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The Las Vegas Protests: Will Anything Change?

<p>Protesters gather along the Las Vegas Strip Sunday night.</p>
Chris Smith/Desert Companion

Protesters gather along the Las Vegas Strip Sunday night.

A weekend of protests in Las Vegas, complete with hundreds of protesters and hundreds of police ended in tear gas and rubber bullets Sunday night on the Las Vegas Strip.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer ignited rioting and protest nationwide. In Las Vegas and Reno, protesters marched Sunday night on the sidewalks. They faced masses of police who shot tear gas into the street, forming large clouds of acrid smoke that stung eyes and choked throats.

Protesters want change.

Las Vegas police say they have changed.

Nissa Tzun is with Families United 4 Justice in Las Vegas, a group that works with families who have lost loved ones to police violence.

She told KNPR's State of Nevada that she is surprised by the protest here simply because Las Vegas has not been as responsive to other high-profile cases of police brutality and deaths caused by police officers.

She said people are responding to the death of George Floyd because the final moments of his life were captured on video.

"I think because it was recorded, and that we basically, you see the entire process, him transitioning - literally," she said, "He's not moving. People are asking, 'He is not even moving?' I think that really hit everybody."

Tzun said that country is in "national outrage" and that young people especially are experiencing a crisis between the coronavirus pandemic and the cases of police violence. 

She thought cases of police brutality would slow down during the pandemic but that is not what happened.

"Weeks into the pandemic, we're seeing tons and tons of videos populating social media and black people are being harassed, people are still being killed," she said, "I think it was the last thing that had to happen for this to explode." 

Korey Tillman is a Ph.D. student at UNLV. He is studying policing in America. He said young people have been particularly fired up. He said their decision to attend protests during a pandemic shows what it means to them.

"The fact that people went out to protest that means, one has to say, 'My risk of dying from COVID-19 is less than my risk of dying from state violence,'" he said, "That is what draws people out to a protest."

He said the protests are an example of how young people are looking to try something different in response to the history of violence in the United States.

Oja Vincent is with Forced Trajectory Project, which is a long-term multimedia project that tracks and works to amplify the impact police violence has on victims and families.

Vincent said the protests around the country are the momentum needed for change but people now have to direct that forward motion.

"Folks are crying out for justice," he said, "Crying out for the promises of this country to be kept. And it's not only black people, there are a lot of young people out there that show up as white, who this resonates with because they see the lie and now you can't turn away from it because we've seen it."

He said lasting, positive change can be made and he believes by listening to the families who have been impacted by police brutality and those who have lost loved ones to police that permanent change can happen.

Las Vegas Metro Police says it has been working on changing its culture. Undersheriff Kevin McMahill admitted, during a news conference before the protest Sunday, that the department still has areas to improve but he said it is making progress.

Some leaders of the black community in Las Vegas supported Metro and said the department has made progress. However, Tzun disagreed. She believes the department has brushed up its image, but when it comes to day to day policing - not much has changed.

"When we talk about the meat and potatoes of reform and treating people better, using force less, I'm not seeing that - I'm not seeing that at all," she said.

During the national conversation, a lot of people have talked about how it is a few bad apples within police departments who are to blame for violence and brutality.

Tillman doesn't see it that way. He pointed out that it is not about individual police officers who are just trying to protect and serve the community.

"We have to think about the role of an officer as opposed to an individual in those places," he said, "Just thinking about the number of officers in the country, it's probably common that you know one or have a family member but it's not about that individual person, it's about the role they represent." 

Vincent said black communities are over policed and don't see the police department as a force for good. 

"This is why the Black Panther Party, back in the day, was saying that the presence of the police in the black community is akin to a paramilitary force invading a country because that's been the black American experience from the beginning," he said.

Las Vegas has not seen the level of destruction and looting from the protests that other cities have seen. But, the violence of some of the protesters has brought up the question of whether it helps or hurts their goals.

Vincent said Dr. Martin Luther King, whose advocacy of non-violence is often pointed to as the best way to address inequality, gave a speech in which he noted "riots are the language of the unheard." Vicent said America is not hearing. 

“I think that if there was a sentiment that was resonating in the black community, which is not a monolith each person is going to have something else to say, it would be that enough is enough. People are tired," he said.

Tillman sees the argument about whether violence is the only way to effect change or whether non-violence is the best course of action in a different way.

"There is this binary between violence and non-violence. I want to irradicate that myth that there is a binary," he said, "When I look back and I study, how do you have a Dr. King with a Malcolm? These come in tandem."    

He also noted that when the country talks about violence versus non-violence the question always surrounds the protesters, "we never really stop and think about the violence that is on the state's behalf." 


Photo: Chris Smith/Desert Companion

Photo: Chris Smith/Desert Companion

Photo: Chris Smith/Desert Companion

Las Vegas Metro Police in the Fremont East District Downtown Las Vegas/Brent Holmes/Desert Companion

Protestors in Downtown Las Vegas Sunday night/Brent Holmes/Desert Companion

Protesters in Downtown Las Vegas Sunday/Brent Holmes/Desert Companion

Korey Tillman,  Ph.D. student studying policing, UNLV;  Nissa Tzun, Families United 4 Justice; Oja Vincent,


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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.