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The Story, Not the Drama

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Photography by Christopher Smith

On Saturday evening, July 25, Desert Companion photographer Chris Smith and I caught up with a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in front of Aria on the Las Vegas Strip. We’d missed the start of their Relentless Pressure march at the Bellagio because we were turned away from hotel parking, despite having press credentials. The parking attendant said it was because the hotel was allowing only guests inside, but the line of cops parked along Las Vegas Boulevard, in front of the protesters, suggested otherwise. What if we’d been going to have dinner at a Bellagio restaurant? Would we still have been barred?

We ended up parking at the Paris hotel across the street, where there wasn’t so much as a security guard, trotting the block south down the Boulevard and crossing the Cosmopolitan pedestrian bridge to catch the march. As we worked our way through the crowd, I spotted march organizer Nakitaa Fletcher and asked if she was giving press interviews. She said no and that the group had put out a statement she could send me. I was later rebuffed by one of her co-organizers, who wouldn’t say anything to me at all. 

They might not have been feeling too generous with the news media, considering a preview of the march that had appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier that day. It bore the headline, “Left-Wing Anarchists Planning Protest on Las Vegas Strip,” which the body of the article proved to be misleading. (The headline was subsequently changed to "Left-Wing Activists … ,” but journalist Ed Komenda documented the original version in this Twitter thread). Fletcher and her collaborators had planned Relentless Pressure as a Black Lives Matter event. A tagalong event, called Las Vegas Stands Against Operation Legend, came later, in answer to a nationwide call for other groups to support the Portland protesters. The RJ ascribed to the woman reportedly behind the Las Vegas Stands event, Ashley Lesieur (whom neither they nor I could reach in person), as having anarchist leanings, based on her Twitter profile description of herself as an “anarcha-feminist.”

On Facebook, Fletcher decried the article as false, writing, “Las Vegas Review Journal, shame on you.” 

Another related news piece had caught my eye earlier Saturday, for different reasons. On the program (shameless NPR plug alert) All Things Considered, Michelle Martin had interviewed Portland NAACP President E.D. Mondainé about an op-ed he’d written arguing that the Portland protests had veered from consciousness-raising action into well-intentioned white spectacle.

“They want to be allies, and they want to be friends,” Mondainé said. “But I think that their efforts would be better utilized if they were to be behind the Black Lives Matter movement and strategize with us as to how we take it another level. They need to be with us in the city square and stand behind our voices. They need to be with us in the classrooms and the boardrooms. They need to be with us in the halls of justice. They need to be crying for the legislature to change its laws.”

It called to mind the other efforts local Black Lives Matter organizers are making, besides protesting. They are taking specific criminal-justice policy demands to the legislature. But they also clean up parks, distribute food to hungry people in their communities, and hold neighborhood meetings to talk about issues like affordable housing. It’s not glamorous or newsworthy work, and at the protests I’ve attended, they've asked allies for help with it. 

At Relentless Pressure, with no one in charge to go on record, I slipped into observation mode. The group comprised around 100 people, mostly young-looking — a white-haired couple holding hands stood out. People carried the usual signs: “When anybody is oppressed, nobody is free”; “Defund the police.” They strolled at a leisurely pace chanting, “No justice, no peace!” and “Say his name … George Floyd!  Say her name … Breonna Taylor!” From time to time, organizers stopped to regroup marchers or called out, “Keep to the right.” At one point, Fletcher’s co-organizer Zyera Luther King lit a sage smudge and carried it aloft as she yelled into a bullhorn. I thought it was a sensory signal to help keep people together, but she later explained it was for protective energy. At a lightly trafficked spot on the east side of the Strip, the group paused and gathered in a circle to sing happy birthday to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Mississippi boy who was brutally lynched in 1955. Till was born July 25, 1941. 

As the march went back up the Strip toward its starting point, it passed alongside crowds of tourists walking or eating at terrace restaurants. Many people cheered, some held up fists in solidarity, most pulled out their phones to record video. No one was openly hostile. At one point, a man (possibly drunk?) not associated with the march knocked over a trash can, and there was a quick buzz among the legal observers, “Not one of ours. … Keep moving.” 

I saw no sign of anarchy. I saw a bunch of young people with convictions strong enough to get them past parking headaches and police patrols and keep them going through a 100-degree night in an area at high risk for COVID-19. I saw the determination to continue doing this two months to the day after George Floyd’s death, multiple times a week for some. This, I thought, was the story — though not the one I was sent to cover. 

Smith and I left Relentless Pressure a little before 9. I’d called the newsroom boss who sent us out that night, and he said we didn’t need to stay. From his professional perspective, there was no news there. We’ve covered the Black Lives Matter rallies and continue to cover the movement as it stretches into communities and seats of power. Being in the crowd and talking to people was valuable to me as background for longer-term work; time spent on the street is never wasted for a reporter, even if nothing concrete comes of it. But the heat was getting to me, I was tired, and I had the feeling everything would be okay. I talked it over with Smith, and he agreed the police were unlikely to cause a scene amid the throng of tourists. The line of patrol cars in front of the Bellagio had dispersed. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t come back — at past Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Metro has shown a tendency to start breaking things up and sending people home around 10 p.m. That’s when tensions often escalate.

So, as soon as I woke up Sunday morning I checked social media to see if that had happened. It hadn’t. The RJ’s recap of the march referred back to U.S. marshal Gary Schofield, who’d been the voice of alarm in Saturday’s preview. Schofield had "said late Friday that he was concerned the protest could turn violent and that he didn't 'want what is occurring in Portland to occur in Nevada.'" He added, "What cannot be allowed is the disruption of the court by acts of violence against the court or destruction of the court facilities."

The insistence on the official expectation of trouble, despite Black Lives Matter organizers publicly describing the event as a “peaceful protest and march for justice,” made the reality of no trouble at all seem even more significant. 

Later Sunday morning, wondering whether the supposed anarchists had committed any "violence against the courts," I rode my bike to the Foley Federal Building and Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse downtown. There were no broken windows, no graffiti on the walls, not so much as a stray piece of trash on the sidewalk that I could see. There had been no Portland-style confrontation there.

Everyone in Las Vegas was safe. I guess the sage worked.

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