Los Angeles, CA / USA – June 19, 2020: Protesters with fists raised at the Juneteenth March for Equality in Downtown
Photo by GrandAve/Shutterstock.com
“This is an unlawful assembly. If you remain in the area … you will be in violation of penal code 409. We will now be testing a long-range acoustic weapon”, warns a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer last Friday night in Beverly Hills.
When the armored truck, reminiscent of scenes from the US’s decade-long occupation of Afghanistan, emits a loud siren at 11 pm, the protestors start dancing to the alarm. A young man with a drum hits the offbeats of the “long-range acoustic weapon” while the rest of the crowd chants “Black lives, they matter here!” and “L-A-P-D-suck-my-dick.”
Residents inside their multi-million dollar mansions peek through their blinds as LAPD’s line of riot shields shoot smoke canisters, bean bags and other projectiles at the nearly 100 peaceful protestors.
The crowd scrambles, scared of being tactically boxed in by the police. Protestors clutch their cardboard signs as they scan for the easiest fences to jump – to escape to a safer street. A young black woman next to me worries that if she jumps into a yard with no outlet, she will be legally shot by the owner for trespassing.
At the front of the crowd, the organizer and leader of the Black Future Project (formerly Occupy Black Lives Matter) who goes by the name James, calmly encourages the group to slowly backpedal from the violent police over his bullhorn.
This all occurred more than a week after Mayor Eric Garcetti’s illegal curfew was supposedly lifted – one of the many black liberation protests over the last three weeks in Los Angeles that turned violent when the police stepped in to terrorize the citizens they are supposed to protect.
Mayor Garcetti’s ties to the LAPD
The Los Angeles Police Protective League PAC spent $98,879 to support Eric Garcetti’s mayoral bid when he first ran in 2013, according to the People’s Budget LA. Mayor Garcetti’s budget, which passed on June 1, initially allocated $3.2 billion to the LAPD before he agreed to cut $150 million – leaving the allocation still over $3 billion – which accounts for more than 50% of the LA general city fund. The overtime budget itself is more than housing, cultural affairs, animal services, and neighborhood empowerment expenses combined.
Although the protests are explicitly centered around police brutality, a political and economic critique is at the heart of the mobilization. As James noted, “a seed has been planted in the soil that is so nasty, we can’t just snip at the leaves.” The movement is about the law makers that have approved a budget that prioritizes fear and control over social services and community investment; it is about the judicial system that grants the police complete immunity of lethal force. According to Black Lives Matter (BLM), the LAPD has killed more than 600 Angelenos since 2012.
This immunity is not a new phenomenon – it is at the very foundation of the modern LAPD. To truly understand the significance of this moment for Los Angeles, one must examine the racist history and underpinnings of the modern LAPD.
Chief Officer William Parker largely shaped the current iteration of the department when he served at the helm from 1950-66. A media darling whose department had multiple television shows propping up its image, he is largely credited with the genesis of the department’s “proactive” approach to policing – cruising around mostly lower income Black and Latinx neighborhoods looking to spot crime before it happens. Parker referred to Black people as behaving “like monkeys in a zoo” during the Watts riots and attributed crime in the Latinx communities to them “not being too far removed from the wild tribes of … the inner mountains of Mexico”, among many other racist tirades. He covered up for brutality cases and personally trained his eventual successor, Daryl Gates, who took over after a few interim chiefs. Gates molded the police force that led to the open destruction of civilian homes in the war on crack and the Rodney King beating and subsequent acquittals.
At the time of the racist zoo comment, the LA Times called it an “obviously unintentional but unfortunate remark.” This may ring familiar for present-day Angelenos who heard Mayor Garcetti attempt to excuse the current police chief Michael Moore, who said last week that George Floyd’s death was “on [the looters and rioters] hands, as much as it is on those officers”, before he tried to walk it back. Garcetti followed up by affirming his confidence in the department with Moore at the top, stating “I’ve known this man’s heart for decades. When I heard him say what he said I knew that he did not mean it.”
Photo by GrandAve/Shutterstock.com
“Hey hey, ho ho, Jackie Lacey has got to go”
At the forefront of this renewed scrutiny into the LAPD, is the LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who has only brought charges on a single officer even though more than 600 killings by police have occurred during her tenure.
Like Mayor Garcetti, DA Lacey has been propped up by the police union, which has donated over a million dollars to PACs against her opponent – the more reform-minded George Gascón – in a run-off election scheduled for November. As a February analysis by the LA Times revealed, Lacey has benefited from more than $2.2 million in contributions from law enforcement unions, which she has subsequently defended, stating that “any proposal that prevents a union from actively engaging their members in the democratic process is an extremely dangerous path to go down.”
City Hall has acted as the physical epicenter of the movement, though protests span to every corner of the city (as documented by the instagram account @inthistogether_la). An organization called Sound of Change, which operates as a record label for buskers, serenades the crowd in front of City Hall. As 23-year-old Southern California native Mandy Lee explained, Sound of Change “has been coming out here with different artists, DJs, and people have been doing spoken word and sharing their hearts for this movement every day.”
The music and dancing in front of City Hall is the backdrop for many of the Black Future Project’s meetings. The group that led the march through Beverly Hills on Friday night is currently occupying Grand Park (which is adjacent to City Hall) with upwards of 15 tents. With an explicit emphasis on education and dismantling racial-capitalism, the group focuses on breaking down the roots of black exploitation. A copy of the Constitution circulates amongst the group, as people highlight the clauses designed to subjugate black people; classic black films such as “Do The Right Thing” and “13th” are projected onto a screen tied between two trees; educational subcommittees discuss California’s penal codes.
