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8 Ways Black Lives Matter Activists Changed The Nation’s Largest Criminal Justice System
Thousands of people participated in today’s peaceful march peaceful march in Hollywood, CA today Sunday June 7, 2020 against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

While Black Lives Matter faded from the national spotlight after the election of President Donald J. Trump, two of the activist network’s key players built an organizing infrastructure in Los Angeles County that is significantly changing the nation’s largest criminal justice system.

BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors, and Dr. Melina Abdullah, who leads the L.A. chapter, have a long-term vision based on a philosophy of anti-capitalism. They teach that law enforcement agencies and correctional facilities are institutional structures of racial oppression that must be dismantled, existing to maintain America’s capitalist social order.

Their plans involve gradually shifting public safety responsibilities and funding away from police departments and detention centers, then redistributing that money to new services centered around meeting the universal needs of people, such as housing, healthcare, access to nutritious food, along with programs benefiting disenfranchised communities.

After Black Lives Matter supposedly went mainstream last month following the death of George Floyd, their ongoing efforts in Southern California gained explosive momentum.

Here are eight ways Cullors and Abdullah have already changed the public safety landscape throughout L.A. County, the largest in the United States, with more than ten million residents.

1.  Chipping Away At The L.A. School Police Department

Dr. Abdullah once referenced an incremental strategy to abolish the L.A. School Police Department altogether. The force protects more than 600,000 students enrolled in the L.A. Unified School District, the second-largest public education system in the nation. Black Lives Matter-L.A. established a Youth Vanguard in 2015 that has been working alongside allied groups organizing students, parents, and teachers against “repressive” policies in public schools, which include placing cops on campuses.

Last week, the L.A. Board of Education voted 4-3 to reduce the budget of the district’s police department by 35%, which equates to a $25 million cut.

The L.A. Times reported the change was “in response to weeks of protests by student activists and community groups who had called for the elimination of the department,” and:

The board action also calls for officers to give up their uniforms and patrol off campus, and will lead to the layoffs of 65 officers in the 471-employee department. The money saved from the cuts is to be allocated to fund staff to specifically serve the needs of Black students and a task force that will study ways to reimagine the issue of student and campus safety.

A day after the vote, L.A. School Police Chief Todd Chamberlain stepped down from his post, saying the changes would be “detrimental and potentially life-threatening.”

“The fight for real school safety has only just begun,” Dr. Abdullah told the L.A. Times. “A powerful coalition has formed and will not stop until we rid police from schools and invest in visions of safety that are grounded in meeting student needs.”

BLM’s drive to abolish school police won a formal endorsement from the teachers union last month, which recently elected a BLM member as its president.

2.  Leading The Drive To “Defund LAPD”

BLM and other activist groups put forth a proposal to city leaders called People’s Budget L.A., which would allocate less than two percent of the city’s general fund to law enforcement.

In a move that followed growing calls to “defund the police,” the L.A. City Council voted 12-2 last week to slash the LAPD’s budget by $150 million for the next fiscal year.

Mayor Eric Garcetti first announced the idea after BLM led a massive demonstration outside of his home on June 2. Garcetti had supported a 7% increase to the LAPD’s budget earlier this year.

The L.A. Times reported that the reduction would push the number of sworn officers down to “a level of staffing not seen in the city since 2008.” Councilman Curren Price told the outlet two-thirds of that money would be redistributed to Black and Latino communities. BLM appeared to perceive the move as an early step toward defunding and abolishing LAPD.

City Council also unanimously approved a measure that would develop an “unarmed model of crisis response” to replace police officers that currently answer nonviolent emergency calls.

“Rolling back police functions has the potential to have a far greater impact on advancing the call to defund the police than approving a meager cut of $150 million,” Dr. Abdullah told The Times.

Lawmakers advocating for community-based, unarmed emergency responders say they have been motivated by recent protests.

“We have a responsibility to listen to our people, and our people have spoken. I look forward to continuing this work alongside @BLMLA,” tweeted Councilman Herb J. Wesson, tagging BLM’s official L.A. chapter.

3.  Nudged The “ICE-Loving” L.A. County Sheriff Out The Door

An official Black Lives Matter Instagram account emphasized that the organization “would never endorse a candidate for sheriff.” Still, BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors organized the community to vote L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell out of office in 2018. She told the L.A. Times that her campaign work was not connected to her affiliation with BLM.

Alex Villanueva, a progressive Latino who vowed to “kick ICE out” of L.A. County jails if elected, stunned the local political establishment after winning 53% of the vote. It was the first time an incumbent L.A. County sheriff lost a race for re-election in more than a century.

“Sheriff McDonnell spent 4 years in office collaborating with ICE, knocking down reform initiatives like ending money bail and Prop 47, and he refused to meet with community groups,” wrote Cullors after McDonnell’s defeat. “While I morally disagree with the role of a Sheriff, I believe that McDonnell no longer being in office is a huge victory for Los Angeles and a huge victory for reform efforts here in Los Angeles.”

