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Black Lives Matter Organizers Share How Defunding Police Could Fund a Better L.A.

“No one is saying that we don’t want to have strong systems of public safety.”

Melina Abdullah, center, chants after she was detained by police in July 2016 while protesting the deadly police shooting of Redel Jones, a 30-year-old mother of two.
Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Every morning around 7 a.m., the older folks who lived around Audubon Middle School in Leimert Park spilled out onto their front porches. They would chat with each other as they sipped their coffees, some still dressed in their robes. Sometimes they would shout a warning to the stream of kids walking by: “Stop cussing or I’m gonna tell your mama.”

As someone new to the historically black neighborhood some two decades ago, Melina Abdullah remembers watching the spectacle each morning with growing curiosity, until one day she asked her new neighbors what they were doing. They were watching the babies go to school, they said.

That, she says, was public safety.

“It was beautiful. It was the building of community,” says Abdullah. Neighbors knew each other and looked out for each other. It was why Abdullah, as a young single woman, felt safe living in an apartment that was accessible to the street.

On Monday, Abdullah shared the anecdote with lawmakers who serve on the City Council’s budget committee, making the case that defunding the LAPD is not just about reimagining an entirely new form of public safety but a better Los Angeles, one built around strengthening and supporting communities.

In making the presentation, Abdullah was joined by Baba Akili, a longtime activist and orator; David Turner, a youth organizer and doctoral student at UC Berkeley; and Kendrick Sampson, an actor and activist who founded BLD PWR. Together, they laid out a simple but revolutionary vision for L.A. shaped by their own experiences.

Turner, who grew up around Florence Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in Hyde Park, says his parents struggled with domestic violence, and when the police got involved, it never helped. Either his mom or dad went to jail, and they never resolved their issues. Instead, he said, it broke their family apart.

“You all have the power and ability to make a new Los Angeles ... that protects little black boys like I was, little black girls like my sister,” he told councilmembers.

If the bulk of local taxpayer money did not go to policing in the city of Los Angeles, the money could instead be spent on food, homes, and health care. It could ensure more residents, especially in communities that have been undervalued and ignored, had access to libraries and parks and free public transit. Trained family counselors could respond to domestic disputes. Their message was: Police don’t make communities feel safe.

Their vision has the support of 24,426 Angelenos; that’s the number of responses they’ve received over the past 30 days to a survey asking residents how they would spend the city’s budget. Their responses have formed the “People’s Budget.” Nearly half, or 46 percent, said they would maximize investments in universal aid and crisis management, a category that would include economic assistance, food security, housing security, public health, and health care. The second-biggest priorities were the built environment and reimagined community safety. Nearly 2 percent said they would prioritize law enforcement and policing.

“No one is saying that we don’t want to have strong systems of public safety,” Abdullah told ABC7 on Tuesday. “Just that when you talk about public safety, you can’t reduce it to policing ... It’s really important that people understand that those calls for abolition are rooted in real logic. Policing in this country evolved from slave-catching.”

Abdullah moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s to earn her master’s degree and Ph.D. in political science at USC. She’s now a professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State Los Angeles and a Los Angeles Unified School District parent. In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, she helped form the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. Over the past few years, she has routinely disrupted police-commission meetings, led a sit-in at City Hall to demand the firing of former police chief Charlie Beck, and coordinated weekly rallies at the Hall of Justice calling for the resignation of Los Angeles district attorney Jackie Lacey.

Over the past several weeks, Abdullah has helped guide huge marches through some of L.A.’s wealthiest neighborhoods, a strategy to get white people to finally pay attention to police brutality against black Angelenos.

On Monday, she told City Councilmember Paul Krekorian that for as long as he’s been chair of the budget committee, she and other organizers have been countering the mayor’s budget proposals, only to be met with silence. “We’ve been calling on the defunding of police for almost five years,” she said.

Now she finally has their attention.

Nury Martinez, the first Latina president of the City Council, said anyone “who grew up in those neighborhoods” and has “actual lived experiences” would not find it difficult to support their vision.

Martinez has already proposed pulling $100 million to $150 million from the $1.86 billion LAPD budget, part of a larger $250 million investment that Mayor Eric Garcetti has said will be diverted to job programs in health and education in black neighborhoods and communities of color.

That’s a start. It’s the equivalent of the $120 million budget increase the LAPD was set to receive this year — until protesters swarmed the mayor’s mansion in Hancock Park, demanding that he defund the police.

On Tuesday, City Councilmember Herb Wesson introduced a motion to replace police officers with unarmed service responders — such as medical professionals, mental-health workers, and homeless-outreach workers — in “noncriminal situations.” It was a direct response to the presentation Abdullah and other activists had delivered the day before.

“The presenters... were absolutely right, we need to reimagine public safety in the 21st century,” Wesson said in a tweet. “We have gone from asking the police to be part of the solution, to being the only solution for problems they should not be called on to solve in the first place.”