THE LOST SONS OF OMAHA: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy, by Joe Sexton
A writer needs distance to make sense of turbulent times, to sift right from wrong and see the larger meaning. We’re only now beginning to grapple with the events of 2020, an epochal year in modern American history, up there with 1941, 1968 and 2001. Some of the first books to examine that year have set a high bar. “His Name Is George Floyd,” by the journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, captured the crushing force of American racism through a meticulous biography of the man whose killing at the hands of a police officer led to nationwide racial protests. The New Yorker writer Luke Mogelson’s “The Storm Is Here” embedded readers in the far-right backlash to Black Lives Matter, Covid safety measures and Donald J. Trump’s election defeat, culminating in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“The Lost Sons of Omaha,” by the journalist Joe Sexton, examines a different tragedy, one that briefly made national headlines and then slipped under the endless waves of breaking news. On May 30, 2020, five days after George Floyd’s murder, the lives of Jake Gardner, a white bar owner and Marine veteran, and James Scurlock, a Black protester and new father, collided. As in many cities, protests had convulsed Omaha that summer. As demonstrators marched in the streets, Gardner texted a fellow ex-Marine that he planned to spend the night “sitting fire watch” — military lingo for guard duty — at his bar, the Gatsby. Gardner, who was joined by his father and a business partner, watched from inside his bar as vandals smashed its windows. Then, the three men moved outside.
What happened next would become the subject of intense dispute. Sexton describes a tense scene: Standing in front of his son’s bar, the elder Gardner shoved a man who was filming protesters damaging a neighboring business. Later, online anonymous accounts would claim, without proof, that the father had uttered racial slurs. A protester responded by body-checking Gardner’s father to the ground. Gardner confronted the protesters, told them to leave and flashed a gun tucked into his waistband. A young woman grabbed Gardner and they fell into the street. Gardner fired several shots. Then, Scurlock, 22 years old, rushed in. He put Gardner in a chokehold, trying, as Scurlock’s defenders would later say, to disarm him. As the two men struggled, Gardner, who would later say he feared for his life, reached for his gun, pointed it behind him and fired a single shot, killing Scurlock.
Within hours, dueling versions of events took shape. Racial-justice activists, local politicians and even Gardner’s distant family members pointed to Gardner’s public support for President Donald J. Trump and his criticism of Black Lives Matter and called him a “Nazi sympathizer” who had murdered an innocent Black man in cold blood. Social media sites lit up with false claims and wild-eyed conspiracy theories about Gardner. Conservative media, for its part, fixated on Scurlock’s criminal record and championed Gardner’s cause, while online trolls celebrated Scurlock’s death, labeling him a “punk kid who demanded a nomination to the Darwin Awards.” The local district attorney — who was white — infuriated Omaha’s Black community by declining to charge Gardner, saying he had acted in self-defense, only for a special prosecutor — who was Black — to convene a grand jury investigation that then indicted Gardner for crimes including manslaughter and assault. He faced up to 95 years in prison if found guilty. Hours before Gardner was set to turn himself in, he shot himself in the head.