown, and you'll still see storefronts boarded up. I spoke with Michelle Troxclair. She's a longtime local civil rights activist. And she told me that what we're seeing in Omaha and elsewhere right now is a response to the country, she said, lurching backwards.

MICHELLE TROXCLAIR: The election of Donald Trump is a backlash and an outward assault on the perceived loss of power of white people in this country. And they are terrified, and there's nothing scarier than scared white people.

SIEGLER: The white bar owner who was in the scuffle with James Scurlock said he shot him because he feared for his life, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kirk Siegler in Omaha, thanks so much.

SIEGLER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Now the president is vowing revenge against a Republican who criticized him.

GREENE: That's right. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska says she is struggling over whether to support President Trump's reelection. She said this after the president threatened to send the military after protesters. At the administration's direction, police also assaulted protesters to clear space for the president to pose for pictures. Now, when Murkowski joined widespread criticism here, the president vowed to campaign against her even though she doesn't face reelection for two years.

INSKEEP: Just how divisive has the president been during this crisis? NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe is with us. Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to note there are a lot of facets of this story, but the underlying issue is police relations with people of color. Has the president addressed that issue very much at all?

RASCOE: He has acknowledged the pain of black people, but that's about it. He spent most of his time this week talking about cracking down on protests that he describes as violent and being led by extreme leftist groups without offering much evidence that that's the case. We saw him deliver that message symbolically on Monday when, as you said, people protesting across the street from the White House were cleared out so he could walk across the street for a photo op. And Trump has defended that move since then.

INSKEEP: We should acknowledge there have been some violent incidents. The church where the president posed, someone set a fire. I was doing reporting in different parts of Washington, and you can easily find shops that had been looted at some point. But protests have by and large been peaceful. That's just a fact that we've also seen. Why would the president focus on the more violent incidents and not the larger picture?

RASCOE: President Trump wants to shore up support from his base. Remember, he got into office on a very tough law and order, clean-up-crime-type message. And focusing on the unlawful aspects of the protests is a way for him to make the case that he's keeping his base safe. Trump was endorsed by the biggest police organization in 2016. And we've seen the White House this week really talk about its support for law enforcement, describing police officers as victims of violence during protests. And Trump now says he wants more funding for police officers. But there has been pushback from his own party about his threat to use the military if needed for these protests. We saw that statement from his former defense secretary, James Mattis, a retired Marine general, and the comments from Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski that you mentioned earlier.

INSKEEP: Is there any sign that a president who is very close with police unions, that he's willing to address policing policy?

RASCOE: He did say this week that we have to get the police departments to do better. But it's been really hard to find, you know, any signal about what policies he actually plans to pursue. Vice President Pence is doing some listening sessions this week, and he will be going to a black church in Beltsville, Md., today just outside of Washington for another listening session. So we'll see if anything comes out of that.

INSKEEP: Ayesha, thank you so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe covers the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.