Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson took some serious heat from a few black residents at a Wednesday night forum commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The three-hour forum drew more than 200 people and was held inside a North Las Vegas church. It was planned by the Clark County Black Caucus to explore issues affecting the black community five decades after the civil rights movement.
A panel of nearly a dozen elected officials and experts, including Wolfson, were seated at the front of the church.
But the gathering at times turned into a bit of a free-for-all during the question and answer sessions. A few in the crowd seized on the chance to ask Wolfson what he planned to do to stop racial profiling by police in West Las Vegas, bounded by Interstate 15, Rancho Drive, Martin Luther King and Lake Mead boulevards.
Juana Leia Jordan, microphone in hand, accused Wolfson of not doing enough.
“You’re not speaking from the heart,” said Jordan, asking Wolfson what he specifically intended to do about police officers who pull over motorists without cause before searching their vehicles. “I want to understand from your heart what you’re going to do about it.”
“I beg to differ,” Wolfson countered. “I am speaking from the heart.”
Forum moderator Yvette Williams, founder of the black caucus, stepped in and said the question could later be addressed by Assistant Sheriff Gregory McCurdy, who told audience members that they should “police the police” and call internal affairs if they suspect officers’ behavior. He gave them contact numbers: 828-3422 or 828-1526.
Jordan’s criticism came moments after Wolfson said he’s hiring more black prosecutors, and that on one occasion, he “hired a black lady myself” as a Clark County prosecutor.
Earlier, Wolfson acknowledged to the predominantly black crowd that racism exists in the U.S. justice system and that a disproportionate number of blacks are being arrested and incarcerated.
It’s mostly because of tough national drug policies that were enacted as a result of the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, he said.
At one point, another woman stood up and asked Wolfson about whether he could look into sealing the records of felons who have done their time so they could be “reintegrated” back into the community.
Wolfson said the process is complex and cannot be performed overnight. It takes up to seven years.
A good portion of the forum was devoted to the economic hardships and the jobless rate among Nevada’s blacks.
Unemployment among African-Americans in the Silver State stood at 17 percent in July, ahead of Latinos at 11 percent and whites at 9 percent, according to the state’s jobs report.
In Las Vegas, a city that was once fertile ground for construction jobs, black people got few of them — less than 1 percent, black leaders here say.
At the Clark County School District, one of the largest employers in the state, blacks make up 5 percent of the payroll, a decrease from 7 percent two years ago.
Many local black leaders today can’t help but think that they’ve been edged out of the job market.
“It’s like we’re invisible in the community,” said Williams, who founded the Clark County Black Caucus five years ago.
A list of the top 10 civil rights demands for Nevada blacks were presented, something that Williams has been working on for the past few weeks. Some are leftovers from a list drawn up by civil rights leaders in 1963 — equal access to labor, employment and voting.
Some of the new demands are eye-openers: dismantling the so-called “school to prison pipeline” by improving education among blacks in the state; ending racial profiling through tougher legislation in Nevada; ensuring that blacks aren’t discriminated against at the voting booths; and raising the minimum wage to $9 nationwide.
Nevada’s minimum wage for workers who receive health benefits from employers is $7.25. The hourly rate for workers who do not receive health benefits is $8.25.
“There’s an appetite out there to make great improvements,” said Williams, 55, who lived most of her life in California before moving to Las Vegas in 1990. “And by the way, we’re not talking about 50 years. We’re talking about 150 years.
“Let’s not forget why the March on Washington was held in 1963.”
Lost in the coverage and the inspiring rhetoric this past week is the fact that although the civil rights movement might have reached its pinnacle in 1963 with King’s speech, but it was held to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation championed by President Abraham Lincoln in January 1863, in which 4 million slaves were freed.
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.