Every Voice: Race, Protest, and Power in Las Vegas
A roundtable on racial justice in Las Vegas.
Widespread protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd have sparked a national conversation about racism. On July 9, Desert Companion hosted a live Zoom event, “Every Voice: Race, Protest, and Power in Las Vegas,” a roundtable on racial justice in the valley.
How can street rallies translate into real change? What can be done to reform the police and expand economic opportunity in communities of color? How does a movement evolve into a coalition that bridges the divides of race, class, and gender identity? These are just a few of the questions panelists discussed.
Moderated by writer and CSN English professor Erica Vital-Lazare, the 90-minute discussion included panelists Aaron D. Ford, Nevada attorney general; Tenisha Freedom, organizer and activist; Tyler D. Parry, assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at UNLV; Lance L. Smith, a multidisciplinary artist, illustrator, and teacher; and the Reverend Vance “Stretch” Sanders, Baptist youth pastor and president of All Shades United.
The following is a transcript of the roundtable discussion, edited for length and clarity. You can find a link to the recorded video of the Zoom event at desertcompanion.com.
Erica Vital-Lazare: When we were thinking about how to home in on a theme for this discussion, we kept coming back to “What’s different?” How is this current civil rights movement, which feels so different, actually different in your personal experience? How does it compare to similar ones in the past?
Aaron D. Ford: In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, I didn’t think anything was different. I didn’t expect anything would be different. I thought it would continue to be yet another example of a Black man dying at the hands of police, and nothing happening. I have been, I hate to say the word “surprised,” but I have been surprised at where we are now, which is on the precipice of actual policies being implemented. But beyond implementation, being enforced. And on the precipice of laws being passed at a state legislative level that are seeking to address some of the concerns that have been raised from generations past.
What I am also surprised at and “happy” to see — I use the word happy in quotes, right, because who’s happy to talk about this in the context of another man’s killing? — but happy to see that law enforcement at the outset began to voice their outrage at what we saw in Minneapolis.
Tenisha Freedom: What’s different this time as far as after the George Floyd murder? I think that the video was so clear. The audio was so clear. It was something that was kind of broadcast as a horror film, broadcasted live across the country, and it was undisputable. I think that’s what led to some of the reaction and change and demands that are happening right now. This isn’t new. We’ve had four centuries of racial capitalism leading the country. We’ve had decades of police terror haunting our communities. But what’s changed is social media — videos being in the hands of everyone being able to record it and put it out quickly without it being edited. In these last few months, we’ve seen COVID change the dynamic of the economy and the way people are moving as well. We’re seeing so much corruption, so much poverty, so much of a division between the high elite and the wealthy and the poor. It’s starting to touch people that it’s never touched before. We’re seeing an uprising of people and the unity of people because of that.
Tyler D. Parry: One thing that was distinct with George Floyd’s death is the sheer length of the video, what the public was able to see. Juxtaposing that with what happened to Byron Williams — that was filmed, too — but LVMPD only released part of the video for public viewing, and apparently showed a few people, including family members, the entirety of the video, which is where you hear him repeatedly say, “I can’t breathe,” multiple times. Whereas what we have with George Floyd is nearly nine minutes of prolonged pleading for the officer to get off of his neck, and the callous nature of other officers simply watching and, in fact, getting very disgruntled with the crowd that was forming around them. It was just a visual that most people were horrified by.
Reverend Vance “Stretch” Sanders: For the most part, not much has really changed. Yes, this feels different. Yes, the climate is different, but when I say not much has changed, I’m meaning in the sense of it’s 2020, and we’re still saying Black Lives Matter. It’s 2020, we’re still asking and demanding Black power. It’s 2020, racist police officers and officers of color are getting away with killing Black, brown, oppressed people. It’s 2020, Black folks are still being lynched on trees. It’s 2020, we’re still being abducted, kidnapped with our organs missing. It’s the same old song, just a different tune. But what can be different this time is I do see a huge emergence of older people and young people who have taken to the streets, but also taken to the community to organize, because we understand that protesting is temporary, and protesting and mobilizing is something that we do to bring awareness. What’s going to really bring the actual change is the 365 (days a year) work, right? Giving folks knowledge of self, political education classes, and the community giving out resources to the people. That’s how essentially we bring change.
So I see where there’s a shift. I just hope that this shift is not temporary. Because right now, it’s cool to be an activist, everybody’s an activist now, everybody’s a community leader, everybody wants to be on panels and speak on behalf of work they’ve never really done. I just hope that spirit is not people just playing revolutionary dress-up or playing activist dress-up, but they really understand this is bigger than George Floyd.
