On Friday, July 24, Miracle Mile 4 Justice, the Social Justice Ministry of the Cochran Ave. Baptist Church, which organized a two local social justice marches in June, held a “Community Connect” virtual town hall meeting to continue the conversation on “addressing systemic racism, police reform and promoting equality for all.”
In addition to event organizer Lauren Selman, the church’s pastor Charles Johnson, and moderator James Lafferty (Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild in LA), the panel included Los Angeles City Council Member David Ryu, LA City Council Member (and LA Board of Supervisors Candidate) Herb Wesson, LA City Controller Ron Galperin, LA City Council District 10 Candidate Grace Yoo, and West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath. There was even some entertainment provided, in the form of videos documenting the group’s recent demonstrations, a poem read by Brittney Johnson, and opening and closing songs from singer/guitarist Ben Carroll.
The two-hour discussion was conducted in Q&A format, with Lafferty both posing his own questions to the candidates and relaying questions submitted by community members. The discussion was often passionate as the speakers emphasized the importance of the issues confronting us, what many referred to as our current “unique” moment in time, and the opportunity this moment provides to create real and lasting change for social justice.
In his introduction to the discussion, Lafferty said that we are “at an historic crossroads in America today,” in which the Black Lives Matter movement challenges Americans to abandon historic racism and “allow all people not only to be born but live their lives as fully equal members of society.” He contended that the current movement is more sweeping and profound than many others that have come before in our history, so “It’s time for us to simply call a thing a thing” when it comes to white supremacy. Also, he said, “until the cancer of white supremacy is eliminated, the cancer of racial injustice will not be eliminated,” and he expressed hope that this particular town hall would “be one of those nails in the coffin of racial injustice.”
Questions Lafferty posed to the panelists included:
Do you believe LAPD should be prohibited from using things like chokeholds, tear gas, batons, and similar tactics?
Wesson led off the responses, saying that every one of these practices should and will be addressed. But he also said, “let’s not be diverted from the big change — reimagining what public safety is all about.” That would likely mean moving some current police duties to new teams of civilians, who are specially trained to deal with things like mental health situations and/or traffic stops. If we can do that, Wesson said, it “will change public safety forever,” and we will also be able to reinvest money and resources in communities of color, which have long needed attention.
Ryu agreed with Wesson, but also acknowledged that some of the items above (such as chokeholds) are not currently used in Los Angeles. Still, he said the discussion is not as much about specific tactics as it is about how and when such tactics are used. For example, during the Black Lives Matter protest at 3rd and Fairfax on May 30, Ryu said, a peaceful march suddenly went “awry,” and he wants to know why. “That shouldn’t have been the case,” Ryu said. ” We need to reevaluate how we do crowd control. A police line formed and invited conflict.” He said he is eagerly awaiting the city’s report on the incident, which is still in process but which he hopes will shed some further light on the situation.
Should agencies other than the police have prosecutorial powers?
Yoo, an attorney, suggested it might indeed help if others besides police officers could issue citations or charge people with crimes, but she also cautioned that we don’t need a new bureaucratic entity, and we do need accountability from whoever might have that kind of authority.
What do you think of the 4-3 LAUSD vote to reduce the number of police in schools?
Horvath said we should think about the kind of environment we want children in – do we really want a strong police presence in schools, or do we want the freedom to learn? Law enforcement presence in the schools is well intentioned, she said, but it can also create discomfort and anxiety for some students. To improve the situation, Horvath said, we need to engage parents and start asking how they feel about it. She also noted – referring to the recent killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis – that “The first time I saw a murder was at the hands of someone in uniform.” She said the same is now true for many children…and”We have to be honest about that.”
Ryu said he supports LAUSD’s decision. “We should have zero police officers in schools.” He also contended that “some schools have more metal detectors than books,” but noted that all of them are low income schools, and that this is really “a poverty issue.” He said he also likes that the school board has asked for more health resources, such as nurses and social workers…and that we need to “treat schools with the respect they deserve.”
Finally, Galperin also praised LAUSD’s decision, saying it creates an opportunity to reimagine what both public safety and education should look like. Too many schools, he said, are like jails containing students…and we should now re-evaluate many of our social structures, and many kinds of justice. And if we don’t do that, he said, “we won’t have a just society.”
“Defund the police” means different things to different people. If we slash the budget and redirect money and personnel to other uses, are you for that?
Galperin noted that most of our social services are actually funded and provided by LA County, not the City of Los Angeles, so the first thing to do is look at the relationship between the City and County, and how they work together. Still, though, he said 54% of the city’s General Fund goes to public safety each year. So it’s clear, he said, that we need to create a society that doesn’t have such a big need for police, or the need for such a big police budget.
