Protest

A girl holds a sign while protesting among hundreds of others in the streets Downtown near Staples center on June 5.

While protests continue in the streets after the killing of George Floyd, activists are meeting politicians face to face, encouraging them to rethink the concept of public safety and law enforcement.

In a special, intimate meeting in city council chambers, a coalition of five activists led by Black Lives Matter urged councilmembers to defund the police, reminding them that this sentiment is not new.

“We want to make it clear that we’ve been calling for the defunding of police for at least five years,” said Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA to members of the council. “But this is a moment where the world has cracked open and you all have the opportunity to really be courageous and do something different in the city of Los Angeles.”

Weeks of continued protests prompted Council President Nury Martinez to agree to host the activists in a meeting devoted to the People’s Budget on June 15. The alternative budget was introduced last month by Black Lives Matter LA and calls for drastic changes to the city’s spending, including divesting from law enforcement and investing in community resources like health care, affordable housing and education.

Floyd’s murder has put LAPD and other police departments around the country under intense public scrutiny, as protesters call for city and state governments to not only defund the police but abolish and reinvent the law enforcement system entirely.

Kendrick Sampson, actor and founder of BLD PWR, a social justice group that seeks to bring change to vulnerable communities, was among the activists in the special meeting. 

“We have to invest in prevention, not just reaction,” Sampson said to council members, as the public watched through live streams.

The coalition of activists led by Black Lives Matter previously struggled to get a response on their budget plans, but because of the continued protests around LA, the council was willing to listen. The group emphasized their outrage at the fact over 50% of the city’s budget is spent on law enforcement, rather than resources that strengthen communities, like mental health services and public education. 

“We want to make sure that we’re building up communities,” Sampson said. “That’s what reimagining public safety is about. We know that public safety is not policing,” he said with a dispirited chuckle.

LAPD has been widely criticized for its use of excessive force against people during recent protests. Sampson spoke about his experience at a protest in the Fairfax district where LAPD shot him with multiple rubber bullets, leaving him with permanent scars on his chest. 

“We deserve healing,” Sampson said to the council. “Black and indigenous and brown folk in this country need healing, deserve healing but instead are met by more trauma by these systems.”

Sampson challenged the idea of cops in schools, stating that the money should fund students’ education instead, and be used to hire therapists who can address the growing mental health crisis in the United States. 

“Elected officials choosing to invest in oppression and more trauma for our communities as opposed to what they know we need is actually violent,” he said. “That is violence.” 

The council members were responsive and sympathetic to the activists’ ideas and demands. They agreed that a change must be made to address the ongoing trauma in black communities. They said they want to make a change but didn’t explicitly commit to adopting the organizers’ alternative budget.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Martinez to the organizers. “This is how you reimagine communities.”

In the beginning of the month, Martinez introduced a motion to cut up to $150 million from the LAPD’s current funding, which is set at $1.86 billion, and reallocate the money to black, low-income communities. 

The LA Police Protective League said the union learned the news from Twitter—not from city officials. Police warn that the cuts may hinder their ability to conduct criminal investigations and pay officers overtime. On June 16, the motion was officially adopted. Despite the council’s efforts, many say the divestment was too little, too late.

Council members who have publicly sided with protesters pleas to defund the police are being blasted for accepting big donations from the LA Police Protective League over the years. 

Many are saying it’s hypocritical for council members like Martinez and Mitch O’Farrell to support divesting from police when cops guarded their private homes from upset citizens who showed up in cars at night, demanding protections from COVID-19’s economic fallout. 

Before the murder of George Floyd and the massive civil unrest it brought, Black Lives Matter LA leaders said their voices were ignored by the council. In April, Black Lives Matter LA sent the Black LA Demands to the council, which ordered the members to implement immediate and long-term solutions to keep black communities safe from COVID-19 and its disproportionate economic impact. 

“It’s disrespect to b lack Los Angeles to not respond to these demands,” Abdullah said.

The leaders noted that virtually every black organization in the area signed on to the demands, including the NAACP and Ethiopian Democratic Club, agreeing that black communities deserve extra care, as they are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

In LA County, black and Latino residents are far more likely to die from COVID-19 than white residents, according to a new report from the LA County Office of Public Health. Data shows that African Americans have died at around twice the rate of white Angelenos.

“No one responded and then we get this mayor’s (Eric Garcetti) budget in the midst of a health pandemic with an economic fallout where he’s increasing the LAPD budget,” Abdullah said, noting that crime rates in LA have dropped. 

In response, the BLMLA leaders took to social media, gaining support from more black organizations and developing a coalition to spread the word and build momentum for The People’s Budget, which they claim will better serve and protect the public than increasing the police budget. 

The coalition of organizers distributed and surveyed over 24,000 participants who voiced their opinions on what the city’s tax dollars should fund using software called Qualtrics. The survey participants, 55% of whom were people of color, voted to invest in community needs rather than law enforcement.

As Abdullah spoke to the council, her eyes filled with tears as she spoke about the death of 14-year-old Jesse Romero, who was shot by police in Boyle Heights, and the other hundreds of black lives taken by LAPD. 

“I was going to apologize for getting emotional, But I’m not,” Abdullah said to the council, looking at Martinez. “I’m a mother. You’re a mother. We have children that we’re trying to make a better world for.”

Martinez shared Abdullah’s sentiments. “I’m here because I am a mom,” she said, saying that she joined the council to create positive change from the inside. “Reimagining Los Angeles starts with families and children.”

The other council members also voiced their agreement that something must be done to create a positive change for public safety, saying “We need to do better.”

“I appreciate your sentiment but what I am looking for is commitment,” said Akili, a Black Lives Matter organizer  to the Council during the closing statements of the meeting that lasted nearly two hours.

“You’ve shared your positions,” he said. “They line up. But what are you going to do?"