The prisoners’ dilemma

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of prisons. They simply aren’t commensurate with the benefits they claim to bestow on communities. Prisons are remarkably expensive factories designed to exploit labor; they are stress experiments that test the already fragile mental health of their inmates. Far from preventing crime or rehabilitating people who violate laws, they are compassion-deprivation tanks administered by underpaid and overworked employees tasked with shepherding the behaviors of thousands with little resources or rational discourse. They are misguided vengeance warehouses that pay lip service to making people better while testing the human limits of lack of agency, steady fear of harm and general disregard. And whatever they are allegedly good for, they are especially bad at being good at any sort of medical care. 

I thought surely the pandemic will move the needle, and we’ll be forced to rethink keeping people locked up in a potential petri dish of contagion. And so in between puns and poems, I made a run on the Twitters to make a difference, to spark a revolution. I issued a relentless string of tweets about the callous indifference the State of Nevada and Gov. Steve Sisolak have shown people who are incarcerated during this pandemic. I said the governor needed to act quickly to get vulnerable, particularly older inmates out of prison. I overheated. I blew up, even as my tweets did not. The governor never responded; the tweets barely were retweeted; the slacktivism yell on social media echoed into the ether.

Still, I wasn’t entirely alone. 

In addressing the grave, unanswered challenges in the prisons during the pandemic, doctors and academics alike sounded an alarm that an outbreak in prisons (and jails) was highly likely and that the penalties to inmates, guards, transport officers, hospital personnel and ultimately every community in Nevada will be significant. Prominently, the ACLU and PLAN (two progressive organizations in Nevada that have done well in raising concerns) issued their calls for action, which were predictably ignored or marginalized. All of the experts indicated that in addition to surface cleaning and limiting potential encounters with the outside world and the (by now) ubiquitous precautions of masks, social distancing, hand-cleaning, etc., prisons must attempt to reduce populations in every thoughtful way before an outbreak makes such thinning measures irrelevant.

Gov. Sisolak remained unmoved. Seemingly, he didn’t want to look at “the data” or order the same sort of pandemic modeling the non-prison communities were getting. He never formed a task force specifically designed to create benchmarks and contingencies and didn’t make a single provision in the myriad of executive orders specifically addressing prisons. In many cases, he issued orders he knew could not be enforced in the prisons. He steadily gave updates on all aspects of the pandemic’s impact, but didn’t include prisons in his presentations until asked by the media. And when he was asked about measures including reducing the prison population as many experts recommend, he steadfastly refused to take any proactive measures.   

Ultimately, Gov. Sisolak revealed that he only is interested in two approaches to the impact of the pandemic on prisons – both predictably weak and ineffective, especially when compared to the thoughtfulness and fast-acting decision-making the governor applied to virtually every other component of our society during the pandemic. Here are the governor’s two approaches to prison in a time of pandemic in a nutshell:

(1) The Department of Corrections (and to a different extent the various local entities in charge of jails) has instituted cleaning and screening methodology deemed sufficient to address all concerns; and

(2) If anything further was needed, the Nevada Sentencing Commission could make recommendations.

I’ve been watching the prisons and these approaches for almost three months, now. Here’s what I’ve concluded. 

(1) The Department of Corrections acted quickly in putting in the minimal protocols designed to limit the spread of the virus, but officials had to know that however laudable it was, it would never be enough against a pandemic. The prisons knew that the likelihood of giving inmates personal protective equipment (PPE), or even hand sanitizer, would be extremely limited and that social distancing would be impossible. As such, they acted in a way to buy time for the prisons to develop internal, opaque policies to isolate and quarantine every single person who exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19 while keeping testing of inmates to a bare minimum. I sum up this approach as the State literally praying that there wouldn’t be a demand for widespread testing, or calls for outside oversight of the protocols that were put into place, or an unmanageable amount of cases requiring hospitalization in order for the status quo of incarceration to be maintained; and

(2) Many additional recommendations are needed for an approach parallel to every other sector of our community response to COVID-19, but the Nevada Sentencing Commission is not the entity best equipped to make those recommendations. Basically, it’s a legislatively created, partisan group of stakeholders tasked with a completely different set of goals that are unconnected to a medical health crisis. This commission was designed and assembled to offer recommendations about the fairness of the existing sentencing structure that has led to Nevada being in the top tier of per capita incarceration rates in the United States. The commission does not include medical personnel, was not required to accept any of the evidence-based data about medical risks in prisons, and has many members (including judges, police, probations officers, Republican legislators, etc.) who have such strong opinions about the need to rally around the integrity of the prison system that they would do ANYTHING to not release a single inmate under ANY conditions.

***

Today, the number of guards and inmates testing positive for COVID-19 is poised to hit numbers that belie the “just pray” approach. Three months in, we’re finally testing much more of the population of people who are incarcerated. We’re up to 33 prison staff and 8 inmates who have tested positive, with the full results of the bigger testing push not fully back. The Department of Corrections is still being dicey on exactly what it’s doing in real time. And yet it’s almost too late to start releasing individuals. A cynic might say this was part of the plan all along.  As we go along in the new phase of re-opening some the outside world, we are just entering the conversation about what happens if that along with more testing reveals a spike in the prisons. 

And still, not a single inmate was on the June 17 pardons agenda (a vehicle for early release). And still, the governor is not freely wielding the sword of executive orders to address this crisis. Instead, he is trusting a prison system that lives in the shadows while tasked to deal with the pandemic.

They can’t.

Widespread testing will, in all likelihood, end the speculation (for better, or possibly for much much worse) of just how many inmates are infected. A plan for isolation and/or treatment will be devised. If it goes the way many think, people will get very sick or die. This is always the playbook for the most vulnerable — like the population of incarcerated people. 

Why the resistance?

I am reminded of the recent words of Washoe County District Judge Scott Freeman (a sitting member of the Sentencing Commission) when voting “no” against a proposal on April 29 to recommend a list of the most medically vulnerable, non-violent offenders be placed before the governor for even possible consideration of early release to avoid exposure to COVID-19. Judge Freeman said “…on behalf of the judiciary, we’re the ones who put the people in the prison, as a consequence, I’m opposed to the motion… I feel very strongly under the circumstances that the director of prisons, in his detailed analysis and answer to our questions, was very satisfactory to me. And that under the circumstances I feel him very much in charge, understands what should occur and, on behalf of the judiciary, we’re the ones that put those people in prison, and I’m not interested in letting them out without a reasoned, appropriate approach and that’s my recommendation is to leave it to the experts like the director of prisons.”

Those are his words, but here’s my take on what he’s signaling here. “We are super smart judges and we weigh sentences with exactitude so they should never be disturbed under any circumstances, but we get it, we can’t sentence people to perish in a burning building, so in order for me to not second-guess my own job, I am forced to trust the administrative bureaucrat who monitors the prison to consider any nuanced analysis of the Eighth Amendment – until I’ve been clearly shown that this person is not trustworthy.”  

The problem, of course, is assessing how on fire the building is. How much obfuscation and inmate hiding does it take for the director to lose credibility? When do you consider the prison’s lack of effective treatment for rampant Hepatitis, and other medical deficiencies over the decades? Because if you listen to the governor, the whole state needed to take (and still needs to take) COVID-19 so seriously that every other government building had to be closed down...just not the government buildings that happen to have inmates inside. 

And Judge Freeman was maybe the most restrained of his colleagues on the commission in discussing the reasons to not release inmates. Others invoked Jeffrey Dahmer, the Unabomber, a 65-year old who killed a Nevada Highway Patrolman and other completely irrelevant examples of the mayhem that some individuals commit on a society in support of the argument that we can’t let ANYONE out! This posture suggests that, even in a time of pandemic, adherence to a belief that every human who is in prison belongs there, for exactly the amount of time a judge decreed, and that the prison is a safe, healthy place to store these humans. This is obviously a vital stance to justify the so-called “justice” in criminal justice. Indeed, any attempt to suggest otherwise gets met with such hyperbolic resistance that it is deflected, derided and in the case of Nevada’s response to the pandemic, ignored. 

In the height of my Twitteranting on these topics, I went to the length of requesting specific data from the Department of Corrections in order to contextualize the narrative of “zero have tested positive” that was being promoted at the time; the same narrative the governor was relying on in order to not directly act. Knowing that very few of the almost 13,000 inmates in Nevada were even being tested, I felt transparency would be a better catalyst to action; the discrepancies between what was being said in public versus what was being communicated by the inmates, themselves, would hasten action.

In presentations available to the public, the newly appointed director of prisons stayed on point and related that he and his agency quickly instituted important protocols designed to curb the initial transmission and subsequent transmission of this virus.  Inmates, on the other hand, are saying correctional facilities are not stringently enforcing PPE requirements; those who are presenting any symptoms of the virus are merely being “red-tagged” and isolated instead of tested; and that in essence, people are getting sick and the prison is hiding them from the outside world so as to maintain the integrity of the narrative that keeps the governor out of it.  

The disconnect in versions of events is stunning. And it wasn’t made better when a prison spokesman got into it with a television journalist with a “who you gonna believe, me or a lying liar inmate?” non-answer.

So I asked for the numbers and, while I didn’t get every response I asked for, I did get a slightly deeper dig for what I wanted from the same spokesman. I told him I would be fair and point out the measures the prisons did take and how that was absolutely the right thing to do – but also that I would balance it with my perspective. Which is that we’re at the precipice of a new crisis coming from the prisons because the governor (nor really anyone in authority) has not been asking the right questions all along.

***

I wanted to know why there wasn’t more testing when the proclaimed threshold for testing was low. I was curious whether ANY of the people tested were showing symptoms or if they were intentionally focusing on possible exposures to keep the likelihood of positive outcomes artificially low.  What I learned was just that. That on the date of my request (May 7), only 44 inmates (way too few) had been tested, and of that, only 17 inmates (even fewer) had symptoms.  How did the governor not know this? And what about more relevant data that to date has still not been revealed, like how many inmates have complained of or been observed with any symptoms? Or, how many inmates have been put into isolation and how are they doing? 

