LOS ANGELES — On Monday, after the Los Angeles Police Department spent days violently attacking people protesting police brutality and racism, the City Council appeared set to allow a new budget — which would allocate nearly 54% of the city’s discretionary spending to the LAPD — to go into effect. With revenue tanking amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the budget cut funds to most city agencies, but it but expanded the police budget by 7.1%, including raises for officers.
Organizers from Black Lives Matter, the activist movement best known for protesting police officers who kill Black people, worked for more than a month with a coalition of activists in Los Angeles to fight the budget proposed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, which included union-negotiated $41 million in bonuses for officers with college degrees.
Los Angeles’ BLM chapter and its partners proposed an alternative “People’s Budget,” which showed how redirecting money allocated for LAPD could pay for desperately needed housing assistance, rent suspension, mental health services and support for public schools. The activists succeeded in embarrassing City Council members into delaying a vote on the budget and ultimately allowing a June 1 deadline to pass without revising the budget.
As the council failed to act, street protests continued and videos documenting LAPD violence to suppress peaceful demonstrators went viral. More than 500 people signed up to submit public comments during an online meeting of the city’s Police Commission to express their horror at law enforcement’s use of chemical irritants, projectiles, batons and even vehicles to injure demonstrators. On Wednesday City Council President Nury Martinez introduced a motion asking city staffers to pull at least $100 million to $150 million from the LAPD budget and redirect it to disadvantaged communities and communities of color. The motion is a small concession: If passed, it would eliminate only the planned increase to LAPD’s budget. Garcetti embraced the proposal and pledged to look for additional funds to direct into job programs, health initiatives and support for the Black community.
“Let me be clear: this is only happening because of years of action put in by @BLMLA,” tweeted Nithya Raman, who is running for a City Council seat and has been an outspoken critic of the city budget. “The struggle is not over, but it’s a clear example of the power of organizing.”
Black Lives Matter has been at the center of nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed last week by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, even as he pleaded that he could not breathe. The group is famous for mobilizing demonstrations against cops who kill and the people who let them do it with impunity. But Black Lives Matter’s leadership in fighting Los Angeles’s budget is indicative of the more tedious but equally important political organizing work the group has been doing for nearly seven years — things like community education, pushing state legislation to make records of police misconduct public, mobilizing against prosecutors who fail to hold cops accountable and lobbying school boards to end racist “random search” practices.
The group was formed in Los Angeles, home to one of the most violent police forces in the country. LAPD became infamous for violent crackdowns in response to the 1965 Watts protests, the 1992 uprising after acquittals of the officers who brutally beat Rodney King, and the Rampart anti-gang unit corruption scandal of the late 1990s. Nationwide, LAPD is one of the most lethal police departments for civilians. According to LAPD’s own data, its officers kill more people than police departments in major cities with comparable violent crime rates — including the New York Police Department, which oversees more people.
Although the proposed cuts to LAPD’s budget are minimal, it’s a step toward reversing a two-decade expansion of the police force’s budget — and a symbolic win for activists that City Council members appear willing to break with the police union at all.
A Movement Not A Moment
The first planned Black Lives Matter protest was in July 2013, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the vigilante who killed Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old who was walking to a family friend’s home after buying Skittles at a 7-Eleven in Sanford, Florida.
The protest took place in Beverly Hills, part of the group’s long-standing principle of disrupting “affluent white spaces” and not causing “harm or distress in Black and working-class communities,” Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of the group, said in an interview.
The activists set out to create a “movement” not a moment, Abdullah said, which meant doing work beyond the protests. They hosted educational events, provided support to family members whose loved ones were killed by police and amplified the voices of victims of systematic racism who may have otherwise gone unnoticed. When Marissa Alexander, a woman in Florida who fired a warning shot toward her abusive husband after he threatened to kill her, was charged with aggravated assault, BLM rallied behind her and pointed out the hypocrisy of Zimmerman being granted protection under Florida’s “stand your ground” law but not Alexander.
Sometimes there was too much police violence to know where to direct efforts first. In August 2014, BLM activists planned their first Freedom Ride: a caravan of four 15-person vans to drive nearly 2,000 miles to Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer after putting his hands in the air. As the activists were getting ready to leave Los Angeles, LAPD officers shot and killed a 25-year-old unarmed Black man named Ezell Ford.
When they got back to Los Angeles, BLM started pushing for the two officers who shot Ford to be fired. In December, they camped outside of LAPD’s downtown headquarters for 18 days.
“I have a target on my back everywhere I go to,” Abdullah’s 11-year-old daughter, Thandiwe, told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “There is nothing I can do about it and age doesn’t matter anymore. I can be killed at 11,” she said, speaking one month after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a Cleveland police officer while playing with a toy gun. The “Occupy LAPD” protest ended when Abdullah and another organizer were arrested as they tried to deliver their written demands to then-Police Chief Charlie Beck.
In 2016, LAPD officers fatally shot Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin, a Black couple sleeping in a parked car. The five officers involved in the shooting were fired, but Kisha’s twin sister believed they should be prosecuted, too, Abdullah said. Black Lives Matter activists asked Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey for meetings and delivered petitions and letters to her office. When that didn’t work, they started protesting outside her office every Wednesday afternoon.
