‘We are out there protesting and it’s met with aggression’

Metro’s ‘completely unnecessary’ tactics prompt calls for accountability

A lone Black Lives Matter demonstrator sits in front of a lone of police officers during a protest in Downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Photo: Daniel Clark)

Lance Black had already left the protest Monday night and was waiting for an Uber down the street when he was tackled, thrown to the ground and handcuffed by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers. 

Waiting for his ride, Black noticed officers wrestling two other people to the ground across the street and began recording. A few moments later police noticed Black, pointed at him and sprinted toward him knocking him to the ground. 

“They started charging at me but it took me a second to register because I thought ‘they can’t be coming after me because I’m not doing anything’” Black recalled. “Next thing I know I’m face down on the ground and I drop my phone. They are wrestling me and I’m asking why are they doing this. With everything going on with George Floyd I’m super conscious of how I’m being handled on the ground. I have these officers and I feel them getting on my back and I think, ‘No, this is not about to happen.’”

For a week, Southern Nevadans joined mass protests across the country after a video of George Floyd’s painful death at the hands of the police went viral. Among his last words were “I can’t breathe.”

Amid nationwide protests calling for justice and the end of police violence, videos have captured officers macing individuals and using tear gas on crowds even when people are being compliant, beating them with batons, firing rubber bullets or other “non-lethal rounds” and arresting people even long after they’ve dispersed and left the protests. 

Southern Nevada is no different. 

“We are out there protesting and it’s met with aggression,” said Leslie Turner, an organizer with the Mass Liberation project with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. 

She attended protests over the weekend and has been providing support and bail for people who were arrested throughout the demonstrations. 

“When you’re coming down there and you’re meeting us with aggression when we’re peaceful, that is what provokes situations,” she added. “The vast majority of people were peaceful and their intent was to stay peaceful and they are still met with violence and they are still met with aggression.”

It wasn’t just Black who was handcuffed by the police Monday night. Local attorney Athar Haseebullah, who had previously gone to the protest with Black and was also waiting for an Uber as well, cautiously approached the officers as they were handcuffing Black.

“I said, ‘Officer, I’m an attorney, I’m unarmed and that’s my fraternity brother and we’re just waiting on an Uber,’ ” Haseebullah said. “Then he grabbed my arms and put me on the ground. He had his knee on my back and I didn’t say anything other than ‘I’m compliant and not resisting.’ There are other individuals in the background. There is a white individual recording and he didn’t get grabbed.”

When asked to clarify policies around using tear gas on the crowd or to explain the reasoning behind arresting people who were dispersing, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department didn’t respond.

‘Horrifying and completely unnecessary’

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones referenced Haseebullah’s and Black’s stories as he asked Metro about accountability during the Clark County Commission’s emergency meeting Wednesday on whether to ban strollers and large bags at protests. 

“The video of Athar’s situation is horrifying and completely unnecessary,” Jones said in an interview Thursday. “There are other videos. I know the one where a kid was simply walking away and an officer peeled off and grabbed him by the backpack and dragged him down an entire block for no reason. That is also very troubling … whether there are videos or simply accounts of people trying to do as they were asked and disperse and walk away and still being hit with pepper bullets and tear gas.”

The ACLU of Nevada announced Friday it was launching a storytelling project that captures stories of Black Lives Matter protesters.

“(The project) will collect stories of those who’ve been involved and either had their rights violated or want to share their stories if they have photos of videos of what went down,” said Tod Story, the executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. “We want to be able to collect those and share those with elected officials so we can change public policy around the issues being brought up by protesters.”

People aren’t just questioning the aftermath of the protests but also the initial demeanor of law enforcement at the start of demonstrations. 

“We have officers showing up in military gear and supposedly they are there to protect the rights of the people who are protesting,” Story said. “It sends a different message when they are outfitted for war rather than in support of people expressing their constitutional rights.”

Black and Haseebullah, who arrived at the protest a little after 7 p.m. Monday, said the night was peaceful. “From the time I arrived down on the Strip I took notice of how the police were presenting themselves already in riot gear,” Black said. “(Law enforcement was) giving off already what kind of protest you see it’s going to be. That started off as incorrect.”

Black and his group of friends chanted, even danced at times. Some in his group even took a moment to pray with some of the officers.

After Black and Haseebullah broke off from the protest and walked down the street by the Federal Courthouse, they noticed cops in riot gear already in position. Unbothered by their presence, the group, all fraternity brothers, took a moment to sing their fraternity hymn on the steps of the courthouse to signify an end to the evening.

“Then we heard shots, but I knew it wasn’t a gun,” he said. “Then I hear my boy scream and we start running.”