Fast forward to early June, with a recent proclamation that we’re ramping up inmates tests, as common sense dictated all along. As a result, no logical person thinks the number of positive results isn’t going to increase — or that there weren’t more (untested) cases than reported all along. A plan will hastily be devised which I predict will simply require increasing isolation for sick people until they become so sick they need to go to hospitals, and then more prayer that it doesn’t get too overwhelming. Inmates will die. More corrections employees will get infected. The communities surrounding prisons will be affected. 

And yet, whatever comes next, it will be clear that our governor and the Department of Corrections could have acted far sooner, and should have been more transparent with what was going on in the prisons. That the meaningless narrative of “zero-positive to the public” for nearly two months was an intentional misdirection. Remember, the prisons didn’t identify the first confirmed inmate case of COVID-19, but rather made the unlikely claim that he had no symptoms before needing hospitalization; the hospital (not the prison) is where the test was conducted and that’s when the narrative so strongly cultivated began to unravel.  

What will be forgotten no matter what comes next is how foolhardy it was for the governor to oppose the release of anyone from prison during a pandemic – even those who have served all of their assigned time – because of his assessment that housing, job prospects and health care were dim on the outside, and that incarcerated people needed a plan for re-entry into society so they could survive in a modern times, and not re-offend, and not hurt more people and blah blah blah.

I cavalierly say “blah blah blah” not because he’s wrong that recidivism, job placement and health and safety plans aren’t important concerns, but because in adopting this rhetoric, Gov. Sisolak tacitly admits that the prison system and supporting systems don’t work.

All of which comes back to the original point: the Nevada prison system is inadequate, and especially so during a health crisis. We are now figuratively stockpiling humans in burning buildings for arbitrary amounts of time. Even if prisoners are sitting ducks during this pandemic, Gov. Sisolak has decided these Nevadans don’t matter as much as those of us who haven’t committed a crime. And at Wednesday’s pardons board meeting, a half-measure was approved — to create a list of older, vulnerable inmates who have served most of their sentences already for possible consideration at an unspecified later date — and so kick the can continues.

And with that perspective, we are all lost. For as Mahatma Gandhi famously said: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” 

I join in the prayer that an outbreak doesn’t spill over in the prisons to the often troubled humans in prisons, or to the guards who watch over them, or to the medical personnel tasked with protecting them, or any others along the chain of human contact in these dangerous pandemic times. But I fear no one is even listening, let alone retweeting.

Dayvid Figler is a criminal defense attorney based in Las Vegas. He previously served as an associate attorney representing indigent defendants charged with murder for the Clark County Special Public Defender’s office. During his legal tenure, he served a brief appointment as a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge. Figler has been cited as a noted legal expert in many places including the New York Times, National Public Radio, Newsweek, USA Today, Court TV and the Los Angeles Times. His award-winning radio essays have appeared on KNPR as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered program.

For better police (and government generally), restore the employer/employee relationship

Anyone who has ever worked for the government for any length of time has experienced a freeloading co-worker. They’re the people who figured out that it’s almost impossible for anyone to fire them, and that they can keep collecting a paycheck more or less just by looking busy. They may get a stern warning in their file from time to time, but mostly they just bounce along while their co-workers do all the work. 

There is very little that is more poisonous to office morale than the supervisors ignoring the freeloader (or worse, ignoring someone actively doing wrong), heaping more and more work on the people with work ethic. This, of course, amounts to punishing the people trying to do it right and rewarding the slackers. The best people leave, and those who remain learn to be slackers, too. The only thing that keeps offices like that running at all are a few folks who feel duty-bound to make sure the work gets done. Sometimes, because the supervisor is too much of a coward to confront an individual employee about a problem, there’ll simply be group punishments, or passive-aggressive emails reminding “everyone” of such-and-such policy, which has never in the history of email ever actually corrected bad behavior. 

The real irony is that weak leaders see their best employees as threats. At best, they simply take them for granted, and then get angry or confused when those employees leave. 

Lazy and inept leadership can create this dynamic in any workplace, public or private. But in the context of a government agency, we’ve too often gone many steps further – our political class has tied the hands of the supervisors, so they can’t weed out the non-hackers or bad actors even if they wanted to. And then we wonder why our government isn’t as efficient – or as free from misconduct – as we would like.

~~~

In theory, the public is the employer of our public servants. No, this does not mean you get to  shout at a police officer about to give you a speeding ticket about how you pay his salary, because he’ll happily return the 12.6 cent contribution you made to him last year, Karen. Rather, being a good boss is about responsibility to the people who work for you, not just when it comes to voting for pay increases, but also in terms of training, discipline, professional development, and not allowing the best workers to be dragged down (or pushed out) by the worst – or by us. It’s also about taking responsibility for the overall mission your employees are charged with completing.

Right now, we’re being particularly crappy bosses to our police officers. Most people don’t fully understand what goes into a cop’s day, or the very real dangers they face so often we forget to be astonished by them. The best cops get very little press, and the worst of them get all the attention. In response to the worst of them, there is a growing movement to collectively punish all of law enforcement, or even get rid of them all together.

To be fair to the collective us, however, police, like many other public employees, are almost totally insulated from public accountability due to too-powerful police unions. This has to change.

If having a government of, for, and by the people means anything, it must surely mean that we have the right to get rid of bad actors via the voting booth. Obviously, it’s not practical to elect every government employee, or even every police officer. But every government agent should be directly accountable – including terminatable at-will – by someone that we do vote for. (This would also make sheriff’s races much more meaningful.)

Instead, we have allowed police unions to serve as a shield against any meaningful discipline of police. Ironically, the cops getting promoted to be supervisors get carved out of the union (management has to be separate from the rank and file union members, after all), and so it is no surprise that (at least in my experience working with a LOT of cops over the years) there is very little correlation between the best police officers and police union leadership. 

In defending their members from discipline or termination, unions do not do any self-policing. They are obligated to defend their members, no matter what, and do so. This is a great system for people charged with crimes, but it makes no sense at all from an employer/employee perspective.

For example, most police know who the bad apples in their departments are, and are righteously embarrassed by them. Most of the supervisors know it, too. Part of what makes a bad cop is temperament – even if they aren’t (yet) breaking any policies per se, you can quickly recognize the ones who are too quick to use serious force, draw a gun or a taser, or don’t intuitively understand how or have the talent to deescalate a situation. Training is part of this, but so is an innate judgment that some people don’t and will never have. 

Supervisors must have the ability to weed those people out early, before someone gets hurt (not least at risk is the officer himself, or his co-workers). There can be no entitlement to hold a job that periodically puts you in a position to decide whether or not to cage, hurt, or even kill another citizen. All police must be employed at-will, and their unions must no longer have any say in disciplinary matters. Total responsibility – and authority – must lie with the chain of command, and the top link of that chain must be accountable to voters.

This, incidentally, is how the military works. It’s still hard to just “fire” someone, but at least the chain of command isn’t being undercut by a union when discipline is imposed.

But it’s not just about weeding out the bad apples. In fact, that’s a small part of good leadership, and in some ways, the simplest. Good behavior must be rewarded, and police must be provided with adequate tools to do their job. The best employees must be valued, or they’ll find other employers, or other lines of work. (Seriously – I’m so grateful to all the hardworking, ethical, and dedicated police officers I know and have worked with, even as I despise the bad ones protected by the unions. But who would want to be a cop these days, especially in America’s most liberal cities?  The pay is lousy, it’s dangerous, and your bosses will sell you down the river for some fleeting political points with the more radical members of their base. All around the country, we’re about to lose – or never get – hundreds of thousands of people who we would have wanted patrolling our streets.)

The new spin on “defund the police” is to dishonestly claim it doesn’t mean exactly what it says, but rather we should just have fewer police and more social workers. That sounds awesome, as long as you believe in the power of unicorn toots and have no idea how the real world works.

If a call comes to dispatch that someone is acting violently and has “a weapon”, they may be having a mental break holding a stick or they may just be a thug with a gun. Either way, sending in a social worker without police protection would be dangerous. The decision on how to deal with that person must be made in an instant, with imperfect and incomplete information. Social workers are great for helping connect people to services, and I’ve known some really great ones, but if we try to make them investigators or public mediators or put them in a position where they may have to physically defend themselves or others, we’re setting them up for failure (or worse).

Social workers, by the way, don’t have magic wands, and have substantially less training than the average police officer. They also can do real harm. I have seen countless child abuse investigations botched by DCFS personnel who should have involved more experienced police detectives, and I’ve seen lives ruined and families devastated because children got taken away from the wrong parent. I once had a social worker supervisor tell me, as I’m explaining how the Fourth and Fifth Amendments still apply to them, that she “didn’t care about” my client’s rights. The rules don’t apply when you’re doing it “for the children,” of course. I would (and have) trusted my life and my family to many police officers. I have never met a social worker I would say that about.

The better option is to train police more holistically, so they can, in fact, be social workers. We already ask them to do that (a fact of policing which has always been true and always will be true), so we may as well make it official – and adjust their pay accordingly (multi-talented professionals should be compensated as such). 

Indeed, we used to call law enforcement officers “peace officers,” and I think we should make an effort to return to that moniker. If one’s mission is “law enforcement,” it’s easy to forget that laws exist to serve society and to keep the peace – enforcing laws merely for their own sake leads to abuse and tyranny. 

Highly paid, highly educated, and highly trained professionals with a mission to keep the peace built right into their name, and who are answerable to and appreciated by the citizens who employ them – that will solve a lot of our problems. The best part about it is that it ends the abdication of our responsibility as a citizenry to ensure that the police become and remain our police.

