Above photo: Black Lives Matter-LA founder, Melina Abdullah. Melina Abdullah and SpeakOutNow.
Black Lives Matter.
As the jury was deliberating its verdict in George Floyd’s murder by former police officer Derek Chauvin, BLM co-founder Melina Abdullah spoke with Robert Scheer about the movement’s enormous impact and the work that remains.
As the world awaited the fate of Derek Chauvin–the Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of killing George Floyd–Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah joined Robert Scheer on “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss what he calls the most successful social justice movement the country has perhaps ever seen. In the timely episode, Abdullah, a lifelong activist and California State University, Los Angeles professor, traces the roots of the BLM movement back to 2013 and notes that Floyd’s killing was the moment the “world was cracked wide open” for everyone to see the deep-seated systemic racism at the core of every American institution. She adds, however, that regardless of a guilty verdict there is still a lot of work to be done in order to truly achieve racial justice. Even a guilty verdict, she states, does not amount to anything akin to justice, as “justice is much bigger than anything the criminal legal system or any verdict can mete out.”
Noting that the global grassroots response to Floyd’s untimely death came as COVID-19 gripped the globe, Scheer begins the conversation with a simple but powerful question: “What has it been like to be an activist in the midst of a pandemic?”
“[W]hen we say ‘Black lives matter,’ it’s not only about ending police killings and intervening in an unjust system of state-sanctioned violence,” Abdullah responds. “It’s also about ensuring and doing all we can to protect Black life.”
Abdullah explains that in many places the official pandemic numbers did not reflect the reality that BIPOC communities were being hit hardest by the novel coronavirus, leading BLM to “very quickly [become] involved in trying to unmask racial disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic.” The movement’s activists organized Black-led groups across the country and in Los Angeles, where she leads the city’s BLM chapter, to rethink how our societies are structured and what our taxes are being spent on. These efforts led BLM to the founding of the People’s Budget LA, a coalition that ultimately drafted the successful Los Angeles’ Measure J designed to redistribute public funds away from policing and towards communities that need it most.
Another example of BLM’s remarkable influence and organizing power was the success of the LA chapter’s three-and-a-half-year campaign to unseat District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Lacey, whose husband pointed a loaded gun at Abdullah during a direct action–a story the activist recounts in detail during the episode–lost to George Gascón in the November election after eight years as the city’s DA in large part in response to Black Lives Matter’s weekly protests in front of City Hallurging Lacey’s removal. But, as Abdullah notes several times, she is conscious that BLM cannot be a single-issue movement if racial justice is truly to be achieved.
“We’ve moved from protesting Jackie Lacey, [who] as the district attorney who signed off on the murders of 634 people at the hands of police, [refusing] to prosecute those officers,” says Abdullah. After successfully unseating Lacey, she adds, “we moved our Wednesday weekly demonstrations to protest the L.A. Police Protective League and all police associations.
“We’re there every Wednesday. We maintain our discipline; everyone’s masked up, we have hand sanitizer and gloves and give away…hygiene products there to make sure that, as you’re saying, we are remembering we are still in the midst of a pandemic. And we are pushing forward as hard as we can to transform systems as well.”
Listen to the full conversation between Abdullah and Scheer, which not only expands on their discussion shortly after Floyd’s murder, but highlights the importance of pushing police associations out of the broader labor movement and sheds light on the growing power of the BLM movement, which, as Abdullah affirms is “winning—as long as we fight, we win.”
Host: Robert Scheer
Producer: Joshua Scheer
Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Transcript: Lucy Berbeo
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests–intelligence, wisdom, insight, everything. Melina Abdullah, somebody I’ve gotten to know over the last five years, when we first both spoke at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This was after Donald Trump, while he was actually running and it looked like he might win, and what was that going to do to the country.
And after that we had Black Lives Matter; Melina has been a leader, nationally, in the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. She got her undergraduate degree at Howard University, and then got her master’s and doctorate at the University of Southern California in political science. And she is a professor at Cal State University, L.A.; she’s been the former chair of the Pan-African Studies Department, an incredibly major figure in the academic and activist world. And welcome.
