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Meet the man who was choked and arrested for selling water on the Las Vegas Strip

The viral cell phone video from 2013 resurfaced six years later, but what happened to the victim in that video?

· police brutality,eric garner,tashii brown,las vegas,lvmpd

Reporting by Shannon Miller

Photos by Eduardo Rossal-Cabrera

Las Vegas, NV - Two months ago, a 2013 video of a water vendor being choked by police garnered millions of views on social media and roused online outcry against police violence. But very few know the identity or backstory of the water vendor, James Williams. On August 7, 2019, Forced Trajectory Project sat down with Williams to get his perspective on the cell phone video that went viral, and to find out what has happened afterward.

James Williams silhouette profile. August 7, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

Which video of police choking an unarmed, non-combative black man are we talking about? Not the one of Eric Garner in New York, 2014. Not the one of Tashii Brown in Las Vegas, 2017. We are talking about this video taken by a Nevada Department of Transportation Civil Rights officer on July 27, 2013:

Video courtesy Yvonne Schuman, July 27, 2013, Las Vegas, NV.

"I was on the bridge between [Planet Hollywood] and The Cosmopolitan and two officers stopped me for being known to sell water on the Las Vegas Strip and for having a cooler." According to Williams, the officers had not witnessed him make or propose to make a sale, "[which] the statute that they [were] enforcing requires," he notes.

But rather than simply citing him for breaking the law and going on their way, Williams speculates that the officers were retaliating from an incident prior to July 27.

 

"A few weeks prior to [the incident in the viral video, the same officers] had stopped me for selling water. [So] I told them that they were violating federal statutes and interfering with commerce, Title 18 Section 1951 of the United States Code," he nodded, in case you wanted to look it up. "They became upset with that and they told me that they were going to arrest me every time they see me and take me to jail."

Later, in the video that was taken on July 27, you can hear Williams wheezing "help," and "I can't breathe," repeatedly as Officer Levassieur chokes him, and Officer Firestine holds his palm against Williams' chest and kneels on top of Williams' right thigh. Meanwhile, Williams keeps his arms at his sides, palms flat on the baking concrete.

The play by play:

0:11 One of the officers says, "Quit resisting."

 

0:18 Officer Levassieur says "Back up," to onlookers.

 

0:24 Williams raises his right hand to motion to an onlooker for help.

 

0:38 Onlookers start to say things like ...

  • "Saying he's resisting won't make him be resisting."
  • "We're all watching."
  • "You need to relax your hold on his neck."
  • "Leave the kid alone ... He wasn't resisting either."
  • "This kid did no resisting from the beginning. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves."
  • "They need to train these guys," says the woman filming the video.
  • "It's not illegal to stand where you want to," reminds one of the onlookers in response to Lavassieur becoming louder telling them to back up. 
0:40 The officers turn Williams onto his stomach. Lavassieur uses a baton to pry Williams' arm from between the ground and Williams' stomach, as Officer Firestine's knee pins Williams' backside.
 
0:57 Williams raises his head and calls out, "Oh my god, somebody help." Lavassieur presses his knee and shin in between Williams' shoulder blades and on the back of Williams' neck and head as Firestine talks on his radio and handcuffs Williams.
 
1:55 Lavassieur says "crime scene," to convince people to leave; He walks into observers to push them away and prevent them from filming at a close distance. "The only crime here has been committed by you," someone replies off camera.
 
2:23 As Williams calls out his phone number for someone to send the video to his phone, Firestine kicks water bottles in the direction of Williams' head. Those filming reassure Williams that they will send the footage to his phone.
 
2:33 Additional police appear on the scene and assist apprehending Williams.

At no point in the video does Williams strike or assault any police officer. After being escorted off the pedestrian bridge where the incident occurred, Williams was taken to and held at Clark County Detention Center for one day and was released on his own recognizance.

James Williams. August 7, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

Despite this incident, James continues selling water on the Las Vegas Strip. Since he started vending in 2009, Williams says he has racked up give-or-take 200 citations and/or arrests, which means mountains of paperwork, court appearances and legal fees.

Although police say they are upholding local statutes by stopping him, Williams believes it is his constitutional right to sell water in a public place.