~~~

It’s not just peace officers who could benefit from this change. Police are the most obvious show of government force most of us experience or see from day to day, but they aren’t the most powerful or even the most potentially destructive. A sneering, self-important Walter Peck-esq bureaucrat is enough to unfairly destroy a business. One bad office manager can obliterate morale – and productivity – in any given workplace. When was the last time you went to DMV and sincerely believed you – a voter and taxpayer – had any ownership over what was happening there?

On Thursday, Harry Schiffman, President of AFSCME Local 4041, the union claiming to speak for state employees as a whole, sent out probably the most tone-deaf press release I have ever seen. It was a reaction to Governor Sisolak’s announcement that (duh) said there would be budget cuts in response to the massive loss of tax revenue due to the COVID-19 shutdowns. 

Schiffman whined at the idea of one day per month furloughs, complaining, “When our state falls on hard times, state employees are always the first to be asked to make sacrifices.”  Yes – no one else in Nevada has had to make sacrifices during the public health crisis. Everyone in the private sector is hummin’ along, hunky dory – just ask the good people of DETR, who apparently are sitting around twiddling their thumbs without any unemployment benefits to process.

Government employees have weathered this storm far better than most, with few (so far) losing their jobs, which is more than nearly half a million Nevadans can say since this crisis began. And truly – who does Schiffman think we’re going to tax in order to avoid pay and hiring freezes and unpaid furlough days?  Even businesses that have stayed open have struggled and suffered. 

