Lela Gnuse is a local activist who is immunocompromised and, despite the pandemic, is leading the effort to organize events in Reno honoring black lives and protesting police brutality. KUNR’s Stephanie Serrano spoke to her about her experiences as a black woman and what to expect from a peace vigil organized for Sunday.
Serrano: Lela, when did your activism start?
Gnuse: If I'm being honest, since I was a kid. I've always been a very, very loud, active voice in my community, ever since I was 10 years old. I decided to liberate my voice when I was in high school due to the lack of diversity in there. I noticed quite a few different injustices. And that's why I really started to find my voice, seeing how our education system worked and how it didn't actually honor people of color and our history and education in that aspect. Also, we had to transfer schools due to racial slurs and comments that were being made about my mother and her having three black children.
My mother's white and my father's black. I hadn't even noticed that my mom didn't look like me until somebody else started calling it out. So, my parents came from two sides of the tracks and to see what my mom went through, and especially back in the early 90s and 2000s, you know, we would have people come up to us and would ask, 'are we adopted? or 'is she's the nanny?'. My mother, she really is still the voice in us to stand on our own and to be independent and not to be afraid to show who we are. My father, too. My grandmother always said we have to be “twice as better”, we have to be “twice as much” to be heard and to be seen.
Serrano: Your father served in the military for 21 years. What kind of injustices has he experienced in his lifetime?
Gnuse: My father's been arrested multiple times, with us in the car, where they detained him because of how big he is. My father was not doing anything illegal. Every time that [we] moved into a new house, most of them were [in] white neighborhoods [because] my father really wanted a nice house and better schools, we had the cops called on us. It took twice as long for us to warm up to our neighbors.
Seeing that and seeing how sometimes you had to be quiet out of fear of something happening to us or us seeing something happen to him, because of those police officers, I thought how that hurt him. You know, he's a big guy and for him, having to make himself seem smaller and quieter. You know, seeing that, it really changed how I decided to utilize my voice, because sometimes I feel like it gets taken away from him because he is a big black man.
Serrano: Lela, you organized a Black Lives Matter protest this past weekend in Reno to raise awareness against police brutality and systemic racism in the nation. Why take the lead?
Gnuse: This is all just bringing renewed attention to the persistent inequalities in wealth, health and opportunity between blacks and whites despite the economic prosperity of recent years. I see the national averages of what goes on here in Reno, face-to-face every day. When I started looking at the numbers and realizing that I have a voice that I've kind of been allowed to be hushed, that's what made me speak out. I also am immunocompromised, and I still was like, this is something that we have to actually use their voices for. For people like myself that didn't hear voices when I was young. You aren't heard and you're not seen. That's one thing that sticks with me most.
If you aren't hearing me, you aren't seeing me. My voice is the quickest to be shushed. For me, Black Lives Matter doesn't end today or yesterday. It's an everyday thing. I sit here every day and I worry about my father. I worry about my future children. I worry about my brother and my brother-in-law. It's a constant worry every day and it's actually tiresome.
Serrano: You mentioned being immunocompromised, but not letting that stop you from being out in public. Are you thinking of the health of those who are attending protests?
I am thinking about the health perspective, but for myself personally, I made sure that I had all the precautions that I needed. But the way that I see it, there's two pandemics going on. This has been a pandemic that has been here since day one of our country building itself. I saw how fast our country and our cities and our communities moved in the sweep of COVID-19, and that really brought attention to me. Why haven't we moved like that, not just for our people of color and black lives, but also for our homeless or other aspects of injustice in our community?
Serrano: Can you remind the community what the Black Lives Matter message is?
Gnuse: It is a movement. You know, this is not a tactic of struggle, it really is an outcome. Peace is an outcome. I think that's the message, peace is an outcome not a tactic. Some of us become desensitized to what has happened and that makes it hard for them to utilize their voices. I think that we need to honestly think about that and kind of start to say we still need to be heard and remember this movement. Remember that this injustice happens every single day.
It can't be another 2014, another 2016. This can't be in every four, you know, two to four years wave. What has happened? We really do need to completely restructure what's going on in our system.
Serrano: Piggybacking off of that. You are now organizing a peaceful vigil this Sunday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the City Plaza by the Reno “Believe” sign. What can people expect?
Gnuse: We're really trying to bring a really great energy to this event. We're going to have some really great local artists and people sharing their poetry and their music, to open up with. We're going to also open up the voices of the community and allow people to come up and speak on police brutality. They can speak on something that they face that was racial injustice or they can even just go out there and express how they're feeling during this time or what it's like to be them living in Reno or in America, whether they be people of color or if they're black. We're going to hear people; we're going to see people. We want to be heard and this is a cry to our community and our city.