County considering ban on large bags at protests

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Steve Marcus/AP

Protesters rally on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.

Wed, Jun 3, 2020 (3:27 p.m.)

Clark County commissioners today considered an ordinance to ban backpacks, luggage and other large bags at protests, following demonstrations that turned violent Monday night.

Protests started Friday in Las Vegas in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a police officer in Minneapolis pressed is knee on Floyd’s neck during an arrest.

While the vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, some “outside agitators” have carried bricks, rocks and frozen water bottles in their bags to throw at officers, Metro Police lobbyist Chuck Callaway said.

On Monday, peaceful protests ended violently when a Metro officer was shot and critically injured on the north end of the Strip, and Metro and federal officers in downtown Las Vegas fatally shot a man who pulled a gun, police said.

“I’ve been a police officer with Metro for 31 years and I worked on the street in patrol my whole career before I took this job,” Callaway said. “I worked during the Rodney King riots in the early ‘90s … and what I can tell you is what we’re seeing in Las Vegas, I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s disturbing, quite frankly.”

County staff had started working on the language of the ordinance in late February, but things were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said.

Commissioners have jurisdiction over the unincorporated Clark County, including the Strip and UNLV.

“The language that is submitted today is the language we have in all of the other ordinances when it comes to big events,” Kirkpatrick said.

The ordinance prohibits strollers and carts, purses larger than 12 by 6 inches, coolers, backpacks, fanny packs, computer bags and photo bags.

The ordinance can be modified to exempt members of the media and those with medical issues, Callaway said.

Callaway said police would also support allowing clear backpacks. The city passed a similar ordinance today.

Several residents argued that the ordinance was too restrictive and would chill free speech, disadvantaging peaceful protesters who need to carry water, first-aid equipment and other essential items in their bags so they can hold signs.

“You’re further criminalizing a population that’s just trying to express their First Amendment right,” said Shaun Navarro, co-chair of Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America.

The ordinance also poses an issue on college campuses, where students commonly wear backpacks and are often active in demonstrations.

“Social movements have a long history of being born on campuses of our nation’s higher education institutions,” said Michael Flores, chief of staff of the Nevada System of Higher Education. “We would not want this ordinance to hinder the free spread of ideas.”

Commissioner Justin Jones, an attorney, said he was uncomfortable with parts of the proposed ordinance.

“I do have some serious concerns with the premise that the same provisions that have been in place for New Year’s Eve apply equally to peaceful protests,” he said. “There’s a First Amendment right to assembly and freedom of speech. There is not for drunken revelry on the Strip.”

Jones also took issue with the language prohibiting strollers at demonstrations.

“I’ve been to many rallies where I brought my own children and pushed them along in their strollers with a diaper bag,” he said.

The discussion quickly turned into the relationship between the community and police.

“We’re also addressing a systemic issue that has plagued communities of color decade after decade,” Vice Chairman Lawrence Weekly said. “This is something that has affected the African American community, the black community, in a disproportionate amount that no one else can even remotely understand what it feels like. It’s such a heavy weight to endure this. It’s so painful.”

Weekly called for a solution that would balance public safety and free speech.

Commissioners will meet again June 16 to further discuss and possibly vote on the ordinance.

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