And what I really want to–I’ve talked to Melina before on this show, and what I want to get is an overview. Because most of us when we get into political activism, and certainly if you’re a person of color, you don’t expect to be as successful as the Black Lives [Matter] movement has been. And we’re now just waiting for a jury verdict on this trial [over George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis]. But even the conduct of that trial has been such where there is actually a break in the blue code of silence, and there are actually police officials and experts taking some measure of responsibility.
So it’s a historic moment. But I think one thing we’ve recognized in the middle of this pandemic, it didn’t stop the Black Lives [Matter] movement from being effective, from demonstrating, showing you can take care of your health and at the same time take care of social well-being and social justice. So kind of give me a quick wrap-up of what these incredible years have been like. Let’s just focus on the pandemic. What has it been like to be an activist in the midst of a pandemic?
MA: Sure. Well, thank you for having me. I’m glad to be in conversation with you. The pandemic–really, as we thought–we spent maybe a few weeks slowing down with this unprecedented pandemic, and then began to look at racial disparities in the pandemic. So Black Lives Matter led a lot of work trying to get to racial equity when we talk about health, right? So when we say “Black lives matter,” it’s not only about ending police killings and intervening in an unjust system of state-sanctioned violence. It’s also about ensuring and doing all we can to protect Black life.
So very quickly we became involved in trying to unmask racial disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic. And you saw numbers come out of places like New Orleans, state of Louisiana, St. Louis, and other places that showed that Black people were dying at two to three times the rate of everyone else as a result of COVID-19. So here in Los Angeles, numbers weren’t as quick to come, so we quickly pulled together a group of virtually every single Black-led organization in the county.
And we issued something called the Black L.A. Demands. And basically what it was, was one, a request for the numbers; so even before the demands came out, we worked with former City Council president Herb Wesson to quickly make a request for the racial breakdown of the numbers; we got that. And then we challenged Gavin Newsom, the governor of the state, on his numbers, which really had suppressed the impact on Black people. And we got those numbers corrected. And then this Black L.A. Demands group, after we get the numbers, quickly says well, recognizing that California and Los Angeles are like the rest of the country–that Black people are suffering disproportionately at the hands of COVID-19–what is it that we want? And what we saw was an opportunity to begin to redirect the city’s budget, the county’s budget, the state’s budget towards the things that create safe communities and healthy communities. And we began to make demands around that.
And after we issued those demands, what we saw almost immediately, a week or two after we issued those demands, is the mayor–who we sent the demands to–completely ignored the voice of Black Los Angeles. And instead of responding–he still hasn’t responded to those demands, which were issued more than a year ago now–he issues a new city budget, which does the opposite of what we were requesting, right? And it increases, at a time–if you remember the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when there was virtually no crime; at a time when we have an unprecedented health pandemic, with an unprecedented economic impact that disproportionately impacts Black folks–he seeks to increase the budget for LAPD, going from near 53% to 54% of the city’s general fund.
And so we launched something called People’s Budget L.A. And we asked Angelenos, well, where do you want your money to go? And we were able to launch a survey; we did a series of town halls; this is all before the murder of George Floyd. And what we got was an overwhelming response: 25,000 Angelenos responded to this survey. And their lowest priority was on policing, traffic, and criminalization or prosecutions of Angelenos. Their highest priority was on meeting the universal needs of human beings, so housing and health care and mental health resources. And so People’s Budget L.A. became something that was really, really huge, and we were able to push really, really hard.
And when George Floyd was killed just two months later, the responses to this kind of budget demand were embedded in the uprisings. Because our clarion call for those uprisings was to defund the police and reimagine public safety. And we actually saw support for police plummet in the survey. So the survey responses that came after George Floyd was killed in May were much, much lower–and it was already the lowest priority, but it became that folks were responding saying that they should completely defund the police, that they should divest from policing.
