Police forcibly remove BLM-L.A. leader, a Cal State L.A. professor, from campus mayoral debate

Police remove Melina Abdullah, a leader of Black Lives Matter-L.A. and a professor at Cal State L.A., from mayoral debate.
Melina Abdullah, a leader of Black Lives Matter-L.A. and a professor at Cal State Los Angeles, is removed by police from Sunday’s mayoral debate on the campus.
(Ringo Chiu / For The Times)

A Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles leader was forcibly removed by campus police from a mayoral debate Sunday night at Cal State Los Angeles.

Melina Abdullah — a professor at Cal State L.A. and former chair of the school’s pan-African studies department — told The Times she was carried out of the room by police officers because she did not have a ticket to the event.

Protests about the exclusion of certain candidates from the stage preceded the event, and attendance had been closely monitored, with only a small audience of 40 to 50 people allowed inside the auditorium.

Videos shared on Twitter showed police officers dragging Abdullah outside the auditorium.

“Debates should be public ... especially at a public university,” Abdullah said via text, noting that students, faculty and the public weren’t allowed inside “a near-empty theater.”


The university released a statement: “One person was removed from the debate, arrested, and released at the scene. There were no other arrests. Cal State LA’s Department of Public Safety has no comment. The university will provide a statement after a fuller review of the incident.”

Abdullah, however, said that police “were attempting to arrest me” but did not arrest her at the scene and told her they would be reaching out to her later.

Activists have dogged the major candidates in recent months and briefly disrupted a mayoral forum focused on Asian American Pacific Islander issues that was held Saturday in Little Tokyo.

Sunday’s debate went off without interruption, but Abdullah and at least one other person were forcibly removed from the audience minutes before it was set to begin. Cal State L.A. police did not respond to requests for comment.

Protesters did not say what they were calling for but chanted “Shame on you” and “This is a public university” as candidates looked on.

Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of Cal State L.A.’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, which co-sponsored the debate, was seen pacing near the stage as he was informed about 20 minutes before it began that people without passes had entered the area. A Times reporter saw Sonenshein ask campus police officers what options they would have in removing protesters.

“I should have been able to watch the mayoral debate that was happening on my own campus,” Abdullah said to The Times in a written statement. “I’m still processing the fact that Raphe Sonenshein, someone who called himself a friend, who I’ve known well since I was in graduate school, called the police and had me forcibly and brutally removed.”


Abdullah added: “I’m processing that as I was yelling for help, that I was being hurt and called for Karen Bass and Kevin De León … two people who have been very close for more than 20 years, they said nothing, not even a simple ‘Please put her down,’ nor did any other candidate. It’s both hurtful and outrageous.”

Sonenshein declined to comment.

Agustin Rojas Navarro, 20, a sophomore political science student, said the crowd ran to the other side of the auditorium as Abdullah was being removed, creating a huddle around her to protect her.

Navarro said he was disappointed to see Abdullah removed and criticized the restricted nature of the debate.

“I was really interested in this debate, and I was so disappointed at my school for not having a representative here,” Navarro said.

The debate is one of the last major events for the mayoral candidates to make their case before mail-in ballots go out for the June 7 primary.

After the debate ended, candidates made statements similar to those they have given about previous disruptions.

“I wish there hadn’t been that exchange at the beginning. But by the same token, I think it’s really important that everybody is respected,” said Mike Feuer, L.A. city attorney. “That includes all the viewers, the candidates and the people of Los Angeles who are entitled to have a debate that isn’t interrupted.”

City Councilman Kevin de León said everyone has a right to express their views, but they should do it in a “constructive” way.

“I think the debate was civil and well-organized,” said Peter Ragone, spokesman for mayoral candidate Rick Caruso. Ragone, who said he had been watching in another room, later clarified that he was referring to what he had seen on TV and not the altercation, which he had not witnessed.

Abdullah contributed $1,000 to the Bass campaign in December, according to campaign records. Last month, she donated $214 to mayoral candidate Gina Viola, who was not invited to Sunday’s debate.