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Las Vegas passes ban on backpacks at protests, while county delays

Updated June 3, 2020 - 8:13 pm

Protesters in the city of Las Vegas no longer will be allowed to wear backpacks, carry large purses or push strollers as city officials attempt to curb bad actors from concealing weapons and items that can be used for violence.

The City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to pass an emergency temporary ordinance banning several items it said has contributed to violent confrontations with law enforcement and destruction of property in recent days as people take to the streets to call for the end to racial injustice and police brutality.

The Clark County Commission, which also considered its own ban, delayed a vote for two weeks to form a working group amid concerns from some commissioners, educators and others that such restrictions would infringe on the public’s First Amendment right to peacefully assemble.

The council oversees downtown Las Vegas and the county regulates the Strip.

Acting Reno Police Chief Tom Robinson said Wednesday that he’d like to see a similar ban on those items in the city, but said he doesn’t think one is likely to be enacted amid the current unrest.

Since that ban would require a city ordinance, “and the pace at which the situation is evolving, I don’t think we will be able to implement one in time,” he said.

Unlike Southern Nevada, Reno has seen just one day of protests since George Floyd’s death last week. That came Saturday, with protesters marching peacefully for several hours in the afternoon before violence broke out in the evening.

North Las Vegas unanimously approved a protest-related ordinance at a special meeting Wednesday to mirror the county’s existing law against weapons and other related items, but it did not include backpacks or any bags, spokesman Patrick Walker said.

The city will revisit the ordinance to keep it consistent with the county’s law.

‘Despicable individuals’

Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore said that the ordinance wasn’t aimed at peaceful protesters but the “absolute destruction from despicable individuals.”

The decision came after five-straight days of protests in Las Vegas to call for systemic change and justice for George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes late last month.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder and on Wednesday prosecutors charged three other officers who were at the scene.

With the exception of Tuesday night’s protest near UNLV, demonstrations have gone from peaceful to ugly as day turned into night, with officers using tear gas and pepper ball projectiles to break up crowds after orders to disperse; reports of vandalized cars, looting and graffiti; and concerns by protesters that show of force by police has escalated tensions.

On Monday night, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer Shay Mikalonis, 29, was shot in the head at the end of a Black Lives Matter protest in front of Circus Circus, and he underwent successful surgery on Wednesday but is still fighting for his life at University Medical Center, according to Steve Grammas, the president of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association.

And a 25-year-old armed man who appeared to be wearing body armor was shot and killed by police Monday night near the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse after authorities said he reached for a firearm.

Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said the county’s proposal was raised in February.

But the ban on backpacks and other carrying cases, which police and government officials say have been used to store objects used in violence, including Molotov cocktails and large rocks, goes too far and threatens to impede the public’s right to protest peacefully, opponents say.

“I’m very angry when I see things like this because it screams fear, not logic,” attorney Oliver Seebald told the commission by teleconference.

Ordinance details

The new rules apply to any “demonstration, rally, protest, picket line or public assembly on public property, public street, or public sidewalk, or within 25 feet of such property,” according to identical language in city and county ordinances.

Las Vegas said the ban would last until July 31 or when protests had ceased. It includes backpacks, coolers, large purses, fanny packs, luggage, camera bags, strollers, carts and any type of vehicle propelled by humans, electricity or by mechanical means, such as a bicycle or electric scooter.

The ordinance exempts the media, and it makes exceptions for medical devices and vehicles needed for immediate assistance.

Violating the ban is punishable as a misdemeanor: up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

The county interpreted its ordinance differently than the city, saying that it would outlaw the same bags and carrying cases as the city if they were larger than 12 inches by 6 inches by 12 inches, spokesman Erik Pappa said.

Pappa said see-through bags would be acceptable regardless of size, although the ordinance remains tentative.

In the city, the bags listed in its ordinance are prohibited outright and the size regulation applies only to purses and “any bag larger than the permissible size of a purse,” according to spokesman Jace Radke.

The city’s ordinance does not address see-through bags.

Controversial decision

Opponents of the ordinance during the emergency County Commission meeting castigated the proposal for disregarding the need for water, food and first aid kits that would be carried in such bags.

Shaun Navarro, co-chair Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America, told commissioners that the proposal was “beyond ridiculous” and that nothing had been done to speak to the concerns of protesters.

“The only thing that’s been done is a continued escalation of violence by the police against protesters, a continued erosion of our civil liberties,” he said.

Michael Flores, chief of staff for Nevada System of Higher Education, expressed concern to the county that its proposal might stop students from engaging in protests, demonstrations or rallies on college campuses out of fear of prosecution.

“Demonstrations across Nevada have sprung up to speak out against racist policing and use-of-force issues,” ACLU of Nevada attorney Nikki Levy said in a statement. “Rather than addressing these crucial issues, we are seeing proposals like this one, which will certainly lead to increased interactions with law enforcement.”

The county’s proposed ordinance would essentially apply present bans that are enforced on New Year’s Eve, but Commissioner Justin Jones said he did not see the parallel.

“There is no First Amendment right to drunken revelry on the Strip,” he said.

Councilman Brian Knudsen and Councilwoman Olivia Diaz said they were also concerned about dissuading peaceful protest participation.

But Metro lobbyist Chuck Callaway told the commission the ban was about safeguarding protesters, officers and property.

“I can tell you what we’re seeing in Las Vegas, I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s disturbing, quite frankly,” he said, adding later that “we’re not here to limit someone’s First Amendment rights, we are here to protect people.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writers Blake Apgar and Colton Lochhead contributed to this report.

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