RGJ Investigates: Most arrested after BLM protest live near downtown, not involved in violence

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Deshawn Manson was arrested on a charge of violating curfew after standing outside his apartment to record the police presence around the station. Reno Gazette Journal

As Deshawn Manson walked home from a central Reno basketball park Sunday afternoon, he encountered police at nearly every intersection.

The day before, a peaceful demonstration protesting the murder of George Floyd had turned destructive. Factions of demonstrators had defaced police headquarters and smashed windows at city hall. To disperse the crowd, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bangs at them.

On Sunday, anxious to keep the peace, Reno police and the Nevada National Guard filled the streets around downtown and planted a bulwark of officers outside police headquarters on High Street.

As it happens, Manson’s apartment is directly across the street from police headquarters.

As he walked the four blocks from the park to home that afternoon, he engaged in some “heated discussions” with the police officers on the street about how they treat people, he said.

When he arrived at his apartment, he pulled out his phone and went live on Facebook from the middle of the street.

“They got the Army out here, dog,” he says as the camera pans over police on the otherwise empty street. “Because they’re scared of black people out here. This is crazy. This is what they do because we stand up for ourselves.”

It took 30 seconds for officers to descend on the 22-year-old black man and take him into custody for violating a curfew that had been announced less than an hour earlier.

“Don’t come near me! Don’t touch me! I live right here,” Manson tells the converging officers.

They quickly put him into handcuffs. One officer says Manson is being arrested for violating curfew. Another officer clarifies the reason for the arrest: “This is about what you were doing yesterday.”

On Saturday, Manson had joined the throngs of peaceful protesters who marched through Reno’s streets demanding justice for George Floyd, a Minneapolis black man who died after a white officer planted his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes.

As the demonstration came to an end, Manson followed part of the crowd to the Reno police station. But as some in the crowd pulled out spray paint and set fire to an American flag, Manson stood on a wall with his brother and pleaded with them to stop.

“I stood up at the top of the police station, where the stairs are and got everybody’s attention and said, ‘This is not what we are here for,’” Manson said. “Violence is not going to fix the situation that was caused by violence and hatred.”

A Reno Gazette Journal photographer documenting the demonstration that day confirmed Manson tried only to keep the peace. In fact, Manson, along with others in the crowd, convinced most of the demonstrators to walk away from the vandalizing.

Protests: A peaceful protest by many. Chaos among some. Here’s what happened in Reno on Saturday

But Manson was one of 36 people over three days who were arrested by Reno police in the wake of the destructive protest Saturday.

On Sunday, Reno police said their intelligence indicated “people from out of state” came to Reno to instigate violence at the otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration.

At a press conference that afternoon, Gov. Steve Sisolak bellowed to those “out of state” instigators to “Go home!”

But when police began making arrests — both at Saturday’s demonstration and in the days following — the people they arrested were almost exclusively local, according to arrest records and independent public records reviewed by the Reno Gazette Journal.

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Arrest records show no sign of outside agitators

The Reno Gazette Journal analyzed 36 arrests made over three days and found just two people had out-of-state addresses. One lives in Truckee, having recently moved there from Sparks. The second had a Salt Lake City address, according to public records. He was arrested for violating curfew on Monday night, three days after the riot.

In fact, more than half of those arrested live within two miles of downtown Reno. Manson and two other people arrested for curfew violation live within 700 feet of the police station.

The majority of those arrested were white and in their 20s. Most were charged simply with a curfew violation. Four appear to be homeless.

In the days following the riots, police went meticulously through their own surveillance footage and public photos in an effort to identify those who destroyed city property. As of Friday, prosecutors had charged four people with more serious crimes including destruction of property, assault, burglary and theft.

Two of the people arrested for participating in the destruction live in Reno. One lives in Sparks. The fourth is a juvenile whose hometown was not released by police.

Manson was not one of those four people.

At the end the video of Manson’s arrest, an officer accuses him of throwing rocks. He said he never threw a rock and he was never charged with destruction of property or assault.

He said he left shortly after trying to quell the melee at the police station.

“Once all the violence started and everybody wanted to start throwing bricks … I don’t participate in that,” he said. “Once the officers came out in riot gear, I said, ‘This is where we have to part ways. I have to get home to my son.’”

Manson is father to a 3-month-old.

Plead not guilty, stay in jail

When it came time for Manson’s court hearing, a city prosecutor told him it would be easiest to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, he said. That would be the quickest way to get out of jail. Manson took the advice, even though he disagreed he should be convicted.

“They said if I plead not guilty, I could spend an extra two weeks in jail,” he said.

