Here’s How the Panel on Race/Police/Media Went

This is Part III in a series chronicling the birth of a panel discussion on race/police/media (here is the original post that spawned it, and here is the story of its conception). It started as a 750-word opinion. It turned into much more.

On Wednesday, Summit hosted a panel discussion on how the national race/police/media issues are affecting Reno/Sparks. The panel consisted of four local leaders, and the two goals of the evening were education and action.

There was no script, so each of the four panel members went well over the 10 minutes they were allotted. We only ended up getting to 4 or 5 questions from the audience (the original plan was to devote most of the time to the Q&A). As moderator, I was tempted to step in and direct the conversation, but I decided to be less Bill O’Reilly and more sideline reporter. It was their floor, not our program. I chose to let the tangents roll.

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But even though it turned out to be less inquisition and more disquisition than originally planned, the evening itself went smoothly.

The preparation for this panel, however, was far more intense.

We had resident law enforcement officers in our church express concerns about safety, so we worked with the Sheriff’s office to make sure there was ample protection. This translated into more hidden badges than attendees at one point.  There was even a S.W.A.T. team stationed in the parking lot. This is the first time I’ve planned an event that had “bomb sweep” on the agenda. Were we a little paranoid? In retrospect, kind of, but nobody knew what was going to walk through the doors.

Then panelist Jason Pasco (Channel 2 News Director) said something during his presentation that explained why we were compelled to prepare for mayhem despite the relative peace in Reno. He said that the national media is framing the race narrative, but our local news (Channel 2 at least) is not looking to inflame the conflict. When it comes to stories, they value being right over being first. (Case in point – there have been three recent officer related shootings that have been covered, yet without the “cops are out to kill you” narrative attached by the local media. There has been no (credible) public concern as a result).

I think what Jason pointed out is vitally important to remember. Not all media outlets are created equal and we can’t import national conclusions into our local context. In other places in the U.S., it seems like the pot is ready to boil. But in Reno that isn’t the case. We planned with Dallas in mind, but Reno is not Dallas.

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However, since race relations aren’t particularly turbulent here I encountered a general apathy towards the event by some. The number one question I got leading up to the panel was, “Why does Reno need this? There aren’t any racial issues.”  (And many people who were invited to attend but didn’t show up basically said this in their absence). But I think this is exactly why we needed this discussion. There is stuff going on that needs to be addressed, and education is much more effective when tension is low.

Several examples of inequality were brought to light by the panel. Oscar Delgado (Reno City Council Member) criticized Reno’s city council election system, which is still in effect despite recently being ruled unconstitutional. Oscar represents Ward 3, which includes the Montello, Wells, Neil, and Mira Loma neighborhoods and now boasts a “minority majority.” He shared the financial and social obstacles he faced when running for office due to his ethnicity and geography. In a nutshell, in local elections the primaries are neighborhood specific but the general election is city wide. Why does this matter? It means that residents of wealthier neighborhoods (which are predominately white) have had more influence than poorer neighborhoods (which are predominately minority groups) in choosing representatives. Why does that matter? Guess which neighborhoods have a hard time getting represented by people that ethnically match the residents.

So Oscar effectively shared a local example of systemic inequality, which I imagine most in the audience were not aware of (I admitted as much from my moderator chair). Panelist Patricia Gallimore (Reno/Sparks NAACP President) wasn’t as specific on systemwide issues, but admitted that the local black community does “feel the [national] tension.” She urged the audience to understand how history has affected minorities, and when it comes to educational advancement specifically she said, “do you think the Emancipation Proclamation changed anything overnight?”

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The overall tone of the event was positive, and so was most of what was shared. Panelist Chuck Allen (Washoe County Sheriff) explained his community policing strategy, where his department actively builds relationships with the people they’re protecting (Reno and Sparks PDs are also utilizing this strategy, I believe). It’s evident that our local law enforcement is far more proactive than reactive in public relations. That is comforting. And Chuck and Patricia and Oscar are chums. That is beautiful.

Overall, I think God was honored and that it was a service to the community. To conclude the evening I asked the panelists, “what is ONE thing you would like to see these people walk out these doors and do?” All four of them basically said “be educated.” This includes relying on facts, keeping an open mind, and engaging with people of different backgrounds. We started with two goals – education and action. The action turned out to be more education. Go figure.

In the end, Chuck Allen reaffirmed the perspective of “I don’t see color and neither should you,” while Oscar and Patricia did not. Yet they were able to display on stage the genuine unity they have off of it. On Tuesday, I saw this article about the black man in Indianapolis being shot by police despite being the one who called them to report a burglary. From the racial climate, to the actions, to the outrage, to the coverage, I can say that Reno is not ripe for this kind of news.

May it never be.

Christian, husband, pastor, father. Occasionally, I try to arrange words into sequences that make a difference.