But AFSCME’s self-entitled rant shows us that the same disconnect between the public and their employees that is currently plaguing the police is not limited to the police. Public employee unions insulate government from the governed, making good people who should be public servants totally unaccountable, (and if Schiffman is any indication) totally oblivious to the plight of the public they are supposed to serve. 

~~~

A significant part of my job is to actively look for mistakes or misconduct from the police. I watch their body cameras. I second-guess them. I attack them on the witness stand. On occasion, I catch them lying, or abusing their authority, or using too much force, or even committing crimes. Sadly, even when I catch them, they suffer no real consequences.

But what I really learn in all of that report reviewing and video watching is that the vast majority of peace officers try to live up to that old-fashioned name, are people I am proud represent my community, and despise their rogue colleagues as much or more than I do. I know they don’t want to work with people who tarnish the badge, and would just as soon be rid of them, too. 

We need to re-establish ourselves as a citizenry as the true authority over our employees, and then keep our own responsibility in mind to the men and women who do it right. Let’s rid ourselves of the barriers between the public and public servants of all descriptions – the more cohesive community we become as a result will be worth it.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.

Defunding the police would be a good start

Coming up with effective protest slogans is hard. Take Black Lives Matter, for example. 

First and foremost, protest slogans need to be short and memorable. Answering a call (“What do we want?”) with over 3,500 words of citation-filled opinion column (you’ve just been warned), is both impossible and farcical. Black Lives Matter is short, it’s memorable, and it’s easily chanted in the streets. 

Second, an effective protest slogan needs to inspire the activists who live, eat, and breathe the underlying issues motivating the protest in the first place. Black Lives Matter is based on an utterly uncontroversial premise — black lives matter much less to those with power than whatever lives are deemed “white” at any particular moment. This premise is so uncontroversial and obvious, it was repeatedly played for laughs over twenty years ago in, for example, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (in one scene, a general is asked if he has ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation; “I don’t listen to hip-hop,” he replies, nicely summarizing race relations during the late ‘90s, at least as understood by two white comedians from Colorado). A few years later, Dave Chappelle built a very successful career by using comedy to highlight the ways black lives still didn’t matter to everyone else — a career he cut short when he realized a lot of the people who were making black lives matter less in the first place were laughing, too. 

Since circumstances for black people haven’t meaningfully changed much since the Clinton and Bush administrations, the idea behind Black Lives Matter is that if you understand the problem well enough to laugh at it, then you understand the problem well enough to stop laughing and do something about it. Put that way, it sounds like common sense, even to this columnist’s admittedly white and privileged ears. It’s honestly disappointing it took this long to get as popular as it is.

Finally, protest slogans need to be anodyne enough to attract those who might be inclined to agree to the cause once awareness of the underlying issue is brought to their attention, but they also need to incite enough controversy to drive off those who repel those same potential supporters. As common sense as observing Black Lives Matter might seem, those three words do a wonderful job of getting under the skin of the very people who make black lives miserable in the first place. As some of those people like to point out, by saying that Black Lives Matter, doesn’t that imply other lives don’t? After all, if I, a white columnist, say White Lives Matter, that certainly has particularly unpleasant implications (boy is that undeniably true). 

So what’s the difference? 

Well, ignoring two and a half centuries of slavery, the century of Jim Crow that followed abolition, and the violence and death imposed by white people on black people to enforce those institutions, absolutely nothing, I suppose. Of course, ignoring all that would be about as disingenuous as someone complaining about how I can order a drink at a bar without anyone getting on my case while, the instant they walk into the same bar, they’re shooed out because of that one time they got drunk and tried to fight every black man in the bar... well, and that one time they got drunk and tried to feel up every black woman in the bar... oh, and that one time they got drunk and started screaming racial slurs at the black bartender. 

No, hypothetical angry drunk person, “all customers” don’t matter. If you matter, then the rest of us who had to put up with your violent, irresponsible behavior the last time you walked in don’t. Yes, even those of us you left alone because we’re not black. Even if we were misanthropic and selfish enough to solely care about our individual safety and well-being, there’s no reason to think you’ll limit your violence to black people just because you focused your anger on them the last time you visited.

Put more succinctly, historical context matters. It’s the same reason Germans don’t get to wear swastikas and American schoolchildren don’t get to wear ghost costumes with pointy hoods. Again, common sense. 

That is why sticking with Black Lives Matter as a protest slogan is genius — it pushes away exactly the sort of unpleasant people for whom black lives never mattered one whit. It doesn’t just remind everyone there’s unfinished work that needs to be done (and promptly — lives are literally on the line), it also gets under the skin of the people who are preventing the work from getting done at all and keeps them away from the table.

***

With that in mind, let’s talk about defunding the police.

“Defund the police,” like Black Lives Matter, is a very short slogan that, in three easy words, addresses some (not all, but some) of the very serious institutional issues facing the American criminal justice system today. “Defund the police” is not a call to completely defund law enforcement; even those who advocate for abolishing the police (a centrist moderate position, by the way) largely acknowledge laws require enforcement of some sort. The key question is whether or not we can find a way to enforce the laws on our books without using well-armed government employees primarily trained to achieve order through steadily escalating levels of violence to do so.

For many Americans, the police have historically been viewed somewhat like Star Trek’s Starfleet, continuing on their mission to protect and serve, seeking new lowlifes and new criminals, boldly patrolling where no one’s patrolled before, all with tasers set on stun. Why not let friendly police captains and their merry away teams beam into our schools and bring peace and justice to our children? Why not deploy Constitution-class police cruisers into troubled neighborhoods to defuse legally troublesome situations with stern speeches and high speed chases? What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, Star Trek’s Starfleet was (fictionally) made up of explorers and scientists who reluctantly concluded an armed galaxy is a polite galaxy. If our police forces were like Starfleet, they wouldn’t be a natural destination for military veterans — they’d be prestigious organizations we’d apply to for the chance to do jury duty right. Instead, American police forces are paramilitary organizations assigned social work by their municipalities to justify their unconscionably wasteful budgets. 

The end result looks a lot like what we might imagine would happen if we started assigning pit bulls as therapy dogs. Yes, most pit bulls are sweet, cuddly, and energetic, and most police officers I’ve met have been similarly pleasant as well, though I’ve certainly never tried to pet the belly of one. When a pit bull loses its composure, however, the consequences are considerably more potentially dangerous than when, say, a dachshund loses its cool; that’s certainly true of a well-armed police officer as well. 

So, instead of throwing large percentages of our municipal budgets towards law enforcement agencies that fundamentally assume laws must be enforced violently, what if we redirected our scarce resources to other agencies that prevented people from hurting other people (my preferred definition of “crime”) in the first place? For example, instead of deploying the police at homeless encampments, what if we used those resources to provide safe campgrounds with adequate sanitation, or, better yet, actual housing? A campground is certainly cheaper than a military surplus MRAP and considerably more humane and consistently useful, too.

Like Black Lives Matter, calls to defund the police are also attracting the right enemies. 

For many people, cruelty is rather the point. For these people, the goal is not to actually reduce crime. Instead, the goal is to communicate, through violent government-sanctioned force, who’s in charge and who’s not, as Richard Nixon famously did against the antiwar left and black people. Placing a well-armed paramilitary force as the first point of contact for law enforcement is consequently a very convenient way to use the law, whatever it might happen to be at any given moment, to inflict violence against undesirable populations, for whatever definition of “undesirable” is fashionable. For these people, defunding the police means defunding their taxpayer-subsidized goon squad. 

Most people, however, are not intentionally cruel — certainly not in public, anyway. That makes the few exceptions very easy to argue against, especially when they start ranting about “color credentials” or the “perceived sin of being white” as an aid to Reno City Councilwoman Bonnie Weber did recently. Chances are, if you’re still reading this, you’re not, either.

***

How will defunding the police make law enforcement less cruel and better focused on actual harm reduction? That’s a fair question — below are some ways we can reduce resources assigned to the police so we can reassign them more peacefully and productively elsewhere.

Abolish police unions and restrict direct political activity

Police unions help police officers evade accountability and, in doing so, expose their municipalities to severe civil liability. That’s why police officers must have one chain of command and it needs to have the people at the top. Our military isn’t allowed to unionize because the military must answer solely to the commander-in-chief and the rest of the civilian chain of command. Similarly, police departments should be solely and directly accountable to whatever municipal and county governments they serve. We currently have more direct political control over the behavior of a 19-year-old grunt in Afghanistan than we have over the behavior of a 39-year-old police officer in Henderson. 

That must change.

Additionally, military personnel are required to be largely apolitical. They can vote, but they’re not allowed to otherwise support a particular political party or candidate while in uniform. That is vital because the military is equipped with more than enough firepower to easily dominate any meaningful political discussion if it chose to, as militaries throughout the world historically have and continue to do throughout the world. Similarly, police departments have the means to decide whether or not criminal activity will be meaningfully addressed during a particular politician’s term and how much violence will be exercised to do so, and they’re not afraid to do so. Police officers in New York City, for example, protested a few years ago against changes to departmental policy after Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD officer. To ensure public trust, they must lose the legal right to exercise that power.

Here in Nevada, police forces are not only allowed to unionize, they’re allowed to hold candidate endorsement interviews while in uniform. I know this because I participated in one in 2016 during my quixotic run for state Senate. Elected officials are responsible for determining how much police officers will be paid, under what conditions they’re allowed to work, and what laws will be used to hold them accountable. This creates a conflict of interest that produces measures to evade responsibility in several jurisdictions, including Clark County and Reno. 

Also, and utterly unsurprisingly given that police unions get to choose who they’re negotiating with, the pay and benefits they negotiate on the backs of taxpayers are quite handsome. Eliminating police unions would go a long way towards making police department budgets more responsive to municipal finance conditions.

Reset law enforcement culture

Some police departments can’t be reformed. Even with new police chiefs, new guidelines, increased training and body cameras, when people are accustomed to behaving certain ways and are surrounded by people accustomed to behaving certain ways, they’re going to continue to fall back on bad habits. This happened in Camden, New Jersey, which famously fired their entire police force and rehired it — this time as a more directly accountable non-union force with fewer needless desk jobs and better training. The result was much lower crime, much greater trust from the community, and significantly less wasteful spending on needless administrative positions.

Now a similar approach is about to be tried in Minneapolis. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but it’s definitely worth paying attention to. 

Additionally, research by Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, revealed smaller community police departments frequently outperform — in other words, experience less crime, earn greater trust from their communities, and cost less per-taxpayer — than larger police departments, even in communities of color. To be clear, it’s easy to go too far in the other direction; part of what made Ferguson’s police department so dysfunctional in the first place was that the community it was responsible for serving was too small and too poor to fund itself using comparatively equitable methods, so it relied on excessive fine enforcement instead. However, communities with enough financial stability to support themselves without relying on fine and fee enforcement may benefit from leaving regional police departments like Metro and enforcing their own laws instead.

Take away the toys

Ordinarily, when you give government workers a Lamborghini, it’s considered a bribe. When you give the Los Angeles Police Department a Lamborghini, however, well, you’re just helping them advance their public relations strategy.

It must be nice to drive a free exotic sports car on taxpayer time.