 

During our August 7 interview, Williams kept referencing several pieces of legislation including Title 18 Section 1951, which protects citizens from obstruction of commerce. He also cited Title 15 Sections 1 and 2 as federal statutes that LVMPD are, in Williams' eyes, breaking the law when they clear the streets of vendors and performers.

So, if not in the name of upholding law and order on the federal level, how do police have the authority to ticket and arrest street vendors like James?

"They're doing it to aid and abet the casinos and other corporations on the Strip, to monopolize the exchange of money on the Las Vegas Strip," Williams says plainly.

 

On the other hand, local officials have justified increased policing of street vendors as a matter of public safety. Since 1994, police have enforced a resort-district ordinance that renders obstruction of public sidewalks a misdemeanor crime.

 

For the arrest in the video, Williams was charged with obstructing the sidewalk and resisting a public officer. Those charges were eventually dropped by the District Attorney's office.

When James Williams started selling water on the Strip in 2009, "The plan was to make money so I could invest in real estate and become financially independent that way," he said. "But because of continued racketeering activities, it didn't go like that." August 7, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

Legal interpretations aside, Williams testifies to subsequent misconduct, violence and harassment from police, including being placed on a "red flag" list. The red flag list, he explained, gives police authority to arrest him any time he is present on the Strip—whether he's toting a cooler full of water bottles or not.

"I didn't know that [I was on the list] until I ran into this cop who pulled me over [in a traffic stop] and he, the cop, told me, 'I am trying to figure out why they hate you. They have a red flag for full booking any time,' Williams said. Furthermore, run-ins with police for water vending have made it difficult for Williams to find any other form of employment on the Strip.

In late 2016, a judge banned him from the Strip for repeated offenses of selling water. Within that court order, there were exceptions to allow him to be on the Strip for employment, public transportation, legal and medical services and other necessities. Williams reports getting hired at Taco Bell, located on Harmon Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, two weeks after the judge issued that order.

"I was on the job for a week and I'm walking out [one day] and I saw the police and I froze. But then I thought, I'm in compliance. So I'm in my Taco Bell uniform walking to the bus stop and they still arrested me for being in violation of this court order. They slammed me on the ground, took me to jail [for two weeks] and made me lose my job."

James Williams. August 7, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

On August 26, Williams informed Forced Trajectory Project that, one day after our initial interview with him, he was arrested and jailed for 18 days.

"I showed up to [Las Vegas Justice] Court on August 8 for a status check for one of my cases," said Williams in a phone call on Wednesday. This case originated from an arrest in August of 2018 for conducting business in a public right of way. At a bench trial tin May 2019, he was found guilty of that misdemeanor charge and was issued the following requirements—stay out of trouble; stay off the Strip; and either pay a $500 fine or complete 50 hours of community service.

Williams failed to pay the fine or perform the hours of community service before his status check on August 8, so he was found to be in contempt of court.

"The District Attorney was attempting to get me locked up. I was explaining the DA did not have that authority to take me into custody because the case was on appeal in [the Eight Judicial] District Court," said Williams, referring to an appeal he had filed for this case.

Rather than making him wait in jail while the higher District Court processed his appeal, Williams said the proper course of action would have been to wait for his appeal to go through and then go from there. Instead, Williams said the judge ordered that he be remanded to Clark County Detention Center on the spot.

 

Williams was released from custody on August 26. He has an upcoming District Court date in September, where he will learn more about the status of his appeal.

James Williams. August 7, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

It goes without saying, Williams' criminal record has made it difficult to find housing, and it continues to prevent him from finding gainful employment. You might be wondering, with all the harassment and hardship that come with selling water on the Strip, why doesn't he just find a different job?

"But why would I [stop selling water] when I have a right to do what I'm doing? And they're not supposed to be doing what they're doing. So don't tell me to just stop selling water. It's like saying, stop making a living, or [saying] just die, basically."

—James Williams

In response to the 2013 video virally resurfacing, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said their internal affairs found "no policy violations occurred," from the officers. Police also said the man in the video filed a lawsuit against the department, and that the lawsuit was dismissed by the courts ...

Thrown out of court and never prosecuted. We've seen it play out like this before.

The interviews used in this story were conducted by Forced Trajectory Project in good faith with the interviewee James Williams.

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