by Randolph M. Fiedler NLG-Las Vegas Chapter
“There is a narrative of racial difference that contaminates the thinking of most Americans . . . . We need to own up to the way racial bias and legalized racial subordination have compromised our ability to implement criminal justice. In the wake of avoiding or minimizing our history of racial injustice, communities from Ferguson to Charleston to Baltimore now bear witness to what we have wrought.”
—Bryan Stevenson, A Presumption of Guilt: The Legacy of America’s History of Racial Injustice in Policing the Black Man, 3, 5 (Angela J. Davis, ed. 2017).
The need for this reckoning, an owning of our history, could not be more apparent. In 2020, we saw death in the streets, death in jails and prisons, and death in execution chairs. If we are to build a future founded on justice, we must confront the racism of yesteryear, the racism we have today.
The Las Vegas Chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild has answered this call by creating its own teach-in series, “Guardians or Warriors.” Inspired by teach-ins begun at the University of Michigan to oppose the Vietnam War, the Vegas-NLG has brought panels together to explore an observation of Bryan Stevenson: “We have created a culture where police officers think of themselves as warriors, not guardians.” These teach-ins ask: what is the proper role of policing?
In our first session, “A Brief History of Police Militarization,” we brought together a panel of Las Vegas experts to discuss how police departments have become increasingly militarized in the last couple of decades. We learned the first examples of “police” agencies were slave patrols; the first policing group formed in Nevada was made to break up strikes. We also heard about how the “need” to heavily arm police departments correlated with increasing Black populations in cities. But we also learned about how militarization is not just about weapons or arms, it’s also about a mentality of policing and of officers.
In our second session, “Policing and the Power of the Legislature,” we learned about the many obstacles between legislatures and reform. We learned about how powerful police union endorsements are, and how difficult it is for reform-oriented politicians to get elected. In contrast, reform organizations often lack funds to support candidates. We discussed the “Police Officers Bill of Rights” and how that creates serious barriers to officer accountability.
We expect to have at least two more sessions this year. The next session discusses “Copaganda,” or how media portrayals of law enforcement officers and the criminal justice system paint contribute to how we think about police officers and crime. In the fall, we will be organizing a book club, to read and discuss Elizabeth Hinton’s upcoming book, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s. All of our events are available on our Facebook page: facebook.com/VegasNLG.
To quote another leader in civil rights: “[W]e have the opportunity to confront twentieth-century racial violence and begin a long-overdue process of truth-telling and reconciliation.” Sherrilyn A. Ifill, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century 176 (10th Ann. Ed. 2018). We have a lot of work to do before that process is complete, or even started in earnest.
But, our teach-ins (we hope) will remind everyone of how badly we need to confront these truths.