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Protests overrun downtown Las Vegas’ reopening party

Saturday night was supposed to be a hang at Don’t Tell Mama piano bar at Neonopolis. The bastion of entertainment on the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard was open for the first time in 2½ months after closing because of COVID-19.

Mama is where a piano player invites customers to the open mic to sing their favorite songs. Singing on key is hardly mandatory. The bartenders are the better singers. The employees routinely work the room with a tip jar. If you’re seeking to hear, or even participate in, an unvarnished rendition of “Islands in the Stream,” Mama’s is for you.

Mama’s, The Cat’s Meow karaoke bar, the Notoriety entertainment complex, The Nerd bar and Banger Brewing were all open for business Saturday at Neonopolis. The operators and entertainers were eager to start the long road back to normal.

But we never made it to Neonopolis’s revival. Instead, we were tear-gassed.

The reopening downtown Las Vegas party gave way to a protest, and unrest. I ventured into the teeth of this demonstration, in my very backyard, the same walk I make when Life is Beautiful is in town.

Life was not that on Saturday. Most of the businesses on Fremont East that were hoping to reopen, didn’t. Downtown Cocktail Room and the Griffin — two bars that initiated the rise of Fremont East nearly 15 years ago, wouldn’t chance unlocking their doors. Commonwealth, Corduroy and Park On Fremont, too, were shut down.

Evel Pie, fittingly a tribute to daredevil Evel Knievel, was open. The pizza parlor’s patrons raptly watched the parade of protesters that had started at the family-friendly Container Park.

The mass of protesters carried “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” signs in tribute to George Floyd. They chanted, “What do we want? Justice? When do we want it, now!” Graffiti taggers made their mark at the D Las Vegas, Eureka and El Cortez.

The throng moved to the Clark County Detention Center, where an inmate clicked a cell-block light on and off to draw cheers. Folks pulled coolers marked “Free Water”; later, protesters were hurling bottles of water at Metropolitan Police Department officers. A series of blasts emanated from near the CCDC and we all ran, fearing gunfire.

At one point the crowd faced off with a line of patrolmen at the edge of the blocked-off Fremont Street Experience. I thought of the conversation I had with FSE President Patrick Hughes the other day, when he expressed concern about social distancing as the FSE reopened Wednesday.

Social distancing? FSE seemed to be turning into a ground war. I said, really to nobody, “Here we go.” I honestly felt a melee would erupt, right there. But someone with a megaphone ordered a U-turn back to Container Park.

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This is happening here, now #DTLV #Vegas

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There, protesters met up with another police line. I was near, too near, that confrontation. One woman in particular faced off with a Metro officer. Both were black. She unloaded the worst types of racial insults you can imagine at this unflinching officer, shouting repeatedly, “You should be on this side of the line!” A glass bottle flew overhead, was batted down by an officer and exploded on the street.

Along with photojournalist Denise Truscello, a friend who works for Getty Images, I moved to the second floor of City Center Motel. We felt it would be safer. We connected with RJ photojournalist Kevin Cannon and digital journalist Le’Andre Fox. We all trained our cameras and iPhones on the escalating conflict on the street, the Container Park in the background.

A series of blasts erupted on the street and the crowd scrambled. White smoke rose. All of us on the motel balcony coughed and doubled over, blindly trying to find a safe place to gather our senses. I wound up on the steps leading to the motel parking lot.

I thought, “How did we get here?” It was, and is, unfathomable that this would happen in our downtown.

I found Truscello, who was also coughing. She had a gift — a cold, wet towel. I pressed it to my face. A young man who was staying with his elderly parents at the motel gave those to Truscello when he opened his door and saw what happened.

We walked some more, ducking one more tear-gas blast at Villa Inn Motel. My night ended in distress, disbelief, confusion.

Sunday morning, Truscello and I returned to Fremont East. The cleanup, and recovery, had been underway for hours. We returned to City Center Motel, too, and found the guy with the towels.

His name is Sammy, and he just moved to Las Vegas. His parents are both pastors and they are moving to a new place in a couple of weeks. We thanked him for the towels. He said he was grateful we came back, and that his parents had been praying for us. I said I would also keep the faith, in humanity, and in our city.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats! podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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