Wesson seemed optimistic that current sentiments could finally start to bring this about. Recalling an image that sticks with him from the recent protests – a white girl carrying a sign saying, “I understand that I will never understand, but I stand with you” – Wesson said that this moment in time is our greatest opportunity in decades to reform systems such as police, health and schools because the push for change is coming from the ground up. “The people of the country put us in this place,” he said, and we need to “make sure they’re in the middle of this conversation.” But a ground-up movement can only happen, he said, when people feel heard. So it’s going to be important for our elected officials to make sure we “dance with the ones who brung us.” In other words, he said, listen particularly hard right now not just to other officials, but to those they represent.
Ryu agreed with Wesson about building from the ground up, and noted that he, too, supported the first round of LAPD cuts budget cuts recommended by the LA City Counicil. But he noted what we do with the money recouped from the cuts is also important..and there are no programs in place yet on which to spend the money. So this really is an opportunity to reimagine the plice department and how policing works. For example, he said, traffic accidents generally don’t need to be attended by armed officers. In fact, he said, many traffic stops in other countries are managed with technology. And having people in uniform responding to mental health calls can spark fear and become “a recipe for flight and conflict” in the person who needs help. So Ryu said we should reserve the police for violent situations…and statistics show that most 911 calls do not involve violence and do not require an armed response.
What functions now done by police could be done by others?
After Lafferty noted that the average police officer makes only one felony arrest per year, which suggests much of their work would be safe for other kinds of civilian employees, Yoo said we could start with clerical work at LAPD, which would cost less and save a lot of money if done by civilians. She also said there is usually no reason for police to participate in sweeps of homeless camps, which can often involve 12-14 people. That job, in particular, she said, generally doesn’t need an armed repsonse, and needs to be done humanely, with proper notice, and with proper attention to not taking away important items, such as people’s medications.
Is there a plan to respond if Trump sends federal troops to Los Angeles?
Wesson said the mayor’s office is “certainly considering” how the city would respond if this were to happen…but that, if it did, “this would be one of the last, biggest, boneheaded moves if Trump were to do it.” So he said he doesn’t think it’s too likely, and we should focus instead on the more forward-looking changes we want to create.
Horvath agreed, saying the very question shows why change is necessary. For a president to send federal troops to any city without a request for help, she said, is “confounding, astounding,” and exactly why we need to reimagine the kinds and level of attacks we are preparing for.
What kinds of police reforms are necessary for West Hollywood?
Horvath noted that the city of West Hollywood contracts with the LA County Sheriff’s Department for it’s law enforcement personnel, so that’s the agency they will be working with on these issues.
What about transgender justice?
Horvath said West Hollywood recently had a transgender flag painted in an intersection, and she hopes it will make transgender people feel safer in the community. She said the city also has a transgender support program, and is working to make sure people understand transgender issues. It’s about implementation, enforcement and culture change, she said, and creating systems and environments that promote change.
What about retraining for Los Angeles police officers?
Wesson said that “everything is on the table right now, and everything is under review.” Training, he said, will definitely be part of it, but as we imagine inequities in all kinds of systems, we’ll also be looking at even more aspects of policing. “Public safety doesn’t just mean police,” he said…it’s also things like providing resources for kids, such as arts and summer camps, and more. Also, he said, lots of policing problems come from police confronting people who have mental illness or who have just had too much to drink. Maybe we should just offer them water and a ride, Wesson said, and leave them with a citation to appear in court later. In government, he said, sometimes you have to “take a step forward, then sideways”…and this is a huge opportunity to make change.
Often when LA County sheriffs release someone from custody, ICE can instantly pick them up. Should this stop?
Because LA is an official Sanctuary City, Yoo said, “it was a shocker to learn that the County is turning people over [to immigration officials], often for misdemeanors.” She said the county the county needs to end such practices, but that for this to happen, “regular people” need to get engaged and make their voices heard on the topic. We need more town halls, she said, and better access to City Hall for working people, with more meetings available on evenings and weekends.
Wesson said he would gladly join LA County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis in trying to end such practices.”This is deeply personal,” he said. “I’m not here campaigning. This is about changing the world, so my grandkids can grow up and not have to deal with these things.”
Finally, Ryu said he would also join that pledge, and noted that LAPD “does not work with ICE at all.”
What federal resources would help the most vulnerable residents in our current crisis?
Wesson said we need a “people’s bailout,” including things like rent and mortgage cancellations. “This pandemic is very foreign to all of us,” he said, so “we can’t speculate as to what the new normal will be.” And because of that, he said, we need the federal government to step in and help. They “need to be “damping down the anxiety and giving hope,” he said.
