Minden was the site of the worst of America last Saturday when more than a thousand rural residents came to the support of a beleaguered sheriff. Hundreds upon hundreds of residents, many adorned with American flags, pro-Trump parapheranlia and signs saying “all lives matter” gathered alongside self-organized militiamen—many in military-style garb and carrying assault weapons—to defend law enforcement from a ferocious, feral gang. At least, that’s what the armored vehicles, horse-mounted patrol units and deployed-SWAT team would have caused someone to think, on top of the official Office of Emergency Management presser specifically naming multiple "BLM chapters" (though none exist here). In reality, the “threat” was no more than a group of 35 or so protesters, mostly youngsters. What they encountered was shocking.
A week earlier, Sheriff Dan Coverley felt his office was “under attack” and alerted his community in a plagiarized letter to the library district. The cause? The two-branch district’s consideration of a diversity statement including language endorsed by the national Urban Libraries Council as well as the language “[w]e support #BlackLivesMatter.” This publicly elected official that serves at the behest of the citizens of Douglas County, the County Commission through which his office finds credence, and the attorney general of Nevada—the first Black man to ever hold the office—threatened to withhold emergency services from the library because of their proposal and had to walk it back shortly thereafter. The attorney general discouraged the threat, noting its illegality.
The now-celebrity sheriff spoke briefly to the throngs assembled in Minden for his benefit and the ostensible benefit of the town in defense against (what was described via various allusions to) menacing invaders, not people who (as was the case) actually reside only 20 minutes away. In his press statement, a masterclass of demagogic grandstanding, he simultaneously agreed with advocates under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” who prioritize the defunding of police force—so that cops do not handle social problems, like mental health and other crises—while also promoting conspiratorial tropes against the movement to brainwash his followers.
Nevada is a diverse state. Unfortunately, the totality of that diversity does not exceed further than the Las Vegas Valley and, to a lesser degree, the Reno-Tahoe area. In Reno, for instance, Black residents only comprise 2 to 3 percent of the population, depending on whether the university is in session. In Douglas County, there are fewer than 600 Black residents out of nearly 45,000. The county population is considerably older than Nevada’s average, too, which was evident in and among the pack of roving locals that descended upon the sleepy county seat of 3,000. (The situation got so dicey that a SWAT team eventually escorted the younger demonstrators back to their vehicles so they could safely leave the area.)
The political founders of our state named the northern county after Stephen A. Douglas, who was most known for his rousing debates with soon-to-be President Lincoln. He advocated for the notion of “popular sovereignty” and for the expansion or at least preservation of enslavement in the United States. A plantation man who was shamed by fellow enslavers for his infamous barbarism, Douglas invested profits from the brutal torture of slave labor in the University of Chicago (had he not, the institution as we know it today would not exist). Candidate Douglas lost by one vote in Nevada’s first presidential contest. Our state motto is “Battle Born” for a reason, and had Nevada entered the union with a vote of defeat to Lincoln, the history of our country might be unrecognizable.
Dan Coverley is the sheriff ‘round those same parts. He once “handled” a suspect in custody by appearing to lift him off the ground by his neck (for which he was suspended for one day), a practice only just banned in Nevada in a whirlwind special legislative session that included dead-of-night testimony. In their remarks, former officers and even a soldier lamented and conflated the minimal erosion of Nevada’s “peace officers bill of rights” legislation (in other words, special or extra rights for cops) with the dismantling of constitutionally guaranteed due process. Special rights are bad for LGBTQ people and historically brutalized communities, but totally fine for the police in these United States. Sniff the unabashed hypocrisy.
Minden and adjacent Gardnerville are places where within the last century a bell bellowed each night giving the official warning for indigenous people to clear out or face the constable, establishing itself as a “sundown” town hostile to people of color. Much like the pre-civil war fugitive slave act(s) required the return of runaway enslaved people to their masters, so-called sundown laws justified and made lawful the detaining of Black, Native, and Asian residents—depending on where and when—for merely existing in public. The recent scenes in Portland of unmarked federal agents kidnapping residents on the street hearken back to Reno, 1904, where the chief of police entertained a policy of rounding-up Black people off of the street; there, a siren wasn’t necessary when it was common knowledge that Blackness was the same as trespassing.
The racist county ordinance existed until 1974, though a siren continued nightly blaring after that. It was only silenced in 2006 after the local Washoe tribal community informed officials of the lingering impact of the then-legalized discrimination against native people and the constant, shameful reminder through the daily ringing. Of course, less than two months later, the County Commission restored the bell and it is ringing to this day. Stupidly, the paper of record in Douglas County, The Record Courier, conflated (lots of that going on these days) the objections to the literal symbolization of racism of the siren with “the prejudice the siren is accused of representing.” We can tell they didn’t do their homework.
Nevada is good at letting people get away with racist behavior. Just like when a cop threatened a University of Nevada basketball player by joking during a trivial traffic stop that he would shoot him for being so big (the officer remains employed). Or the “n-word” tagged in a central elevator on the campus. Or when the same university protected a student from the fallout of attending the infamous 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and becoming a national figure of hate—one of those “very fine people” the president applauded, to be sure. Or in Yerington, where two Black students were relentlessly harassed by townsfolk and nothing happened because the son of a sheriff was a primary instigator.
Or in Fallon in May when Trump supporters dressed as (or showed up as) Klu Klux Klansmen at an anti-racist protest over the state-murder of George Floyd. Or in Sparks, where police shot 18-year-old Miciah Lee instead of getting help for the Black teenager who in a crisis of suicidality wanted to “die by cop.” Or in Reno, where Black residents are 17.6 times more likely to have their life ended by a bullet from a so-called peace officer than the overwhelmingly-white majority and where Black men are killed by police at 12 times more than the national murder average (in Las Vegas, the rate is 5 times). Or that Jim Wheeler, (R) who stated he would vote to bring back slavery, is still the state assemblyman for Douglas. Or that only 20 miles away in June in the city of South Lake Tahoe on the border of Douglas County, a brown doll was found hanging from a noose on a power line.
Despite multiple instances of video-substantiated evidence, the same law enforcement agent at the center of the recent library controversy and members of his agency reported no arrests or citations. In closing, I echo the cautionary statement of Mass Liberation Nevada:
That Sheriff Coverley, a man who settled a lawsuit out of court for choking a civilian as he lifted and carried him off the ground, feels empowered to threaten citizens who provide his salary and to violate the protections of all Nevadans to peacefully assemble and exist demonstrates he is not fit to serve as chief law-enforcement officer in any place where the rule of law is supposed to matter.
In Minden last weekend, Nevadans witnessed again who justice serves and who it does not.
Nathaniel is a homegrown Nevada organizer from the historic Twin Lakes neighborhood of Las Vegas and currently a Reno resident. He co-hosts a weekly podcast, "Mass Liberation Radio" on KWNK 97.1. Find him on Twitter @WokeBloke2.