In recent years, controversial deaths of black people as a result of encounters with police officers and private citizens throughout the United States have touched off a national debate about police use of force, self-defense laws, the criminal justice system and our culture at large.
In Southern Nevada, the conversation is more complicated. Clark County has a comparatively large Latino population and a significant indigenous population; Latino and Native people also experience disproportionate police and private violence. The “Black Lives Matter” movement takes on a broader context here, one of “Minority Lives Matter.” Public protests and marches in Southern Nevada tend to be more broadly diverse than in other American cities, and they take place against a backdrop of a tourism industry.
Brandon Manning is an assistant professor of African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies in UNLV’s interdisciplinary degree program. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in the department of English. His research and teaching areas include African American literature and culture, Black feminist thought, queer theory, and popular culture. This fall he is teaching a Black Lives Matter course.
Addie Rolnick is an assistant professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law. She joined UNLV from UCLA School of Law, where she was the inaugural Critical Race Studies Fellow. Her research and teaching interests include criminal and juvenile justice, civil rights, critical race theory, federal Indian law, and indigenous rights.
A few facts
- UNLV received a Minority Serving Institution designation from the U.S. Department of Education in 2012; the department awards the designation to institutions that meet a specific range of benchmarks on race and ethnicity.
- About 55 percent of UNLV’s total student body reports being from a minority population. In fall 2015, UNLV’s undergraduate population reported being 35 percent white, 26 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian, 8 percent black, and 9 percent from multiple groups.
- As a result of media coverage and community concern about excessive use of force, especially against minorities, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department entered into a collaborative reform process with federal officials in 2012. The number of police shootings dropped in the years following the reform process, although individual cases continue to raise concerns.
Why this matters
What is the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement?
It has changed the public discussion when black and brown people are killed by police or by civilians claiming self-defense, Rolnick said. I don’t think the racial dynamics of police and neighborhood violence have changed, she said, but in the past, media coverage would have been minimal, and the general public might have assumed that every shooting was justified.
Largely because of the movement, these killings are now met with skepticism. Questions about the role of racial bias is forcing policymakers “to address racism in the criminal justice system and to account for the positions they have taken in the past that may have worsened racial disparities.
"Black people were already having these conversations with each other but now it has become a conversation across all communities — an uncomfortable one for some.”
Largely because of the movement, these killings are now met with skepticism and questions about the role of racial bias, forcing policymakers “to address racism in the criminal justice system and to account for the positions they have taken in the past that either improved and worsened racial disparities.”
Manning added, “We’ve already seen the effects of the Black Lives Matter movement this election year. The movement mandated that candidates at all levels, both local and national, have a vision for how they would address police brutality.”
What policy issues do the shootings that gave rise to Black Lives Matter raise?
Numerous ones, both Manning and Rolnick said, including:
- whether police have been trained properly in de-escalation tactics
- whether police and other citizens act on racial prejudice, either implicit or explicit, and how to reduce or counteract that prejudice where it exists
- whether sufficient safeguards exist to review police uses of force and deaths in custody
- the effects of a general broadening of self-defense law in recent years to make it far more difficult to convict someone who claims self-defense of a crime.
What are some of the ways states have changed their self-defense laws?
They tend to fall into one or a combination of three categories, Rolnick said:
- expansion of so-called “stand your ground” laws, under which a person can use deadly force in a conflict even if safe retreat is an option.
- an expansion of “defense of habitation” laws, which allow people to presume that anyone breaking into a home poses a deadly threat, to cover vehicles, workplaces, and personal space. For example, Nevada expanded its self-defense laws recently to allow a person to presume that anyone who tries to enter or steal an occupied vehicle presents a deadly threat.
- shifting the burden of proof from the user of force to prove force was reasonable and necessary to prosecutors to prove that it was not. For example, Nevada recently changed its law to include a rebuttable presumption in any self-defense case that the killer acted out of reasonable fear.
What have Black Lives Matter protests looked like in Las Vegas?
They’ve been spirited and included many different ethnicities, Manning said — Latino, Asian and Native students as well as black. “In December 2014, after the civil unrest in Ferguson over Mike Brown, UNLV students led a ‘die-in’ on campus. Some also joined a group of community activists in a walk from the Welcome to Las Vegas sign at the south end of The Strip to a ‘die-in’ on the bridge next to The Cosmo(politan). “One of the things you’re always rubbing up against in Las Vegas is the fact that this is a place where people come to escape,” Manning said. “The hostility (protesters encountered) from some people was based on their not wanting to be burdened by our expressions of resistance and freedom.”