These young Las Vegas activists are helping a movement maintain momentum

Desiree Smith, left, and Jameelah Lewis
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

“When people ask me how I got this far, I say, ‘I don’t know,’” 24-year-old Jameelah Lewis says. “Statistically, the world was against me.”

A second-generation Trinidadian who grew up in Reno, Lewis says her mother pushed her to beat the odds. After moving to Las Vegas to attend UNLV in 2016, Lewis joined the UNLV NAACP, and eventually, the university’s newly formed Black Lives Matter chapter.

“I joined a group run by Black women,” she recalls. “I’d never been a part of anything like that. I gained friendships and experiences. I learned what it is to truly love other people and how to cultivate a community.”

Nineteen-year-old Desiree Smith wanted to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in high school, but the Legacy High grad says her mother didn’t feel comfortable permitting her to attend protests at such a young age. After the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, however, Smith wanted to help in whatever way she could.

Despite their five-year age gap, Lewis and Smith represent the many young Las Vegans helping to maintain Black Lives Matter momentum on a local level.

In 2018, Lewis joined the Mass Liberation Project, where activist Leslie Turner (see Page 14), became her mentor. Lewis and her co-organizers have seen activist Angela Davis talk in person; they’ve lobbied for the demilitarization of police in Washington, D.C.; they’ve protested for immigration reform and gun violence prevention legislation; and now, they’re working on bringing a Black Lives Matter chapter to Nevada.

“We all met as part of BLM at UNLV and are currently part of a collective working to start [a chapter here],” Lewis says. “We’re in that networking stage, getting people from different organizations and spectrums to come together and organize on behalf of Black Lives Matter.”

A former intern for Congresswoman Dina Titus, Lewis was propelled into the city’s social justice efforts, which eventually led to her employment at the Rape Crisis Center as a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) advocate.

Despite her advocacy work, Lewis was arrested during one of the first BLM protests on the Strip in May. Smith describes the reaction to those early protests as “violent. They were tear-gassing us and started arresting people for no reason,” Smith says of the police.

Smith organized her first protest, with roughly 50 people, on June 6 outside the Venetian. The protest ended peacefully, Smith says, and since then, she has been pouring her energy into her newly founded group #MoreThanAHashtag, which has a small but growing social media presence.

That group recently released a run of logo-emblazoned T-shirts, with the names of people who have been killed by police, on the back. “We’ve been selling them for $20 a shirt, and giving 100% of the profit to victims’ families,” Smith says.

While Lewis says her arrest was traumatizing, it also forced the activist to reflect on something bigger: the power of community healing. “It’s only pushed me to fight more,” says Lewis, who organized a peaceful public rally on July 11.

Smith says her goal is to get government officials to “start taking accountability—[and] that’s not just police brutality,” she says. “It’s so much deeper than that. It goes into unemployment, housing and education.”

Ultimately, #MoreThanAHashtag strives to push activism beyond social media. “You can tweet about it all you want, but you actually have to put in the work,” Smith says. “You can hashtag, but donate, sign petitions and protest, too. Go to city hall meetings. Call your local representatives.”

For more information, follow @more.than.a.hashtaglv and the Rape Crisis Center @thercclv on Instagram and @UNLV_BLM on Twitter.

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