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 Whats 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 Floyds killing, I didnt think anything was different. I didnt 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.
Aaron D. Ford
What I am also surprised at and happy to see I use the word happy in quotes, right, because whos happy to talk about this in the context of another mans killing? but happy to see that law enforcement at the outset began to voice their outrage at what we saw in Minneapolis.
Tenisha Freedom: Whats 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 thats what led to some of the reaction and change and demands that are happening right now. This isnt new. Weve had four centuries of racial capitalism leading the country. Weve had decades of police terror haunting our communities. But whats 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, weve seen COVID change the dynamic of the economy and the way people are moving as well. Were seeing so much corruption, so much poverty, so much of a division between the high elite and the wealthy and the poor. Its starting to touch people that its never touched before. Were seeing an uprising of people and the unity of people because of that.
Tyler D. Parry: One thing that was distinct with George Floyds 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 cant 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
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, Im meaning in the sense of its 2020, and were still saying Black Lives Matter. Its 2020, were still asking and demanding Black power. Its 2020, racist police officers and officers of color are getting away with killing Black, brown, oppressed people. Its 2020, Black folks are still being lynched on trees. Its 2020, were still being abducted, kidnapped with our organs missing. Its 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. Whats 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. Thats how essentially we bring change.
So I see where theres a shift. I just hope that this shift is not temporary. Because right now, its cool to be an activist, everybodys an activist now, everybodys a community leader, everybody wants to be on panels and speak on behalf of work theyve 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
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 its very deliberate. And when you think of things like, you talk about the lynching tree going from the tree to our streets, its just, again, visual representations of how we as Black people do not matter in this place. I think its important as an artist, and I see all of us as artists, to figure out ways to transmute those horrors. Thats 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, thats 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.
Its definitely different, but thats not a bad thing. Because theres also room to grow a movement in Las Vegas. But because Vegas is traditionally not known for having a progressive movement, were 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 its not, because unfortunately people move here from all over. When we move here, we dont bring whatever skill or culture or knowledge that we have. We leave that back where were from. And for those who were born and raised here, they didnt grow up seeing movements, they didnt 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. Thats why its 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 youre 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 doesnt 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 its not about what you obtain, its 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 aint worked in 20 years, then its like that work is kinda in vain. So if we get into the movement, theres no such thing as saying, Oh, I used to be an activist. When youre in this life, youre in this life.
As far as standing with the politicians, I think weve tried that and Im 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, theyve sold us down a creek, they sold us out continuously. Now theyre community leaders and now theyre speaking out against whats going on, but theyve been quiet about Byron Williams, theyve been quiet about Tashii Brown Farmer. They were nowhere to be found then. But now that its 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 whos on the corner, the brother whos 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 its 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: Ive 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 Im worried about is, thus far from what Im hearing from educators, is that very little has changed. Theres an elective of African American studies that students can choose to take, but theyre not entirely sure how much of this is actually addressed in U.S. history. And I understand that teachers are pressed for time, and theyre 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 didnt trust me with this type of knowledge. Something that Im 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 whos 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, theyre coming from a city (in a state) that was called the Mississippi of the West and with pretty good reason. It wasnt 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 thats a component in building awareness, also in building numbers for protest on the Strip?
Freedom: Its 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 werent 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 its 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 theres a lot of money there to hide it. A part of what were 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 dont work to eradicate it. So were 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 were united on some of these fronts, and using that power and position for the peoples voice? As activists in the community, we serve the people. We are the voice of the people. We try to push the peoples narrative, and we try to push the peoples agenda and our goals.
We know that CCSD does not have a mandatory Black history curriculum in the schools. It doesnt 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 Xs (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 thats on purpose, we understand thats by design, that some of our Black liberation leaders are not known, and theyre 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: Its everybodys responsibility. Each of us has a role. Weve 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 dont think anyone has a monopoly on the way that theyre 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.
Its 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. Thats not the issue. The truth is, many of our departments have those, and they are state-of-the-art policies. But whats 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 nothings going to happen. Thats 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. Its 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 Im 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 generals office can be an entity that can operate in the oversight perspective. It can add an extra level of transparency. I dont 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--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. Weve seen that happen historically on many issues. People do set the tone for these discussions. Years ago, we werent 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 were seeing that, were hearing that every day, and now you can google defund the police, and it comes up as a very palatable discussion.
Although Im not sure exactly what the attorney generals 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 peoples servants. Were 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 dont-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, theres 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 dont see the response that wed 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 theyre 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 whos 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 thats what were looking to organize, look at ways that we can impact the budget so our resources never even get into the states 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 dont want reform. We want revolution. The root word of revolution is revolt. To revolt means to break away. So we want abolishment. We dont want a cleaner version. Its like, almost, either be raped or be murdered. We dont want those options. We want complete, total change. So I wholeheartedly believe, as a liberation activist, that if were going to bring change, the people got to have the power.
The police cant police the police. Because theres a silent code. Its 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 Fords 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. Im not saying every politician in the state of Nevada has to play a role, but what Im saying is the masses of them who should be playing roles are not playing roles. Theyre playing the role of, Im trying to get re-elected, so Im gonna say whats popular. Im going to make sure I dont 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 thats supposed to be in this area? They would say no. Thats 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 dont want reform. We want revolution. We want complete, total change. Rev. Stretch Sanders
Just because you have a voice box dont mean you have a voice. So you have people who have voice boxes, but theyre not using them. So you ended up in a position of power, but youre 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 theyre still silent on Byron Williams. Sheriff (Joseph Lombardo) said on TV, This is not Minneapolis. Like hell it aint! 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, were going to be sure, then youre erasing history because Byron Williams was just killed in September for riding a bike! When a Black man rides a bike, hes suspicious. But when a white man rides a bike in Summerlin, hes bike-riding.
I cant put all the pressure on Attorney General Ford. Its also on community folks. Its also on the pastors and the preachers and so-called leaders like the teachers. Weve 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. Thats just the Black folk. Were not talking about the Hispanic families that got killed. We cant sit here and acknowledge George Floyd had been killed and everybodys like well, this is a good time to celebrate Metro. No, Metro is the biggest gang in the state of Nevada. Its 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 were 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 thats 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, everybodys a leader.
Weve 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 dont 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 were 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 cant mince words here. Its 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: Its 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 hes indoctrinated in a system thats built kill us.
Ford: Lets be clear. Everyone has their experiences. Im not originally from here. Im from inner-city Dallas, Texas. Ive had my fair share of negative experiences with law enforcement. I know my experiences, and I dont run from it and I dont 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 dont 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.
Ive 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 countrys history, you cant acknowledge that that in itself was the cause of the Civil War. Its no wonder people say Black people are too sensitive when it comes to race. Its 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. Thats necessary, and it runs parallel with whats 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.
Lets be clear. I am the top law enforcement officer in the state. I wear a badge. I dont run from it. And that does mean that I cant do certain things in good faith for example, appear at a protest when I have to enforce a law that says youre 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 dont want to acknowledge it. There are still ways that we can influence whats 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?
Every Voice: Race, Protest, and Power in Las Vegas - KNPR