And so that’s the work that we did. And then of course once George Floyd was killed–and then I’ll slow down on this question after this–once George Floyd was killed, I describe it as a moment when the world was cracked wide open. And we had thousands of people pour out into the streets, and we saw a complete renaissance–you know, it’s strange to have a renaissance just seven years into your existence, or less than seven years, but a resurgence or a renaissance of Black Lives Matter, where we were measured as the largest racial and social justice movement in global history. And so the marches and demonstrations in Los Angeles were some of the largest on the planet. We had a march of more than 100,000 people down Hollywood Boulevard, and you know, we had marches nearly every day, or almost every day, for many months through the summer of 2020, and had to endure a lot of police brutality. Even as we were challenging police brutality, police proved why we had to stand up, and constantly attacked our folks.
And so we did that in the name of George Floyd, in the name of Breonna Taylor, in the name of Ahmaud Arbery. And also in the names of those who were killed right here in Los Angeles by police during the pandemic and after the murder of George Floyd. So people like Andrés Guardado; people like Dijon Kizzee, who was stopped and killed by L.A. County sheriffs for riding a bike; people like Fred Williams, who was stopped and killed after he ran from L.A. County sheriffs, who were seeking to harass him for hanging out with his friends in Mona Park in South Central Los Angeles, unincorporated area of South Los Angeles. And so, you know, we demonstrated in their names, and were met with police brutality even as we did. But that didn’t stop us, and we had some of the most massive and effective marches, which actually pushed the mayor of this city to at least pledge $250 million to Black communities, $150 million of which was to be defunded from LAPD.
RS: And what was historic about this demonstration, it took place in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, and there were all sorts of warnings that you were endangering the health of everyone. I was one of those thousands, the 100,000 that participated. And the marches were really quite disciplined as far as, you know, preserving the health of those near them. And we didn’t get the terrible outcome, medically, that the naysayers said would happen from those demonstrations. It was actually a great demonstration that you could be concerned about the public health and also be concerned in the very same moment about the public’s cry for justice.
MA: Absolutely. We were pretty disciplined, and remained disciplined. We continue to demonstrate and continue to organize. We’re now organizing to end police associations. People all around the country are finally seeing the negative impact of police associations, and how they oppose the interests of every other working-class person. When we think about police associations, which sometimes describe themselves as unions, we know that it is the Minneapolis Police Officers Association that’s paying for the defense of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, the murderer of George Floyd. We know that Kim Potter, the murderer of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, was the president of her police association. We also know that here in Los Angeles we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the murder of Daniel Hernandez, who was killed after a traffic accident when Toni McBride, the daughter of the head of the L.A. Police Protective League, shot him dead.
And so we’re continuing demonstrations every single Wednesday. We’ve moved from protesting Jackie Lacey, as the district attorney who signed off on the murders of 634 people at the hands of police–when she was district attorney she refused to prosecute those officers, and we spent three and a half years trying to get her unseated. We were successful in doing that in November. And so we moved our demonstrations, our Wednesday weekly demonstrations to protest the L.A. Police Protective League and all police associations. So we’re there every Wednesday. We maintain our discipline; everyone’s masked up, we have hand sanitizer and gloves and give away, you know, hygiene products there to make sure that, as you’re saying, we are remembering we are still in the midst of a pandemic. And we are pushing forward as hard as we can to transform systems as well.
RS: Yeah. Let me just say, the reason I wanted to do another interview with you–I’ve done a few now, and you just amaze me. And you know, I always knew you were a terrifically idealistic person, and a great organizer; I’ve had you in my classes at USC, where you’ve organized the students right from under me and taken over the class, and it’s great, and you sign up volunteers. But what you are is also a winner. And you know, and you do this in a way where you still have this total life of obligation. You’re a mother of three children that you’ve been mothering, too, in this pandemic; you’re a full-time professor and holding your department together; you’re an educator of the first order. And you know, I kind of think, how do you manage all this?
