Los Angeles County is home to the nation’s biggest local jail system. It also has the largest local prosecutorial office and some of the deadliest law enforcement agencies: The Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department each kill more people per year than police departments in other major cities with comparable rates of violent crime. And, despite its progressive reputation, it’s a sprawling county of 10 million people who have, for years, elected tough-on-crime politicians.
But 2020 was different. In a key test of police reform after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the rallies that spread across the country this summer, anti-carceral candidates and policies won across the board — victories that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
From the City Council to the district attorney’s office, voters chose the candidates who ran on reducing incarceration and holding violent law enforcement officials accountable while also approving a measure requiring part of the county’s revenue to be set aside for alternatives to incarceration. At a time when some establishment Democrats are blaming their party’s electoral setbacks in the House on calls to “Defund the police,” activists in Los Angeles helped oust incumbents and went up against well-funded police unions and won.
The outcome, activists say, is the result of grassroots organizing by Black Lives Matter and allied groups who have worked for years to mobilize the community around racial justice demands.
“This is one of those cases where grassroots pressure, storytelling, organizing all worked together perfectly to beat back police union money,” Chris Lazare, the organizing director of Real Justice PAC, said in an interview. “I don’t think this happens without BLM.”
The biggest battle was the Los Angeles County district attorney race, where progressive prosecutor George Gascón defeated the incumbent, Jackie Lacey, also a Democrat, who conceded Nov. 6. With ballots still arriving as of Friday, Gascón was 7 percentage points ahead of Lacey, who had opposed most criminal justice reform efforts during her eight years in office.
Measure J, which allocates funding for incarceration alternatives, is currently ahead by 14 points. Nithya Raman, a Democrat and first-time candidate for City Council whose platform included decriminalizing crimes of poverty, defeated incumbent David Ryu, who was backed by Democratic heavyweights Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. In the race for county supervisor, both Democrats ran on progressive platforms, but Herb Wesson, who received police union money, lost by a landslide to Holly Mitchell, who took a “no cash from cops” pledge in this race. And reformist California Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D) won reelection, despite being the subject of a fear-mongering campaign by a corrections officer union.
The results of Los Angeles County’s elections will have a widespread effect. Investment in housing and mental health services mean that some of Los Angeles’ most vulnerable residents might get help instead of a jail sentence. Under policy changes announced by the incoming district attorney, mistakes made by kids might not ruin their lives. With more police accountability, cops may feel less emboldened to use lethal force against the people they are supposed to protect.
There are national implications as well in a country that is locked in a heated debate about reforming law enforcement institutions. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the second most important race in this country was the race for L.A. DA,” said Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “This is the linchpin for mass incarceration.”
It’s tempting to view the election results as an outgrowth of months of protests, sparked by the high-profile police killings of George Floyd and Louisville, Kentucky, medical technician Breonna Taylor. But Black Lives Matter, which was founded in Los Angeles, has been laying the groundwork for these wins for years.
“When it became clear that we needed to rise up, we were able to do so quickly rather than trying to figure out what it is we do, how to do it, who to call together,” Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter L.A. founder, said in an interview. ”We already had a network, we already had a platform, we already had a philosophy that we were able to tap into.”
After BLM was formed in 2013, activists put pressure on Lacey, a Black woman, to prosecute police officers for killing Black members of the community. When petitions, letters and requests for meetings didn’t work, the group started protesting outside Lacey’s office every Wednesday afternoon, a practice they have carried on for three years.
Earlier this year, before nationwide protests against police brutality erupted, BLM was already at work building coalitions and organizing around demands that would become central to the “Defund the police” movement: Spend less taxpayer money on policing and more on universal needs, such as health care, housing and public transportation. It was a rejection of a system of policing that disproportionately harms Black and brown people and an embrace of a more equitable vision for Los Angeles.
In July, a coalition of Los Angeles activists successfully pressured the City Council to reduce the Los Angeles Police Department’s funding by $150 million — a fraction of its nearly $2 billion budget but a meaningful move in a city with a history of readily approving budget increases for cops.
BLM doesn’t endorse candidates, but it has made ousting Lacey a priority. During Lacey’s time as the county’s top prosecutor, on-duty law enforcement officers in L.A. County have killed hundreds of people, but her office has prosecuted only one case. Over the years, Lacey has taken positions that were out of step with her constituency, opposing efforts to legalize marijuana and seeking the death penalty — actions that have disproportionately harmed people of color.
In addition to organizing protests, BLM has focused on educating the community about the role of the district attorney and the ways in which Lacey had let them down. It took its message directly to friends and neighbors, knocking on doors and setting a goal of texting five friends a day about the district attorney race. As the election grew near, it became clear that the message was resonating.
