For young people like Zahria Thomas, schools are too often places where black and brown youth are seen as threats, not as students.
When she was 16, the Inglewood resident was arrested at her Los Angeles high school, in front of her classmates, after she responded angrily to a teacher’s racist remark. Soon afterward, she was taken to a police station and fingerprinted while a police officer demanded to know if she was a gang member. It was routine, Thomas said, for students to be taken out of class to be searched or sniffed by police dogs.
“It shouldn’t have to be like this for us to get the education we deserve,” said Thomas, a 21-year-old Youth Justice Coalition organizer who joined hundreds of protesters in downtown Los Angeles on Friday to push for police reform.
In a city still under dire threat of the coronavirus, nearly all of the protesters wore masks as they gathered on the steps of City Hall in a peaceful demonstration, waving signs that read, “Defund the police, refund the people” and “Are my kids next?”
Outside City Hall, Aztec dancers paraded through a peaceful but boisterous overflow crowd that spilled out onto Spring Street, blocking two lanes of traffic. The black-led protest drew together people of all races — a trend seen in protests across the country in recent weeks.
Unlike the violent and aggressive tactics deployed by law enforcement against protesters following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Los Angeles police monitored Friday’s protest mostly from afar, inside their cars. They watched as the crowd circled downtown proclaiming “care, not cages,” with stops at LAPD headquarters, the county Hall of Administration and Men’s Central Jail.
For the third week in a row, L.A. and cities across the country have seen hundreds of thousands of people flock to the streets to protest police brutality and racial injustice. As the protests have grown, so have demands against other forms of heavy-handed law enforcement – most recently punitive practices in schools that disproportionately target black and brown students.
Organized by the Youth Justice Coalition, protesters in downtown Los Angeles demanded that L.A. city and county shift hundreds of millions of dollars away from the police, Sheriff and Probation departments – public funds they say should be invested in youth development centers and employment opportunities for young people. The coalition is also calling on local leaders to remove police officers from schools, shutter juvenile detention facilities and provide free transportation passes to the city’s youth.
The South L.A.-based group has long pushed for such a shift, and amid the massive protests across the nation, they are suddenly being heard and taken seriously.
Last week, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would take up to $150 million out of the $1.8 billion police budget and invest it in health, education and workforce programs in African American communities. He has not yet provided details about his plan. And this week, the powerful union supporting Los Angeles public school teachers recommended disbanding the Los Angeles School Police Department.
The youth-led protest on Friday reflected the generations of pain suffered by local residents who have paid the price for the heavily policed society. Among those highlighted at the gathering were family members of people killed by law enforcement. Carrying pictures of their deceased loved ones, they shared their stories over loudspeakers.
Artist Rachid Bouhamidi brought posters of his recent work to share with the crowd at City Hall — portraits of notable African Americans who have shaped the nation’s culture and thought. Bouhamidi said he wanted to raise awareness of giants like journalist Ida B. Wells, writer James Baldwin and activist Fred Hampton, and to introduce them to the young people gathered at the rally. Angela Davis was the most popular poster, he said, and he ran out of her black-and-white drawing within minutes of arriving.
“I should have made a thousand of those,” Bouhamidi said.
Stopping before the sleek headquarters of the LAPD, the crowd’s chants seemed to grow the loudest for justice reform. “Killer cops ain’t funny, a new D.A. for 2020,” some shouted, calling out the contested race for Los Angeles district attorney that has attracted regular attention at protests here. Incumbent Jackie Lacey, a target of Black Lives Matter and other groups who say she has failed to charge cops who kill, is running against former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.
Minutes later, the crowd yelled out: “You about to lose your job” as throbbing drums echoed off the building that houses the third-largest municipal police department.
Family members of people who had been killed by police told their stories, sharing grief and hopes that the police would face accountability for their deadly actions.
Marina Vergara, the sister of Daniel Hernandez — who was shot and killed by the LAPD two months ago — said police never tried to de-escalate a situation that started with a multi-car accident.
As a result, Vergara said: “This pain will never go away. Years will pass and people will forget their names — but we won’t.”
Sage, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition who declined to provide her last name, said social workers and other emergency responders with training should be used in lieu of police officers when crimes are not in progress, especially when young people are involved. Sage, 23, said she was “sick of the police patrolling our school hallways and our streets, forcing us to grow up too fast.”
Too often, she said, her brother has been arrested and booked into jail, instead of receiving treatment for his mental illness. Imagine, Sage told the crowd, what communities in Los Angeles could do with a billion dollars’ worth of intervention workers, youth centers and mental health services.
“An investment in police is not an investment in our future,” she said.
Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint and can be reached at [email protected].