And you just very casually mentioned one of the great victories that you’ve had. I mean, three years of organizing against a district attorney, who because she was Black thought she had a way of avoiding her complicity, really is what it was, with the police. Where she would just not bring charges against the police for their behavior, criminal behavior in many cases. And you ran this campaign–which I, you know, at some point I thought well, this is really pretty quixotic; the D.A. is popular, she’s a Black woman, you’re accusing her of racism. You won that election, your organization, your organizing efforts.
And one footnote to that is that her husband, also a Black person, pulled a gun and confronted you with it. You were just, what, two people on a porch trying to have a meeting with her, and he–it’s this very dramatic whole post, Twitter picture of it–but you know, get off my porch, I’ll shoot. You know, and you handled it with grace, actually: we’re just here to have a conversation. But it was a turning point. And I gather the charges, there are still possible charges against the district attorney’s husband, David Lacey; a judge has refused to throw it out. Where does that now stand? And you know, but again, you managed to defeat this district attorney, who had had a number of terms and was at one point quite popular. So take us there. You’re not just about protesting, you’re about winning.
MA: Well, we have a chance that when we fight, we win. When we fight, we win. And so we were committed to fighting. And the ousting of Jackie Lacey did take three and a half years, but we were pulled into that work. We had just actually come off of another victory. There was a couple named Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin, who were murdered by Inglewood police in 2016 as they slept in their car. And after about a year of organizing, we were successful in getting them fired from–the five officers who killed Kisha and Marquintan–fired from Inglewood Police Department. And at the forefront of that fight was Kisha Michael’s twin sister, Trisha Michael. And as we’re celebrating this tremendous victory–because we almost never get officers fired, they’re almost never held accountable–we’re celebrating this tremendous victory, and Trisha says well, that’s not enough. And she says, you know, these officers can just go to another police department and get a job unless they’re prosecuted. And so we have to get them prosecuted.
And so that launched an effort to try to get Jackie Lacey to prosecute killer cops. And we started that in September of 2017, and began pushing her, petitioning her, calling her. And she completely ignored the community’s call. And so as we continued the call and realized that she was never going to come around, we decided that, you know, we’re going to have to pressure her differently. And we took our call from “prosecute killer cops” to “Jackie Lacey must go,” and began to chant “Jackie Lacey must go.” And so every single Wednesday, for more than three years, we stood outside of her office. And sometimes, before, you know, the world cracked wide open, we’d be huddled together in the rain, and there might be five of us, and we’d be demanding an end to Jackie Lacey’s reign as district attorney.
We have to be clear about who we were fighting. As she began to run for reelection, every single police association poured money into her campaign. They did independent expenditures. We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars in campaign donations. And we didn’t have anything. All we had was the people. But what we always remember–and I say this in my classes, and I believe it, but when you see it it’s something different–I say that people are more powerful than money. People are more powerful than money. And when we talk about Jackie Lacey, that’s exactly what happened. People showed that we were more powerful than money. We were able to, by doing a truly grassroots campaign–I mean, talking to neighbors, I mean, you know, every forum we could get in front of, we would stand there and say how terrible Jackie Lacey was.
And when she began to run for reelection, I remember we started doing, like, these people’s walks in neighborhoods, just kind of lifting up why she has to go. And we went all the way out to the Antelope Valley. A brother named Michael Thomas had been killed in Lancaster by L.A. County sheriffs, killed in his own home, 60-something-year-old man. And his family really wanted us to be present there, so we started doing neighborhood walks in Lancaster. And I was nervous, because when you think about the Antelope Valley, they’re not that progressive. But as we walked in the Antelope Valley, virtually every door we knocked on we’d say, who are you voting for in the DA’s race? And they all said, “Not Jackie Lacey.” [Laughs] And it just lifted up how the people, if we get the word out, if we talk, if we engage in ways that are personable, where people can understand–
RS: This was in a white community, or mixed, or–?
