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Police use tear gas to break up Black Lives Matter protest on Strip

Updated June 1, 2020 - 7:43 pm

Following the trend of the previous two days in Las Vegas, Black Lives Matter protests that began peacefully eventually turned violent on Sunday.

Las Vegas police used tear gas and nonlethal rounds to break up a protest on the Strip shortly before 9 p.m. Sunday. At least two Review-Journal reporters were hit by nonlethal rounds while covering the demonstration.

The group on the Strip, which grew to more than 300 people, began to gather around 5 p.m. outside Mandalay Bay before heading north up the boulevard. They were protesting police brutality, catalyzed by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day.

The protest was particularly important to Elena Johnson, who said she wanted her 17-year-old daughter, who is half African-American, to “know that our voices are heard.”

“I think this time has hit us extra-hard,” said Johnson, who is Hispanic, “to see (Floyd) killed like a dog in the street.”

She said such brutality cannot be normalized, noting that her daughter, Shaniah Johnson, cried after watching the video of his arrest and is afraid to go to school.

After 7 p.m. at Downtown Summerlin, a few dozen people gathered to protest. The group marched and chanted along the perimeter of the outdoor mall, which had closed early because of the planned protest and was closed off by police.

The protests continued late Sunday, though many demonstrators began dispersing on the Strip by 8:45 p.m. The Metropolitan Police Department said it could not confirm whether anyone had been arrested as of 9 p.m.

A crime ‘to be black’

Shaniah Johnson said she still recalls the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the teenager killed by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012.

“It has now become a crime in America to be black,” the daughter said, before pausing to add that it always has been.

She and her mom want each officer involved in Floyd’s death to be prosecuted. They also want reforms in police training and accountability of white lawmakers to all their constituents, regardless of race.

Audra Kelly, a 27-year-old artist and lifelong Las Vegan, carried a 30-pound mirror up and down Las Vegas Boulevard.

Audra Kelly, a 27-year-old Las Vegas artist, carries a 30-pound mirror at the Black Lives Matte ...
Audra Kelly, a 27-year-old Las Vegas artist, carries a 30-pound mirror at the Black Lives Matter protest on the Las Vegas Strip, Sunday, May 31, 2020. (MIchael Scott Davidson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“Mirrors don’t lie,” was written on it in black paint.

“It’s heavy as hell, but I’m sure his casket will be heavier when they put it down,” Kelly said of Floyd.

The group took a knee and raised their fists in silence in front of the Bellagio fountains just after 7 p.m.

But the demonstration, which started out peacefully, grew tense by 8:30 p.m., when a Las Vegas police officer reportedly grabbed a protester from the sidewalk with no warnings to disperse. Protesters passed out goggles “for tear gas” while police ordered the group to disperse.

Moments later, a handful of officers took a knee and were greeted with cheers from the protesters.

SWAT arrived about 8:30 p.m., and most protesters began leaving the area, though officers were armed with nonlethal crowd control gear and were pushing the remaining protesters south along the boulevard. They fired nonlethal rounds into the street around 8:45 p.m.

Both protests had mostly died down by about 9:45 p.m.

‘We have work to do’

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said at a news conference Sunday evening that the city has come a long way in the decades since segregation.

“Las Vegas must continue to work as one to prove it is a model of what being one people can truly tell the world,” she said at Metro headquarters. “We must strive and work to be the truly caring and compassionate home for all peoples equally and together.”

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford said at the news conference that he stands by Metro and is proud of the work officers have done to keep the city safe.

“Are they perfect? Absolutely not. We have work to do, we absolutely do,” he said. “I stand in solidarity with those here today around me letting you know that we love you and we love this city.”

Metro Undersheriff Deputy Kevin McMahill said 25 police officers were injured by rocks and frozen water bottles thrown by protesters over the weekend. He said the department supports people’s right to protest, as long as they do it lawfully.

“We stand in solidarity with all of you in demonstrating your right to come out and protest,” he said. “We’ve done everything that we possibly can, and we will continue to do everything that we can to keep all of you that are following the rule of law protesting.”

On Saturday, what started as a peaceful demonstration turned confrontational in downtown Las Vegas. The day before on the Strip, Las Vegas police wrongfully jailed dozens of protesters. Two photojournalists were also arrested.

