Outrage Over Looting Misses Point, Young People in Los Angeles Say

In L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, community members remember 21-year-old Anthony Vargas, who was shot and killed by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies at the Nueva Maravilla Housing Community in East Los Angeles in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Kim McGill.

Eight years after her 14-year-old cousin was shot and killed by law enforcement during a mental health crisis, Los Angeles youth activist E.V. is closely watching the protests against police brutality that have now gripped every major American city. 

Hundreds of thousands of people across the country have taken to the streets in recent days to condemn the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Minneapolis police and so many more before him. And she knows discussions about police violence are reaching the living rooms of America in a way that data and the lived experience of black and brown families may never have before.

But will things actually change this time? Already the messaging is a bit mixed, said the 24-year-old E.V., who is being identified by her initials to protect her vulnerable family. Protests are being called “riots,” and “looters” are often more widely portrayed in the media than peaceful protesters in anguish, people who are risking coronavirus infection to say: Enough, finally, is enough.

“People are beyond tired about the way police treat people of color,” E.V. said. “But it’s not surprising that people are more outraged about looting than the hundreds of people who have lost their lives at the hands of the police.”

On Tuesday, protesters continued to blanket Los Angeles, including a peaceful gathering outside the Hancock Park home of Mayor Eric Garcetti.

This time it’s to voice their anger at the killing of Floyd by the former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin as three other officers looked on and even assisted, according to charges filed against the four officers Wednesday. Millions have seen a video of the incident as Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes even as he and others protested the man couldn’t breathe. 

For youth of color on the frontlines of protest in Los Angeles this week, the fight against racist law enforcement policies and practices are nothing new, and they approach the latest cycle determined, but battle-weary.

A mapping project from the Youth Justice Coalition found that from 2000-2017 communities of color like South Central, Compton and Long Beach suffered a disproportionate share of deadly police incidents. See full map here.

A mapping project by Youth Justice Coalition has found from 2000 to 2018, 891 people have been killed by law enforcement in L.A. County. The LAPD has accounted for the largest share of those deadly incidents, both in L.A. and across the country  And while African Americans make up only about 9% percent of county residents, they make up 25% of police killings.

For years, thousands of young people from L.A. County have been caught in dragnets run by the Los Angeles Police Department, trapped under now-banned gang injunctions or placed on the state’s CalGang database — made up of 90% of black and Latinx residents. In February, the California Department of Justice announced it would investigate multiple instances of the Los Angeles Police Department falsely placing young people on this registry. And an astounding 95% of young people held in juvenile detention are black or Latinx, in a county where they comprise 58% percent of the population. 

What’s more, even as youth crime in the state has dropped to historic lows, the nation’s largest school police department at the Los Angeles Unified School District and probation officers are a constant presence in many local schools. Despite the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic, the budget for Los Angeles police has continued to rise – even as spending for nearly all other city departments has seen deep cuts.

 As a result, youth have been among the many voices on protest lines calling for the city of Los Angeles to reduce the amount allocated to the LAPD – and its heavy-handed policing of black and brown communities. According to a budget approved earlier this week, L.A. is setting aside 54% of unrestricted general funds in its budget, or  $1.9 billion, for the Police Department. Nationwide, cities have been loath to slash police budgets during the coronavirus outbreak, even as a drop in revenue has forced cities to slash spending everywhere else. 

At the Tuesday rally at Garcetti’s house, protesters from Black Lives Matter and other groups chanted “Defund the police,” and continued to urge L.A. city officials to strip hundreds of millions of dollars from the police budget. In a “people’s budget” released at the end of last month, they called for the city to spend just 5.7% of its budget on law enforcement and policing. 

Brooklyn, a South Los Angeles teen, at a protest on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn.

Amid the generalized unrest, in response, Garcetti and other City Council members told reporters on Tuesday that they would rethink money allocated for police bonuses and raises in the approved budget.

And on Wednesday, L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez introduced a motion asking city staff to identify ways to slash between $100 million and $150 million from the LAPD budget, “to be reinvested into disadvantaged communities and communities of color.”

Heavy investments in police have come at the expense of young people in L.A, say activists like Lupita Carballo, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition. There is no youth development department in L.A. and a recent report from the Advancement Project found that the city spent just $75 per youth in its 2017-18 budget, compared with $541 per young person in New York and  $1,909 in San Francisco. 