MA: Well, we targeted the poorest parts of Lancaster, which of course are the Blackest and brownest. But they weren’t all Black and brown, right. So I would say it was about two-thirds people of color, but there were also more working-class white residents as well. And we were also at the shopping center there, and it was just outstanding to witness them say–you know, of course we did South L.A.; folks in South Central knew, because we have, most of us live here, so we’d been planting seeds for three years in South Central.
RS: But she was still pretty popular in part of the white Westside and more affluent areas, wasn’t she?
MA: She was. So she remained pretty popular in, like, the West Valley; she lives in Granada Hills. We did do our first walk in Granada Hills–in fact, in her very own neighborhood–and we didn’t get a lot of traction there. We got some, though; we were surprised by the ones who were on our side. But the whiter and more affluent folks tended to be the ones who voted for her.
RS: So tell us about the confrontation with her husband. Because I just looked at it before getting on with you. It’s quite dramatic. You remain very cool and calm, and we’re just here to talk to, you know, Lacey. But her husband is–he’s actually pointing what seems to be–well, I don’t know–apparently a loaded gun, right at your chest.
MA: It was a loaded gun pointed right at my chest. Ah, so I just want to give the lead-up a little bit. Jackie Lacey, as she was running for reelection–and we remember that she ran unopposed in 2016, right. So she’s facing two opponents in the primary, two viable opponents in the primary: George Gascón and Rachel Rossi. And we didn’t endorse any candidate; we just said, not Jackie Lacey. And as she was forced to actually campaign for the seat, one of the things that started to happen is groups started to establish solidarity with Black Lives Matter. And so she went and tried to get endorsements in places, including at the Stonewall Democratic Club, which is the largest and most historic LGBTQ Democratic club in the country. And they let us know she was coming. And so we went and we had–and we had been what’s called bird-dogging her for months, ever since before she declared that she was running for reelection. Anywhere we heard she would be, we would show up.
RS: And give us the statistic again, the large number of cases that she did not act on, of police abuse. That’s the important thing to keep in mind. You were bird-dogging somebody you thought was not doing her job as DA.
MA: Right. 634 people killed by police. 634. So we couldn’t just ignore it. We had to. And so again, as you’re lifting up, you know, I’m a mother, I have a full-time job, Black Lives Matter doesn’t pay me–it’s not that we get some kind of thrill by going and confronting her, risking our lives, risking our freedom. We’ve been arrested before for this kind of thing. It’s that we feel and understand that the lives of Black community members are on the line as long as she’s in office. So we began to bird-dog her, and get this call from Stonewall Democratic Club that she was coming to their club. At the same time, we had been demanding that she have a meeting in the Black community with Black Lives Matter present. She refused to do that. And so we show up at Stonewall Democratic Club; we’re there with the family of Ryan Twyman, who had recently been murdered in Los Angeles by L.A. County sheriffs. And some other families were with us as well; Wakiesha Wilson’s family–[she] was killed by LAPD–were all there. And in that meeting, she committed–this was in November of 2019–so she committed to having this meeting, recommitted to having this meeting. And didn’t.
And so basically what we decided is on the eve of the primary, which I believe was in March of 2020, on the eve of the primary–it was March 2020. We decided, since she never had the meeting, refused our repeated invitations to have a meeting–since she didn’t have a meeting in the Black community, we would go to her front door. And so we did. We went to her front door, and as we gathered–and there were about 40 of us who went on a bus from South Central Los Angeles, Crenshaw district, went to her house early in the morning because we heard that she had a breakfast meeting in Los Angeles at seven, so we had to get there before she left for that meeting. And go to her house; we stand, we have a prayer circle, we pour libation, we had indigenous folks with us who did a land acknowledgment.
And we kind of nonchalantly walked to her front door. I had a comrade with me from White People for Black Lives, and didn’t realize that we also had a third person from Black Lives Matter filming as well. So three of us walked to her porch; I rang her front doorbell thinking she may not come out, maybe nobody would answer. And a few minutes later, we hear someone come down the stairs, and we heard what sounded like a gun being cocked. And I looked at Dahlia, who was with me, and I joked, oh, that doesn’t sound good. And I thought I was, like, being paranoid; that of course it’s not a gun cocking, right? And next thing you know, the door opens and David Lacey points a gun out, holds it to my chest, and says–you know, just inches from my chest–and says: Get off the porch, I will shoot you.