Once they stopped running, they realized they were hit with something. “I realized they were shooting rubber bullets or whatever it was at us,” he said. “There was no announcement. There was no directive. It’s just come up shooting. And mind you, there were no protesters there. There were four guys not making a fuss. Four guys singing.”

Black went back to try to find out who the ranking officer was in order to file a complaint, but was told he couldn’t file anything until the next day. 

He met back up with the group and waited for the Uber, when they started seeing a few protesters walk their way by the courthouse. And then Black said he saw officers at the top of the steps shoot pepper bullets at them. 

Lombardo: ‘You have the ability to do that’

During a Sunday, May 31, panel on race and the protests put on by Attorney General Aaron Ford, he stressed the importance of peaceful protest and holding others accountable to not agitate law enforcement, but also the need for accountability for police officers who might have used pepper bullets or other aggressive tactics even if people were compliant. 

“Indiscriminate use of this type of weaponry is a problem and law enforcement should in fact hold folks accountable who are violating policy when it comes to utilizing this type of force whether it’s lethal or otherwise,” Ford said. 

Monica Moazez, a spokeswoman in Ford’s office, declined to comment on “future plans with regards to potential law enforcement cases” but said the office is “monitoring the protests and law enforcement action as closely as possible.” 

She added the office has heard from people who have attended the protests and are “doing our best to take in their concerns and complaints as we receive them.”

Of the thousands who came out over several days of protesting, hundreds were arrested.

“We’ve heard from people who were arrested who live downtown and just went outside and were arrested,” said Turner of the Mass Liberation project. “There were people who were hanging outside their cars with Black Lives Matter posters and signs who were pulled over and dragged out of their cars. They were dragged so badly it’s to the point they might need skin grafting on their face.” 

Videos have shown people being grabbed indiscriminately. One caught the attention of rapper Lil Nas.

Haseebullah and Black are still shocked they were detained despite the fact they left the protest. Haseebullah didn’t know if he and his friend were grabbed and handcuffed because they were people of color or because Black started recording.

Maybe both.

At the May 31 panel Ford put together, Metro Sheriff Joe Lombardo said the only restriction to filming an officer is if it interferes or hinders a police investigation.   

“Other than that, it’s free will, you have the ability to do that, and if an officer reacts to that, that is improper, against policy and illegal for them to do it in that fashion,” Lombardo said. “It’s important for the (District Attorney’s) office to prosecute that if it in fact happens.”

‘Someone has to be held accountable’

After Haseebullah and Black were detained, they were taken across the street.

“Other white protesters were passing by and they weren’t grabbing them,” Haseebullah said. “They have me, Lance and three other Hispanic men across the street with their rifles pointed at us.”

After officer’s ran their identification, Haseebullah and Black were eventually let go.  

Haseebullah is still debating on whether to file a complaint. Black said he is waiting to calm down before he files a complaint, but he wants to know the names of the officers who grabbed him and he wants action. 

“Someone has to be held accountable for this,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep that night and even though I was in my house I was still scared.”

While groups like the ACLU are planning to document stories and help people file complaints, many are concerned about how officers are going to be held accountable and how justice will be administered.

Chuck Callaway, Metro police director and lobbyist, told Jones during the Wednesday County Commission meeting that Metro is reviewing body camera footage

“We definitely want to hold everyone accountable to be doing the right thing,” he said.

When asked to elaborate on how it is reviewing complaints, Metro said via email that the Internal Affairs Bureau and Fusion Watch, Metro’s surveillance center, would be reviewing the footage. When asked if Metro would be releasing a report of its finding, they said it “does not release administrative reports on findings.”

In an interview, Jones said he was in contact with the Citizens Review Board and said that would be a place for an independent review. “I know they’ve received numerous complaints already,” he said. 

Black called the Citizens Review Board a joke.

“People come forward and complain about police misconduct all the time and there is no transparency about what that process looks like,” Turner added. “There are literally hundreds of accounts of police brutality that we’ve documented from people (getting out of jail). It’s one thing for someone to come forward and say this happened to me and I want accountability. But that process has to be transparent.” 

Jones said he is having conversations with people in the community about those concerns with the review board and efforts to address issues ranging from a backlog of complaints before the board to who actually sits on the board. 

Callaway urged people to make complaints to Metro.

But as Turner pointed out, it’s hard for communities of color to call the police or file complaints because of a lack of trust. “I’m not going to go to my oppressor to let them know so they can investigate themselves about the misconduct they’ve done to me,” she said. “Maybe if there was an outside entity that these abuses could be reported to, maybe that would be helpful.”

Despite video documenting the event, Black remains skeptical that Metro will be held accountable for what happened to him and others who were unjustly shot with pepper balls or arrested over the past few days.

“Does my situation only matter when I’m dead?” he said.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.