Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti faced throngs of hostile protesters at a community meeting Monday night as chaos descended on a gathering that had been intended as a forum for him to improve his fraught relationship with the black communities of South L.A.
The meeting at Holman United Methodist Church, attended by several hundred, was quickly overtaken by about 50 protesters from organizations including the national activist group Black Lives Matter, which was formed in the wake of high-profile police killings of young black men. As Garcetti spoke to a full house in the church's cavernous sanctuary hall, the demonstrators stood and turned their backs to him.
Toward the end of the hourlong session Garcetti, ringed by police officers, struggled to reach his car as he was swarmed by a crowd of chanting activists — and once inside the vehicle, he was forced to wait amid blaring sirens until the crowd was dispersed by the LAPD.
"The mayor has neglected, disrespected and abused the black community for far too long," Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan African Studies at Cal State L.A. and organizer for Black Lives Matter, said at the meeting. "We are here today because this is real for us. This is not a political game. This is not about your reelection. This is about our lives."
Others voiced exasperation at what they described as the usurping of a general-purpose community meeting by a small and unrepresentative group of protesters. Many of those seated in the pews as the meeting began rose and left as the faction of protesters became more strident in questioning Garcetti. Others tried to quiet the demonstrators when they interrupted Garcetti.
"You had a sub-group that was trying to take over the town hall," said Daryle Shumake, 45, a healthcare worker who lives in South L.A. Shumake, who is black, said he had come to the meeting to ask about the likelihood of L.A. succeeding in its bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics.
"Whatever they were talking about is not my reality," he said of the demonstrators.
In a statement released late Monday, Garcetti said he was disappointed by the meeting's outcome.
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"Tonight, we had hundreds of South L.A. residents attend a community meeting — leaders, business owners, mothers and children, who took time out of their evening to discuss the critical issues that matter most to all of us," he said. "I am disappointed that our conversation was cut short when there is so much work for us to do together to make our neighborhoods stronger and safer. I believe in our city and my commitment to our shared concerns continues, stronger than ever."
The evening's rocky unfolding was the latest episode in Garcetti's struggle to gain support among black residents of South L.A., who favored his opponent, former City Controller Wendy Greuel, in the 2013 election. Since then, Garcetti's stumbling responses to a number of high-profile police shootings have further strained his relationship with some black activists, especially within the Black Lives Matter movement.
That relationship hit a low point in June, when Garcetti flew to Washington, D.C., on the eve of the police commission's ruling on whether LAPD officers were justified in the fatal shooting last summer of Ezell Ford, an unarmed, mentally ill black man.
Garcetti was caught on videotape trying to avoid Black Lives Matter protesters camped outside the mayoral residence in Windsor Square by leaving through the back door. When the protesters discovered that and blocked his car, he told them he was flying to the nation's capital to secure federal funding for homelessness and community policing initiatives.
It later emerged that the trip was actually scheduled so Garcetti could attend a fundraiser for his 2017 reelection campaign at the home of a prominent Democratic Party operative.
For much of the meeting Monday, Garcetti seemed to have learned from that encounter, calmly delivering forceful, articulate responses to angry questions on topics ranging from the expansion of public transportation lines into South L.A. to his choice of police commissioners.
At one point the mayor delivered a disarming response to one protester who complained about the deeply rooted causes of violence in black neighborhoods.
"Let me say, you're right, your analysis," Garcetti said. "I hate this back-and-forth we hear nationally, where people say black lives matter and politicians say all lives matter. Black lives matter in a unique way, and you and I see eye to eye on this."
He added: "If you just try to say all lives matter, you write people out of history. You write slavery out of history. You write oppression and violence out of history. You write racism and lynching out of history. So I get why it is important — just hear me out for one second — you're right."
At one point, Garcetti tried to assuage his antagonists by encouraging them to vent: "You can boo," he said. "You can do whatever you want."
The meeting ended abruptly as dozens of demonstrators began to crowd on stage reaching for microphones. Police officers and City Hall staffers then ushered Garcetti out of the church and into his car through a press of demonstrators and reporters.
One activist jumped on the trunk of the car as Garcetti disappeared inside. An LAPD helicopter circled overhead, its spotlight on the mayor's sedan.
Police said no arrests were made.
The pastor who presided over the gathering said he was "very, very disturbed and disappointed in Black Lives Matter for violating the trust and confidence" of the meeting's organizers.
"We were here to have a constructive and civil meeting with decency, so we can all examine what are some of the obstacles and opportunities in South Los Angeles," the Rev. Kelvin Sauls said. "We certainly understand the rage because of the challenges in South L.A., but amidst that, we do not want to violate our own integrity."