RS: That’s on the Twitter thing.
MA: That’s on the Twitter, right. And so–hah. I was grateful that we had meditated and prayed, because I was able to stay very calm, and simply say something like, we’re here to see Jackie Lacey for our community meeting, right. The community meeting that she promised. OK, I will get off your porch; can you tell Jackie Lacey we’re here, right. And so, gratefully, I’m still here and I’m talking to you, but that was definitely one of those moments when, you know, I did–people say your life flashes before your eyes. It absolutely does. I felt my life flash before my eyes.
RS: And that’s the case that’s still, as we record this, they tried to get it dismissed, and Black Lives Matter has pursued it. So why don’t you–where does that case stand now regarding the [ex]-district attorney’s husband?
MA: Right. So we pushed for him to be charged. Of course, she was in charge of charging people for crimes, so the state attorney general at the time, Javier Becerra, did finally step in and charge David Lacey with three misdemeanor counts against me and the two other people who were on the porch. They tried to, David Lacey and his team tried to get it dismissed; it was not dismissed. The evidence is just so overwhelming, as you’re stating. There is video of him doing exactly what we’re saying he did, right. It’s indisputable. What they’re doing now is, as the case moves forward, is they have lobbied for diversion. What diversion is, is a decriminalization effort, which organizers like me organized for, right. And what we saw was people like Jackie Lacey be staunchly opposed to diversion in almost any case, and we heard from district attorneys and researched it ourselves, that it’s never been used in a gun case, right, with a gun charge.
But they’re lobbying for diversion. And unfortunately, the attorney general seems to be going along with their recommendation for diversion, which would basically mean that all David Lacey has to do–remember, who threatened my life, along with the lives of two other people, and any of the 40 or so folks who were standing around could have also been hit by gunfire. Had his finger on the trigger, right? He’s now saying that all he needs is anger management. And the point of contention between the prosecution, which is the attorney general’s office that’s supposed to be representing my interests and the interests of the other two victims, is saying, well, he shouldn’t get to keep his gun during the one-year diversion period. And his point of contention is, yes he should; he should get to keep his guns even as he’s undergoing anger management.
So that’s where it stands, and after we get through this moment trying to strategize about how we can at least illuminate things for the decisionmaker–the ultimate decisionmaker in a diversion case is the judge. And so we want the judge to know how utterly ridiculous it is that someone can point a loaded weapon at three people, threaten to kill them, and get anger management, right? We want–we don’t believe in a carceral state, but we do believe in the protection of the public. And so our demand is that he be permanently banned from access to guns.
RS: Well, it doesn’t seem so unreasonable, since he’s used it in a threatening way. But the interesting point here is that–you know, and class comes into it, right. Two things are different here, and they apply to the case in Minneapolis and elsewhere. The presence of video. If you didn’t have the video, you wouldn’t be believed; you would just be people trying to cause trouble. And your demeanor on the video is very reasonable; you actually say, wow, what was that about, and you’re clearly not threatening. So they don’t have that, you know, he was afraid for his life or something. But the other thing is class. You know, people willing to make all sorts of allowances for the husband of the district attorney, and he needs anger management, where there are plenty of people who end up beginning or continuing a life of imprisonment for much less.
RS: And that really has to be driven home. That what we’re seeing through the video, and this reality check, and then through a group like Black Lives Matter–more successful maybe than any group in American history in heightening this difference of enforcement of law–when it comes to people of privilege, even in this case, yes, a Black person, they get all kinds of consideration. Anger management. Whereas if it’s some younger kid who, say, does something threatening, no. It’s the beginning of a life of imprisonment. That’s really what seems to be at issue here.