Vital-Lazare: Lance, can you talk about the way this movement feels different, and how it is informed by the image of George Floyd in that street, Michael Brown laying for hours in the street. What impact does that have on the psyche of a nation, what impact does such imagery have on the psyche of Black people in particular?
Lance L. Smith: We understand this is psychological warfare. The torrent of images of Black death on our televisions are meant to destabilize us. I think it’s very deliberate. And when you think of things like, you talk about the lynching tree going from the tree to our streets, it’s just, again, visual representations of how we as Black people do not matter in this place. I think it’s important as an artist, and I see all of us as artists, to figure out ways to transmute those horrors. That’s the gift of us being able to create, being able to see the horror front on and being able to transmute it into something we can use for our power.
Vital-Lazare: Minister Stretch, you keep an eye on the movement nationwide. How does Black activism and Black life in Southern Nevada differ from that in the rest of the country, particularly where the movement is involved?
Sanders: Vegas is a different city. You look at the history of not just the movement from Black Lives, but if you look at the history of the Vegas civil rights movement, other cities’ leaders back in the ’60s were ministers. Vegas was different. Their leaders were Bob Bailey, an entrepreneur; Charles Kellar, a lawyer; Dr. Charles West, who was a dentist; Dr. James McMillan, who was a doctor. Vegas’ leaders were people who owned their own businesses, people who were successful, not preachers or working-class folks. That same energy is transferred today. So you look at the leadership of Las Vegas now, it differs from a lot of the leadership in other places. Vegas considers leadership politicians, that’s their leaders. In Chicago, the leaders are the people at the bottom of the barrel, the leaders are the people who run community centers. Those are the leaders in other cities as well.
It’s definitely different, but that’s not a bad thing. Because there’s also room to grow a movement in Las Vegas. But because Vegas is traditionally not known for having a progressive movement, we’re not going to have the same energy as L.A. or Detroit. And people are sometimes frustrated because they wish we would “Turn it up like Oakland!” Sometimes I do, too. And we wish that Vegas was like Detroit or Chicago, but it’s not, because unfortunately people move here from all over. When we move here, we don’t bring whatever skill or culture or knowledge that we have. We leave that back where we’re from. And for those who were born and raised here, they didn’t grow up seeing movements, they didn’t grow up seeing struggle, so they learned about what they know from other places.
Vegas has a history of having movement moments but not a movement. So they protest and they shut down the Strip, but then after that, a year later, there is no result of that protest, there is no result of that energy. That’s why it’s so important because Vegas does not have a consistency of activism. We have to make sure those who are currently in activism are laying down the foundation.
Vital-Lazare: So, you feel like you’re going back to the original ministry of movement, really replacing, or standing alongside, politicians and other activists in this movement, but you want to bring the ministry back into the movement? Is that your goal?
Sanders: Not necessarily, because for me to bring the ministry to the movement means I have to force religion on people, and I think that people have the right to practice whatever spiritual practice they practice. For me, my movement is my ministry. But ministry also means serve, so it doesn’t have to be a religious thing. My goal is to continue — there was a movement going on before there was a Stretch Sanders — so my goal is to make sure that we can sustain.
My mother always said it’s not about what you obtain, it’s what you maintain. And Vegas will brag about, “Oh we did that 20 years ago,” but what are you doing now? We have a lot of leaders in Las Vegas who live off things they did 20 years ago, but if you ain’t worked in 20 years, then it’s like that work is kinda in vain. So if we get into the movement, there’s no such thing as saying, “Oh, I used to be an activist.” When you’re in this life, you’re in this life.
As far as standing with the politicians, I think we’ve tried that and I’m open to that, but I think it has to be the right politicians because we know that we have a whole lot of politicians that this is a career for them. So most, even all, the Black politicians, they’ve sold us down a creek, they sold us out continuously. Now they’re community leaders and now they’re speaking out against what’s going on, but they’ve been quiet about Byron Williams, they’ve been quiet about Tashii Brown Farmer. They were nowhere to be found then. But now that it’s a global thing, now some of our Black elected officials want to play superhero. They were elected to represent us, and so I want to see the people stand together. If that includes politicians, obviously, then they will be welcome. But I want the people to stand together, and that means the sister who’s on the corner, the brother who’s selling dope, the grandmother who raised her grandkids.
We need to get to the people and get rid of some of the commercialization of the movement, because the Vegas movement to me is becoming very commercialized, because you got folks who are trying to co-opt, stop, hijack the movement, and turn it into something that it’s not. I want to continue to keep this movement as authentic and as original as possible.
Vital-Lazare: Professor Parry, what are we doing now? What are activists old and new doing now? How does this now fit into the continuum of history, how does Las Vegas now fit within that continuum?
