Clark County Commission delays decision on protest backpack ban as local governments grapple with response to protests
The Clark County Commission pushed back a vote on a proposed ordinance that would have banned the use of backpacks, strollers and other luggage at public protests and demonstrations at an emergency meeting Wednesday, amid questions that such a ban may produce a chilling effect on free speech.
Across the state Wednesday morning, municipalities discussed ordinances and actions in the wake of demonstrations protesting police brutality and systemic racism following the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis last week. Although all of the demonstrations have started out peacefully, they have often ended in violence between police and protesters.
Although Clark County postponed its vote on the backpack ordinance, the Las Vegas City Council moved forward on a similar measure. According to Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Blake Apgar, the council unanimously passed an ordinance restricting the items demonstrators can bring to a protest, an emergency action that it had announced on Twitter Tuesday.
In Reno, the City Council heard public comment after Mayor Hillary Schieve announced a curfew order last night, despite the fact that Reno has seen little demonstration activity since protests Saturday stretched into the evening. That protest ended with police using tear gas and projectiles as some protesters threw objects and engaged in looting and bashing cars.
“The mayor’s announcement of a potentially indefinite curfew tonight for the entire city of Reno raises serious constitutional questions that need to be remedied,” Tod Story, who leads ACLU Nevada, said in a statement Tuesday.
Reno plans to clarify the curfew order this afternoon, announced Schieve.
The proposals and actions taken by the municipalities were criticized in public comment and slammed by First Amendment activists for unnecessarily curtailing rights to expression.
In Clark County, public comment and First Amendment concerns were so overwhelming that commissioners continued the item until June 16, when they are scheduled to meet next.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police lobbyist Chuck Callaway told the commission that the legal language of the ordinance would mirror regulations already in place for crowd control on New Year's Eve, and that it would decrease the potential for violent instigators to transport rocks, Molotov cocktails or other improvised weapons into an otherwise peaceful demonstration.
"I worked during the Rodney King riots in the early 90s, and I've been at our operations center during the protests we've had over the last week, and I can tell you that what we're seeing in Las Vegas — I've never seen anything like it before," Callaway said. "It's disturbing, quite frankly and I'm here today to say that as Metro, we 100 percent want to have safe, peaceful protests."
Callaway said the department was sensitive to concerns over water and first aid, and would remain open to discussion of legal changes that would make the ordinance temporary or address specific concerns such as the exemption of clear plastic bags or the application of the law to journalists.
As written, the ordinance would allow journalists to carry bags for equipment and they would not be subject to warnings or fines from police. But when asked if there were "any issues" involving journalists in the George Floyd protests, Callaway said that Metro was investigating whether journalists "were in the crowd, possibly antagonizing or enticing the crowd."
Callaway said the department was engaged in an ongoing criminal investigation into the matter, including a review of surveillance and body camera footage of the incident. But he presented no other details of the allegations, and commissioners did not press him on the claims.
The ordinance was roundly criticized in more than a dozen public comments and by the ACLU, who charged that the measure would restrict free speech rights by forcing protesters to choose between their health and their ability to protest.
Those concerns were echoed by some commissioners, who pressed Callaway on the intent of the measure and inherent differences between policing New Year's crowds and public protests.
"I've been to many rallies in which I've brought my own children and push them along in their strollers, with a diaper bag," Commissioner Justin Jones said. "And if this were in place, then I would have avoided going all together, and I know that many other people would have avoided going all together, because you can't just call your children on your on your shoulders or on your hip, without having the ability to use a stroller or a diaper bag. So, I think, I appreciate the intent, the effect will be to deter first amendment speech rights here."
Jones also expressed frustration that the restrictions being deliberated focused on bags rather than guns, noting that the man who shot and critically wounded a Metro police officer on Monday possessed multiple firearms.
Pointing to an axed provision of a 2019 bill, AB291, that would have allowed the commission to set additional restrictions on firearms, Jones said the commission "ought to also be having the discussion about Metro being a partner at the legislature in ensuring that we can protect your officers from gun violence."
Questions were also raised by members of the state's higher education system, who said any such ban may unintentionally limit participation in on-campus demonstrations for students with bags carrying books or laptops.
"We would not want this ordinance to hinder the free spread of ideas by giving pause to a student carrying a backpack filled with books on UNLV's mall from taking part in such an assembly for fear of facing legal ramifications," Michael Flores, Nevada System of Higher Education chief of staff, said.
Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said a version of the ban had been in the works since February, but was delayed as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic worsened through March and into April.
In Northern Nevada, 180 people tuned in to the virtual Reno City Council meeting to address concerns regarding the curfew order, the right to publicly protest and gather and police brutality and reform.
Schieve began the meeting by acknowledging the frustrations over the curfew order and calling for positivity amid the “heartbreak” across the state and country.
“People are scared, emotions are running so high, so we need to have compassion right now,” Schieve said.
Reno City Manager Jason Soto said Reno Police Department officers will focus on people committing criminal acts during gatherings and will maintain their right to barricade streets and roads to vehicular or pedestrian traffic under emergency regulation orders.
Soto also briefly announced that the curfew was lifted as of that morning, which was further discussed and clarified during a later meeting with the press.
Community members called for solidarity from city officials, for police reform to be added to the next city council meeting’s agenda and for a redistribution of funds from the police department to other areas such as social services or education.
“The first thing I want to address is rescinding the indefinite curfew… curfew presumes violence,” commenter Jared Stanley said, adding that the city hasn’t seen any violence since the protest over the weekend, making the curfew order unnecessary.
A peaceful vigil to remember Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality was announced yesterday, just hours before Schieve’s curfew order. Scheduled for Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., the mayor’s order would have cut the vigil’s schedule by two hours.
“How could this not be seen as a direct violation of our right to assembly?” Stanley asked.
Another commenter said the announcement of the curfew in proximity to the announcement of the vigil was “not lost on the people of the city of Reno.”
Hours of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest last weekend gathered media attention as otherwise when a few protesters broke into Reno City Hall, assaulted a black This is Reno reporter and vandalized the Reno Police Department building.
Protesters across the country have continued to gather for the past week, in some places even despite curfew orders. Los Angeles, Santa Monica, San Francisco, Oakland, Beverly Hills, Washington D.C., Atlanta, New York City and Cleveland all had curfew orders as of Tuesday night.
Updated at 4:55 p.m. to include commentary and announcements from the Reno City Council meeting.