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Las Vegas attorney no stranger to protests, racial injustice

Updated September 25, 2020 - 1:08 pm

Jonathan MacArthur, a veteran Las Vegas lawyer, has joined 16 solidarity protests across the valley since May.

He has been hit with tear gas and pepper balls as he marched with thousands of others through the streets. On Thursday, in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he shared the story of his arrest during a demonstration the night before and spoke of his own experiences with racial injustice.

Hours after a grand jury declined to indict officers in connection with the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, MacArthur walked downtown with more than 150 others Wednesday evening.

As he stopped and stood among a crowd on Las Vegas Boulevard with a cellphone in his raised right hand, officers on motorcycles crept toward him, he said, and a wheel rolled onto his boot.

As a criminal defense attorney, MacArthur wanted to document the encounter.

“I take my role in the protests very seriously,” he said. “Usually, my role is to keep my head on a swivel, be aware of where we are, where the police are. By paying close attention to where you are, you can avoid putting yourself in a situation where things escalate out of control.”

He wore a Pan-African-colored mask and one of what he called his many “protest shirts.”

‘There for a cause’

As a 47-year-old Black man who grew up in Las Vegas, MacArthur has encountered police since he was a child.

He said he’s been pulled over dozens of times — even though he drives “like a grandmother” — and been forced into handcuffs without being charged five times. Officers have pointed guns at him four times, he said, including once when he was 9 and had crawled into his own home through a window.

He sued the Metropolitan Police Department for excessive force and mistaken identity in 2009 and ultimately received a $14,000 settlement.

“For me, the protests are visceral,” he said. “These are experiences that I’ve had. It is a universal experience. It’s still our experience. So that is why I protest. … It’s hard to generate sympathy when the person of color who’s being abused is poor or inarticulate or has a criminal record. But that’s not me. I can force my peers to confront difficult truths and make equally difficult decisions.”

He had marched in a protest on the Strip in June when seven legal observers were detained. They’re his colleagues, some even close friends, but MacArthur said he keeps his work separate from the movement.

“It’s hard for me to maintain that kind of neutrality as a Black man who has been subjected to the very kinds of abuses we’re protesting,” MacArthur said.

Suddenly, around 8 p.m. Wednesday, as the crowd chanted, MacArthur was shoved from behind, toward the police. He said he turned and told fellow protesters to stop, as he pulled his foot away from the motorcycle wheel.

“I see this surge of officers coming at me,” said MacArthur, who served in the Army. “It’s crazy. … I’m a lawyer. I’m a veteran. I’m there for a cause.”

He said the officers tackled him against a construction partition, smashed his face onto the sidewalk and placed him in a brief chokehold. On a video of MacArthur’s arrest captured by a Review-Journal reporter, several people could be heard shouting before he was handcuffed and taken to the Las Vegas Detention Center, where he spent the next seven hours.

He said one officer kept others calm and helped him up.

“If it weren’t for that guy, I think things would have gone very differently,” he said.

MacArthur was charged with walking in the roadway and “pedestrian or vehicular interference.” He doesn’t know who posted his bail. He said he plans to fight the charges.

After he was freed, on his phone, he found blurry pictures of officers standing over him.

“I was trying to document every second of what’s happening,” MacArthur said. “I’m not going to document me committing some awful crime. I’m documenting second by second because I know that I’m getting roughed up over jaywalking.”

Six arrests

During the Las Vegas protest, four people were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanors, and two others were arrested on suspicion of battery on a police officer, which is a gross misdemeanor, Metro Deputy Chief John McGrath said. Those charged with misdemeanors were taken to the Las Vegas Detention Center, like MacArthur, while the other two were booked into the Clark County Detention Center.

McGrath said officers arrested people at Fourth and Fremont streets after some “locked arms” in the road and blocked traffic. He said officers “showed patience” during the protest and that “the people that went to jail deserved to go to jail.”

MacArthur is no stranger to the spotlight. He ran for justice of the peace in North Las Vegas. He drew media attention, along with a judge’s fine and a reprimand from the state bar, in connection with bribery allegations, a comment on social media and actions in court.

As a former public defender turned solo practitioner, he has had many battles with prosecutors in the courtroom, representing all races of defendants, including those he said had been abused by police because of their race.

As the demonstrations continue across the country, he plans to return to the streets again, perhaps as soon as this weekend.

“I’m not unique. I may have some accomplishments that I’m very proud of, but my experiences are not unique,” he said. “It’s freaking hard. Everything that we do is colored by race. Sometimes the price of having society recognize an injustice is putting yourself in harm’s way. That’s civil disobedience. It will persist until a majority of white people in the country have said ‘enough.’”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter. Staff writers Katelyn Newberg and Sabrina Schnur contributed to this report.

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