Whilst the Black Lives Matter movement in Los Angeles focuses on specific targets such as ousting Mayor Garcetti and DA Lacey, broader demands have become central to the mobilization – such as closing ICE detention facilities, defunding the LA Unified School District Police force (which recently agreed to return their grenade launchers, but keep the reserve of rifles and armored vehicles), honoring the lives of two black men – Robert Fuller and Malcom Harsch – who were found hanging from trees in the areas surrounding LA in the past month, seeking justice for the police killing of the 18 year old Latino student Andres Guardado, firing Chief Michael Moore, and stopping the closure of an underfunded elementary school in Inglewood.
A march in Santa Monica organized by students from Santa Monica High School highlighted structural electoral discrimination. Pico neighborhood resident Maria Loya addressed the young crowd with her 9-year-old son by her side. Speaking about the protests at large, Loya said that “at its core, it’s about everything wrong with Los Angeles.” Loya, who ran for a City Council seat in 2004, successfully sued the city of Santa Monica for violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and the California Equal Protection Clause. The lawsuit concluded that the city had intentionally excluded minorities from the City Council based on their at-large voter system, in which all seven City Council members are elected by the entire city population as opposed to each district voting for their own seat. The city is appealing the decision and a new trial date has been set for June 30th.
Loya explained that “even though I won every precinct in my neighborhood, I could not get elected because there were more votes outside the district. That’s why I say the election system was rigged against us.” The Latinx votes in her district are essentially drowned out by the 76% white population of Santa Monica, leaving the minority populations of the city with little control over their own fate in local government.
As outlined in Benjamin Ross’s 2014 book “Deadend: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism”, Santa Monica’s zoning was established through a system of restrictive racial covenants which were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1948. Yet the subdivisions via restrictive covenants within Santa Monica continue to exist today through zoning techniques that effectively restrict the majority of the city’s homes for single-family use. This policy excluded lower income residents from living in apartments in large swathes of the city, and from buying property during the subsidized real estate boom that white residents enjoyed in the period following the Second World War.
The minority residents of Santa Monica were restricted to living in smaller neighborhoods which became enclaves for more violence, poorly funded social services, and an increased police presence. The Pico neighborhood today is mostly Latinx and is often referred to as the “toxic triangle”, according to Loya, because it acts as a dumping ground for the rest of the city.
“Part of the Pico Neighborhood was zoned industrial which facilitated the dumping of hazardous and undesirable developments such as the I-10 Freeway [which cuts directly through the neighborhood], landfill and waste facilities”, Loya explained. More equal representation in City Council would help alleviate some of these toxic inequities for the majority-minority neighborhoods in Santa Monica and throughout Los Angeles.
The People’s Budget
The grassroots movements highlighting local racist systems of oppression are aligned with the larger organizational operation of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles (BLMLA). Following weeks of public pressure, BLMLA was invited to a meeting with five members of the LA City Council to discuss what they coined “The People’s Budget LA.” After having their temperatures taken by armed police officers as they entered the building, the five representatives, led by professor Melina Abdullah, who is a co-founder of the larger Black Lives Matter organization, presented a comprehensive policy framework for reimagining community safety and investment. Backed by substantial research and polling, the presentation offered a stark contrast between the people’s priorities and those outlined in the City Council budget.
The presentation painted a future in which public safety incidents were handled by trained community members instead of armed officers with no personal connection to the neighborhoods they patrol. The meeting was a symbolic milestone in Los Angeles’s long struggle for police accountability and racial justice.
After listening to BLMLA’s policy framework, Councilmember Herb Wesson and Council President Nury Martinez introduced a motion to demilitarize specific roles within the LAPD. Per Wesson, the motion calls for a “systematic crisis-response plan to replace police presence in non-criminal situations with unarmed service providers including medical professionals, mental health workers, homeless outreach workers and others with specialized training.”
“If it’s what it appears to be, it’s absolutely a step in the right direction”, Melina Abdullah said. “It also indicates that they were willing to listen to the voices of the people, who said that public safety and policing are not synonymous, especially for Black Angelenos.”
Peaceful community action, backed by the implicit threat of the limited, but riotous property damage that was done in the wealthier areas of LA during the first week of protests, has potentially secured one of the most sweeping overhauls of the LAPD in decades. If enacted, this would be a big shift in the momentum of the movement to disarm and defund the police in LA.
Yet, there is still a long way to go in securing accountability and defunding local police departments across the nation. In Los Angeles, the police officers responsible for more than 600 dead Angelenos since 2012 remain free with many still serving on the force. And contrary to the BLM demands, highway patrols officers are still armed.
Across the US, activists still await justice for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (who police shot in her Louisville home while sleeping), and Rayshard Brooks (who officers killed in Atlanta for “resisting arrest” after he was taking a nap in his car). Contrary to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proclamation that “you don’t need to protest, you won”, the movement will not declare victory until the US’s racist economic and political institutions are demolished.
Meaningful steps like the ones proposed by the LA City Council to disarm police officers for non-violent incidents are the result of sustained protests not just in the US but around the world. This revolutionary moment in Los Angeles is more than just a few angry people forcing the hands of elected officials; it’s a reflection of the Overton Window radically shifting towards a more compassionate politics and egalitarian social life. Two thirds of US adults currently support the Black Lives Matter movement per a Pew Research poll, compared to just four in ten Americans when Pew conducted similar polling in 2016.
As 16-year old Kayla Koury, who was pepper sprayed and hit by a rubber bullet in the foot at a demonstration downtown put it, “I smiled because I realized we had something they can never take away – our education, our knowledge, our sense of community. At that moment they were afraid of us, of me and my community, and the power that we hold.”