They haven’t skipped a weekly protest in the 2½ years since they started.
Despite its progressive reputation, Los Angeles has lagged behind the rest of the state in criminal justice reform. L.A. County jails incarcerate more people than any other jail system in the country. Black Lives Matter activists have been at the forefront of efforts to change that.
Although Black Lives Matter does not endorse candidates, it has led the effort to oust Lacey, who has opposed almost every criminal justice reform measure that has come up during her eight years in office. Lacey, the county’s first Black district attorney, ran for reelection in 2016 unopposed but is facing a progressive challenger in November after failing to secure more than 50% of the vote in the primary.
Thanks to BLM organizing, L.A. County residents approved Measure R in March, a civilian-driven ballot initiative that aims to reduce the county’s jail population by getting prisoners with mental health conditions out of jail and into treatment. Organizers collected 250,000 signatures to get Measure R on the ballot.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit Los Angeles, BLM paused its in-person meetings and protests, shifting operations online. It’s easier to get people to “show up” for online activism than in person, but “it’s not the disruption that we need,” Abdullah said. The activists considered holding smaller demonstrations outside of Lacey’s office on Wednesdays that would allow social distancing, but they worried that it would just make it more likely they’d get arrested.
‘We Can’t Stay Home For This One’
Late last Tuesday, the day after Floyd was killed, the group decided it was time to revive the Wednesday in-person protests. They urged attendees to wear masks and keep as much distance as possible, but they knew the COVID-19 risk was unavoidable.
“Black people are more vulnerable to coronavirus than other people — but we’re not more vulnerable to coronavirus than we are to police murder,” Abdullah said. “We’ll minimize the risk as much as possible, but we’re going to have to stand up. We can’t stay home for this one.”
Although crowded outdoor gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19, the more significant transmission risk comes from the police response. By beating and arresting protesters police officers are forcing people into jails and hospitals, two high-risk environments for COVID-19 exposure.
Before the pandemic, the weekly demonstrations usually attracted 50 to 100 people. Last week, more than 3,000 people showed up to march, Abdullah said.
“We could tell the momentum was building, but we didn’t think it had built up that much,” Abdullah said. “I think we tend to underestimate ourselves.”
The next protest on Saturday drew about 20,000 people, Abdullah estimated.
The turnout was a testament to the city’s anger — but also to the organizing and coalition-building Black Lives Matter has done. The group has shown how a militarized and racist police force hurts the entire community — not just the people who are most at risk of getting shot by the cops, but also the people who can’t get housing assistance when they lose their job during a pandemic because the city’s budget is held hostage by the police union.
After hours of peaceful demonstrations on Saturday, LAPD officers and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies confronted protesters as they headed toward Beverly Hills and the Melrose district, both wealthier areas with high-end restaurants and shops. Law enforcement used rubber bullets and tear gas to clear the crowds and beat protesters with batons. Across town at a separate protest the next day, a police SUV was filmed driving into a small group of protesters, reversing and driving away after a man fell to the ground.
The past week of protests and the violent response from the LAPD have vindicated the mission of Black Lives Matter activists who have been protesting and organizing against police brutality for years. Demands to defund the police, a concept often dismissed as a fringe anarchic fantasy, are increasingly understood as an acknowledgment that law enforcement budgets could be better spent on social workers, housing and other community health efforts. LAPD’s brazen display of violence against people protesting police violence makes calls for incremental reform appear naive and disingenuous.
It has also exposed the falsehood of the notion that systemic racism and police brutality are problems that can be fixed simply by voting for Democrats. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, deployed the National Guard to Los Angeles to help quash the protests, and outbreaks of looting, at the request of Mayor Garcetti, who is also a Democrat. Garcetti praised law enforcement on Saturday for their “extraordinary restraint” and expanded curfews for several days, providing law enforcement with an easy excuse to arrest demonstrators for no other reason than being outside after a sometimes hastily set time, sometimes as early as 6 p.m. Michel Moore, the police chief appointed by Garcetti, accused those who looted businesses during the protests of being equally to blame for Floyd’s death as the police officer who killed him. (He later apologized.)
And Lacey, the county’s Democratic prosecutor — the most progressive candidate voters have had the option of choosing in the previous two elections, has charged just one law enforcement official with killing a civilian while on duty. In 2018, she declined to prosecute a former LAPD officer who killed an unarmed Black man, even after the police chief called on prosecutors to file charges. Hundreds of people have been killed by law enforcement in L.A. during Lacey’s time in office.
“No one has ever voted their way to freedom,” Abdullah said. “Voting is important. I vote in every single election. However, we also know that, at most, voting someone good into office will soften the ground for the kind of meaningful change that we need. What’s always worked is the protest piece.
“We can think of mama Harriet Tubman as a protester or Frederick Douglass as a protester, Abdullah said. “The kind of transformative change that we’re looking for comes through more than voting.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Measure R will be on the ballot in November. It was approved in March.