By Jeri Davis and Lucia Starbuck
Images by Ty O’Neil, Trevor Bexon, Eric Marks and Isaac Hoops
Instead of marching throughout downtown Reno, hundreds of people sat silently in front of the BELIEVE sign at City Plaza on Sunday for a vigil for George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck while he pleaded for air. That officer and three others face charges of murder and manslaughter.
The vigil followed a huge Black Lives Matter march in Reno last Saturday, which ended in a riot, followed by a handful of quiet protests at City Plaza throughout the week. Demonstrators and speakers urged for peace at this vigil. The crowd left peacefully after listening to speakers for several hours.
A majority in attendance were dressed in all black and wore masks. Most sat quietly in front of the BELIEVE sign, even as it began to rain, while others spilled onto Virginia Street and stood in support. Some passed out water, flowers and masks, and held signs with the names of other African Americans who have died at the hands of law enforcement or white vigilantes.
Speakers encouraged the crowd to take a stand against racial injustice in Reno and in the United States by taking action after the vigil, such as joining advocacy groups, donating to causes to uplift minorities and even educating family and friends.
Community members took turns to speak on the microphone alongside organizers and performers. Many spoke of events that have transpired in the weeks since George Floyd was murdered, calling for attendees to use the power of their votes to enact things like police reform, beginning with Tuesday’s Nevada primary election.
Among the people who spoke at the vigil was a man who identified himself as Super.
“The most important thing is that everybody other than black people learn the true history—because they lied to us all,” he said, pausing to gather his emotions until the crowd urged him on with applause.
“They told us that we was other than what we are,” Super continued. “They told me I wasn’t who I am. And they told you that you was better than me. They made you believe it. They made me believe it. That’s how we got into this situation. So if you all learn the real history—if you all learn about the 64 years that they made black people mate and they killed the parents so we wouldn’t remember Africa, that’s the most important thing.”
Super told the crowd he thinks “the TV is the worst thing ever” because the narratives and typecasting to be found on it fuel divisions between the races and paint pictures of black culture saturated in the stereotypes of gangsta rap.
“What I see right now is the real revolution—all of these faces lighter than mine,” Super said. “That’s the revolution. The main thing they don’t want us to do is mix. That’s the Klan’s main objective. That’s the system’s main objective. That’s every racist organization’s main objective that you’ll ever see. If you just do what you doing right now, we’re going to break that system down. It’s inherently simple. It can’t last. Thank you.”
Several speakers echoed the point that saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean all lives do not matter, but that the movement is to raise awareness of the racism and violence African Americans face.
Speakers also urged that law enforcement officers need to be held accountable for the deaths of African Americans, and no one should be treated differently based on the color of their skin. Others used the microphone to share their pain and sadness, share spoken word poetry and sing. The crowd danced and chanted, “Black Lives Matter,” throughout the nearly four-hour vigil.
Reno residents make their voices heard
Reno native Miranda Stermlicht met with a group of others the day of the vigil and decorated about 30 signs. She held a sign that read, “Wanted for murder,” with a pig with a police uniform drawn on it. She said she has been treated negatively by law enforcement here in Reno.
“I was adopted into a very abusive home, in which I had begged the police multiple times to remove me from the home and they did not, and they have continued not to,” Stermlicht said. “On top of that, I’ve had cops here in Reno hold guns to my face, all kinds of acts of violence. I just want the police to know that we want you to serve us. We are the civilians. We need you to serve us and to protect us, because without that, you’re against us.”
Stemlicht said she has faced racism in other facets of her life, too, like being told to straighten her curly hair.
“I have been turned down for jobs because of my hair, and I don’t want to live this way anymore,” she said.
The Reno Police Department recently released a guideline for officers to consider de-escalation tactics, prohibit techniques that restrict breathing, provide warnings before using deadly force, to use other avenues besides excessive force, and for officers to intervene if excessive force is being used. RPD Chief and Acting City Manager Jason Soto directed the policy revision earlier in the week after listening to more than two hours of public comment during the June 3 Reno City Council meeting.
However, Stemlicht argues that any force is too much force and excessive force should not be carried out at all.
Lily Baran, an artist and a music teacher, carried a large sign with data she said she’d recently found on the City of Reno website, including information about RPD’s funding. She was there in the hopes of engaging others in discussion about what she’s learned through her research.
“I’ve been going through this last week, the city’s budget,” Baran said. “And I attended both city council meetings and heard what the constituents had to say and what everyone had to say. And I am very disappointed in the community and myself for not researching these numbers before.
“Some facts that I found out is that roughly … 40 percent of our budget goes to policing, and one percent goes to community development—that an entry-level police officer makes the same salary as a teacher with a master’s degree who’s been teaching for seven years. … The cost of one set of riot gear can buy 55 sets of [personal protective equipment] for medical professionals. And these are numbers that we all have access to, that we all voted on,” Baran said.
Cities across the country have allocated larger and larger shares of their budgets to law enforcement over the last three decades. According to reporting by Forbes, as of 2017, the U.S. was collectively spending “$100 billion a year on policing and a further $80 billion on incarceration.”
For Fiscal Year 2019/2020, the City of Reno allocated 36 percent of its general fund expenses to law enforcement. That places Reno up with major metropolitan areas like Chicago, Oakland and Minneapolis when it comes to percentage of expenses for policing. Oakland spends 41 percent of its general-fund budget on policing, Chicago 39 and Minneapolis 36 percent.