MA: Right. That’s right. So it’s class, it’s political clout and political connections, right. It’s all of that. There is a proximity to power that folks have that, you know, regardless of race. So people keep talking about Jackie Lacey and David Lacey as Black people–yes, they are absolutely Black people, nobody’s disputing that. [Laughs] But we have to remember that they’re not moving in the interests of the collective of Black folks, right. They’re moving in their own personal interests, and in a way that advances even a system of white supremacy. And so you’re absolutely right; it’s more than just race; it’s race, class, it’s elitism, it’s political connection, all of that.
RS: So one way to wrap this up, because we’re still waiting for this verdict in Minneapolis, and maybe I could get you back to splice it in before we broadcast it, and we’ll see what happens. But we are seeing a crack in the blue wall, or apology or rationalization for this kind of violence. We are seeing, again, thankfully because of videos, but also heightened consciousness and the work that you as much as anyone has been doing, we’ve taken this issue–you know, after all, L.A. is where Hollywood celebrated the police for many decades, and we had historically one of the worst police departments in the country, nonetheless celebrated by that industry. There’s an awareness that maybe that time is up. And so, am I being too optimistic? I don’t know. What do you think’s going to happen in this jury verdict? I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but do you think something’s changed?
MA: I think things are definitely moving. Things are definitely moving. I don’t know, I feel like–you know, there was a Saturday Night Live skit, right, that showed Black folks and white folks, I think they were media commentators, all saying yes, what happened to George Floyd is terrible, policing is terrible. But the white commentators had faith in the system; they said, oh, of course [Derek Chauvin is] going to be found guilty. And the Black commentators were like, I don’t know! And I think that’s where I am. I don’t know. We’ve seen it over and over and over again, this idea of the system doubling down on itself and protecting itself. And even though I think that the entire trial, what we saw was them try to cast Derek Chauvin as an outlier, as a bad apple, right. But we know Derek Chauvin was a training officer. Derek Chauvin was not, you know, some anomaly; he was part of the system of policing. Derek Chauvin’s defense is being paid for by the Minneapolis Police Officers Association, even though he’s been fired, right.
And so it’s really important to remember that justice, even–and you raised this–that he wouldn’t be facing trial if it weren’t for the work in the streets. And so justice doesn’t come just because the criminal legal system has its hands in it. All too often, the criminal legal system refuses to protect Black crime survivors, and targets those who are accused. And so I don’t know what’s going to happen. And any way it’s cut, I don’t think it will actually bring justice. We have to remember that justice would have meant that George Floyd was still with us. Justice would have meant that even the crime, the so-called crime he was accused of–which was really a crime of poverty, right–would have been examined in terms of what are society’s responsibilities, and why did it even require a violent response. Was a violent response required, was a police response required. So justice is much bigger than anything the criminal legal system or any verdict can mete out. But I’m also not overly optimistic that the verdict will be one that’s deemed acceptable to many of us.
RS: But you’re absolutely right–I just want to point out something, your expertise. Not only do you have a doctorate in political science, but you’ve had vast experience, and you were actually on the Los Angeles Human Relations [Commission] trying to play this citizen observer role. And the fact of the matter is–and I still get stuck on the number of cases that Jackie Lacey wouldn’t investigate–you know, is that the real problem here for the police, as they’re examining it, is that video was taken. And so people got caught in the act. And so what’s going to happen now is people are going to learn to do their bad stuff when the video is not rolling, clearly, or to intimidate people so they don’t take pictures.
And the real issue here that I want to raise, because you are a professor and you’re interested in education, do you think this is a breakthrough moment? When you said the world divided or the skies opened, I forget your expression, you know, there are signs that the times have changed. But do you feel it’s going to stick? And one concern is that the last vestige of the labor movement seems to be people who work for the police, fire department, city government, and there’s kind of a weird alliance between political power and law enforcement, and enforcement of every other kind. And you went up against this government bureaucracy, and it wasn’t very receptive. Yet you’ve got a new district attorney; is this district attorney behaving better?