Below is a running account of Sunday’s protests from Review-Journal reporters on the scene:

10:52 p.m.

Police still on scene

Metropolitan Police Department Lt. David Gordon said police are still at “protests that are occurring at a few locations in Las Vegas.” He did not specify where the protests were taking place.

“Officers are focusing their efforts on protecting citizens from harm, minimizing property damage and arresting protesters who are engaging in acts of violence/destruction,” Gordon said in a text.

He said no further information will be available until Monday morning.

10:11 p.m.

‘Where is it legal for me to be black?’

Mekkah Fields, a 21-year-old black woman, became a de facto leader of the protest, along with others. She was in downtown Las Vegas last night for the protest and spent all night there.

Fields said she spent the past week after George Floyd died crying at her house.

At the Tropicana hotel, she was handed a megaphone and told the crowd she’s tired of watching people get executed in the streets.

Makkah Fields pumps up the crowd during a Black Lives Matter protest along the Las Vegas Strip ...
Makkah Fields pumps up the crowd during a Black Lives Matter protest along the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

“I can’t be black in my house. I can’t be black in my bathroom. I can’t be black in my car. I cant be black on the street,” she said. “Where is it legal for me to be black?”

During the march, Fields encouraged protesters to continue because “we have the right to be outraged.”

“Being around people who feel the way I do is comforting,” she said of her fellow protesters. “It’s the only thing that’s able to comfort me right now.”

Nikayla Williams, age 21, recently graduated from Virginia State University. She said she thinks people, and the media, need to focus on the peaceful parts of the protests as well as the chaos and violence.

“It always starts out this way,” she said of the peaceful start to protest. “We’re just trying to gather and make a point.”

At beginning of protest, 21-year-old Angel Wolfhart was telling people to stay on the sidewalk and avoid giving police any reason to arrest or hurt anyone. He said he’s seen “innocent protesters” tased, arrested and beaten.

At the end of the night, Wolfhart sat on the curb in the parking lot of a McDonald’s across the street from Mandalay Bay. His cheeks were still damp from being hit by tear gas twice, and he said he was hit by 4 nonlethal bullets.

“I was keeping the peace, or trying to,” Wolfhart said. “They shot at people who were running with their hands up.”

Michael Scott Davidson

9:45 p.m.

Summerlin cleared

The crowd has dispersed from Downtown Summerlin without major incident or arrests.

About 100 to 150 people had gathered at the protest’s peak, and no one tried to enter the mall. The group stayed around the perimeter set up by police and remained peaceful for the most part.

Mick Akers

9:15 p.m.

‘What can we do?’

Police have mostly cleared from Las Vegas Boulevard South.

Tevin Paige, a 27-year-old black man, said he believes this will be a turning point for police anti-brutality activism. He said neither peaceful nor violent protests have seemed to historically work, but more people have had the time to get out and protest recently due to COVID-19.

“At this point, what do we do?” Paige said. “What can we do?”

Shea Johnson

8:52 p.m.

Non-lethal rounds fired

Police used tear gas and nonlethal rounds to break up the protest on the Strip. At least two Review-Journal reporters were shot by the nonlethal bullets while they covered the protest. The reporters were shot while walking away from police.

The reporters said they were pinned behind a vehicle with no opportunity to identify themselves as journalists.

Blake Apgar and Shea Johnson

8:39 p.m.

SWAT on scene

At Las Vegas Boulevard and Reno Avenue, SWAT has arrived and is attempting to move the crowd north. Officers are armed with crowd control gear.

Blake Apgar and Shea Johnson

8:25 p.m.

Mood tense on Strip

As the sun set on the Strip, the mood of the protest became more “tense,” reporters said. Police have put on gas masks on and ordered the crowd to disperse.

— Shea Johnson and James Schaeffer

8:00 p.m. 

Strip peaceful, Summerlin tense

The protest on the boulevard remained peaceful, with some protesters reminding others to stay orderly because the people in the front of the group may antagonize police, but the ones in the back will be the ones hit by tear gas, pepper spray and nonlethal bullets.

But in Downtown Summerlin, officers with the Metropolitan Police Department charged at the few dozen protesters. The officers, who were armed with zip ties in the event that they need to make arrests, said they rushed the group because the woman leading chants was standing in the street.

Shea Johnson and Mick Akers

7:45 p.m.

‘Who are you protecting?’