As egregious as it is to accept bribes, however, it still pales in comparison to Section 1033 purchases and civil asset forfeiture. 

Section 1033 is a program that allows police departments to purchase military surplus equipment. The increasingly common use of MRAPs by municipal police forces — mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, which were developed for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — are an especially visible manifestation of the militarization of American police, but certainly not a unique one. As even the FBI has pointed out, many police officers have expressed concern over the increased militarization of domestic policing, including increased reliance on tactical gear and SWAT teams. 

The trouble with SWAT teams and military equipment is two-fold. 

First, their budgets need to be justified. Where SWAT teams exist and military hardware is used, they will be deployed into situations where more peaceful and tax-efficient methods of policing should be used instead. This is a problem for smaller rural counties with SWAT teams, like Elko County, which might experience what a larger community would deem as a SWAT-worthy call maybe once a decade. 

Second, if you’re wearing body armor and armed to the teeth, you’re going to have a lot less to lose from a conflict that escalates violently than you would if you were wearing plain clothes and carrying only a taser. Consequently, where a nurse or a primary school teacher might rely upon well-practiced methods of de-escalation because they lack any other alternative, military-equipped police officers will be more likely to let a situation grow violent and out of control because they know their personal safety remains assured. 

At least Section 1033 is largely voluntary, however — or, at least, as voluntary as any taxpayer-funded program. Civil asset forfeiture is just legalized highway robbery. 

The idea behind civil asset forfeiture is that resources used to commit a crime — say, selling drugs — are similarly illegal and should be seized. This doctrine, however, has been used to justify seizing thousands of cars in Detroit, as well as millions of dollars in cash and property each year throughout Nevada, frequently seized from our poorest communities. In theory, the property is returned if the owner proves it was not, in fact, used to commit a crime (if it sounds like this flies in the face of assuming people are innocent until they’re proven guilty, that’s because it does). In practice, legal fees frequently exceed the value of the seized property, which means the police department that seized the property usually keeps it, as the Nevada Policy Research Institute noted in 2017. Sometimes they sell the property; other times, if the property is “fun” enough to keep, they’ll repaint it in police livery and openly brag about how they stole it from someone.

In 2019, AB420 promised to at least ensure police departments wouldn’t directly profit from the assets they seized. Unfortunately, despite passing the Assembly 34-6, it was never heard in the Senate.

“Donations for political relations purposes,” Section 1033 purchases, and civil asset forfeiture programs all feed into the idea that police officers have a legal right to play with toys at taxpayer expense, by force if necessary. We wouldn’t tolerate that sense of entitlement from a DMV clerk; we shouldn’t tolerate it from our law enforcement, either.

Abolish qualified immunity and other special legal privileges

Qualified immunity — the idea that public officials get to escape accountability as long as they don’t violate rights that are “clearly established” in existing case law — is something I already wrote about two weeks ago. Since there’s nothing new to add (it’s still terrible), there’s no point in repeating myself. I am, however, gratified Rep. Justin Amash, America’s first and only Libertarian congressman, introduced H.R. 7085, the End Qualified Immunity Act, which is now the first tripartisan bill in modern American history. 

Closer to home, meanwhile, NRS 289.060 requires police officers under investigation for misconduct to be notified in writing at least two days in advance before they undergo an interrogation. This written notice must include a description of the nature of the investigation; a summary of alleged misconduct of the peace officer; the date, time and place of the interrogation or hearing; the name and rank of the officer in charge of the investigation and the officers who will conduct any interrogation or hearing; the name of any other person who will be present at any interrogation or hearing; and may upon request have two representatives of the peace officer’s choosing present with the peace officer during any phase of an interrogation or hearing relating to the investigation, including, without limitation, a lawyer, a representative of a labor union or another peace officer.

Those are fantastic requirements. It would honestly be nice if they extended to everyone under investigation for criminal misconduct in Nevada. I know that, were I arrested, I would be thrilled beyond measure if I had a few days to prepare before I was questioned, knew what questions are going to be asked and knew the interrogator personally.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t enjoy that suite of protections. Until we do, police officers facing criminal misconduct charges shouldn’t, either. 

Change the laws

Like a lot of people I know, John Oliver’s video about the history of American policing caught my attention. Though I generally agreed with much of it, I disagreed with one part in particular. It’s true that capturing fugitive slaves is an important part of the history of American policing; however, it isn’t the root of American policing. We never needed chattel slavery to justify police brutality — just ask the Sheriff of Nottingham.

That we have sheriffs in the United States is a clue that our police practices are ultimately descended from a considerably longer tradition than chattel slavery. As the story of Robin Hood hints, sheriffs were common in feudal England, long before Europeans had the technology and bureaucratic acumen to meaningfully enslave African populations and ship them to the New World. Since the early history of the United States is primarily a history of English colonialism, we inherited several legal traditions from formerly-feudal England, including sheriffs and a reliance upon common law (meaning, we usually interpret laws based on past legal precedent instead of trying to reinterpret the original meaning of our laws over and over again, a lá Justice Scalia’s constitutional originalism).

The catch, however, is sheriffs, along with the rest of our law enforcement, are supposed to enforce the laws as they’re enacted. Consequently, when slavery was the law of the land and the Fugitive Slave Act required slaves to be returned to their masters, local law enforcement was indeed responsible for rounding up slaves, by force if necessary, and returning them to their owners. When segregation was the law of the land, law enforcement was responsible for enforcing those laws as well. Similarly, the reason Governor Sisolak was in a position to pardon so many small-scale marijuana convictions is because, until laws surrounding marijuana changed in Nevada, law enforcement was responsible for enforcing Nevada’s Drug War laws.

Our law enforcement, whether it’s conducted by the police, mental health professionals, or anyone else, can only be as just and equitable as the laws we require them to enforce. Laws that criminalize poverty and victimless crimes will be no more just or reasonable if they’re enforced with a smile and a prescription than if they’re enforced with a tear gas canister. The problem with enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act wasn’t that law enforcement was too violent in its enforcement — the problem was that it was the Fugitive Slave Act. We should similarly reconsider the justice of all of today’s laws as well. 

***

As we watch hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of videos of police brutalizing protesters (now at 480 and climbing), it’s become increasingly clear we need to radically rethink our approach to law enforcement. We can’t equip and train our police for war and then act surprised when they fail to keep the peace. It’s time to defund the police, refocus the police’s remaining resources back on peacefully keeping our communities safe, and use the resources freed from that refocus towards preventing the conditions that produce harm in our communities in the first place.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david.colborne@lpnevada.org.

‘Brooklyn girl’ Fiore has herself to blame for racially insensitive remarks

Michele Fiore as a candidate for Ward 6

Las Vegas Mayor Pro Tem Michele Fiore found herself trying to explain herself this past week after reportedly making racially insensitive comments at a recent City Council meeting and the Clark County Republican Party convention.

I think she blamed it on Brooklyn.

Her convention comments, which she claimed have been misquoted and taken out of context, concerned City Councilman Cedric Crear so much that he wrote a letter to Mayor Carolyn Goodman calling for Fiore to be stripped of her junior mayor’s honor. Crear is the council’s only African American.

The mayor pro tem is a political perquisite that in Las Vegas puts the honoree just one heartbeat away from holding the scissors that cut the ribbons. So it’s not exactly like being court martialed from the Marines or impeached in office.

But Crear’s callout was a huge comedown for Fiore that not only illustrates the ongoing dysfunction inside Nevada’s Republican Party, but also further mires her gravity-defying political rise.

Most stinging is Crear’s measured and devastating letter, which nailed Fiore for remarks she made during a June 3 council meeting held while mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter racial justice demonstrations were going on in Las Vegas. At one point Fiore offered, “protesting does not give you the right of beating white people up.” Crear wrote, “Of course no person has the right to beat anyone up, yet when stated in this way, the implication is that white people are rampantly being singled out by black people and being attacked, strictly based upon the color of their skin.

“During this highly volatile time in our country, it is beyond irresponsible to make such a biased statement. It adds kerosene to an already explosive fire and serves only to divide.”

Fiore added more kerosene to her own political arson last Saturday when she descended into an anti-affirmative action rant that, as The Indy first reported, included, “If there’s a job opening and my white ass is more qualified than somebody’s black ass, then my white ass should get the job.”

Well, that’s one way of saying it.

She denied reports that she’d said, “White lives matter” during her speech, but instead said, “All lives matter.

What also matters is timing. At a moment in American history when the nation at last appears willing to seriously discuss the systemic racism that exists in police departments and public institutions, it’s probably not the best time to drag out the old white victimhood one-liners. But maybe that’s how they roll in Brooklyn.

The remarks earned Fiore a rare public rebuke from Clark County Republican Party Chairman David Sajdak, whose job description is usually defined by pompoms and pep rallies. In response, Fiore tweeted that the county chairman was a “pandering idiot” and breathlessly claimed, “My 1st Amendment rights are under attack.” She feigned an apology, admitted only that she has a “New York style” and said she was having her city staff install a “swear jar.”

Her penny whistle patriotism echoes the far right’s increasingly mainstreamed narrative about the evils of “political correctness.” As an aside, the First Amendment still allows elected officials to make racially insensitive remarks and write it all off as part of part of a tell-it-like-it-is style.

Following Crear’s bruising letter, Fiore was again explaining that style on Friday before reporters and cameras and a KLAS-TV live stream audience, but this time assuring everyone, “First and foremost, I have never been politically correct, nor do I intend to start now. I don’t pander, nor do I play. Nor do I mince my words.”

Even when attempting an apology she wasn’t exactly contrite, again alluding to being a “Brooklyn girl” despite her 28-year Southern Nevada residency. “I can get a little Brooklyn when unscripted, but I never, ever want to portray or have anyone believe that there is a racist bone in my body.” She said her language was “taken out of complete context,” then failed to correct the record.

She noted that she kissed and hugged black people, that her mother was gay, that she voted against her own party on the marijuana issue, adding, “As a Brooklyn girl, I vote for everyone“ and that after her recent dustup with the county GOP, “I really have to rethink who my friends are.”

I’m not sure what that all adds up to, but fair enough. Maybe she was channeling Spike Lee and Danny Aiello in “Do the Right Thing.” We may presume that Crear is no longer one of those “friends.”

Just when I thought Fiore might climb out of the racial rabbit hole she’d dug herself, she turned and went back down. Citing “very scary, very, very scary” “police intell” reports, she said authorities learned that two groups during the Black Lives Matter protests called for people to “bring their legal guns, bring their legal guns and kill pigs and white people. This is what I see every day with this. So how do we differentiate between who’s safe and who’s not?”

As it turns out, authorities arrested three white men with loose ties to the paramilitary “boogaloo bois,” an association of well-armed, self-styled militia types who advocate for civil war. They’re accused of bringing Molotov cocktails to the protest and now face state and federal criminal charges.

But those defendants weren’t much on Fiore’s mind.

At one point, the mayor pro tem, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board member and Republican national committeewoman, whose language has often been divisive, said of Crear’s letter, “To take an opportunity to attack me in the midst of this public divide is just very sad.”

Know what I find sad?

The GOP under President Donald Trump’s spell continues to use white nationalism as a campaign strategy. In addition to all Trump’s dog-whistle race-baiting, the most divisive president in our nation’s history had scheduled — but now has rescheduled for the 20th — his first in-person campaign rally on Juneteenth, a holiday marking the end of slavery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site on June 19, 1921 of one of the deadliest race riots in the nation’s history. Hey, maybe it’s a coincidence.

In Nevada, armed militia and associates of the boogaloos and “white chauvinist” Proud Boys haven’t been hard to spot with their high-powered rifles and flags at recent pro-Trump, anti-Sisolak rallies disguised as “Reopen Nevada” protests. Perhaps they were there by coincidence.