Parry: I’ve been reaching out to educators in the Clark County School District. I was just curious, what is being done as far as pedagogical strategies that are being implemented within the classroom? What are the children learning? What are they learning about Las Vegas history? Because I can tell you as a person who went through the school district, most of what I learned about racism or discrimination within Las Vegas came from either discussing it with elders within the community, or learning it after I graduated from high school. Addressing anything about race or discrimination either within the United States or within the city itself was largely a side note in most of the curriculum.
The thing I’m worried about is, thus far from what I’m hearing from educators, is that very little has changed. There’s an elective of African American studies that students can choose to take, but they’re not entirely sure how much of this is actually addressed in U.S. history. And I understand that teachers are pressed for time, and they’re following particular guidelines that come down from administrators and the higher levels. But I think that we have an opportunity now to at least introduce the idea that this needs to be addressed for young people, that they need to know about this.
“Once I learned about a lot of these things after I graduated from high school, I became very resentful. People had lied to me.”— Tyler D. Parry
Once I learned about a lot of these things after I graduated from high school, I became very resentful. People had lied to me. They were trying to cover it up. They didn’t trust me with this type of knowledge. Something that I’m going to be pursuing is to try to form some type of alliance between educators within the K-12 CCSD system, and faculty, activists, or anybody who’s interested in aligning themselves, to introduce a curriculum that will talk about these things and discuss them and strategize how to help students understand the history of this city beyond just the tourism and the Mafia stories that we typically get.
I agree with the minister, Las Vegas history is unique. But at the same time, it mirrors many other parts of the country. You have students coming into my classroom thinking that racism only exists in the South. But at the same time, they’re coming from a city (in a state) that was called the Mississippi of the West and with pretty good reason. It wasn’t until 1971 when Black people could move out of the Westside.
This is not ancient history. I think students need to know and understand that. What we need to do is adjust the curriculums to meet the needs of this current movement.
Vital-Lazare: Tenisha, in your movement, how do you include education that’s a component in building awareness, also in building numbers for protest on the Strip?
Freedom: It’s important to note, like the professor did, that Las Vegas is not exempt from racism. In very recent years, Blacks were not allowed to frequent casinos. Even our entertainers weren’t allowed to perform in the same guise as white performers. Las Vegas Metro Police Department is not exempt from racism, is not exempt from saturating Black and brown communities, is not exempt from our youth being tagged and really targeted for felonies as gang members. The Las Vegas Metro Police Department is not exempt from murder and excessive force in our communities. So we have to know that Las Vegas is not unique in some of those areas of racism and oppression, as we want to put out there that it’s all about tourism. The tourism aspect is a reason why so little is known about what really happens here on some of those fronts, because there’s a lot of money there to hide it. A part of what we’re doing is exposing that it is here, but also exposing the politicians, or people that are in power and police that are not speaking on it, that are not pushing reform on it, that are not defunding these entities that don’t work to eradicate it. So we’re wanting to call out some of those names.
We have the attorney general with us as well. What stance is he taking? What areas can he use his power in to make sure that we’re united on some of these fronts, and using that power and position for the people’s voice? As activists in the community, we serve the people. We are the voice of the people. We try to push the people’s narrative, and we try to push the people’s agenda and our goals.
We know that CCSD does not have a mandatory Black history curriculum in the schools. It doesn’t exist, so it is voluntary and optional if they even present any Black history to our children. So we have a couple of options. Either we demand that this curriculum is included, or we begin to organize our own schools and our own curriculums that include it.
One time, for Malcolm X’s (birthday), which is May 19, we went out into the community for Malcolm X Day, and we had books for the children, we had fruit, and we had some informational fliers on Malcolm X. And it just happened that a school bus got off. And this is a Black and brown neighborhood right in the middle of the Westside. All Black children getting off the bus, probably about 30 or 40 of them, and not one of them even knew who Malcolm X was. So we understand that’s on purpose, we understand that’s by design, that some of our Black liberation leaders are not known, and they’re certainly not taught in these school systems.
Vital-Lazare: I wanted to hear from you, Attorney General Ford, about police reform. It is the most basic request of this movement. Whose responsibility is it, what has to happen at every level to get more day-to-day accountability for institutionalized violence against Black people?
Ford: It’s everybody’s responsibility. Each of us has a role. We’ve heard the speakers before me talk about what they do relative to grassroots or being the voice of the people. I think people have several voices. I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on the way that they’re able to serve. I understand that some politicians in fact do nothing. Some do more than nothing. And part of my job as the top law enforcement officer in the state is to utilize the influence that I have in my position to be able to effectuate policy changes, but also the enforcement of those policies.