The protest remained peaceful as a silent standoff began between protesters and police officers on the boulevard. Officers lined up in the street, facing protesters who held signs with phrases like “my life matters” and “black lives matter.”

Some other protesters yelled at police.

“Who are you protecting?” one protester shouted to the police.

“They don’t know,” another protester responded.

Blake Apgar

7:40 p.m.

‘Hit us extra hard’

The protest was particularly important to Elena Johnson, who said she wanted her 17-year-old daughter, of half-African-American descent, to “know that our voices are heard.”

“I think this time has hit us extra hard,” said Johnson, who is Hispanic, “…to see (Floyd) killed like a dog in the street.”

She said such brutality cannot be normalized, noting that her daughter, Shaniah Johnson, cried after watching the video of his arrest and is afraid to go to school.

Shaniah Johnson said she still recalls the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the teenager killed by George Zimmerman in Florida.

“It has now become a crime in America to be black,” the daughter said, before pausing to add that it always has been.

She and her mom want each officer involved in Floyd’s death to be prosecuted, reforms in police training and for white lawmakers to be accountable to all constituents, regardless of race.

— Shea Johnson

7:05 p.m.

Turnaround at Bellagio

Protesters took a knee and kept silent with fists raised on Las Vegas Boulevard at the Bellagio fountains. Protesters then turned around and moved back south along the boulevard.

— Michael Scott Davidson

6:55 p.m.

First time

Kendell Parks, 27, is taking part in his first-ever protest. He said he felt compelled to take a stand and call for peace.

“It’s not about black people; it’s not about white people; it’s about people in total,” Parks said.

— Shea Johnson

6:52 p.m.

Protest still peaceful

A group of police officers marched north along Las Vegas Boulevard as protesters continue to march on the sidewalk.

Though the protest has so far been entirely peaceful, reminders of potential police force are not far away.

Officers on the back end of the protest line as it stopped carried zip ties and large metal canisters.

Another group of officers blocked a pedestrian bridge across Las Vegas Boulevard to the Miracle Mile shops. Protesters posed for photos in front of the officers.

— Blake Apgar

6:49 p.m.

‘We need to heal’

UNLV student Joshua Chavez, 27, said he’s attending the protest on the Strip to provide first aid if anyone needs it.

“We’re all human and we need to heal before we destroy each other,” he said.

Chavez said he’s a former Marine and was disturbed by the force Minneapolis police used on George Floyd.

— Michael Scott Davidson

6:27 p.m.

‘Mirrors don’t lie’

Audra Kelly, a 27-year-old artist and lifelong Las Vegan, is carrying this 30-pound mirror at today’s #GeorgeFloydProtests.

“Mirrors don’t lie,” is written on it in black paint.

“It’s heavy as hell, but I’m sure his casket will be heavier when they put it down,” he says of Floyd.

— Michael Scott Davidson

6:15 p.m.

Heading north

Officers have allowed protesters to continue moving north on the sidewalk now, heading toward Excalibur.

— Shea Johnson

6:04 p.m.

Group on move

The group that had gathered in front of Mandalay Bay began marching north on Las Vegas Boulevard toward Tropicana Avenue at around 6 p.m.

Police have blocked off the intersection at Reno Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard after more than 100 protesters marched north on the sidewalk from Mandalay Bay.

A few dozen officers are standing in intersection as protesters take a knee and hold a moment of silence just off the street.

— Shea Johnson

5:42 p.m.

Reno sets overnight curfew

Late Sunday afternoon, the city of Reno announced reimposition of an overnight curfew “out of an abundance of caution for public safety” beginning at 5:30 p.m. and lasting until 5 a.m. Monday. In an advisory, Mayor Hillary Schieve did not identity a specific threat of renewed violence. Only residents with an essential reason to travel, e.g., medical personnel or people traveling to or from work, may be out.

Residents were also admonished to avoid the downtown area, where a “heavy police and National Guard presence” were expected.

— Bill Dentzer

5:25 p.m.

Peaceful start

Dozens have gathered outside Mandalay Bay for a Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality. It’s peaceful at the moment, with signs and chants.

— Alexis Egeland

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported what type of nonlethal rounds that Las Vegas police shot into the crowds.

Contact Alexis Egeland at aegeland@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0335. Follow @alexis_egeland on Twitter.

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