No matter her true position on race, Fiore’s tone-deaf rhetoric accurately reflects the Trump Party in action.

At this rate, the mayor pro tem will probably receive a shout-out tweet from the President.

Brooklyn, represent! 

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Southern Nevada: Let There Be (more) Light!

By Rick Smith

There is an old story about a man walking down a dark street one night, when he comes across a little boy crawling around under a street lamp.  The man asks the boy what he’s doing; the boy replies that he’s looking for the quarter he lost.  Offering to help, the man asks the boy where he had dropped it.

“Oh, I dropped it across the street”.

“Then why are you looking on this side?”

“Because this is where the light is.”

Southern Nevada shares the boy’s predicament, as well as his self-imposed limitation.  Each time we lose “our quarter” – our economic driver - we are forced to try to find it under the only light we have: gaming and tourism.   As with the boy’s naïve solution, we, too, continue to be constrained by our own self-imposed resolution.

It is inarguable that the economic backbone of our state is carefully aligned with FUN.  It is found in different venues, although most have in common:  gaming, high-end retail, great food and world class entertainment.  Fortunately millions come here each year to capture it all - that is, until they don’t come.  911, the Great Recession, and now, a worldwide pandemic will dictate that once again we will hope that we can prime the fun-pump to initiate the trickle of a slow, painful, very unprofitable healing.

Meanwhile, the political landscape of California continues to devolve to a level no one would ever have imagined, highlighted by one of its legislator’s recent public post of a vulgar insult to Elon Musk and Tesla – (very reminiscent of AOC’s ignorant attack on Amazon that dissuaded that company from bringing thousands of white-collar jobs to NYC.)   By contrast, through our own still-early efforts toward economic diversification, and thanks to economic development groups including the LVGEA, Chambers of Commerce, and certain proactive municipalities, we have added major corporate names to our skyline.  These highly recognizable names include Google, Amazon, major league sports’ Golden Knights and the Raiders, as well as other non-gaming entities.  Perhaps the most significant of all will be the establishment here of an entirely new industry with the arrival of Haas Automation in Henderson.  

Back to the issue at-hand, the adverse conditions resulting from the COVID-19 virus, once again dictate that the more immediate recovery of our economic engine must continue to be driven by gaming and tourism. This is lamentable because the very model of business that Las Vegas is built upon (read fun) in many ways represents the antithesis of the necessary safe-distancing, wearing of safety apparel, and the limiting of gatherings to small, carefully-distanced groups.  Our continued over-reliance on gaming & tourism once again victimizes us at a time when we desperately need to accelerate our recovery.

Indeed, our longer term prosperity mandates that we intensify our outreach toward economic diversification.   Many believe that California, in particular, and now sporting a $58 billion deficit, represents a rapidly growing bounty of low-hanging fruit.   Increasingly, the political construct of that state has become inconsistent with the very ideals of free enterprise, prosperity and achievement.   In light of this, and in support of the urgent and glaring necessity that we diversify, we must establish a clear strategy that will identify, by name, mid-sized and major businesses and industries operating in California, and other states with similar draconian regulations and policies.  This strategy would then be followed immediately by a targeted effort to recruit as many of those as possible.   While this will take time to organize and fully implement, we must begin now.  Without a doubt, municipalities and states such as Texas, Utah, Arizona and other business-friendly states, already have ramped-up their efforts.   

In this light, we should reach out immediately to Elon Musk, as well as other tech companies in the Silicon Valley, as most certainly our competing communities already are doing.  Through the transaction model of Haas Automated, along with abundant BLM land to the south, we can offer the many advantages of both, our community and our State, while relieving companies such as Tesla of the overly-burdensome regulatory and punitive measures of California government.  Moreover, we can continue toward recruitment of peripherally related industries, such as unmanned aircraft systems, autonomous vehicles, as well as new modes of passenger and freight movement.  Too, the current pandemic also has taught us that our nation must reposition our manufacturing and distribution of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies and equipment, away from current, unreliable foreign sources.

Southern Nevada today offers excellent higher education and training.  UNLV is now a Tier 1 research university, and includes schools of medicine and dentistry.  The College of Southern Nevada, the largest public college in Nevada, offers numerous associate degree programs, as well as skilled-labor training and certificated programs in multiple fields.   Of particular note, the City of Henderson is home to the second-fastest growing four year college in the nation: Nevada State College.   Founded in 2002, NSC’s very diverse student population now exceeds 5000, with another 5000 to come in the not-too-distant future.  With the combination of NSC’s very innovative leadership, coupled with a sprawling 500-acre campus abundant with well-located, unencumbered land, NSC is primed for public-private partnership development, offering synergies for academia and private industry collaboration in a contiguous, academic/business park setting. 

In addition to public college and universities, Henderson also features two private, not-for-profit, fully integrated health sciences universities.   Touro University represents the largest medical school in the Southwest, and Roseman Health Sciences University, offers schools of dentistry, residency training in orthodontics, a college of pharmacy, plus a soon-to-be-established community-based medical school.

Our greater Southern Nevada community has an opportunity to take the lead in the vital interest of economic diversification.  We boast ample land, excellent transportation resources, and a tax structure that remains supportive of our efforts.  More than ever before, Southern Nevada has reached the critical point that mandates a new paradigm for our future economic security.  We now face yet another crisis which demands that business and civic leaders unite in this essential endeavor.  

There can be no doubt that this undertaking will require unprecedented political will, plus a unified spirit that is laser-focused on the goal of economic diversification.  Without this commitment, like our young friend and his quarter, Southern Nevada will continue to look for recovery under the only light we have.

Rick Smith is a commercial real estate executive with over 35 years development of projects valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the Southwest.  He is past Board Chair of the Henderson Chamber, former Advisory Board Chair of UNLV’s Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies, and was the founder of NAIOP’s National Mixed-Use Development Forum.  He serves in multiple capacities promoting economic diversification in So. NV.

Time to get rid of UNLV's racist mascot

UNLV campus

By Jonathan Bradley

Editor’s note: This letter was sent to the acting president, students, faculty and staff at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For the third time in six years I am writing to you to beg that we change the name of the UNLV mascot. I am including in this letter statements from my previous letters. Each time I have written to you it has been at moments in the history of America and the history of UNLV when racism has been brought to the forefront of the social consciousness. Now the movements to end systemic racism embedded in our institutions and culture has the backing of more than 70 percent of the American people and the support of people all around the world. I strongly suggest to the administration and students of UNLV that it is finally time to change the name of the UNLV mascot. I ask that we be bold, stand up to the re-legitimization of racism that is plaguing our great nation, and make this small change towards a better America.

Our mascot’s history is clearly listed on the UNLV webpage “Hey Reb! And ‘Rebels’ Nickname.” Even on this page a good portion of the text is in defense of the name over its association with the secessionist South which broke away and fought the United States of America in order to maintain slavery. No matter what the revisionist history of the Civil War is, the common denominator in all arguments and history is slavery. The Civil War was started to maintain the immoral practice of enslaving black Americans for profit. It was a war waged by secessionist “rebels.” Our own webpage admits this connection, attempts to defend maintaining of the name, and tries to deflect criticism. 

The most ardent argument is the name is a symbol of our rebellion from northern control by the University of Nevada, Reno and the state government in Carson City. This is also an allusion to the “Noble Lost Cause” argument which is rife throughout revisionist history of the Civil War. Yes, Nevada Southern, as UNLV was once known, did stand against the power center of Nevada in the 1950s, but that time is now long past. We are the “Flagship University of Nevada.” Las Vegas is the economic generator of the state, and Southern Nevadans have worked diligently for the past 50 years to change the power dynamic of state politics and culture. We are no longer the rebellious south. We are now Nevada.

Nevada became a state in order to assist President Lincoln’s re-election, and to ratify the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery. Our creation as a state is on the broken chains of slavery. It is impossible to deny our role in that history, and it should not be denied in any way. Our history as a state should be championed at every turn. Our mascot’s name is in clear protest and denial of that proud history. It is a blemish on the proud state of Nevada, the Battle Born State, the Civil War born state, which greatly contributed to the end of that necessary war to end an unjust rebellion against the United States of America.

I graduated from UNLV with my Master’s in Political Science in 2012 and my PhD in Political Science in 2019. I am a proud double alumnus of UNLV. I have been teaching at UNLV for the past eight years. Many of my UNLV students are people of color and/or international students. UNLV, and I, proudly tout UNLV’s rank as the most diversified campus in the U.S. In my first lessons I proudly talk about the diversity of our campus, how it makes us strong, and how it is a reflection of America. However, with every positive comment I make about our great university and its diversity, I know, in the back of my mind, that there is an ugliness attached to it through the name of the mascot which greatly marginalizes our proud claim to being the most diversified campus. It is strange to champion our diversity, while still honoring the wrong side of the darkest chapter in our shared American history.

Lastly, I wish to address the claim that we as UNLV faculty and students know the mascot’s name does not represent racism. I believe this to be mostly true. However, I am not worried about how we as UNLV students and faculty perceive the name. I am worried about how the growing number of racist, neo-fascist, and neo-Nazi groups in our country, who use any symbol they can to propagate their hatred and lies, see the name “Runnin’ REBEL,” and read its history. The history of the name goes lockstep with the history that continues to propagate racism and bigotry in our country. The same symbols of the Confederacy that populate parts of our nation are defended with the same arguments we use to defend our mascot’s name. Our mascot’s name is the same as the symbols of segregation, slavery, and the wrong side of the Civil War which have become the rallying points for white nationalist. As much as we should change the name because it is bad, we should change it because the forces of division and hate think that it is good.

I thank you for your time and attention. I hope that this letter rekindles a still much debate and adds more voice to a needed change which will make us a better UNLV. I am a proud member of the UNLV community. However, I am not a proud “UNLV mascot’s name.”

Jonathan Bradley, Ph.D., is a part-time instructor of political science at UNLV.

Unconstitutional curfews? Reno City Council should be taking actual action supporting the people

Reno City Hall sign

By Danny Hart

Mayor Hillary Schieve and the Reno City Council need help running our great city. The lack of skills suitable to running a city were showing as we passed through the beginning stages of the pandemic and continue as we struggle with civil unrest.

The only answer to crisis? Draft business-closure and curfew orders without any apparent legal review in an attempt to shut down the city. It’s like the council sees other, more dynamic cities doing it and, therefore, we should be doing it too without thinking through whether that makes sense for us.

Mayor Schieve and the council should be using the current civil unrest to put forward concrete solutions to problems that ail not only our region but the whole country. This isn’t complicated and is an opportunity to lead the nation in implementing solutions. 

As a nation, we have let the police run amok. We have forgotten that the police serve us and not the other way around.

Here are five specific actions that we should take as a package, but any one of them alone would be progress. None of these are novel ideas and all return the police to their focus on partnering with and protecting all our citizens:

  • Demilitarize the police
  • Take cops out of traffic
  • Reduce the police’s budget
  • Remove “may” from disciplinary action for failure to wear a body camera
  • Civil review of police complaints

Demilitarize the police

The Reno and Washoe County police departments do not need military-grade weaponry. We are not enemy combatants. There is no risk of occupying force; we don’t have roaming paramilitary groups terrorizing our citizens. Police are to serve and protect us – not control or lord over us, as has been normalized. If we have an event that requires the amount and type of weaponry held by our police, we have the National Guard conveniently available. 

Military-grade weapons are simply budgetary waste and “boys playing with toys.” This is not the role of our police, creates a mindset of “us versus them,” erodes public trust and wastes our city’s limited resources.

Take cops out of traffic