It’s not so much again the institution of a policy to de-escalate or the institution of a policy to take implicit-bias training or use-of-force training. That’s not the issue. The truth is, many of our departments have those, and they are state-of-the-art policies. But what’s not happening, though, is the enforcement of those from a disciplinary and oftentimes judicial enforcement perspective.
When I saw the killing of George Floyd, my immediate thought was, here we go again and nothing’s going to happen. That’s because I am conditioned at some level to believe that actual justice will not be made in any circumstances, and that helps contribute to the lack of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, particularly the Black community right now. It’s partially my responsibility as an individual who has a level of influence to be able to talk to and about police departments, but also to and about legislators, and also utilizing my statutory authorities and abilities given to me that I’m asking for that I have not yet received.
If, in fact, a police department is being alleged to be racially discriminating in the way that it enforces justice or enforces laws, then the attorney general’s office can be an entity that can operate in the oversight perspective. It can add an extra level of transparency. I don’t have that authority right now. The Department of Justice at the federal level has that authority, and I have asked — along with 17 other attorneys general across the nation — that Congress give us that authority under federal law. But I have also simultaneously asked that our state Legislature authorize that authority within my office, so I have belt and suspenders of sorts, if you will. There are additional opportunities that I think we all have vis-à-vis holding people accountable. We all have a role in this.
Vital-Lazare: Tenisha, Metro announced (recently) that it changed its policy on neck restraint technique to only allow it in life-threatening situations. So I wanted to know your thoughts on that and how grassroots organizing might have influenced that change in policy.
Freedom: We believe that grassroots organizing is a major influence on mainstream platforms or policy creations. We’ve seen that happen historically on many issues. People do set the tone for these discussions. Years ago, we weren’t hearing anything about defunding the police. It was kind of one of those “radical ideas” that was only talked about in a few groups that were more considered to the left. So now we’re seeing that, we’re hearing that every day, and now you can google “defund the police,” and it comes up as a very palatable discussion.
Although I’m not sure exactly what the attorney general’s powers are, but I do know these people rub elbows with each other, they go to dinner with each other, they go to lunch with each other. These conversations of what the people are demanding need to be top priority, then tuning in and then attending our protests, our gatherings, our forums, and saying, “Hey what do you guys want? What can we deliver to you?” Because they are supposed to be the people’s servants. We’re not seeing that. So, as far as the Metro initiating yet another law or another policy, they have a use-of-force policy, they have a don’t-choke-hold policy. But they seem to somehow be able to be immune to whatever policy or whatever procedures are in place. Like the attorney general said, there’s no accountability, and that we see over and over again.
We saw this week a budgeting forum where the governor took millions of dollars away from education again. And nothing taken away from police forces. So we hear it. However, we don’t see the response that we’d like. What the people are demanding is that these people in positions of power and representatives of the so-called elite begin to speak out and share some of the narratives that we have, that they take a political stance in it, that they push the agenda.
Even in the know-your-rights types of forums. They hold these forums to bring the youth together, bring the community together so you know your rights, know how you should respond if the police is apprehending you or if you have an encounter with the police. The issue is that we know our rights, and the police know our rights, and instead they’re impeded and blocked and disregarded time and time again.
So our distrust with the police is a branch of it. But unfortunately, it escalates up the entire tree and down to the roots. The police are just the branch of enforcement, but we know who’s really pulling the strings: The people in these political offices that are simply not doing what the people are asking them to do. We want defunding, we want disarming, we want disbanding of the police, and we also want those resources redistributed to our communities.
What we can do from our end from the grassroots and organizing part of it is start to withhold our resources, so instead of begging them to redistribute the budget, we start impacting the budget. So that’s what we’re looking to organize, look at ways that we can impact the budget so our resources never even get into the state’s hand of control. We keep it in our hands for control.
Vital-Lazare: Minister Stretch, Tenisha is talking about defunding, disarming, disbanding. Is this part of your philosophy as well? Do you think that the type of revolutionary change that Tenisha is pointing toward is a solution?
Sanders: I probably agree with 90 percent of the ideology that she has. We don’t want reform. We want revolution. The root word of revolution is revolt. To revolt means to break away. So we want abolishment. We don’t want a cleaner version. It’s like, almost, either be raped or be murdered. We don’t want those options. We want complete, total change. So I wholeheartedly believe, as a liberation activist, that if we’re going to bring change, the people got to have the power.
The police can’t police the police. Because there’s a silent code. It’s even like that with the politicians. They do rub elbows, they do go to lunch, they do have a code of conduct to each other. To Attorney General Ford’s point, I agree that we all play a role. But the issue is, those who are supposed to play roles who are in elected office positions are not playing any roles. I’m not saying every politician in the state of Nevada has to play a role, but what I’m saying is the masses of them who should be playing roles are not playing roles. They’re playing the role of, “I’m trying to get re-elected, so I’m gonna say what’s popular. I’m going to make sure I don’t be too radical or too Black.”
