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George Gascón Is Remaking Criminal Justice in L.A. How Far Is Too Far?

Last April, Gascón’s supporters and opponents collided at a rally for National Crime Victims’ Week in front of the Hall of Justice, the building that houses the district attorney’s main office. Nathalia Marie Jackson, a 13-year-old Black girl, spoke tearfully from the lectern of her father’s murder. “The safety and security and love that he gave us every day,” she said, “was horribly interrupted in one single moment.”

A group of Black Lives Matter protesters stood at a distance on the sidewalk, blocked by police officers in riot gear from getting near the rally. “They want to drown out the voices of victims,” Villanueva complained. “They want to drown out law-abiding citizens.”

Some Black Lives Matter protesters chanted: “You’re being used! You’re being lied to!” The moment laid bare the fault lines between traditional victims’ groups and the progressive activists. The activists rejected putting the pain of survivors at the service of tough-on-crime policies. They asked why the rally didn’t include the stories of victims of police misconduct, who have benefited from Gascón’s policies. Speaking to TV reporters, Melina Abdullah, a local leader of Black Lives Matter and a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, said that she, too, had family members who were killed. “Our interests and their interests are aligned,” she said of the survivors of crime across the square. “They should be standing with us.”

Los Angeles has attracted and repelled waves of reform since Watts erupted in 1965, after a drunken-driving arrest of a Black man by a white officer turned violent in front of a crowd. That year, a report by a governor’s commission found that large parts of the region resented and even hated the police. In the late 1980s, widespread corruption in the county sheriff’s office prompted promises of top-to-bottom change. In 1991, after several Los Angeles Police Department officers were filmed beating Rodney King, another report found that a “significant number” of officers in the department repeatedly used excessive force and that “the failure to control these officers is a management issue that is at the heart of the problem.” Yet several years later, more than 70 police officers in the anti-gang unit were implicated in unprovoked beatings and shootings and the planting of false evidence in what came to be known as the Rampart scandal. And in 2012, the sheriff’s department was rocked by the exposure of widespread violence and brutality in its jails. “For a state you’d think of as relatively liberal, and a liberal jurisdiction within that state, L.A. has been very slow to reform,” says Miriam Krinsky, who leads the group Fair and Just Prosecution, which works nationally with prosecutors on adopting reforms, and helped direct a Los Angeles citizens’ commission on jail violence in 2012.

That year, Patrisse Cullors, then a budding activist, was searching for answers about the severe mental illness that plagued her brother. He had spent years behind bars and was beaten in jail; afterward, his struggles intensified. Cullors started going to meetings of the citizens’ commission that Krinsky helped direct, signing up to speak about her brother and others like him. “Patrisse was there at every hearing,” Krinsky says, “at first alone, and then she brought more people.” Over time, Cullors became a national leader of Black Lives Matter, and other local organizers, including Lex Steppling, rose to lead a growing coalition Cullors founded called JusticeLA. The activists worked with religious leaders, academics and foundations, largely persuading the liberal establishment of Los Angeles to adopt the cause of dismantling the megacomplex of mass incarceration.

Among the biggest obstacles to reform in Los Angeles County are its size and governance structure. About 10 million people live in more than 80 cities spread out over 4,000-plus square miles. That’s close to the size of Connecticut, with nearly three times the population, but the county has no single elected executive to hold accountable when things go wrong. Instead, five county supervisors control the funding of its sprawling jail system, the sheriff is elected separately and the mayor of the city of Los Angeles nominates the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Despite the challenges, the activists have scored exceptional wins. In early 2020, they campaigned for a successful ballot initiative, Measure R, which increased independent oversight of county jails. That summer, the Los Angeles City Council cut the police budget by $150 million (a small fraction of the 90 percent cut that activists wanted). Last November, along with electing Gascón, voters passed Measure J, a major priority for the reform movement, which set aside a percentage of the county’s funds — worth hundreds of millions of dollars — for housing, mental-health resources and substance-abuse treatment programs in an effort designed to keep more people out of jail. And this June, the county Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to work toward closing Men’s Central Jail, the site and symbol of violence that has galvanized activists, and replacing it with a village for mental-health care.

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