I currently live in the City of Reno and previously lived in unincorporated Washoe County. The city does a much better job of this than Washoe County; however, it still needs to be addressed.

Police spend excessive amounts of time and resources being traffic stewards. The criminality of traffic infractions does not require armed officers. 

Too much subjective discretion is given to police who have shown that they abuse the discretion. Traffic stops are disproportionately against non-whites. Traffic stops give police a racial bias outlet as has been shown over and over across our nation. Further, police are most likely to commit an illegal search and seizure during a traffic stop.   

Most notable, however, is that traffic infractions do not require human interaction; traffic infractions can be handled completely through automation. Automation would reduce cost, be less discriminatory, reduce the negative interactions with police and potentially be more effective. Speed and red-light cameras are decades old technology that have shown effectiveness. Any argument that cops need to be in traffic simply supports the position that it is a front for questionable policing activity.

Reduce police budgets

Nevada faces an overwhelming budget shortfall from COVID-19. Many necessary services will need to be cut or reduced. Reducing the police’s budget will force the department to focus its reduced resources on activities that are most important and effective. 

We need more non-police solutions to our problems. Reno has budgeted $74 million towards policing. Even a 10 percent reduction would meaningfully fund programs targeted at addressing mental health issues that often result in the need for policing.

Remove “may” from body camera requirements

All officers must be assigned a body worn camera (BWC), and all officers must be held accountable for its use. The current Reno PD general order regarding BWCs states, “Officers that fail to or forget to adhere to the requirements of the applicable laws, policies, or training requirements, may be subjected to discipline.” (Italics added for emphasis) 

There is no reason why this rule should not be absolute. I’ve never seen a time when it was ok for me not to adhere to laws, policies, or training because I forgot. It’s actually laughable that it is the department’s policy.

Just as there is no discretion in wearing a seat belt, police should not be in a discretionary position to decide when it is ok not to have their camera on. Camera off equals punishment.

Civil review of police complaints

Police are public servants; they are not a private enterprise. They do not get to decide when they are acting badly and failing the public. Data shows that police are rarely charged with crimes after police killings. Their self-policing is not effective.

An external civilian review board consists of citizens from outside the department and can be appointed by city council. It would have the duty of reviewing complaints and making disciplinary recommendations. This solution has been shown to sustain police brutality complaints at a higher percentage than the police do themselves. 

None of these listed ideas are novel or complicated. They are simple solutions that move us forward to better policing. It only takes a few minutes of reading and thinking to come up with a similar or better list. I don’t know what our governing body is focused on, but it doesn’t appear to be focused on leading us forward.

Danny Hart is a business owner in the Reno, Sparks and Carson City communities.

It’s time to recognize the real threat to America as it bares its teeth in Las Vegas

During a week of chaos and confusion, a time when important and mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in Las Vegas were marred by violence and the shooting of a Metro officer, we were given a glimpse of the clear and present danger our nation faces as it struggles to confront its greatest weakness: systemic racism.

Three suspected domestic terrorists affiliated with the far-right “boogaloo” movement, whose adherents advocate for civil war, were arrested Saturday on the way to a racial justice protest downtown after making Molotov cocktails.

Called “agitators and instigators” by Nevada U.S. Attorney Nicholas Trutanich, the defendants should be treated as domestic terrorists and understood as the harbingers of a greater trouble ahead for civil society. Like Confederate ghosts come to life, these are the banner carriers of the fascist state masquerading as “patriots.”

Defendants Stephen Parshall, 35, Andrew Lynam Jr., 23, and William Loomis, 40, face federal charges of conspiracy to damage and destroy by fire and explosive, and possession of unregistered firearms. In state court they are charged with felony conspiracy, terrorism, and explosives possession.

Its name makes the boogaloo movement sound more docile than dangerous. Some consider it a slang version of “big luau,” while others link its origins to a 1984 dance movie “Breakin’ II: Electric Boogaloo.” Although some of its followers call its politics “libertarian” and say its focus is on freedom and not overthrow, on their social media pages many adherents espouse the same racial hatred and armed, right-wing extremism displayed by more traditional white supremacist groups. This band has a new name, but it’s playing the same old tunes.

Those who study extremism are very familiar with the methods and motivations as a loosely organized racist militia. Their common references to “government tyranny” notwithstanding, their conversations almost always return to race. I started hearing about the approaching “boogaloo” a couple years ago while researching Patriot armed militias and other right-wing groups of the kind that have made appearances recently at protests themed around reopening the economy during coronavirus pandemic.

It’s something that was clearly on Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mind as he addressed the press Friday on the issue of racial injustice. He was joined by Attorney General Aaron Ford, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, and Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno.

Referring to the militia types who Sisolak said carried AR-15s and AK-47s and provided an air of menace to political protests in front of the Governor’s Mansion, the governor reflected, “Those militia members, whatever you want to call them, carrying AR-15s and AK-47s, if these young black men that were out here protesting would have been doing that these past few days, what do you think would have happened? They can’t carry a backpack. But it’s all right for 200 people to stand in front of my house carrying AR-15s and AK-47s. That’s not right. … Last time I had a protest, I had a 14-year-old in front of my house, 12, 14-years-old, carrying a long gun. What do you think would have happened if any of these young people would have been carrying long guns out at any of the protests we’ve had in Las Vegas? I shudder at the thought of what could have happened to any of those individuals. There’s a double standard, and the double standard is going to stop in the state of Nevada.”

We’ll see.

The nationwide protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers merely provided an opportunity for some of the boogaloos to carry out an insidious plan intended to foment fear and stoke further racial tensions in a country already so divided. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which for decades has tracked and charted hate groups in the United States, calls the heavily armed boogaloo bois appearance at recent protests a “conspicuous presence.”

Although arrests of white supremacist agitators have been made in several cities during the racial justice protests, some will point to the boogaloos’ apparently insignificant numbers as a sign their menace is overblown. They’re known for wearing Hawaiian shirts over their body armor and concealed hardware. They don’t even have the nifty sports shirts of the Proud Boys, or the pointy hats of their not-so-distant cousins in the Ku Klux Klan.

The organizational style isn’t incidental, I believe, but part of a generation-old practice of cell-based extremism sometimes called a “leaderless” movement. From the sovereign citizens to the “neo-Confederates” and other so-called “white pride” organizations, the bottom line is the same.

The amplification of the internet may make the “boogaloo bois” appear larger than their actual numbers, and the recent arrests in Las Vegas increased their notoriety, but it’s also important to remember that armed fascism disguised as patriotism goes by many names.

When we see it, we should call it out and take its menace seriously.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

How much longer must Nevada put up with this?

Secession has a bad reputation. 

Sadly, that reputation was earned. Over a hundred thousand American soldiers were killed, as well as nearly as many Confederates (who, to be clear, were every bit as not American as any Nazi or Communist killed by American troops in combat) the last time anyone took the idea of secession seriously. The Confederate cause, described plainly by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens in his Cornerstone Speech, was founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” According to Stephens, the Confederate States of America was to be the first nation “in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Oh sure, the Civil War was over states’ rights, all right — but states’ rights to do what, exactly? Ah, yes, well. 

Once you decide some are worthy of freedom and justice while others are not, it doesn’t take much to shrink the list of the worthy when convenient. Given that, it’s unsurprising that a nation explicitly founded upon unapologetically enslaving others had paper-thin loyalties to the principles of self-government which supposedly drove it to war in the first place. While the Confederacy ostensibly fought for the right of wealthy plantation owners to secede and choose their own form of government, it explicitly fought against several Southern Unionist attempts to do the same. West Virginia’s existence is a byproduct of one of those attempts; less successful attempts included the State of Scott in East Tennessee, the Republic of Winston in northern Alabama, and the Texas Hill Country. Each of these attempts paid in blood to sap vital strength from an evil regime. 

Is it time for Nevada to follow the example of the Southern Unionists? Is our federal government irredeemably evil?

In a word, no. It may, however, be well past time to start thinking seriously about our options. Over the past few weeks, President Trump has threatened to drop nuclear bombs on our desert, threatened (but only threatened) to pull funding from Nevada because he thinks voting by mail invites mail fraud (despite voting by mail in Florida’s primary), and threatened to send the military into our cities (Gov. Sisolak understandably didn’t take that well). Outside of the White House, Nevada’s small businesses received fewer loans from the Paycheck Protection Program than any other similarly-sized state because the program initially excluded businesses with significant gaming revenues. 

Oh, and lest we forget, both the Air Force and the Navy have been quietly trying to blow up more of our desert as well. 

Nevada has always had a complicated relationship with our federal government. Without the federal government, the Native Americans never would have been forcibly cleared from Nevada’s land, the Newlands Project never would have redirected water from Pyramid Lake and the Carson Sink to farms in Fernley and Fallon, and Hoover Dam never would have brought cheap, plentiful energy and water to Clark County. Nevada’s military bases, hastily constructed during the second World War, kept Nevada’s economy afloat at a time when both gaming and mining were too small-scale to put anyone to work. Federally funded highways, interstate and otherwise, brought tourists to Reno, Las Vegas (observed), West Wendover, and several points in between.

Federally funded infrastructure made modern Nevada possible. Without it, our place in the world would be much smaller and far more modest. Each benefice bestowed upon our great state by our ever-so-generous federal overlords, however, has come with a human cost. 

Nevada’s ever-expanding bombing ranges have proven to be terrible neighbors. The homes of Dixie Valley, which used to be a ranching community, are now bombing targets for naval pilots. The Sheahan family’s Groom Mine, near Area 51 but ultimately outside of the Nevada Test and Training Range, was forcibly seized by the Air Force. Fallon had a leukemia cluster which was almost certainly related to a ruptured fuel line that fed the Fallon Naval Station, though good luck getting anyone to take responsibility for it.

Things used to be worse, however.

Large portions of the Nevada National Security Site, formerly the Nevada Test Site, are at least as irradiated as Chernobyl. Yucca Flat, where the Sedan and Baneberry underground nuclear tests irradiated and killed above-ground Americans, and where Operation Upshot-Knothole’s above-ground nuclear tests led to cancers that ultimately killed half of the cast and crew of The Conqueror, including John Wayne, is arguably the most irradiated spot on the planet. A satellite view of the valley reveals a desolate pockmarked landscape scarred by nearly a thousand nuclear detonations. 

As for Nevada’s various water redistribution schemes, the Newlands Project led to the near-extinction of the Lahontan cutthroat trout, a primary food source for the Pyramid Lake Tribe. If someone hadn’t transplanted a few trout into a stream on the other side of the state for whatever reason, the species would have been permanently wiped out. As for Hoover Dam, it was one of several water diversion projects that ultimately stopped the Colorado River from reliably draining into the Pacific.

Those costs shouldn’t be ignored, but we also shouldn’t forget that those costs were meant to deliver clear benefits to Nevadans (well, at least some of us). Perhaps the costs weren’t and still aren’t worth it, especially when and where nuclear weapons were concerned, but there was at least an attempt to justify federal action based on supposed benefits to Nevada’s people. Sending the military into the Strip and yanking federal funds because someone in the White House thinks balloting by mail might produce some measure of voter fraud — in a primary election in which no Republicans of consequence would be selected no matter how a ballot was cast this year — benefits absolutely nobody in this state. 

No, not even the people who run the Basque Fry. 

Don’t get me wrong, a few months of naked federal misbehavior and malice don’t come close to justifying Brexit-style negotiations between Carson City and Washington, D.C. Nevada’s economy is based on the free flow of goods and people between us and our neighboring states. Our borders, with the exception of our southernmost border traced upon the Colorado River, are artificial and strategically indefensible. Our history, which began with our state Constitution transmitted via telegraph in the middle of the Civil War, is inextricably bound in union with the United States. 