It would be so powerful if politicians would not only come out to the protests, but also come out when folks are giving out food and giving out resources. If I go to most of the Westside housing projects like Sherman Gardens and ask them, “Have you ever saw an assemblyperson in person? Have you ever saw the Attorney General in person, have you saw the Black councilman that’s supposed to be in this area?” They would say no. That’s problematic. So imagine how powerful, a councilman coming and bringing food every other week. You start changing the trajectory of the people and you start actually being a voice.
“We don’t want reform. We want revolution. We want complete, total change.”— Rev. “Stretch” Sanders
Just because you have a voice box don’t mean you have a voice. So you have people who have voice boxes, but they’re not using them. So you ended up in a position of power, but you’re not using that power. I think that so many of our elected officials, including Attorney General Ford, definitely have to step their game up. We commend them for speaking out now, but they’re still silent on Byron Williams. Sheriff (Joseph Lombardo) said on TV, “This is not Minneapolis.” Like hell it ain’t! This is Minneapolis. This is Baltimore. This is Chicago. This is Ferguson. The police terrorism has been going on in Las Vegas since the beginning of time. This is nothing new.
When our elected officials and some so-called leaders, when they get on TV and they say, “This is not Minneapolis, we’re going to be sure,” then you’re erasing history because Byron Williams was just killed in September for riding a bike! When a Black man rides a bike, he’s suspicious. But when a white man rides a bike in Summerlin, he’s bike-riding.
I can’t put all the pressure on Attorney General Ford. It’s also on community folks. It’s also on the pastors and the preachers and so-called leaders like the teachers. We’ve all got to step our game up, but particularly those who were supposed to be elected to be the voice of the people have to step it up. We all can agree that the politicians in Las Vegas and Nevada are definitely not as revolutionary, radical, and vocal as they can be. They were not speaking out about Byron Williams, they were not speaking out about Tashii Brown Farmer and Trevon Cole. They were not speaking out about so many others. That’s just the Black folk. We’re not talking about the Hispanic families that got killed. We can’t sit here and acknowledge George Floyd had been killed and everybody’s like well, this is a good time to celebrate Metro. No, Metro is the biggest gang in the state of Nevada. It’s not just us bullying and picking on Metro, but before you can clean up a wound you have to acknowledge who made that wound. What we’re looking for as different activists and revolutionaries is we need all of our people who are so-called leaders to be leaders.
When I look at panels such as the “Solutions, Strategies & Service Summit” (hosted by Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly and moderated by rapper and entrepreneur Tip T.I. Harris on June 24 at Pearson Community Center), there were several activists who were on there listed as community leaders. What qualifies as a community leader? Because if that’s the case, are we paying for this? Is this like a membership, because these folks were nowhere to be found two months ago. Nowhere! But now that T.I.’s in town, everybody’s a leader.
We’ve got to do better. This is not a game. People are harassed. Phones are tapped. Houses are watched. We can be killed doing this work. We don’t like to have people who make a mockery of this. Yes, we all play a role, but play the role that you were elected for and put in a position to play.
Vital-Lazare: Who are the community leaders? What qualifies as a community leader?
Smith: The thing that really kind of blows me away is that we’re not talking about racism as a social construct that gains capital. The invention of the police force was to police Black bodies, period. Attorney General, I thank you for all you do, but we can’t mince words here. It’s always life or death if you are a minority in this space. So when you ask what can you do, I totally agree with Tenisha and Stretch: It’s about making our own, and understanding that this system is built to kill us. Period. We can pontificate and try to be cute and dance around it. The attorney general knows that he’s indoctrinated in a system that’s built kill us.
Ford: Let’s be clear. Everyone has their experiences. I’m not originally from here. I’m from inner-city Dallas, Texas. I’ve had my fair share of negative experiences with law enforcement. I know my experiences, and I don’t run from it and I don’t shy away from it. I also know what my role is. And I utilize my position to effectuate policy change in the way that I think is appropriate. Is it going to please everybody? Absolutely not. Is it pleasing some of those on this screen? Clearly not. But does that deter me from doing what I think is most appropriate in the position that I hold? It does not, and it will not.
But I don’t purport to speak on behalf of other elected officials; I will speak on my own behalf and to say that absolutely indoctrination has occurred. Professor Parry talked about indoctrination in the educational system. Education has always been used to indoctrinate.
