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How A Peaceful Protest In Reno Turned Into Chaos

People disperse after law enforcement fire tear gas onto a bridge.
Paul Boger
Law enforcement used tear gas multiple times in an effort to disperse the crowd of protesters in downtown Reno after city and county officials issued a mandatory curfew on May 30, 2020.

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve has declared a state of emergency after a march against police brutality turned violent Saturday. KUNR’s Paul Boger was in the midst of it all and he has this report.

As a warning, some of the content in this story may be considered disturbing and unsuitable for some listeners.

It started as a peaceful march. More than 1,000 people took to the streets of Reno, Saturday afternoon, as part of the national Black Lives Matter movement. That movement has seen a resurgence in recent days after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis who died in police custody while an officer knelt on his neck for several minutes while Floyd said he couldn’t breathe.

But as light waned in the Biggest Little City, so did the peace.

Law enforcement officers guard Reno City Hall, which has many shattered windows from civil unrest.
Credit Paul Boger
Protesters shattered many windows at Reno City Hall as they broke into the building and started fires on May 30, 2020.

As the original march began to wind down, a small group or protesters began vandalizing public buildings, spray painting the Reno Police Headquarters with slogans like “F*** the Police” and “No Justice, No Peace.” At city hall, some began throwing rocks, aiming at both the building and the police officers surrounding it.

That’s when law enforcement began using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

The violence seen in downtown Reno isn’t unique. Around the country, dozens of protests against police brutality have devolved into violence in the last few days. In Reno, officials believe the rioters may have caused thousands of dollars’ worth of property damage. At least one electrical cart was burned to the ground while dozens of windows were shattered. There were even some reports of looting.

A vehicle is on fire on a dark night in downtown Reno.
Credit Paul Boger
An electrical cart was set on fire by protesters who stayed in downtown Reno on Saturday night despite a mandatory curfew across Washoe County on May 30, 2020.

Robert Edwards was among those who joined the original demonstration earlier in the day, but when things began to escalate he moved to a safer vantage point. He says things got out of hand, but it was sending a message.

“We’re getting fed up with it. I mean, every time we turn around you see innocent people getting killed for no reason at all,” Edwards said. “This is the only way that they’re going to listen. That’s kind of sad that you have to bring violence or destruction into something to make people listen to you.”

Jasmine Reyes was also part of the original protest, but stuck around after the scene turned ugly to offer milk to demonstrators to help neutralize the effects of the tear gas.

“Me being a Latinx lady, I stand with my fellow black members, people of color, because I know how profiling works,” Reyes said. “I know the racism. I feel it. I just want to stand here and make a voice and help my fellow people of color.”

Matthew McGrudder of Reno made his way downtown just to see the spectacle of it all. 

“I don’t know. I think it’s history in the making. Who knows what’s going to happen, but I think I would like to see how this plays out,” McGrudder said.

Gradually, police made their way down Virginia Street in waves. Every so often, law enforcement would shoot another volley of tear gas into the crowd to disperse the roughly 150 people who lingered on the streets after 10 pm, roughly three-and-a-half hours after the city and county imposed a mandatory curfew.

An ATM machine that has the door ajar because people broke it open.
Credit Paul Boger
A group of people broke into an ATM in downtown Reno during the civil unrest on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

At the request of city leaders, Governor Steve Sisolak even activated the Nevada National Guard to help keep the peace. However, chatter on police scanners indicated that law enforcement were continuing to deal with the aftermath of the clashes well into the wee hours of the morning.

For Jasmine Reyes, the night was ultimately about being heard, but she said the use of violence was unfortunate.

“I, myself, was trying to keep people from throwing stuff so we could keep it peaceful, but, obviously, a lot of people won’t listen only because we’re obviously getting the attention we need, but not in the way that I wanted,” she said.

Reno’s not the only city to experience violence. Demonstrations that devolved into riots have taken place in almost every major city in the country in the days since George Floyds’ death. Violence erupted during demonstrations in Las Vegas on both Friday and Saturday.

Organizers of the original event in Reno and other, similar organizations were clear in their disappointment. In a statement released late in the evening, officials with the Reno-Sparks chapter of the NAACP said the violence was an attempt to “create mayhem and corrupt the good work of thousands who have suffered and died to move our country to a better future.”

At this time, officials have not released details on how many people were arrested during Saturday night’s protests. There's also no clear information about the extent of the damage to public and private buildings. KUNR will publish that information as it becomes available. 

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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