The lack of a dedicated stream of funding for youth has been at the center of a years-long campaign by Carballo and other organizers with the Youth Justice Coalition.

“It’s crazy that there is no funding for young people at all in the budget, especially when they say young people are the future,” said Carballo, 21. “If we look at the budget, what kind of future are they really planning for us?”

Over the past week, Carballo said, she has traveled the county — from the Westside to Long Beach — to participate in daily protests that have seen moments of cooperation as well as chaotic violence. On Saturday, when she stopped to take pictures of police fighting with protesters outside of a Whole Foods store, Carballo heard a projectile fired by a police officer go whistling by her head.   

And while the media has too often focused on looting and destruction that has taken place at some protest sites, Carballo said, they’ve missed multiracial collaboration, where many have pitched in to share water, milk and first-aid kits.

The sense of creating a new footprint for racial justice comes even as the legacy of the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles remains a vivid reference point for many youth. During the civil unrest in the wake of the videotaped police beating of black motorist Rodney King, many parts of the city burned down and more than 60 people died during rampant violence. Even though she was not born yet, that event has loomed large for Carballo in talking to elders in the community and family members who lived through the moment in South L.A.

“I still see empty lots in South Central from ’92 that haven’t been repaired,” she said. “Back then, they let people destroy their city. Right now, there’s a feeling like it’s going to be different this time.”

This time, protests — and some looting — have instead occurred in wealthier, whiter parts of town, like the Fairfax district. That’s where Brooklyn, a 16-year-old from South L.A., came out to the protest on Saturday, despite her family’s concerns for her safety. 

Brooklyn, whose full name is not being used to protect her identity as a minor, said she marched peacefully for a couple of hours through Pan Pacific Park into surrounding streets. As the numbers of protesters swelled, police broke up the march, wielding riot gear, batons and tear gas, she said. 

But the young African American teen remained brave. In the midst of the increasingly tumultuous environment, Brooklyn found herself coaching an older woman about what to do if police fired tear gas. Ironically, she remembered what it was like when law enforcement fired tear gas to break up a large fight at her high school last year. Listen for a loud bang, followed by a sizzling sound, Brooklyn told the woman, and cover your face as soon as you can.

Police officers have a regular presence at Crenshaw High School, including their office. That makes school feel like prison, she said, with constant surveillance of students on her majority-black campus. 

And when police officers at her school step in during altercations, their response is often too aggressive, Brooklyn said, citing her own experience. Two years ago, during an argument with other students, a law enforcement officer stepped in to grab the slight 5-foot-2 student by the back of her neck and slammed her against a wall, leaving her bruised and shaken.

“I haven’t grown since the fifth grade,” Brooklyn said, recalling the incident. “I’m very short, and no one’s threatened by me. What am I going to do to you? You have a weapon and a badge.”

In her experience, police are “not in the places we need them. And when we call them,” she said, “they don’t do their jobs.”

The Stop Terrorism & Oppression by Police (S.T.O.P.) Coalition organizes family members of people killed by police across California. Last year, the group helped pass AB 392, a bill that rewrote the state’s use-of-force standard for the first time since 1872. Photo: S.T.O.P.

For E.V., part of her healing has been activism. She joined other advocates across California to push for passage of two historic laws that have limited the power of police agencies to escape oversight. Passed in 2018, Senate Bill 1421 makes it easier for the public to find out about normally secretive police misconduct investigations, and last year’s Assembly Bill 392 amended the state’s use of deadly force standard for the first time since 1872.

Now, E.V. is hopeful that recent protests will keep the momentum going, and  push statewide police accountability further — like banning the police’s use of chokeholds and preventing violent officers from drifting from agency to agency to escape scrutiny.

At the very least, she said, she is hopeful that there will be fewer police killings like the one suffered by her cousin, Junior. In 2012, the 14-year-old boy called 911 in emotional distress, but in an ensuing confrontation later investigated by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, Santa Ana police ended up killing, rather than comforting, the distraught teen. Although the police officers were not found criminally culpable, E.V. is left feeling her young cousin was viewed as an adult-size threat. Because not enough was done by police to de-escalate the tense situation, it cost him his life, she said.

“With these uprisings,” E.V. said, “we’re starting to change that dialogue and the narrative around law enforcement.” 

Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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