I’ve told the story several times before, when my young Black kid was taking a test in Texas, a multiple-choice exam that required him to pass to get to the next grade, and the question was multiple choice. Simply, what was the cause of the Civil War? Two answers he was able to get rid of. The last two answers were states’ rights and slavery. And, according to the Texas curriculum, the right answer was states’ rights, not slavery. Obviously, I was up in arms about that and explained to them this is no reason why that should be the more correct answer. It was the states’ rights to own slaves.
And so in the context of the worst, most racist institution of our country’s history, you can’t acknowledge that that in itself was the cause of the Civil War. It’s no wonder people say Black people are too sensitive when it comes to race. It’s indoctrination. Absolutely. Does the system indoctrinate? It absolutely does, but does it also take people inside the system to try to help undo it? I believe so. I believe that there are some of us who are being effective. For example, when I was in the state Senate, (we passed) laws that helped to remove the ability to racially profile and beyond that, to prosecute those who actually do it. That’s necessary, and it runs parallel with what’s happening at the grassroots level.
Not everyone looks to be seen, not everyone looks to be heard. Some folks actually just want to be in the background and do some work and effectuate the change in the best way that they can. And one of the ways to do that is to vote. Some of the people in our communities push back even on that particular concept. And when my grandmother and my great grandmother and my in-laws tell me about their struggles to vote in Texas, it appalls me that folks would pooh-pooh on the notion of voting when they were the ones that were having dogs sicced on them and water hoses turned on them.
Let’s be clear. I am the top law enforcement officer in the state. I wear a badge. I don’t run from it. And that does mean that I can’t do certain things in good faith — for example, appear at a protest when I have to enforce a law that says you’re not supposed to be in groups of 50 or more.
Now what I can do and what I did do in that context is put out a notice about what your rights are, relative to your interactions. To be sure, some people know their rights, but not everybody does. And so understanding that there are opportunities for us to educate, even in our positions of “power,” putting “power” in quotes because some folks don’t want to acknowledge it. There are still ways that we can influence what’s going on here.
Vital-Lazare: Lance, I want to ask you about privilege and marginalization. What is the underlying idea of really representing all marginalized people within this movement, centering them, moving everyone toward lives of parity?
Smith: When we think of the entirety of how the Americas was built on the backs of trafficked Black bodies, there’s always been this sense of hierarchy. At the top, there’s someone to punch down at. Would we be marching the way we were if it were just about Breonna Taylor? When we think about the life expectancy of a Black trans woman being 35, we should have all been up in arms about those things. When you think about the way that the Black Lives Matter movement willfully ignores and often ostracizes LGBTQI people as if we had not been here from the start. So I think everyone is speaking from a place of privilege, but also we need to be transparent about the fact that if the most marginalized of us are free, then we’re all free. And just because you have a tier to sit on, please believe, this nation will figure out a way to take you down from it. So if you’re not for everyone, including queer people, trans people, non-binary people that happen to be Black as well, then you’re not for any of us.
We’re extremely fractured. We can’t even have the conversation. I’m not upset at the attorney general. He’s doing what he needs to do inside of the system that he’s working in. Again, we’re mincing words, and we’re not talking about real root — Black bodies in this place do not matter. Us walking outside, us literally breathing is violent. Is seen as violent. It’s not violent when a bunch of white guys go to a town hall with a bunch of guns. But as soon as one of us raises our voice, it’s violence.
“We need to be transparent about the fact that if the most marginalized of us are free, then we’re all free.” — Lance L. Smith
I want to talk about erasure and not talking about Black women. We can focus our energy on what Black men are going through, not to say that it is not a plight, but Black women have to carry so much more. I don’t feel like they are protected. My question for everyone is how are we protecting Black women? How do we prioritize the Black women — not just our mothers and our sisters — but the Black women around us? How do we deal with colorism? How do we deal with all these hierarchical systems that make it so there are certain people who are always at the bottom, proverbially, and there are some people that are higher up? And how do we make it a line instead of a stair step?
I am angry, because I know the way that I show up in spaces is seen as a threat because I’m Black, but also seen as sometimes outside of the Black movement because I’m queer. Multiple things can be true at one time. I’m asking for everyone involved to acknowledge that those things are real, that a Black trans woman can be found at a river chopped into pieces and none of you will know her name.
Sanders: I made a video recently because on my timeline I see folks that say, “Black lives can’t matter to a Black gay couple because they can’t even have biological children.” It really grinds my gears because that’s so wrong. Obviously, me being a Christian minister, we know in the Christian faith, homosexuality is not exactly welcome. I do catch a lot of flak because I do speak up and defend LGBTQ+ lives. I believe that you have to stop picking and choosing the Black lives we’re going accept. All Black life is valuable. As Black folks, we can’t pick and choose the Black life we think is valuable, because if we do, then we’re not really for Black lives.
