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Myers: When political leadership fails

Last week I attended an NAACP meeting in Reno, along with a lot of others. Most of those attending were white. I know from attending earlier NAACP meetings that this was not normal.

“I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do,” Leslie Sexton said.

She wasn’t the only one. A lot of whites were there, shaken by the events of recent weeks and wanting to do SOMETHING. It’s interesting that they did not turn to government to try to find out what to do. Government these days is so polarized and dysfunctional that no one is going to expect it to offer wisdom. Politicians have become so skilled at pitting members of the public against each other that they are the last ones from whom we would expect leadership on how to mend divisions.

Well, that’s not quite true. One person did turn to government.

“I felt discouraged and hopeless last week and I wanted to do something really practical for my fellow citizens,” Laura Freed said.

She decided to volunteer to serve on the local police advisory board. It turns out there isn’t one in her locality, though as she pointed out, Nevada Revised Statute 289.380 provides for such panels in local governments.

She called her city councilmember to ask about whether police officers have body cameras. She said she was given a “polite brush-off. … I wanted a straight answer to that question and I didn’t get one.”

So such people turned to the NAACP. And it was an educational gathering for a lot of whites who listened to the experiences of African-Americans. And among those they found there also looking for answers were public officials, including two city councilmembers and a Nevada district judge.

One young father said he had been taught by his parents to drive with his hands on the familiar ten and two o’clock positions, not for any good driving reasons, but so that police officers would always be able to see his hands.

“Ten and two—hands up on the wheel—and that’s something I hope not to pass on to my kids,” said Don Dike-Anukam.

Who knew? It was a look inside a life that is lived very different from mine, a life more or less under siege.

Sheila Louris cried as she said, “We do tell our son, ‘If you get pulled over hold your hands out.’ … We’ve been living with this all our lives …and it has to stop.”

The county sheriff and city police chief were also in attendance, and one white – former U.S. House candidate Rick Shepherd – told them about how, at a time when his identify had been misused by a criminal and there was a warrant out for his arrest, he was stopped for speeding – and no one ran a check on him. I know such a check would have been run if I had been black, he told the police officers to their faces.

The chief and sheriff answered anything asked of them, but Reno Police Chief Jason Soto told Dike-Anukam he couldn’t offer the guarantees he sought that procedures adopted today to protect the public from police misconduct will not be changed tomorrow.

“Life’s not always about guarantees,” Soto said. “And there’s always going to be forums like this to be sure I’m doing my job.”

It was a reminder that when the political system fails, and the public loses the kind of interest it showed at this meeting, we’ll all be at risk.

Washoe Sheriff Chuck Allen said, “I hope and pray we never have a mistake where we have to come together and explain…”

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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