The ongoing protests taking place throughout the nation, including Southern Nevada, are supposed to be about racial justice.
Following the death of George Floyd, people have taken to the streets with the message that Black lives matter and a demand to reform structural racism in institutions including law enforcement and the justice system.
But amid the message that has brought thousands to the streets over weeks of demonstrations is a question about how law enforcement responds not only to protesters, but also to legal observers and journalists who are neutral witnesses.
Legal observers arrested during the June 13 protests on the Strip are worried Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s response at many of the demonstrations — showing up in riot gear, firing tear gas on people dispersing and aggressively detaining those attending — will have a “chilling effect” on what protesters are trying to accomplish.
“What we are seeing is Metro attempting to take the referees out of the game,” said public defender John Piro, one of the legal observers arrested Saturday. “They have sought to remove the press and arrest them … then on Saturday they took aim at legal observers.”
After seven observers were arrested, elected officials across the state called for an investigation.
In a press conference Tuesday, Sheriff Joe Lombardo told the media that observers weren’t neutral or impartial. He also presented edited clips, the majority from traffic cameras without an audio to provide context, of observers interacting with officers prior to their arrest.
Attorneys Lisa Rasmussen and Dayvid Figler, who are representing some of the legal observers, along with several observers who were arrested responded Thursday to counter Metro’s claims. They also shared video as a way to provide more perspective of the evening.
One of the concerns Rasmussen addressed, something protesters have been emphasizing since the start of demonstrations, is law enforcement’s overall approach, which she called “outsized.”
“We have peaceful protests and a military reaction,” Rasmussen said. “That needs to change.”
Days after the first protests in Southern Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a statement of support for legal observers encouraging those attending to seek them out if they had “questions about how to lawfully express your rights or what conduct is lawful.”
Legal observers have attended demonstrations to monitor interactions between protesters and law enforcement and ensure people’s rights are protected.
“These are neutral individuals who go to the area of protest to document, to observe, to note what is happening,” Figler said. Legal observers are “there for the protection of the people exercising their rights” as well as “for the protection of the police. They serve an important function to the preservation of democracy.”
Observers, he added, have to be on the scene and even approach officers at times in order to collect information if a protester is arrested. Usually, they are trying to secure items like the name of the person arrested as well as the officer’s name and badge number.
Some of the videos Lombardo presented showed legal observers walking up to officers after someone was detained, which Figler said is part of their function.
Figler and Rasmussen, who presented video footage from Saturday, also argued protesters received conflicting information following dispersal orders on where to go and were blocked off when trying to walk. Some of that confusion, they said, resulted in protesters being detained, which prompted observers to act.
In an interview Tuesday, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones said he has asked Metro why it was “blocking access to Russell after that’s where protesters were directed” as well as questions about the department’s use of SWAT.
Metro is saying legal observers were leading protesters and obstructing the law.
“There is no video of my clients agitating officers, there is no video of my clients breaking the law,” Rasmussen countered. “There is no video of my clients obstructing traffic on a street, which is what they were charged with.”
All the cases, she said, are expected to go through traffic court.
Piro also noted the word “agitator,” which Lombardo used during his press conference Tuesday, was also used by Birmingham, Alabama police chief Bull Connor when referring to Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists in Selma.
“Our concern with that language being used is it’s dehumanizing,” Piro said. “It creates an us versus them framework. What it’s used to do is dehumanize us as legal observers and create justifications for unjust actions.”
Lombardo previously said that the journalists arrested in a May protest never identified themselves until they were in custody. Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist and police director for Metro, suggested they were “antagonizing the crowd.”
The Las Vegas Review-Journal obtained body-worn camera footage of those arrests, which showed journalists identify themselves numerous times prior to being detained.
Metro said it’s investigating complaints against officers and actions at the protest.
“The problem with Metro investigating itself is the process often ends in a lack of transparency,” Rasmussen said. “It ends in a particularly curated view and narrative, for example, the narrative that somehow the legal observers or media are agitating or that they are somehow engaging in wrongful behavior. I think it would be best if we had an independent agency or board making those inquiries.”
Protests and other events highlighting the need for racial justice and police reform aren’t expected to end anytime soon.
If legal observers and journalists aren’t protected, Figler asked what that means for protesters who are trying to exercise their rights.
Some worry the message of those protesting will get lost amid reports of police arrests and law enforcement’s negative characterizations of protesters.
“It’s important to remember what the subject of these protests are about,” Rasmussen said. “That’s racial justice.”