Villanueva did not receive official endorsements from BLM and its allied criminal justice reform organizations. However, an ACLU-led coalition had indirectly promoted his candidacy by organizing community forums and encouraging strategic social media drives against Sheriff McDonnell. Cullors, who chaired two of the organizations in that alliance, also hosted a series of events leading up to election day intended to increase voter turnout.

“This tour is partly about shaming ICE-loving incumbent L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and giving a sobering take on the two sheriff candidates,” Cullors admitted on Facebook.

“It needs to be clear: We can vote you out of office if we’re not happy with what you’re doing,” Cullors told The Times in 2018. “That’s the point I want to make. Sure we might vote Alex into office, and in four years, we might vote him out. There needs to be public accountability.”

4. “Alternatives To Incarceration”

In 2017, Cullors formed a coalition that included BLM and other prison abolition advocates to dismantle the world’s largest jail system, which is operated by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (LASD).

They pressured the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to reverse course last August and scrap a $1.7 billion project to replace the aging Men’s Central Jail downtown with a modern facility. Then on Tuesday, the board approved a motion to develop a plan that would shut down the 57-year-old lockup with no replacement.

“We must reduce our reliance just on caging people,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “The closure of (Men’s Central Jail), as we continue to do that, won’t be the revolutionary concept it looked like today. It’ll simply be logical. It’ll be fiscally prudent and another opportunity for community healing.”


As the L.A. Times reported, “the county’s focus on finding alternatives to incarceration began well before the recent protests over police brutality.”

Shortly after Cullors launched the Justice L.A. alliance nearly three years ago, she explained, “We are demanding an end to mass incarceration in the U.S. and our county’s investment in policing and jails,” later referencing “our movement’s call for abolition.”

Officials estimated that 70% of the inmates held in the L.A. County jail system were medically or mentally ill. The discarded deal with McCarthy Building Companies had been revised several times, ultimately amended to the point that the Department of Mental Health would have managed the new facility. But opponents of the proposed “Mental Health Treatment Center” insisted it was still designed like a penal institution.

L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who previously served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama, tweeted last summer: “With the passage of my motion to #CancelMcCarthyContract for a new jail, our criminal justice system is now set on the path of a ‘care first, jail last’ model informed by data and greater community input.”


Cullors thanked Solis “for being the people’s champion.”

“If Los Angeles gets this right and is able to build a model, this could be a blueprint for the rest of the country,” Cullors told the New York Times last year.

Justice L.A. advocates were also effective in convincing county lawmakers to nix plans for a women’s jail about 70 miles north of downtown.

5. Brought Civilian Oversight To The Nation’s Largest Sheriff’s Department

Cullors got another big win in March after voters overwhelmingly approved her countywide ballot measure granting an LASD civilian oversight commission independent authority to subpoena documents and witnesses pertinent to its investigations. Additionally, its passage requires that body to draft a plan for reducing the county jail population.

L.A. County voters approved the referendum with more than 72% support.


“Measure R is now law,” tweeted Cullors, who served as the ‘Yes on R’ campaign chair, also known as the Reform L.A. Jails initiative. “We will use it to hold the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department accountable, and we will use it to make sure L.A. County continues to move forward with a care-first/jail-never ethos.”

Cullors said the measure was the result of about ten years of organizing. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission in 2016. Her allies say she brought the idea to the table and organized local communities to demand it. Cullors said Measure R was necessary to strengthen that panel by providing power to compel the testimony of officers and the capacity to administer oaths, resulting in more effective oversight of LASD.

The agency provides policing services to 42 contract cities, including Compton, Malibu, and West Hollywood.

6.   Forced The County’s Top Law Enforcement Officials Into A November Runoff

Cullors is also the California director of the Real Justice Political Action Committee, which has prioritized replacing L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey with a “reform-minded” prosecutor in November.

The L.A. Times reported that “a number of social justice advocacy groups critical of Lacey” approached then-San Francisco D.A. George Gascón last year about stepping down and making a run to become L.A.’s top law enforcement official. Gascón had established a reputation as one of the nation’s most progressive prosecutors and was supported by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

He met directly with Cullors, who told the N.Y. Times that Gascón had “been very clear” during their meetings “that he wants to end mass incarceration in Los Angeles,” adding, “he wants to hold law enforcement accountable.”

Gascón went on to visit with members of BLM’s L.A. chapter and other affiliated organizations before resigning last October and entering the L.A. County race. He said he had “become increasingly more uneasy seeing the backwardness of the criminal justice system in L.A.” and has promised to reduce the jail population if elected there.

The March primary election became a three-way race where D.A. Lacey faced off against a pair of more progressive challengers – Gascón and Rachel Rossi, a former public defender. A BLM-inspired push to oust Lacey accelerated. The strategy was to prevent her from getting more than 50% of the vote, which would force a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

Much of the anti-Lacey ground game was already in place, as BLM-LA had already been bird-dogging her for years, drawing attention to her unwillingness to prosecute police officers who have engaged in fatal officer-involved shootings.