He was convicted on a public nuisance charge and sentenced to time served.

Other protesters interviewed by the Reno Gazette Journal made similar deals to get out of jail more quickly.

Jennifer Grassi was arrested outside her home less than a block away from the Reno police station.

Grassi said she and her husband left their home about 4 a.m. Sunday  to walk to the store. She suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome and couldn’t sleep, she said.

Things had been quiet for hours. The sun would be rising soon. She said she thought everything was over.

“The officers pulled up on us like we had murdered somebody,” Grassi said.

Both Grassi and her husband were booked into jail on charges of violating curfew.

“I did not protest,” she said of the demonstrations. “Me and my husband were arrested because we walked to the store. We had no part in it and still went to jail for it.” 

Grassi and her husband pleaded no contest to the charge as a quick way to get out of jail, she said.

More: Gov. Sisolak calls for new policies to address systemic racism, double standard in policing that favors whites

Alex Johnson did the same thing, after being held for two nights.

Johnson was arrested amid the tear gas and flying flash-bangs as protesters faced off against police in front of city hall.

Johnson, a 30-year-old broadcast operator, said he spent his time at the demonstration standing on the edge of the plaza with his hands raised above his head, a common gesture of demonstrators.

“I thought it important to tell them I thought police brutality is not OK,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t throwing anything. I did not even kick a tear gas canister. I didn’t bring paint. I did not attempt graffiti. I did not set any fires. I committed no violent or malfeasant act. That’s not what I was there to do.”

When things became more intense, he figured he better leave. He said as he began walking south, three officers came running at him.

“I saw three cops and panicked,” he said. “I stopped walking and put my hands in the air. They came out at a very rapid pace with their batons drawn. I did not hear them give any commands. They simply began to arrest me.”

The 40 or so hours he spent in jail were nerve-wracking. He was unable to get ahold of family. He was worried he would lose his job. His eyeglasses were confiscated so he could barely see.

When he finally made it before a judge Monday morning, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor believing it would get him out of jail quickly. He was convicted on a public nuisance charge.

During the hearing, he said the prosecutor described him as being “part of the problem.”

“I was there making my opinion heard, saying police brutality was wrong,” he said. “Apparently she thinks that is a problem. I think police brutality is the problem and I was part of the solution.”

Related: Reno police release update on use of force policy; prepare for weekend protests

Reno police were not available for comment before publication. The Reno Gazette Journal has requested court and police reports on each of the arrests. Those documents had not been provided by Friday. State law requires public records requests to be responded to within five business days.

Others arrested before and after the protests pleaded not guilty and have obtained lawyers — some of whom are representing them at no cost — to fight the charges.

Tobista Fetwi, a 23-year-old civil engineering student at UNR, was arrested in the thick of the confrontation with police. After the Reno Gazette Journal requested an interview, her lawyer Theresa Ristenpart put out a statement saying Fetwi was “peacefully protesting.”

“Incomplete information and one-sided stories lead to inaccurate conclusions,” Ristenpart said. “To ensure that this does not happen in this case, we are carefully interviewing witnesses, gathering private cell phone videos, and waiting for the police to release body camera footage so that we can show the complete and full picture of what actually transpired between Tobista and Reno police.”

Violating a last-minute curfew

Lucas Nagy, 26, was arrested Sunday evening, walking with a group of friends along the river near downtown after the last-minute curfew was called.

“I didn’t know it was illegal to hang out with your friends at 9 o’clock and then get arrested for lack of knowledge of a curfew,” he said. “It didn’t seem like a democracy to me.”

Nagy, who works at Patagonia, said he was well aware of Saturday’s curfew because of an emergency alert that came across his phone. He didn’t see a similar emergency alert Sunday.

“If I knew there was a curfew, I would not have gone out,” he said.

Nagy couldn’t participate in Saturday’s demonstration, but said he wishes he could have been there.  

“I absolutely support Black Lives Matter and that no lives matter until Black Lives Matter,” he said.

Manson, who said he had never been arrested before, said he now better understands the anger that led some of the people in the crowd to turn destructive. But he hopes to use his arrest to spur positive change.

He and his family want to plan barbecues with music and poetry performances to continue to spread a peaceful message.

“Everything I’m trying to do right now is to uplift our community,” he said. “It’s really scary times and if we don’t come together as community, we’ll fall together.”

Anjeanette Damon is the government watchdog reporter for the RGJ. You can reach her at adamon@rgj.com or follow her on Twitter @AnjeanetteDamon. If you care about shining a bright light on decisions made by your elected officials, please consider subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.

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