It’s hard to imagine the city of Los Angeles turning down nearly half a million dollars for worthwhile social service programs such as mental health counseling, leadership training and refugee assistance. Yet the City Council has been debating for six months whether to accept a $425,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to fund such services, amid concerns that the efforts will stigmatize and target Muslims.
Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of Public Safety was awarded the competitive grant by DHS’s Countering Violent Extremism program last year. The mayor’s office developed a reasonable plan to divvy up the money among local community groups to provide counseling, workshops and education to address the conditions that can lead to violence.
The goal, the mayor’s office said, is to provide social services that combat hate and bias in all forms, including white supremacy, bullying and Islamophobia along with Islamic extremism, without the involvement of law enforcement agencies.
In ordinary times, these investments probably wouldn’t be controversial. The grant, for example, would provide $45,000 to the Tiyya Foundation, an Orange County-based refugee and immigrant assistance group, to provide integration services. It would also provide $30,000 to the group Not in Our Town to help communities develop strategies to counter white supremacist activity. And $75,000 would go the Cross Cultural Expressions Community Counseling Center, which provides culturally appropriate counseling and mental health treatment in a range of languages.
This won’t be the last time city leaders grapple with whether to partner with the Trump administration.
But the council has yet to approve the grant. Civil liberties and Muslim-American groups are vehemently opposed, saying L.A. should not accept money from or partner with DHS in light of President Trump’s policies and rhetoric targeting Muslims.
The grant is part of a strategy adopted not by Trump, but by the Obama administration in 2011 to develop community-oriented approaches to prevent the recruitment and radicalization of potential terrorists. The theory, which has found some support from researchers around the world, is that families, friends, religious leaders and community members can help recognize the early signs of radicalization and intervene before a crime or violence is committed.
But the Countering Violent Extremism program has been controversial from the beginning. At first, the program was narrowly focused on preventing radicalization and recruitment to jihadi violence, though it was later broadened to include violent groups of differing ideologies, including white supremacists and far-right extremists. Much of the early funding went to law enforcement agencies, sowing concerns that the program was conducting surveillance of Muslim-Americans under the veneer of community partnerships.
Those concerns have only been heightened by President Trump’s demonization of Muslims, from his retweeting of anti-Muslim videos to his bigoted campaign proposal to impose a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Last year his administration floated the idea of revamping the Countering Violent Extremism program to focus exclusively on Islamic extremism and leave out the right-wing groups. The DHS later rescinded a $400,000 grant that had been awarded to Life After Hate, a group that works to combat white supremacist and far-right violence — an especially galling step after the deadly violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
So, yes, there are reasons to be wary of the administration’s intentions in awarding these funds.
Nevertheless, Los Angeles shouldn’t reject the grant out of hand — not when the money presents an opportunity to do valuable community work. Despite our serious misgivings about this president, we have said that the city and the state should work with the Trump administration when it’s mutually beneficial and doesn’t reduce protections for human and civil rights or equality.
With this grant, Los Angeles is presented with the opportunity to use federal dollars to address the root causes that can drive individuals to violence, including alienation, hopelessness and mental health problems. The need for social services in general often outstrips the supply, and few resources may be available for families or friends of those who are being pulled toward violent extremist groups. This community-based, proactive approach to preventing radicalization contrasts sharply with policies increasing favored by the Trump administration that promote a reactive, law enforcement approach.
This won’t be the last time city leaders grapple with whether to partner with the Trump administration. If Los Angeles can ensure the grant-funded programs broadly address the conditions that fuel terrorism and do it in a way that respects communities and protects civil rights — as Garcetti’s office says it’s doing — then there’s no reason to turn down the money.