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July 23, 2019

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Rioting led to changes in West Las Vegas

April 30, 1992: "Hell on the streets" of West Las Vegas breaks out the day after the Rodney King verdicts are read in Los Angeles.

Five years later, it's changed the way Metro Police and city officials do business in the mostly black area of Las Vegas. It has also prompted the creation of a tutoring, job placement and boxing center for disadvantaged youths. And it has caused the formation of the Community Peace committee to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"Our goal five years ago was to defuse the myth and all of the rumors flying around that the West Las Vegas community was going to erupt into violence again after the second Rodney King verdict," said Elgin Simpson, chairman and one of the founders of the committee.

"The plan was, 'You are going to treat people like human beings.' That was Community Peace's plan. That was my plan. We made sure the area didn't erupt into violence."

The day the first Rodney King verdicts were read, residents from West Las Vegas began marching from their neighborhoods to downtown. But they were stopped by Metro Police. Then the streets were barricaded in West Las Vegas so they couldn't march downtown. That's why the fighting and rioting began, according to Simpson.

One Metro officer later described the scene as "Hell on the streets."

"It was a peaceful march," Simpson said. "Police got wind of it and cut them off at Bonanza and Main and said, 'You can't come downtown and march.' And from that point on it erupted into a big mess."

Metro officials defended their actions, saying the "peaceful march was not," said Capt. Carl Fruge. "We took action after violence had already occurred along the route. Everything Metro Police did was to preserve lives and protect property."

In West Las Vegas, buildings were torched and hundreds of people looted neighborhood stores. Nucleus Plaza, a shopping center and office building on Owens Avenue, burned down. Two people died during the riots.

After the first verdict, police here geared up for a riot to break out over the second verdicts. Metro Police bought special riot gear, including steel-reinforced helmets, and stepped up crowd control and riot training for several hundred officers.

"The media and law enforcement were running around talking about how the police department was outgunned and outmanned and unprepared for the first riot and that they wouldn't be the second time," Simpson said.

"Police were shown on TV getting prepared to pick off our black youth. I said it wouldn't happen, and set out to show them that it wouldn't happen. They were going about their everyday life. Rodney King was just the catalyst in the sense that they were protesting the unjustness of the verdict and they got cordoned off and told they couldn't leave West Las Vegas."

In the months following, politicians and community leaders worked to deal with problems that had been simmering for decades. Half a dozen groups and committees formed, from grass-roots organizations with no budgets to those engineered with high-dollar projects backed by sports stars such as boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and basketball legend Magic Johnson.

From the main committee, the Mayor's Multi-Jurisdictional Community Empowerment Commission, four or five subcommittees were formed.

A middle school was reopened in West Las Vegas, Bank of America opened a small branch on Martin Luther King Boulevard and Bonanza Road and a Vons supermarket and shopping center opened on Owens Avenue.

"The committees did help," said Mayor Jan Laverty Jones. "I think the riots raised everyone's awareness about a problem that had been there and that no one was doing anything about. People said, 'Pay attention,' and we did."

For Mujahid Ramadan, the riots were the catalyst for creation of a five-year job placement plan called Nevada Partners. It now has a $2.6 million center at 710 W. Lake Mead Blvd.

Nevada Partners "is the monumental contribution from the Rodney King riots," Ramadan said. "The outcome of the Rodney King verdict, which was negative, turned out to be positive here. ... This is the silver in the dark cloud."

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