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'My ISIS Is the Police': Race and Guns in Nebraska

04/29/2015 11:15 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

State senator Ernie Chambers was first elected to Nebraska's unicameral legislature in 1970. Representing a largely African American neighborhood of Omaha in a largely white legislature, he often says what others don't want to hear. He serves on the Judiciary Committee.

This spring he upset many with comments made "just for the record" at a March 20 judiciary committee hearing on a bill introduced by Senator Tommy Garrett. The bill would change Nebraska law to permit individuals with concealed-carry permits to bring their handguns into bars provided they do not drink. An amendment would permit off-duty police to bring concealed handguns into schools.

"When I see the way the cops in Omaha kill people and get away with it," Senator Chambers said, "I don't want them carrying guns on the school grounds where there are children." He gave many examples of police violence and the various excuses for not punishing it.

He also questioned the mixing of alcohol and firearms. He argued that firearms training is minimal and inadequate. He noted the influence of groups such as the National Rifle Association. He suggested that American violence overseas had destabilized Iraq and led to the rise of ISIS.

Above all, Chambers wondered why Americans are so frightened that they need to carry guns everywhere. He expressed his concern about gun violence in his community. He noted that he does not and would not carry a weapon.

"The Second Amendment allows us to keep and bear arms," began Senator Garrett in his closing remarks, "and we are very much a gun culture." Many Nebraskans want their guns with them wherever they go.

"What are they afraid of?" asked Senator Chambers.

Senator Garrett responded, "You were making a very good point earlier about ISIS and ISIL and the Taliban and the way the world situation is now and so many Americans becoming radicalized. And as much violence as is going on, everybody has a personal feeling of insecurity or security and ..."

"My ISIS is the police," interrupted Senator Chambers. He provided further examples of unpunished police violence. "My home is not threatened by ISIS," he added, "mine is threatened by the police. The police are licensed to kill us. Children, old people." He reiterated his commitment to nonviolence. And then: "Nobody from ISIS ever terrorized us as a people as the police do daily, and they get away with it, and they've been given the license now, and people don't like me to say this."

Finally: "If I was going to carry a weapon, it wouldn't be against you, it wouldn't be against these people who come here that I might have a dispute with, mine would be for the police. And if I carried a gun I'd want to shoot him first and then ask questions later like they say the cop ought to do. But could I get away with it? You know I couldn't get away with it. They'd better hope I never lose my mind and find out that I'm on my way out of here."

After some polite laughter, Senator Garrett responded that everyone deplored police misconduct but insisted that the vast majority of police officers are competent and honorable. Chambers was not convinced: "If I have to designate an enemy of mine in this society, it's the police." The committee then went on to its next bill.

Senator Beau McCoy, who does not serve on the Judiciary Committee, later condemned Senator Chambers. Senator McCoy is perhaps best known around the state for a campaign ad in which he demonstrated his disgust for Obamacare by knocking a bobblehead miniature of President Obama off a fence post.

Other reactions followed. Political leaders denounced Chambers. He was accused of making a "terroristic threat." The legislature held a two-hour discussion at which senators vented their outrage and showed off their support for the police. Chambers defiantly rejected demands that he apologize or resign. McCoy insisted, "I'm not backing down on this."

Some did support Chambers' freedom of speech. Among the few who kept their cool was Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady, a career officer who served for 17 years as Lincoln's Chief of Police. Casady tweeted, "I think Sen. Chambers is far more likely to give birth than to shoot a police officer."

Now attention has turned to other matters, such as Senator Chambers' bill to repeal Nebraska's death penalty. Perhaps when Senator McCoy gets done knocking bobblehead Obamas off posts he can find some time actually to listen to what Senator Chambers has to say.