True as all of that might be, however, we should probably ask ourselves who in the federal government is responsible for its recent misbehavior and malice — and then do everything possible to kick the bums out.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david.colborne@lpnevada.org.

Navigating our way to justice

Lady Justice perched atop the Nevada Supreme Court building

Of all the skills I learned in the Navy, one of my favorites was celestial navigation. Steering by the stars and knowing how to read the sky is indisputably romantic. Modern conveniences like GPS are handy and more accurate, but Chinese missiles can’t shoot down Arcturus the way they could easily disable a constellation of satellites. 

One of the interesting things about celestial navigation is that it relies on an artificial – and totally false – construct in order to work. Navigators must imagine a “celestial sphere,” which surrounds the Earth like a Russian nesting doll, and each star is just a dot with a known position at a known moment in time on that sphere. One can then take a bearing to three stars or planets, and triangulate your position on the globe.

Obviously, this ignores the fact that the stars' positions are not actually fixed, relative to us or to each other, and they fly around the galaxy at any number of distances from us. There is no “celestial sphere.” But what would be an absurdity to teach in an astronomy class has opened the horizons of human enterprise and intercourse for centuries. And if sailors had known the truth about the heavens, and insisted that this artificial model of the universe not be used as a result of it being inaccurate, our global society would be infinitely poorer for it. Fortunately, the “truth” they cared about and focused on was the goal – getting safely to their destinations.

We use these types of constructs in sciences hard and soft all the time. Our understanding of gravity and relativity and orbital mechanics is constantly evolving, yet we still use Newtonian physics to put people into space. Whether you believe in God or not, our poor understandings of the mind and intentions of any deity will always be limited. And yet, throughout human history we have relied on religious strictures to organize our societies and our understandings of ourselves, both for ill and for good. 

Of that later type, perhaps the most consequential and transformative in all of human history are the Enlightenment concepts which became the foundation of the American experiment. The recitation of those constructs in the Declaration of Independence is still impossible to improve upon:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ~ That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ~ That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Fools who learn their history from whatever grievance studies class their ridiculously wealthy nation allows them to waste their parents’ money and time on will sneer at this. They will rightly point out that Thomas Jefferson and many of his co-signers were slave-owning hypocrites, but they will wrongly think that the failure of a person making an assertion of principle to live up to his own standards somehow invalidates the principles underlying those stated standards.

The truth is that the idea that “all men are created equal” is not, strictly speaking, true. We all have different gifts, different genetic and socio-economic-historical lucks of the draw. But the construct of “all men are created equal” nevertheless is the foundation of our entire system of justice and due process, not just in criminal matters, but in every aspect of our society and government. Every bit of social progress in this country – the Constitution itself, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the women’s suffrage movement, the effective civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the end of Jim Crow laws, gay rights movements – were/are in some way attempts to get closer to this noble founding ideal. Indeed, all of those movements owe their existence and their successes to that construct Jefferson elucidated so well, and also to the fact that the Declaration’s principles are, in fact, central to America’s sense of itself.

All of human history is filled with dark spots, and the United States is no exception. But we are exceptional in that our founding principles have made us powerful, prosperous, and yes, even just beyond any other society that has ever lived. The closer we get to our ideals of equality, the more prosperous we become. (Slavery and racism are not only evil, history tells us they are terribly inefficient as economic models in the long term.) 

***

We see new social constructs pop up all the time in efforts to improve society. The most notable beyond our own is the communist/socialist model, where no one thought to consider that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” required an authoritarian “decider” picking and choosing who had “ability” and who had “need.” (Well, no one but the people who saw themselves as the dictators.) This construct murdered and starved 100 million people, and enslaved and impoverished hundreds of millions more. 

It is worth pointing out here that while the use of violence is often necessary in achieving peace or justice, not all violence is created equal. In the American revolution, the patriots declared themselves openly, wore uniforms, and generally conducted themselves as soldiers and statesmen of a civilized nation. In most revolutions, the revolutionaries are far messier, and less discriminating in their violence. In those cases – the French Revolution, the communist revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, Cambodia, and elsewhere – the tyranny and injustice brought about by the insurgents was far worse than the original regimes they were attempting to replace. Shooting cops or innocent bystanders, trashing small businesses and the public property their taxes pay for, beating up journalists with the temerity to film your riotous face, or committing arson is definitely more Mao than Washington, which is why no quarter should be given to rioters and looters no matter how righteous we may view their stated goals.

Not all social constructs are created equal. And more than a few are dangerous. 

When all men and women are considered to be equally valuable children of God, justice follows. All people similarly situated ought to be treated the same by their government and by their neighbors, and allowed to pursue whatever lifestyle and vocation they wish, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Most importantly, it means we must look at each person as an individual, a unique entity with his or her own thoughts, ideas, opinions, dreams, and ambitions. In a just world, we identify people as themselves, not as merely a unit of whatever demographic we decide is important in the moment. 

This is why I disdain our most recent social construct – this idea that our society is marbled through with “systemic racism” or other inherent injustice, even if (as is the case) the vast, vast majority of individual members of society openly abhor racism and other forms of bigotry. 

In order to make use of this idea, we are forced to see each other as colors instead of people. All white people must understand we are all equally guilty (sins of the father, and all that), and must take steps to understand how we continue to victimize all black people. We are told that all white people must identify black people as victims, and treat them as such, even to the extent that we excuse what would otherwise be inexcusable acts. But we are never told how any of this will actually improve anyone’s lives – it’s nothing more than goalpost-moving thought policing, useful only to opportunistic politician who wants to silence adversaries instead of debate them.

Such paternalism disgusts me, as does the idea that your life and experiences and opinions must all be seen as primarily functions of your melanin levels. The idea that the correctness or propriety of one’s opinions depends on the color of one’s skin diminishes us all in ways that are almost impossible to comprehend. There is no such thing as a benign way to divvy us up based on race. For the few remaining true racists out there, their shriveled little hearts must sing to see widespread re-acknowledgement of what they have “known” all along. 

If you look hard enough to find racism in all things, confirmation bias will make you see it whether it actually exists or not. Ironically, this only serves to fan the flames of racial discord by making a real problem seem much bigger than it actually is.

More than philosophically repellent, this construct is counter-productive in practice. It is certainly true that the lives of black Americans have been influenced – often to their detriment – by the still-audible echoes of history. But each generation must be responsible for its own future. To tell a young black man that the system is rigged impossibly against him because of his skin is to insist that he become a failure – it’s not his fault, after all, and he therefore has no skin in his own game. It divorces him from his society, and dehumanizes him. Why wouldn’t you riot, in the clutches of such hopelessness? In my profession, I often have the privilege of representing young people of color in court, trying to free them from the system, or at least use it to get their lives back on track. It would be a great evil for me to convince my young clients of their own doom, rather than help them see a better and eminently possible better future for themselves.

If we cannot escape our own history, what’s the point of even trying? How many generations do we self-flagellate to atone for the sins of our ancestors? And what, ultimately, is the purpose of all of this self-flagellation, protesting, and rampaging?

***

I have dedicated my entire adult professional life to actively fighting for justice and civil liberties. It’s why I joined my nation’s military, and it’s why I chose my profession, and why I practice the type of law that I do. And so I am intensely interested – what are the end goals of this racial justice movement? 

I have always believed our goal in fighting racism and bigotry is a melting-pot society where we are generally indifferent to race or other, unimportant differences amongst us. Is that the goal of Black Lives Matter? Is it the goal of any given politician? Is it the goal of the criminals who tried burning down my City Hall? The more emphasis placed on race by any given person or group, the less certain I am that we share the same vision of victory.

Without an endgame we can agree on as a society, we are navigators who don’t know which port we’re trying to sail to. We’re adrift, and therefore agitated and hopeless. Protesters and those who support them have an obligation to announce their goals. In doing so, they may be surprised how many more allies they have – (or how many less, depending on what they have to say).

Agitated and hopeless people can be valuable to certain politicians – such people are the supporters of populists, left, right, and center, and elected officials willing to exploit this have no incentive to calm people down or bring them together. Be suspicious of the politicians who wade into this moment of time trying to ride it like a surfer catching a wave. After all, the hottest hot-spots of protest and perceived racial disparity in policing are in places where only one political party has been in unchecked power for decades. Be especially suspicious where they refuse to identify specific policies or solutions.

What is frustrating to me is that we already are making so much progress towards a race-indifferent, more just society. The police officers in Minneapolis who murdered George Floyd were immediately fired and quickly arrested and charged – police unions (who should be outlawed) would have protected them a decade or two ago. Criminal justice reform is happening in substantive, meaningful ways, both here in Nevada (spearheaded by Democrats) and on a federal level (by Republicans). In November, voters will have a choice between a presidential candidate who pushed “tough on crime” legislation which contributed to massive incarceration of black Americans, and another who signed reforms into law that will go far in saving the next generation from the excesses of law and order. Only Nixon can go to China

Even our bad actors are more enlightened. In my career, I have seen far too much police misbehavior and even brutality. Last week, I listed several examples. Spending as much time as I do in the many smaller jurisdictions in which I practice, the bad apples self-identify pretty quickly. But in my experience, their misconduct (which ranges from lazy, inadequate investigations to perjury to penchants for excessive violence) has nothing to do with race – bad cops are equal-opportunity jerks. The fact that a black man was abused by a white cop is not proof the cop was motivated by race – bullies generally aren’t so discerning in any event. And nationally, actual data (as distinguished from anecdotes) does not seem to support the idea of widespread or systemic racial disparity from police – if “believing in science” means anything, it must mean we are willing to rethink our narratives when the facts and numbers don’t bear them out.

If the goal is a total end to all injustice and unfairness, though, we will never reach it. As Gary Larson once reminded us, God sprinkled the Earth with jerks, “just to make it interesting.” It’s OK to have an unattainable goal if in the process of striving for it we improve our lives and our society. But it’s not OK to make impossible perfection the enemy of the good, which I fear is the trap the current social justice movement is falling into. If we are going to have honest conversations about hard topics, we should at least honestly include all of the good with the bad.

***

As we start this new round of introspection on how we as individuals and as a society treat our fellows, we must begin with the end in mind. If we do so, the conversations will be fruitful. Otherwise, those discussions will only polarize us further, as we argue past each other. 

Whatever rhetorical or theoretical construct we use to enlighten and understand each other will be imperfect. But if we recognize it and use it as a tool to achieve our goals of cultural peace and harmony, then those imperfections don’t matter. We will have – together – steered a course closer to justice, keeping clear of rocks and shoals and other dangers, like politicians who will in the name of “social justice” seek to further divide us into entrenched camps, where tribalist votes are easier to whip up, and people of color can continue to be taken for granted by one party and ignored outright by the other. 

It doesn’t matter whether our lodestars are artificial points on a nonexistent sphere, or giant balls of gas. If we keep our eyes on the heavens and our hands firmly on the helm, we will come out of this all better than ever as individuals, and as Americans.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.