As night descended, about 100 people gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in North Las Vegas and held their candles high in honor of Missouri 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by police on Aug. 9.
“Hands up,” the crowd chanted Thursday night as they gathered near Martin Luther King Boulevard and Carey Avenue. “Don’t shoot.”
Many of the organizers, such as Leslie Turner, followed the unfolding events in Ferguson, Mo. The unarmed African-American male was shot by officer Darren Wilson, who is white. A federal investigation of the shooting is underway.
Police have said a scuffle broke out after Wilson told Brown and a friend to move out of the street and onto a sidewalk, according to Associated Press reports. Police said Wilson was pushed into his squad car and physically assaulted. Some witnesses have reported seeing Brown’s arms in the air — an act of surrender. An autopsy found Brown was shot at least six times.
“We aren’t rushing to judgment of the officer,” Turner said. “We know Michael Brown was robbed of his due process.”
Brown’s death sparked protests in Ferguson, where police responded with sniper rifles and tear gas. Many residents, with members of the press, were arrested.
The shooting also spurred a national debate on race relations and police brutality that local activists can’t ignore.
“People assumed that electing a black president would automatically change race relations,” said Laura Martin, the communication director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “But it’s up to us to bring change. When we still have people who celebrate the death of Mike Brown, we have failed to dig deep in having an honest attempt on talking about race relations.”
The way Ferguson law enforcement reacted to protesters was another reason why vigil organizers believe changes need to be made.
“Law enforcement has a lot of different views,” she said, before referencing this year’s Southern Nevada standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy, his supporters and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over cattle-grazing rights.
“In Bunkerville, they responded by retreating. In Ferguson, they responded by using tear gas on people peacefully protesting and arresting members of the press.”
Charles Ticer, another event organizer, said it’s time to use this situation to talk about police brutality.
“It’s an ongoing problem in America,” Ticer said. “We need to acknowledge that fact and combat it as a whole. We just want more accountability and transparency from the police.”
Ticer said this isn’t about blaming the police.
“People think because we don’t agree with every action of the police that we’re anti-police,” Ticer said. “It’s not that black and white. We don’t want to rid ourselves of the police. We just want to feel protected by the people who swore to protect us.”
Turner said it was time to bring the dialogue to Las Vegas, which is why they organized the event.
It grew out of a mid-August Facebook post that invited people to her house to show solidarity with the people of Ferguson.
“Eight people of different backgrounds and races showed up on that first day,” Turner said. “And from there we grew.”
Then they decided to host Thursday’s vigil.
At the event, people held signs such as “Am I a person or Am I a problem,” “Justice for Mike Brown” and “Stop Police Brutality.”
“One of our goals is to improve the bridge between minorities and law enforcement,” Turner said. “So we want to work with police.”
As the vigil closed, Ticer read 36 names of people from across the country who died in clashes with law enforcement in recent years.
Three of those deaths were in Las Vegas: Trevon Cole, shot and killed in a botched drug raid in 2010; Stanley Gibson, an unarmed man who was killed in 2011 by a Metro officer; and Erik Scott, who was fatally shot in 2010 after Las Vegas police said he raised a gun toward officers outside a Summerlin Costco store.
Vigil organizers plan to continue spreading awareness.
They encourage people to attend the “”One House: Know Your Rights” event on Sept. 4, which is put on by the local chapter of the National Bar Association to educate people about dealing with law enforcement.
Organizers believe Brown’s shooting death is starting to open a national conversation.
“Like Al Sharpton said at Michael Brown’s funeral, Michael Brown does not want to be remembered for a riot,” said Brionna Simons, one of the organizers. “He wants to be remembered as the one that made America deal with how we’re going to police in the United States.”
Contact reporter Michael Lyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5201. Find him on Twitter: @mjlyle.