Also in attendance was Taylor Dupree. When she moved to Reno from New Orleans about three years ago, some there were critical of the fact that law enforcement was only allocated about 24 percent of the city’s general fund budget.
“I haven’t been in Reno that long, but I do realize that there are some institutionalized racism that happens around here,” Dupree said. “I just want there to be some policies in place, more support for black people, more support for black businesses and just more cohesion in the city.”
She said she also wants to see more support at the collegiate level, at the University of Nevada, Reno, like The Center Every Student, Every Story. (The Center), which has programs and initiatives for LGBTQ+ students on campus.
“I would really like to see more funding for African American students, more programs geared towards them, and more support for programs on campus, like The Center and other diversity programs,” Dupree said.
One person stood in solidarity at the outskirts of the sit-in. Bernadette uses they and them pronouns, and did not want to provide their last name. They were with another person waving a rainbow striped LGBTQ+ flag with a black and brown stripe at the top. They said the black and brown stripes are represented on the flag to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ communities of color, which is what brought them out to the vigil.
“[I’m] here, standing in solidarity with the black community, and also to amplify the voices of black trans people of color, who also experience police brutality and are often forgotten and non-included,” Bernadette said.
At least 26 transgender individuals were reported to have been fatally shot or killed in some other violent way in 2019—most of whom were black women, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Bernadette said they would rather see funding go into mental health and other services rather than law enforcement.
“There is a lot of funding that goes in and a lot of militarization of the police, and there should be more community-based organizations, where community-based funds [go] into the communities to help educate those, and also help us be able to provide more services to communities of color,” Bernadette said.
Tensions rise but vigil remains peaceful
In addition to the vigil attendees, two other groups of people gathered on the fringes of City Plaza. Across Virginia Street to the west were people wearing the patches of various motorcycle clubs. To the south, men in camouflage, carrying firearms, gathered on the steps of the Pioneer Center. These people had previously stationed themselves on the north side of the old post office but were told by police to move farther away from the vigil.
This Is Reno spoke first with the armed group near the Pioneer Center. They declined to say to which organization, if any, they were affiliated–saying the group was composed of local residents concerned for local businesses and with no anti-BLM agenda.
“If you actually take the time—which obviously you’re doing—to go look around and talk to people like us, 99 percent of them, 100 percent support what’s going on right there,” said a man armed with an AR-15 rifle. “We are all Constitutionalists. We support the exercising of our Constitutional rights. And we’re glad to see people doing it. We will shake hands with all of them. If it was safe for us to go in there, and they understood our side, we would absolutely be there with them. The biggest thing is what happens after that. Our families work here. Our families live here. Our families go out here. We don’t want to see the city destroyed. That’s really it.”
Some attendees who were leaving the vigil shouted at the armed men to go home and criticized them for bringing firearms to a peaceful vigil.
Interactions between the vigil attendees and motorcycle club members were less hostile.
Jim McClain, a member of the Marines Motorcycle Club and veteran of the Vietnam War, said the clubs were out in the hopes their presence would help keep the peace and dissuade any potential rioters from damaging downtown businesses. He said the Nevada Coalition of Clubs had helped spread the word to bring bikers out to protect business storefronts.
“This is our community,” he said. “And we [Marines] fought for protesters. We love that, but when you start breaking windows and tearing down our neighborhoods—that’s where we have to … These folks are independent folks, and we’re just here to make sure that they’re safe.”
Unlike the other group that turned out to stand watch over businesses, the motorcycle club members largely chose not to arm themselves with open carry firearms or other weapons. Asked why, McClain spoke for himself, saying, “I don’t particularly want to shoot anyone. I’m hoping that just being here will help dissuade folks from hurting these businesses. … And I don’t think these folks [the vigil attendees] came out to be violent.”
Some attendees also dressed in neon vests and acted as mediators, working to de-escalate the situation. Tony Shafton is the leader of a group of about 20 marshalls, or as he calls it, peace keepers. The group formed in light of the Reno Women’s March in 2020 and came out to the vigil as well.
“The best thing is to keep tempers down on both sides,” Shafton said. “In this case, to my perception, is a matter of keeping the righteous on this side from antagonizing the people on that side, because that’s what can give them the excuse.”
Shafton said he and others formed a line between the motorcycle club members and those attending the vigil and encouraged the crowd to just pay attention to the speakers at the vigil. Some speakers encouraged the crowd to have a dialogue with the motorcycle club members and one even took a photo with the group.
One person from a motorcycle club, who said his name is Artybo No Filter, is a part of No Filter MC (motorcycle club). He said he was also there to support the community.
“We’re out here just to say, ‘Protest peacefully. Don’t tear up our city. We live here. We come down here every day, every other day. Do what you do, but don’t tear it up,’” he said.
No Filter also shared his own criticism of law enforcement.
“All cops aren’t bad, but if you have 10 bad cops and a thousand cops that are good, and they’re watching what goes on, you have 1,010 bad cops,” he said. “They have to be able to stop themselves as well. We’re all out here. It’s not Black Lives Matter, it’s all lives matter. I’ve been through police brutality. It’s happened to me, being black, it happens. However, you understand that they’re out here for a reason, serving [as the] protectors they’re supposed to be, but not all of them do that, and it’s fine, because you have those bad apples, but you have to be able to weed those out.”
The vigil ended peacefully just before 7 p.m. and the crowd dispersed.
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