BLM has organized weekly protests outside of Lacey’s office, vowed to “disrupt her wherever she goes” on the campaign trail, and demonstrated outside of her home on several occasions.

On March 2, the eve of the primary election, BLM members gathered outside Lacey’s house, banged on a drum, and rang her doorbell around 5:30 a.m., demanding a meeting. The incident culminated with Lacey’s husband, David, pointing a handgun outside the couple’s front door, threatening to shoot Dr. Abdullah, and ordering the protestors to leave his property.


As the L.A. Times reported:

During a news conference (later that day), Lacey offered an apology on her husband’s behalf but also derided protestors for what she said was repeated harassment and threats throughout her two terms in office.

“His response was in fear, and now that he realizes what happened he wanted me to say to the protesters, the person that he showed the gun to, that he was sorry, that he’s profoundly sorry, that he meant no one any harm,” Lacey said, her voice swelling with emotion.

While it is unclear how the confrontation affected the primary results, Lacey failed to garner enough support to win outright. She will run against Gascón in the general election on November 3. The final tally showed Lacey with 48.65% of the vote, Gascón with 28.22%, while Rossi captured 23.13%.

Some high-profile Democrats abandoned Lacey last month after protests advocating for criminal justice reform swept the nation. U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) withdrew his endorsement, while Mayor Garcetti said, “it may be” time for a change in the D.A.’s office. Black liberation activists have called on other politicians to rescind their support publicly. Police unions continue to back Lacey.

The L.A. County District Attorney’s Office is the nation’s largest local prosecutorial agency.

7. Taking On The City Attorney To Protect “Black Protest”

Part of BLM’s long-term strategy of defunding LAPD has involved disrupting weekly police commission meetings.

During a scheduled gathering on May 8, 2018, officers arrested Dr. Abdullah after another BLM activist had purportedly thrown cremated remains on then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.


Police said Abdullah had grabbed an officer after the incident, an accusation she has denied. City prosecutors went on to charge Abdullah with eight criminal counts stemming from her conduct at two LAPD Commission meetings, including battery on a cop. She could have faced up to a year in jail if convicted.

Abdullah received pro bono legal help from Carl E. Douglas, a trial lawyer who specializes in police misconduct cases. He became nationally-known as part of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” of defense attorneys in the 1990s.

The city attorney’s office agreed to drop all charges against Abdullah if she adhered to behavior guidelines for six months. She honored the conditions of the deal, and all charges were dismissed last August.

At the time of the negotiations, the L.A. Times reported that the arrangement would “alter some rules governing Police Commission meetings,” and:

Under the terms of the agreement, (Douglas) said, LAPD officers must now give verbal warnings to people accused of disrupting commission meetings, and then escort them out of the meeting if they continue to violate those rules. 

Arrests will only be made if a person continues to refuse a police officer’s orders outside of the meeting, Douglas said.


According to Abdullah, “people who protest inside Police Commission meetings are no longer subject to arrest.” She claimed that “White supremacist forces” had been “working to criminalize Black protest.”

A spokesperson for the LAPD Commission recently told The Daily Wire that he was not aware of any rule changes related to the deal. Feuer’s office did not respond to an inquiry seeking clarification.

“We have changed the culture in Los Angeles as it deals with protests,” Douglas, who still serves as Abdullah’s lead counsel, said last year. “I’ll give (City Attorney) Mike Feuer credit; he respects, and he understands that protest is an important part of the process.”

After city prosecutors officially dropped the charges, Abdullah’s legal team filed a federal lawsuit accusing Feuer’s office of malicious prosecution and the LAPD of wrongful arrest.

Feuer announced earlier this year that he would run for mayor in 2022.

8.  Sponsoring Statewide Legislation

Black Lives Matter co-sponsored statewide legislation authorizing public access to previously confidential internal investigations related to police misconduct. Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1421 hours before the legislative deadline on September 30, 2018.

“The passage of this bill is pivotal,” Dr. Abdullah said at the time. “It’s the first bill we have ever co-sponsored and gives us a tangible victory that has real meaning – especially for the families of those who have been killed by law enforcement.”


The activist network went on to co-sponsor Assembly Bill 392 to narrow deadly force standards throughout the state. BLM withdrew its support after substantial revisions had been made to the language.

Dr. Abdullah explained: “Unfortunately, in efforts to get law enforcement to lift their opposition, the bill was so significantly amended that it is no longer the kind of meaningful legislation we can support.”


Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom went on to sign the watered-down version into law last August.

BLM is closely allied with other activist groups that are more focused on crafting and co-sponsoring statewide legislation, such as the Youth Justice Coalition, which targets both the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Related: Black Lives Matter And Teachers Union Work As Partners To End ‘Repressive’ Policing In Schools

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