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John L. Smith: Protests Could Garner Real Change

Protesters rally in downtown Las Vegas on June 3.
Chris Smith/Desert Companion

Protesters rally in downtown Las Vegas on June 3.

For the past two weeks, Las Vegas has been one of the sites of Black Lives Matter Protests of police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd. 

Although it has been largely peaceful, some very violent incidents have occurred here with the shooting of a Metro officer and the police shooting and killing a man who was heavily armed.

Governor Steve Sisolak has vowed to take on systemic racism and other leaders have also stepped into the discussion.

State of Nevada contributor John L. Smith has been following the protests.

“Las Vegas also has its own mixed history of racism and with challenges Metro Police Department on that issue,” he said.

The Department of Justice was brought in to investigate the department several years ago after a series of officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths.

Smith has seen more than a few protests and even riots after the Rodney King verdict in the 90s. He said there is one thing unquestionable about these recent protests.

“The bottom line here is that this is clearly a new generation expressing itself, but it is also a new generation where not just African Americans are taking to the street. It’s a new generation, which other people of color and white Americans are comfortable going out to the street to express their outrage as well and to express their interest and wish to change the system,” he said.

Smith said it is a "big moment" in the country. He also noted there is something different about the Black Lives Matter movement compared to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

He said Black Lives Matter is not really connected to the clergy or one minister. Instead, he believes it is more secular and more political, “looking for not just respect but actual change, actual change in the law, actual change in policing and how things are done.”

Past protests have had the same kind of ebb and flow, first there is outrage and anger, talk of change, promises of action and some improvements but then that ebbs.

“I think a lot of people on the frontlines are hoping that this leads to real change,” he said.

Gov. Steve Sisolak's news conference alongside other state leaders where they promised to address systematic racism could be proof that we're in a new era, Smith said.

“I think what you’re talking about is a moment in time for Nevada, and not for every state, but for Nevada especially, to really step forward and lead on this issue,” he said.

There are several people of color in positions of power in Nevada, including Attorney General Aaron Ford and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, who both attended the governor's news conference.

Smith said that other lawmakers like Joe Neal, the first African American in the Legislature, fought for some of the same issues for years. The difference now, he noted, is that issues of systematic racism and inequality are being discussed openly and by the legislative majority.

There has been more to the protests than just a call for justice for George Floyd. They have also brought to light two extremes in the country. 

In Las Vegas, three men with loose ties to right-wing extremists were arrested on terror charges. Authorities say they were plotting to use Molotov cocktails during the Black Lives Matter protest on the Strip.

“These are folks who have been connected by law enforcement to the boogaloo brothers or bois movement,” Smith said.

He explained the boogaloo is a code word for a second civil war. The paramilitary groups advocate confrontations with police. 

“It’s believed to be essentially an offshoot of a paramilitary, pro-fascist, organization, which is also heavily armed and menacing. And that’s what we saw with these arrests,” he said.

On the other side of that, there has been a lot of talk from the White House and certain news networks about antifa, Smith said.

He said if you followed just the president's tweets you might think that antifa is everywhere and wreaking havoc. 

“When in reality, antifa is more of an idea than a movement with its own T-shirt and hierarchy,” he said.

Antifa is left-wing and aims to call out and confront pro-fascist groups. However, Smith noted there have been skirmishes between police and antifa, but he sees a difference.

“The difference between the far-right groups and this antifa idea is that the far-right organizations have been linked to deaths in the dozens and hundreds over the years. And antifa, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has been linked to no murders,” he said.

Smith doesn't believe it is accurate to use one group as a counter-balance to the other.

The Reopening of the Las Vegas Strip

“I saw a lot of folks who were at first tenuous, kind of stepping lightly back into the casinos and then I saw them kind of get the feel of it and start to loosen up and that’s Vegas,” Smith said of his trip around Las Vegas on the first day of reopening.

He started his journey at local casinos and then made his way to the Strip. 

“The people who came were truly anxious but also kind of excited to get back into it and not just to gamble but to kind of get their Vegas on,” he said.

He talked with all kinds of people from families to solo travelers, out-of-towners to locals.

“The one reoccurring theme was, ‘We’re just excited to come to Las Vegas to play,’” he said.

The tourists told Smith just how much they miss Las Vegas during the lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. He said people associate the town with a good time and miss it when they can't come here. 

And it wasn't just about some gambling but was more about the feeling of walking through a casino and interacting with the staff.

As for safety precautions, Smith said - yes, casinos are doing what they can but - no, there's only so much that can be done.

“They’re following CDC guidelines to the degree that you can in a place where social distancing is kind of a no-no,” he said.

There are signs encouraging guests to wear masks - some people did and some people didn't. 

“I don’t think there can be enough that you can do and still stay open,” he said.

John L Smith, KNPR contributor 

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.