Horvath agreed, and said the federal government should be doing more to help with masks and other resources. Also, she noted, the first federal CARES relief act only applied to cities of 500,000 people or more, but had nothing for smaller cities (like West Hollywood), which are equally deserving and whose residents have the same needs as those in larger cities.
What can the LA City Council do to mandate that people wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19?
Ryu said California was a leader in requiring masks, and it’s already the law here, with local jurisdictions charged with enforcement. Still, though, he said there’s no funding for that effort, and there are equity issues. So the city is looking at enforcement strageties, and the first step is requiring all city employees to comply. Overall, though, Ryu said the pandemic requires “New Deal-style funding,” but we’re not receiving it from the federal government. Also, he said, money should to to the people first, because there’s a “domino effect” – if people can’t pay rent, landlords can’t pay their mortgages, and if mortgages default, banks will fail. So we need to give money to “Main Street,” he said, to prevent “toxic debt.” And we still need more money for testing, training, and more…and we’re not sure the federal government will reimburse us for those expenses, as was originally promised. In short, Ryu said, we need a cohesive vision and leadership from the top, and we’re not getting it.
Wesson added that a friend of his didn’t see a single person wearing a mask on a recent trip to Utah…and the friend was even teased there for wearing one. “A lot of people have been unbelievably irresponsible,” Wesson said. On the other hand, Wesson reported that his city council office has given out more than 50,000 masks so far. Also, Wesson suggested that if the city had a public bank (something he has been trying for several years to create), we would have somewhere to go for additional funding that we haven’t been able to find from other sources.
Pastor Johnson asked how the panelists feel about Qualified Immunity for police officers, noting that as a Black parent, “I have to tell my three Black sons when they leave the house how to act not if but when they get pulled over.”
“Welcome to being black in America,” said Wesson (the only other Black person on the panel). “When I learned to drive, I also had to learn how to act when, not if, I was stopped by the police.” At the same time, though, Weson again expressed optimism that things might finally be changing. “This is our moment. This is our time,” he said. Because “this is the first time ever that we’ve had a coalition like this.” And all allies are welcome: “You can be at our right, you can be a our left. But you cannot take us across the finish line. We have to plant that flag ourselves. But we couldn’t do that without you flanking us.”
And again, he insisted that this fight is entirely personal. “Politics be damned,” he said. “It’s the biggest thing everyone on this panel will ever do.”
Do our Neighborhood Councils have a role in these reforms?
Ryu, noting that he’s currently the only City Council Member who has also been a Neighborhood Council member, said Neighborhood Councils do indeed have power in the movement for social justice reform, because the City Council looks to them, along with homeowners’ associations, church groups and other community organizations, as the voice of local advocates.
What is the expected outcome of this discussion, and what are the next steps?
Wesson reiterated that we are dealing with deep, systemic racism, and that we need both money and “real structural change” to combat it. To do that, he said, we need to gather information from the community – advocates, activists and others – particularly on the kinds of changes people would like to see in policing, and the kinds of unarmed responses they’d prefer. He said the city will be doing a public survey on law enforcement, and the results will by used by city staff for public safety planning. City officials will also be getting recommendations from organizations like Black Lives Matter, and looking at best practices from other countries and other cities. They’re looking, he said for “alternatives that can really change the playing field.”
Horvath said she has taken the mayors’ pledge from the Obama Foundation , which asks mayors to review their police departments’ use-of-force policies, engage communities and seek diverse input, report findings to the communty, and then reform police practices based on what they learn. So far, she said, West Hollywood has commissioned an independent study of the LA County Sheriff’s Department in West Hollywood, funded an Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) plan, and is encouraging people to educate themselves about the issues, get out and vote, stay actively engaged, and to look out for each other. And finally, she said, they’re looking for ways to create community, understanding and person to person action.
Winding up the discussion, Ryu gave special thanks to the Cochran Ave. Baptist church for its efforts in advancing the local social justice movement, saying, “Your fingerprints are all over this.”
And Yoo agreed, saying that everyone needs to starting “walking the talk.” There will be no change, she said, if all we do is talk without also taking action.
Closing out the forum, Pastor Johnson thanked the participants and promised to schedule another town hall discussion soon. “We want to make sure we leave here with practical things,” he said. “We’re starting here, but hope it goes across the city and country,” he said. He also directed people to the Miracle Mile 4 Justice website – MM4J.com – where people can learn more about the group’s activities, sign up for notices of future events, and also register to vote.
If you’d like to watch the full town July 24 hall session, you can find it here.