Nobody talks about the fact that people like Marsha P. Johnson, who was a transgender woman who was found in a river back in ’92, and nobody has yet talked about that. And this was a time where being Black and trans was looked as like, “Yuck, get away from me.”
Smith: It still is.
Sanders: Exactly. And it’s not on Lance to call it out, right? It’s up to people like Attorney General Ford and Sister Erica and Tenisha. We have to stand just like when we say we want white folks to defend us when it comes to racism. We have to stand and tell our queer brothers and sisters, “You get back, we got this one.”
We all need to make sure that we hold each other accountable as family do. When family gets off the deep end, we have to call that out, and Lance is right: We do have to protect Black women. Black women are not seen as human, not seen as valuable, trans women the same thing. Until we correct those issues, the Black life is never going to matter. Black lives will never matter until it matters to Black folks.
So every Tuesday, my organization, we’re starting our community patrols. And I was messaged by politicians, who told me they thought I was trying to put together a militia. My question to them is why whenever we come together, it’s a negative thing, it’s a militia. You just got done telling me that you felt bad about the young Black girl who was lured away from the McDonald’s on MLK and Lake Mead, and was found miraculously in a sewer dead. You just said you were upset about that. Okay, here we offer to go do something about it, and then that’s looked down upon. The pressure is not going to be on the police. We tried them. It doesn’t work, right? The pressure can’t just be on the politicians. They’re overwhelmed. They got excuses. The community as a whole has to step up.
I believe that voting on a local level and a state level is definitely beneficial, and it’s definitely important. But if folks are going to the voting booths hungry, then to me it’s in vain. Yes, people need to vote, but we also need to be in the community and made sure people feel safe voting. Right? So that people are not being intimidated by white supremacist groups, people are not voting in bright lights at Pearson Center then getting home and lighting candles.
Vital-Lazare: Dr. King is one of my personal heroes. There is a speech that’s not often mentioned of his, but it’s a speech that I revisit again and again, and that speech at the Riverside City Baptist Church on the Upper East Side (of New York) is “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” (April 4, 1967). He said, “A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.” How can we foster Black wealth in Las Vegas, particularly in spaces where exclusion was deliberate and supported by policy? Professor Parry, what happened to the Westside over the past three decades? Economically, why is this district still in blight?
Parry: There’s a long history within the Westside. One thing to understand about it, though, was during the 1950s and 1960s, it was a middle-class area. Money traveled within the community. In the common narrative of the United States, people talk about Black Wall Street, which is outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as one of these areas of Black achievement. The internal communities supported one another. And the Westside functioned as many Black neighborhoods did throughout the country in a very similar way.
After 1971, when the Fair Housing Acts were signed, you start to see the Black middle class moving out into the suburbs. That was their choice. That was perfectly reasonable because the legislation had changed. Now, what happens, though, is the way integration or desegregation has been done historically in the United States has always left communities behind. And what replaces the middle-class occupants is a heavier form of policing.
So it didn’t take very long, until about the mid 1980s, when crack cocaine comes into the Las Vegas so-called “inner city.” Much like it did in Los Angeles. The story of Los Angeles and South Central very much parallels what we know as the Westside today. Alongside that comes a heavy police force that’s not there to be of civil service. It’s there to intimidate, exploit, and bully the neighboring populations.
One thing that’s not often discussed is that when we talk about social distancing or the inability to gather in large crowds, Metro actually instituted that policy strictly within the Westside in the early 1990s. They wouldn’t allow more than three people together within that neighborhood. So, first you have economic deprivation, the introduction of drugs, and then heavy policing — essentially the stop-and-frisk policy that’s commonly associated with New York City. But it was very much in place within the Westside at this point.
So consider this entire history: From 1990 to 2011, a study was conducted that found that the LVMPD was the third-highest officer-related shooting per capita city within the United States. Think about what that does. Despite all the reforms that have been encouraged and conducted, despite all the changes that have been instituted or spoken about since 2011 or 2015, we have an entire generation of Black men and women who have learned to distrust the police because they never saw the police as allies to them. They saw them as a restrictive force that was essentially there to prey upon them. So, first the money’s taken away. And then, the police force with guns and systemic racism comes into the community. And the predominantly white police force at this time essentially institutes generations of distrust and systemic racism against one section of the city.
Vital-Lazare: Attorney General Ford, how do we get to eradicating racism through economic inclusion?
