Early in the anti-violence rally, its leader, Willie Barney, asked everyone in the audience — numbering about 300 — to hug someone they did not know.
And with that, people from across the city reached out to strangers and hugged.
The point was symbolic: People from across Omaha need to come together to stop gun violence.
“This is what Omaha looks like,” Barney exclaimed. “This is Omaha.”
In the wake of the most recent slaying of an Omaha child by a stray bullet, two prominent anti-violence groups hosted a rally Saturday at North High School.
The goal, Barney said, was to mobilize Omaha residents, show them specific ways to get involved, and show the city that there are young people involved in gangs who want to change their lives.
“We cannot allow her death to be in vain,” he said of Payton Benson.
The 5-year-old was killed by a gun fired a block away as she ate breakfast in her home Jan. 15. Her mother, Tabatha Manning, was among those at the rally.
The event also came days after a national group declared that Nebraska has the highest homicide rate for African-Americans in the nation.
A recurring theme of the rally — called This Is the Turning Point! A United Call for Peace and Progress — was that while the city's gun violence was most pronounced in north Omaha, it affects everyone.
Barney is president of the Empowerment Network, which organized the event in partnership with the Omaha 360 Collaborative.
As Barney and others spoke, pictures were displayed of homicide victims.
They included Payton, Gilberto Hernandez-Vazquez — shot in 2012 beside his pushcart as he walked through his South Omaha neighborhood selling paletas, Mexican ice pops — and Andrea Kruger, killed Aug. 21 near 168th and Fort Streets as she begged for her life.
A series of speakers encouraged people to get involved by volunteering their time, donating money to programs that get people out of gangs and simply having the courage to call the police.
“We cannot continue to let criminals run our streets,” said Reeshard Parks, 59, of Omaha, mother of Devon and Robert Nash, brothers fatally shot in separate incidents about 3½ months apart in 2011.
Speakers also included Mayor Jean Stothert and Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.
In breakout sessions, individuals and groups plotted ways they could make a difference. Barbara Gard, a retired teacher, wants to tutor young people before they get involved in the criminal justice system. She has already tutored people in jail.
“The math skills of some of the inmates is abysmal,” she said. “They don't have the skills to hold down a regular job.”
By the end of the rally, Barney said that $12,000 had been raised for programs such as Impact One Community Connection and Game Changers, which work together to get gang members away from crime by giving them jobs. Barney said organizers knew of 50 Omaha gang members who want out.
“Those that want to change and move in the right direction, we'll do everything we can to help them,” Barney said.
By the same token, he said, if they don't want to change, they need to go to jail.
Among the speakers were former gang members. One, Akeem Jones, 23, said he left a gang with the help of Impact One about a year ago.
“We need to have the community as a whole helping us out,” Jones said. “There are a lot of gang members out there who want to change.”
Jones received a standing ovation. City Councilman Ben Gray, a relative of slain 5-year-old Payton, hugged him.