Lacey is the first Black woman to hold her position, and voting against her may not have been intuitive for Black voters, Abdullah said. She expected to have to do a lot of work explaining Lacey’s record — but she quickly discovered that people were already aware.
“I can count on two hands the number of people who said they were voting for Jackie Lacey,” Abdullah said. “We were knocking on doors, and people already knew, which to us indicated that three-year-long effort had familiarized some people.” Multiple people told Abdullah they were unhappy about an incident in March, when Lacey’s husband pointed a gun at Abdullah during a protest outside the couple’s home.
Law enforcement unions spent more than $5 million in support of Lacey — 72% of her total donations, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis. It was one of several fights they lost in Los Angeles this year.
When Lacey conceded Nov. 6, one of the first things Gascón did was set up a public meeting with Black Lives Matter — something the group had been asking of Lacey for years. “What you have done in many ways, you have moved mountains,” Gascón told the group. “That is why you are the first group that I have come to talk to because I do respect and honor what you have done.”
Many of the people in the room had loved ones who had been killed by the police. One by one, they stood up and told Gascón what it was like to be fed false information their slain family members. They described being blown off when they turned to the district attorney’s office for justice. Some talked about how hard it was to support Gascón, a former cop. They reminded him that they helped him get elected and told him they planned to hold him to his word that he would do things differently than his predecessor.
The activists know that Gascón’s victory won’t fix everything. But there are promising signs of change. He has pledged to reopen four fatal police shooting cases that Lacey declined to prosecute. He has committed to ending the use of the death penalty and resentencing the people from Los Angeles County who have been condemned to death. He plans to stop prosecuting juveniles as adults and start prioritizing alternatives to arrest for low-level crimes associated with poverty.
Gascón has “already transformed the L.A. criminal justice system simply by ending the use of the death penalty and no longer prosecuting juveniles as adults,” said Natasha Minsker a policy adviser for Smart Justice California. “It’s so significant what he can do and what he has already done.”
BLM, working closely with a coalition of racial and social justice groups, brought the same grassroots organizing tactics to Measure J, which requires 10% of locally generated revenue to be spent on housing, mental health programs, jail diversion, and other social services.
The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs spent more than $3.5 million fighting the measure, and Sheriff Alex Villanueva warned Angelenos to oppose the effort “if you don’t want your streets to look like a scene from ‘Mad Max.’”
Without the ability to outspend the cops, “Yes on J” activists stepped up volunteer phone banking and spreading the message on their own social media accounts. When the results started trickling in, it showed Measure J leading by double digits.
It was “a confirmation of the People’s Budget LA work, where Angelenos said they wanted to spend on universal human need, they did not want to spend on police,” she added.
The combination of activists’ educational outreach and reformer candidates’ unabashed embrace of their positions meant that tough-on-crime rhetoric and fear-mongering didn’t have much sticking power. Ryu, the recently defeated City Council member, said in an email to his supporters that his opponent, Raman, wanted to cut police spending by 98% (a misrepresentation of her position) and that her campaign was “fueled by extremist groups who promote hate and violence.”
In a video response, Raman restated her actual position: The police budget should be audited, and some of LAPD’s funding should be redirected toward unarmed service-oriented responders. She also took the opportunity to explain to voters in clear terms the corrupting influence of police unions on local politics.
“Our local police union has for years spent big to support local politicians and to make sure that their preferred candidate wins — which means that in budget discussions at City Hall, they have played an outsized role,” Raman said. “At this moment of national reckoning around race and police violence against Black Americans, we deserve a conversation that hasn’t been absolutely captured by the police union.”
Raman’s victory marked the first time an incumbent councilmember had been ousted in 17 years.
Law enforcement groups also failed a political test during Reggie Jones-Sawyer’s fight to keep his state Assembly seat. Jones-Sawyer, who chairs the Assembly’s public safety committee and has pushed criminal justice reform measures. During his reelection campaign this year, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association gave more than $1 million to his opponent and featured Jones-Sawyer in a video suggesting the lawmaker should be punished for supposedly putting cops in danger.
In the video, a man is shown pointing his finger at a red bull’s-eye placed on top of a labeled photo of Jones-Sawyer, who is Black, while the narrator says, “We’re going to demand that the increased violence and assault on police officers is addressed and that the perpetrators are held accountable to the highest degree.”
Although votes are still being counted, Jones-Sawyer was leading his opponent by 16 points Friday, despite doing poorly in his primary race.
“I didn’t see this coming,” Armour said of the voters’ reform-minded choices. “Twenty years ago, when I was teaching this stuff, it was so gloomy. I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. We seemed to be more punitive, more about retribution, retaliation and revenge. California was one of the jurisdictions leading the nation in the ‘three strikes’ laws.”
For mainstream public opinion to shift this much in the past decade “is just jaw-dropping.”
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