From the Rodney King riots to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, I and my camera have been in the middle of protests for decades.
I had to tamp down my fear during the Rodney King protests, mostly because they were full-blown riots. Smoke and fire and projectiles flying through the air. Young faces full of rage and there was no ready escape. I felt trapped, but I also felt compelled to do my job. Who else was going to write history’s first rough draft?
That story was an eye-opener for me. The riots began in Los Angeles after four officers were acquitted after beating a black man with batons. When the anger spread to Las Vegas a few hours later, it soon became clear the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had one objective: Keep protesters, rioters and looters off of the Strip.
And that’s what they did. They barricaded everybody inside West Las Vegas, where Martin Luther King Boulevard meets the spaghetti bowl.
I adopted tunnel vision and focused on taking photo after photo after photo. I had about $2,000 worth of gear around my neck and on my back that made me feel vulnerable to predators. I had no water. I had no phone. I had no idea how I was going to get through that day. My escape plan was to drop my equipment in the street and sprint until they caught me. I could still run like a gazelle in 1992.
One person was killed. Snipers took potshots at protesters and about $6 million in damage was done.
I didn’t get a mark on me. Nobody harassed me. Nobody tried to harm me. There were few white faces in the crowd. In fact, if I could rely on my memory, I bet I could tick them off on the fingers of one hand.
Fast-forward to the Occupy movement that began in 2011. It came to Las Vegas in October of that year. This was simply a march to protest the wealth gap. The protesters represented every race under the sun, and that diversity served as a stark reminder of just how many people were harmed by Wall Street’s insatiable greed.
I was never in any trouble. My only difficulty came when a 22-year-old tourist had the nerve to tell a man in his 60s he didn’t need to protest, he just needed to get a job. I had to keep my mouth shut because you should never become part of the story.
“I have shoes older than you, punk,” the older man replied. I silently cheered.
On June 5, when the Black Lives Matter protests came to Moab, I told staff to come to the downtown office if things got out of hand and they didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t think anything would happen, but what good is experience if you don’t use it to avoid problems?
I was expecting to see maybe a few dozen folks show up, do some chants, march up and down the street, go home.They proved me wrong. I arrived at Main and Center at about 5:30 p.m. and there were already a bunch of folks present.
Roads had been barricaded and law enforcement was clearly present and clearly not interested in doing anything but supporting the First Amendment with an eye on keeping the peace if need be.
There was never any hint the protest would devolve into anarchy, but there was an undercurrent of anger, frustration, a sense of, “this is the final straw.”
The signs were clever. The chants were powerful. Most of the hundreds of faces were white, but not all. Most of the people were younger than 40. But there were some geezers like me in the crowd, and unlike me, they were holding signs, they were marching, they were engaged.
At one point, a “moment of silence” lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time a Minneapolis Police officer spent with his knee smashed into George Floyd’s neck on May 25. When the final second ticked off, an angry wind picked up and lashed protesters with biting sand. The rain came and the lightning struck and nobody cared. They stayed to finish what they started.
I’ve been talking to a lot of folks about what’s happened to America since Floyd’s murder.
Those old enough to have lived through prior periods of social unrest agree that this time, something feels different.
This time, it seems the people in power are going to do something, which is always better than doing nothing.
George Floyd’s murder is clearly egregious. He died too young and he died crying for his mom. But if his death brings real change to a real problem, it would not have been in vain.