MA: Yeah, actually, it feels very strange that George Gascón is part of kind of this new approach to the criminal legal system, and by district attorneys. You know, we saw Larry Krasner be elected in Philadelphia, we saw Chesa Boudin be elected in San Francisco, and now we have George Gascón in Los Angeles. And it’s a strange turn for us in Black Lives Matter, because we went from saying Jackie Lacey must go, the face of this Black woman who we’re seeking to unseat, and now as we see George Gascón be attacked by the same interests that supported Jackie Lacey–so be attacked by these police associations, be attacked by the association of deputy district attorneys–we’re having to now hashtag #StandWithGeorge, and rally for progressive justice reform. So Gascón has been really steadfast in advancing what we call the people’s budget priorities–I mean, people’s progressive justice reforms. And so he’s been advancing everything that we put forward to him in our package, including an end to three strikes, an end to the death penalty, an end to sentence enhancements. He’s convened a community panel that will look at prosecuting officers dating back to 2012. And so we’re working on all of that, and so it does demonstrate to us–it affirms to us that when we fight, we win.
And you’re absolutely right about what we’re seeing in terms of so-called organized labor, and that’s why we’ve launched this campaign to end police associations. Because we see the L.A. Police Protective League, an association for Los Angeles deputy sheriffs, sitting in the house of labor. And it’s an additional abuse. I think about how as we’re in these County Fed meetings–and I’m also a delegate to the County Fed; I’m a unionized faculty member, and so I am a delegate there. And we’re in these meetings, and we’re sitting alongside the sister of Ryan Twyman, Chiquita Twyman, whose brother was murdered by the L.A. County sheriffs. And she’s having to sit across the table from the association for Los Angeles deputy sheriffs, right? I’m sitting with people like Quintus Moore, the father of Grechario Mack, who was murdered inside of the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Mall; he’s a member of [unclear], as is the sister of Daniel Hernández. And we’re having to sit there with these police associations pushing for their position, pushing for the–just recently they wanted to endorse Jackie Lacey. They wanted to oppose Measure J. They wanted policies, they wanted organized labor to take on policies, to advance policies that harm every other working-class person.
And so this push to end police associations is a push to oust them from the house of labor. And we’re seeing some traction. We’re only a couple months into this campaign, but we’re starting to see other unions–my union, the California Faculty Association, issued a resolution in favor of this. We’re seeing other unions begin to ask what they can do to support this work.
RS: So on a positive note here–and you mentioned the district attorney of San Francisco, and here now in L.A. And so you have the two biggest cities in California–thanks in large measure to your organization and like-minded groups, Black Lives Matter, which you were so instrumental in supporting and founding–have victories that really matter. And as you say, in the case of both San Francisco and L.A., the two most important counties in California, there’s actually enlightened law enforcement now on the level of the district attorney. So is it fair to conclude this, because I know, hopefully I’ll get to do other interviews as we go along, but that there is a road to progress? It’s not inevitable, but you can win?
MA: We can win. We are winning. As long as we fight, we win.
RS: There you go.
MA: And so that’s absolutely right. We’re also learning that that fight has to be constant; in Angela Davis’s words, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” So when we fight, we win, but freedom is a constant struggle.
RS: Well, that’s a good way to end this. I want to thank you for taking the time. And I really–you know, it’s funny to say, but I mean obviously I applaud your willingness to engage in the struggle, but I rejoice in the possibilities of victory.
RS: And I just think it’s just a great example to study, because otherwise people get bummed out, and they think you can’t do anything. And you actually–first of all, Black Lives Matter obviously nationally has been one of the most effective social, maybe the most effective social justice movement we’ve had since the abolitionists or something. And clearly it can be done.
So on that note, I want to thank you for doing this. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these things on a very good radio station. Joshua Scheer, who’s our executive producer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who writes the introduction. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And the JWK Foundation in the memory of a great writer and journalist, Jean Stein, who helps give us some funding for these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.
MA: Thank you so much.