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L.A. city attorney agrees to drop charges against Black Lives Matter leader amid public outcry

L.A. city attorney agrees to drop charges against Black Lives Matter leader amid public outcry
Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter's Los Angeles chapter, attends a rally calling on City Atty. Mike Feuer to drop charges against her stemming from disruptions at meetings of the Police Commission. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles officials agreed Thursday to drop all criminal charges against one of the city’s most visible Black Lives Matter organizers as part of a negotiated arrangement after hundreds of activists filed petitions, filled courtrooms and led rallies in recent weeks accusing prosecutors and police of using the charges to silence a critical voice.

Melina Abdullah, a Cal State L.A. professor who often speaks out against Los Angeles Police Department policies, was facing charges of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest, as well as multiple counts of disturbing a public meeting and unlawful assembly in connection with incidents that took place during the often-contentious gatherings of the city’s civilian Police Commission in 2017 and 2018.

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But Thursday, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office and Abdullah’s defense team reached an agreement that could result in the dismissal of all charges by August and alter some rules governing Police Commission meetings.

Under the terms of the agreement, officers would arrest Abdullah for a perceived disruption only if she refused to leave the building after being given a verbal warning and being ejected from a meeting. If Abdullah violates the agreement before her next court date Aug. 8, the city attorney’s office could decide to prosecute her on the original charges. Otherwise, all eight counts would be dismissed, according to court documents.

Abdullah’s attorney, Carl E. Douglas, said the rules are comparable to those enforced at Los Angeles City Council meetings, and he believes the agreement will shift the way demonstrators are treated at Police Commission meetings.

“We have changed the culture in Los Angeles as it deals with protest,” he said. “No longer will black protest be criminalized. Because the rules that have now been set in place are very important for anyone who may want to protest at the Police Commission.”

Rob Wilcox, spokesman for the city attorney’s office, said in an email that the entire aim of the prosecution was to “ensure that Commission meetings are not disrupted in ways that prevent other members of the public from participating, while protecting individuals’ right to say what they mean.”

“The Defendant’s agreement to abide by this disposition strikes that balance,” he added.

An LAPD spokesman declined to comment on the agreement. Police Commission President Steve Soboroff, a frequent target of Abdullah’s barbs, said he did not believe the agreement changed the fundamental rules of commission meetings, and downplayed the idea that Abdullah’s arrest was meant to quell her activism.

“I don’t mind if someone exercises their rights to yell and swear and call us names or call our children names or those kinds of things, what I do mind is if somebody breaks the law,” he said.

Abdullah was originally arrested during a May 2018 commission meeting that ended when Sheila Hines-Brim — whose niece, Wakiesha Wilson, died while in LAPD custody in 2016 — threw a powdery substance at then-Police Chief Charlie Beck. Some activists had claimed Hines-Brim threw her niece’s ashes at Beck.

Police accused Abdullah of assault after she allegedly grabbed an officer’s arm during the commotion. But when the Los Angeles city attorney’s office filed charges against Abdullah last August, prosecutors also accused her of four counts of unlawful assembly, one count of disturbing a public meeting and one count of interfering with a public meeting in connection with alleged misconduct that took place at commission meetings in July and August 2017, records show.

In court filings, prosecutors said they began conducting a review of “all disruptions occurring at the Police Commission meetings,” which led to the additional charges against Abdullah. Wilcox said the Police Commission’s executive director, Richard Tefank, requested the review after “several incidents” took place at the meeting.

Abdullah and others have accused the city of bringing charges for the sole purpose of quashing her activism, which often includes antagonistic encounters at Police Commission meetings.

“The conduct of the city attorney’s office and LAPD — particularly the timing — allows the strong inference that this prosecution is in retaliation for Dr. Abdullah’s other political activity and is improperly motivated,” Douglas wrote in a recent court filing. “These charges seek to criminalize black protests and attempt to silence a loud, often angry, voice.”

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Calls for City Atty. Mike Feuer to drop all charges against Abdullah have circulated online for weeks. Protesters held a demonstration outside City Hall this week before hand-delivering a petition signed by 11,000 people calling on Feuer to dismiss the case.

Both the city attorney’s office and the LAPD denied that Abdullah was targeted for political reasons.

After the hearing Thursday morning, Abdullah and Douglas stood outside before a crowd of dozens of supporters who had packed the downtown courtroom and credited them with helping pressure the city attorney’s office into what they termed a “surrender.”

“How many of y’all called Mike Feuer every single day?” Abdullah shouted to cheers. “This is not the city attorney’s office coming after Melina Abdullah. This was the city attorney’s office coming after black protest.”

Wilcox rejected the notion that public pressure played a role in the move to dismiss charges against Abdullah.

Hines-Brim settled her case last month, the city attorney’s office previously said. She entered into an 18-month diversionary program, and the charges will be dismissed upon completion of the terms of that agreement, Wilcox said.

The LAPD has in the past faced criticism for allegedly using the threat of arrest or prosecution to quell protest and dissenting voices.

In the nights following President Trump’s 2016 election, thousands of people took to downtown streets as part of a wave of national protests. The LAPD arrested 462 people that week, far more than any other city in the U.S., but only managed to bring criminal charges against three of those people. At the time, observers accused police of giving inadequate dispersal orders before enacting arrests and of using handcuffs to quash the demonstrators’ legal right to march.

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