Ford: One of the recurring themes is that this is systemic. This isn’t just about cop training and not just about police interactions. And frankly, it’s not just about the criminal justice system. It’s beyond that, and what Mr. Parry just spoke about, you combine that with redlining in housing; with educational opportunities that are diminished; with economic opportunities and with employment opportunities that have, generally speaking, not been afforded to African Americans on a fair basis. You combine all of these systems, not to mention the political system, which in and of itself has institutionalized racism, engaged in it and ingrained in it. This is a dynamic problem. Anyone who says there’s one answer to fix this is not really looking at the entire picture. It’s systemic, and it’s going to require a dynamic solution to this problem.
“I hate to say ‘surprised,’ but I have been surprised at where we are now: on the precipice of actual policies being implemented.”— Aaron D. Ford
And I’m going to digress to talk about something Lance mentioned, which is the protection of all lives, trans lives in this context, trans Black lives in this context. Recognizing that again from my role as the top law enforcement officer in the state, I have something purely within my jurisdiction. And that’s the law. That’s me being able to file lawsuits. Or to push back against federal actions, for example, that attempt to discriminate. And go to court, and win in court, and to set standards in the law that if they are not met, there’s recourse that can be brought to bear. No one else, I believe, on this panel has that ability. And again, this is what I’m talking about when I say we all have a role to play.
Vital-Lazare: Lance, does economic inclusion help bend that long arc toward justice, so that it completes the job of eradicating racism?
Smith: I deeply feel that racism will disappear when it’s not profitable, and it will always be profitable. Especially in this nation. I don’t know about the idea of eradicating racism. I think there are deep-seated things we have to address. But just like with anything, addressing a deep wound like racial disparity in this country — it was brought forth by death, and there will have to be more death for it to stop, unfortunately. But economics and racism go hand in hand. They feed on one another. I have a strong belief that most things are energy. White supremacy is energy. And what does it eat? Poor people, Black people, brown people. That’s what it eats. So how do we address that energy? How has that energy made us as individuals who were brought here by force in many ways turn our backs on one another?
Vital-Lazare: Tenisha, I want to end our time together with you. You espouse a radical ideology. It is needed against oppression. What does that look like? Is there a place in your approach for neighborhood redevelopment, let’s say, on the Westside? Is that part of economic revolution?
Freedom: Yes, absolutely. Malcolm X spoke about it in (his) “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech. He spoke about using Black nationalism and using Black internationalism to create some of those self-help programs. In economics as well, he spoke about us creating businesses, creating employment, creating our own opportunities. So it’s not always looking for the state or anyone else to deliver these types of opportunities, but for us to create them ourselves, empower ourselves to determine what our narrative is, our goals, and then actually design those programs that are of true liberation, not just the illusion of liberation.
I do believe that the attorney general and others in positions of power can put pressure on one another and on their constituents to support the narrative of the people. However, the people need to continue to organize and not rely on these positions of power as the only ways to get things done.
We know that the American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, is sitting on stories that have happened in the last few weeks of protesters here that have been attacked and terrorized by the police in our community. Our most recent protest on July 4, we were denied water. We can’t have water out here. Those are the type of stories that I wish that the attorney general and those in power would listen to and work on changing, in their positions of power in the areas that they’re able to change and not allow those sort of attacks to happen.
Ford: Absolutely, and I didn’t know that. For that type of story, you absolutely should reach out to me. You claim that I rub elbows. That ain’t entirely accurate, but I can rub some elbows when it comes to having conversations about that type of atrocity that’s taken place. I’m sorry to cut you off, but that made my jaw drop to say that you were denied water. Ridiculous.
Freedom: The professor mentioned the crack coming into our communities. I think that we need to be clear, and it’s been proven, that this didn’t just happen. This was a state-designed and carried-out program that purposely occurred to oppress our people in these particular communities. So we need to stop being liberal on some of our terminology with, “Oh this just kind of happened.” We see these sort of state attacks that are purposeful. They happen to our communities to keep the foot on our necks, so to speak, to keep us oppressed, to keep us in a position of being in an undeclared war against our people. So we believe that we should solve our problems with self-determined goals.
“It’s not always about looking for the state or anyone else to deliver these types of opportunities, but for us to create them ourselves.” — Tenisha Freedom
Some of our ancestors did fight to vote, but some of us, our ancestors, also actively fought for liberation. So, unfortunately, we don’t push “vote or die.” We push “organize or die.” And what we mean by that is just organizing the people. We believe that the people have the ability to put together goal-oriented, self-reliant ways of getting our agendas and our needs met without waiting for the state to do it.
Smith: Tenisha brought up ancestors. One of the things I hope, for any of the Black people hearing the sound of my voice: I want them to understand that their ancestors went through a lot of pain, and that pain is in our bones. But through all of the horrors of being brought here, and slavery and redlining and overpolicing, there was always resistance. And that is the thing that we need to remember always. Even in the face of abject horror or annihilation, there’s always resistance.