In L.A., Black activists debate the value of dialogue with police in reform efforts
“How are you going to take the fear away from us?”
Candace Jordan’s voice broke as she addressed Chief Michel Moore of the Los Angeles Police Department at an intimate gathering inside an Exposition Park church.
With her 16-year-old son sitting beside her, the bus driver for L.A. Unified School District described her mistrust of the city’s police. Whenever she is driving and sees young Black men pulled over by law enforcement, Jordan said she feels the urge to stop.
“I need to see if someone else is looking, if someone else is watching the scene, are those boys going to get home?” she said. “How are you going to take this fear away from us because it’s running real, real deep. I don’t fear just for me. I fear for those I don’t even know.”
At a quietly publicized roundtable in mid-June at the Abundant Life Christian Church, about two dozen pastors, gang interventionists, and other community members met with Moore in an effort to increase mutual understanding in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests.
The 90-minute forum reflects significantly different approaches within the Black community toward how to create lasting change from the unrest. While some leaders have said that meetings with law enforcement are critical to rebuilding relationships and battling misconceptions, others have firmly rejected the idea of dialogue.
Those activists say that conversations with police and the widely circulated images of officers taking a knee with protesters will not lead to sweeping change in public safety, and that rather than attempt to reform the system from within, talks should occur with City Hall officials.
“We absolutely do not need to be sitting down and meeting with police,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter in L.A. “It’s not a reformable system — developing dialogue is the last thing we should be doing. We’re looking to reimagine public safety, not to buy into the existing system.”
On June 15, a coalition of activists led by Black Lives Matter participated in a nearly two-hour special meeting at City Hall devoted to the People’s Budget, an alternative spending plan for the city budget that pushes for widespread defunding of the LAPD, with money moving instead to housing, mental health and other services.
Abdullah said that while Black Lives Matter will continue to issue its demands at the public meetings of the Los Angeles Police Commission, “we’re not going to pretend like there’s any trust to be built.” Its members have maintained a presence at the commission for years, forcefully decrying shootings and at times disrupting meetings that have ended with arrests.
Brenda Stevenson, a history and African American studies professor at UCLA, said that within a large movement, people with similar goals will differ both on how entrenched problems are, and how to approach them.
“Some people believe having dialogue with the police or allowing police to take a knee is a photo op and not more important than that,” she said. “Some people feel that this is a really severe problem [that] you feel like you have to do more than sit down with the police to eliminate, and some people feel that’s a first step.”
During the civil rights movement, Stevenson said, activists adopted multiple strategies. While many engaged in nonviolent protest by staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, others focused on legal efforts to end segregation. The “Black is Beautiful” movement also sought to uplift Black communities.
“All these different practices are necessary,” she said. “You have to chip away at people’s consciousness, at what’s culturally important to them, along with changing laws and sitting with lawmakers.”
But Donna Murch, a history professor at Rutgers University, said that dialogue “is often a way to quell demand” and that in order to achieve systemic change, protesters should use their political leverage with elected officials.
“If we want change, what scale do we need it at?” she said. “The scale is going to be broader than the police-protester dialogue.”
Fernando Rejón, executive director of the Urban Peace Institute, said he understands wariness of superficial reform. In a recent letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti, Rejón and a group of intervention agencies called for increased funding for community-based resources like gang intervention workers in light of proposed LAPD cuts. He said that while the department’s Community Safety Partnership program, which places officers in neighborhoods where they work on youth programs and other initiatives, has been a promising model, it has not been brought to scale in a way that transforms the LAPD’s mission.
He fears that the program “ends up being window-dressing that prevents the conversation about creating systemic shifts and radical restructuring of law enforcement.”
LAPD Chief Moore also recently spoke at a virtual forum led by LaWanda Hawkins, the founder of Justice for Murdered Children, a group seeking justice for homicide victims. During the meeting, which received more than 1,000 views online, Moore answered questions about addressing racism in policing, saying that the department will expand training on implicit bias. He also said that crime dropped to record lows after efforts to grow the department to 10,000 officers.
“When you don’t have enough officers to have a presence in a community and time in which to engage communities in conversation, officers are just tasked to go from one call to another, from one emergency to another,” he said. “The relationship with the community suffers.”
Several of the meeting’s participants expressed strong support for Moore.
“He’s the best chief I know so far,” Najee Ali, a Black community activist, said during the dialogue. “I would encourage everyone to lift up the chief, who right now is under tremendous pressure.”
Some Black pastors have also been engaging in dialogue. Jawane Hilton, a pastor and Carson city councilman, said that faith leaders have been speaking regularly with the captain of the Carson sheriff’s station, asking questions that include how to increase the number of Black people in law enforcement.
“We can sit on the side and say things, but if we don’t take an active part in being involved, in encouraging our young people to be police officers, jurors, we are just as complicit as those people who don’t believe in the movement,” he said.
Meanwhile, over the last few weeks, Pastor Michael Fisher of Greater Zion Church Family in Compton, which has about 3,000 families, has conversed with the captain of the Compton sheriff’s station about the need to create a local community advisory council that would increase accountability over deputies.
The church has previously held several town halls with the sheriff’s department. The church organized one meeting to address racial profiling after Fisher said a law enforcement official flashed a light into the car of a pastor who was leaving church after locking up, which he called an unprovoked intimidation tactic.
“I think it’s important to have dialogue to debunk the things that law enforcement believe,” he said. “All of this is a product of narrative… Dialogue does not mean I need to water down my message.”
Fisher is also focused on electoral participation as a means for change. At a recent church meeting during which he invited pastors, rabbis and elected officials to speak about the protests, Fisher told congregants that those who don’t vote “are part of the problem” and “don’t need to attend another rally.”
In contrast, faith leaders like Pastor James Thomas of the Living Word Community Church in Sherman Oaks, which has about 25 families, question the productivity of dialogue with police. Thomas has been working with other pastors to build an organization that will help congregations become involved in Black Lives Matter.
“We want to defund and abolish policing as we know it,” he said. “Our position is this — no one would ever approve reforming the institution of slavery, they sought to abolish it.”
Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie, the pastor of a congregation that meets in downtown L.A.'s skid row, agreed. He joined Black Lives Matter at the city’s police commission meetings after Charly “Africa” Keunang, an unarmed homeless man, was fatally shot by LAPD officers in 2015, an incident that led to a nearly $2-million settlement.
He said that only “a total cultural change,” not just more implicit bias training, would stop police brutality against Black people.
“We have dialogue and we never get justice, so the system remains the same,” he said. “We can’t continue to do the same thing we’ve been doing and expect different results. Right now, to sit down and have a conversation with police is a matter of insanity.”
During the meeting at the Abundant Life Christian Church, Moore took questions about the LAPD’s use of the chokehold and deadly force. He acknowledged that police can lose community trust “in a moment,” referring to an LAPD officer that was recently charged with assault in connection with a video that shows him repeatedly punching an unarmed homeless man in Boyle Heights last April.
“That episode is us,” he said. “We got to recognize it. We got to go out and do 10,000 more times efforts of genuine engagement and trust-building for that one episode of abuse.”
Skipp Townsend, a gang interventionist who helped organize the meeting, said that interventionists currently hold a position of power as community liaisons for law enforcement. He noted that public forums with the chief help keep him responsible for the department’s actions.
“We have to maintain that relationship, that balance, even though I may not agree with what the officers are doing,” he said. “He has to be held accountable in the community.”
Nationwide, protesters and activists have been calling to “defund the police.” But what does it actually mean? And why are so many people calling for it to happen?
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