How a coalition of activists forced Los Angeles to consider defunding the LAPD

LOS ANGELES — A week before George Floyd was killed, Jane Nguyen created a bar graph.

Nguyen, co-founder of Ktown for All, an activist group that advocates for the homeless, plugged numbers into Excel from the budget that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti released a few weeks earlier. City spending on housing appeared on Nguyen’s graph as a sliver compared to over $3 billion going to the Los Angeles Police Department — 54 percent of all discretionary spending — which she considered an “obscene amount.”

Municipal government budgets are usually an “obscure, niche, boring” topic, Nguyen conceded, but when she placed the numbers in a chart, “I think it’s so visually impactful — you see why our society is so messed up just from that graph.”

Under Garcetti’s budget, most city agencies faced cuts to deal with the economic downturn, but police were slated to get a boost, including a $41 million bonus package arranged with the police union. Garcetti defended the cuts to other agencies, including the transportation, cultural affairs and parks departments, as necessary given the economic conditions.

Outraged that Garcetti’s budget prioritized police over social programs, Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles gathered several local activist groups, including Ktown for All, in early May to create their own budget proposal, based on surveys of thousands of Angelenos. They called it the “People’s Budget,” and emphasized allocations for housing and mental health services, while cutting police to 5.7 percent of spending. They also organized hundreds of residents to flood the City Council meeting’s online public comment session.

However, City Council members largely ignored their proposal, Nguyen said, and there was little coverage of the People’s Budget in the media — until racial justice protests sparked by Floyd’s death took over the streets.

Demonstrators hold up fists at a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles on June 10.Alexis Hunley / for NBC News

Suddenly, huge marches in Los Angeles were demanding what Black Lives Matter-LA had spent years calling for — defunding the police — and they used Nguyen’s chart to make their point. She saw her bar graph displayed on signs at protests, and tweets using her chart collected tens of thousands of retweets and likes. The People’s Budget became a national trending topic on Twitter, and traffic to the website for the project tripled.

On Monday, Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter-LA, and four other activists were invited to present the People’s Budget in person and in detail at a City Council meeting. They were able to speak without interruption about problems they’ve faced with police and a lack of resources for their neighborhoods. In response, City Council members pledged to “reimagine” how the city will approach policing.

The recent activism in Los Angeles, the nation’s second most populous city, has ramped up scrutiny on local elected officials, and in particular on the budget, in a way not seen in a generation. Though it’s too early to tell what the long-term result will be, if they succeed, the Los Angeles organizers could offer a playbook for activism elsewhere. The strategy focuses on elected leaders at the city level, takes advantage of online meetings local governments implemented because of social distancing, and shifts the ground beneath the feet of politicians in places long ruled by one political party.

“The masses of people were awakened by George Floyd,” Abdullah said, “but the response was already organized.”

While Los Angeles has a long history of tension between Black communities and the police, the largely Democratic city government has spent decades pushing to expand the number of officers on the street, arguing this results in lower crime rates.

Racial justice activists say the city has failed to hold officers accountable for misconduct. There were no charges in more than 1,500 shootings by police in Los Angeles County from 2000 to 2018, according to the Guardian. Black motorists in L.A. are nearly five times as likely to be searched during traffic stops compared to white drivers, a Los Angeles Times analysis found.

Protesters speak about the lack of prosecutions over police killings in Los Angeles at a Black Lives Matter demonstration on June 10.Alexis Hunley / for NBC News

As protests gained steam in Los Angeles, and advocacy for the People’s Budget ramped up, Garcetti and the City Council called for trimming as much as $150 million from the LAPD’s budget. While activists say much more needs to be done, they saw it as a victory.

Garcetti said the move was “an inflection point” for L.A., and that it was “time to move our rhetoric towards action to end racism.”

“I have always prioritized funding and policies that promote equality and racial justice,” Garcetti added in a statement. “This moment has shown that we must do more and I’m grateful to many Angelenos who for bringing critical attention to this issue.”

City Council President Nury Martinez tweeted, “We cannot talk about change, we have to be about change,” as she introduced a motion to reallocate money from the LAPD to “disadvantaged communities and communities of color.” Council members also promised to push back on the police union, which is now running TV ads against the budget cuts.

Sgt. Jerretta Sandoz, vice president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the LAPD’s union, said the cuts will make residents less safe.

“These cuts also mean less money for special programs like cracking down on human trafficking or working compassionately with the homeless,” Sandoz said. “So, we ask those who want to cut the budget, what do you want less of? Patrol officers responding to 911 calls? Outreach to our homeless population? Slower investigations of crimes?”

A primary and a pandemic

A lot of the momentum behind Los Angeles progressive activists built up in the spring.

The City Council primary lined up with California’s presidential primary in March, which had increased significance this year since it was held earlier in the primary cycle, on Super Tuesday. That gave activists, especially those who backed the progressive City Council candidate Nithya Raman, an opening to reach more voters who otherwise might have ignored local politics. Raman won enough votes to force a runoff in the fall against incumbent David Ryu.

“Because of the timing of the election, more people were making sure they were doing their due diligence down the ballot,” said Meghan Choi, co-manager of Raman’s campaign and co-founder of the activist group Ground Game LA.

Two weeks after the primary, the spread of COVID-19 shut down California. Los Angeles residents reliant on service or entertainment industry work suddenly didn’t know whether they’d get a paycheck in time to make rent in April. One survey found 55 percent of Angelenos were out of a job. Many began getting more involved with local activist groups.

The Los Angeles Tenants Union, an independent group of renters, saw the number of dues-paying members more than quadruple from 700 to over 3,000 in three months. Usually, the new members have little knowledge about their rights as renters in the city, or how much city funding goes toward housing programs compared to other priorities, like the police, said Walt Senterfitt, an organizer with the L.A. Tenants Union.

“People start finding out things about the budget that they didn’t know before,” Senterfitt, 75, said. “The idea that more than half of the discretionary city budget goes to police — most people were absolutely flabbergasted by that fact and they say this is a police force that is often on our necks, so to speak.”

The increased attention on the City Council’s budget and policies soon led to protests.

When the City Council failed to pass a full eviction moratorium in late March, a group of activists — later calling themselves the People’s City Council — gathered dozens of cars to drive around the homes of council members and the mayor honking their horns and yelling through megaphones. About 50 cars showed up to the first such protest outside Garcetti’s house March 29. At a protest May 1, they brought a mariachi band, demanding protections for tenants. Some activists have taken the more confrontational step of tweeting the home addresses and phone numbers of council members.

“I think a lot of this opened up people’s eyes as to how little the City Council and the mayor care for our communities,” said Nicole Donanian-Blandon, who organized the first car protest. “The pandemic really got more people involved.”

People placed signs about civilians killed by police outside the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles in June. Alexis Hunley / for NBC News

Meanwhile, dozens of Black-led activist organizations in Los Angeles worked together to create a set of demands for the city in light of the coronavirus pandemic, including more health care for Black communities, hazard pay for essential workers, rent cancellation, and resources redirected from law enforcement to social welfare programs.

Black Lives Matter-LA issued the demands on April 16. Garcetti didn’t respond to them, and a few days later released his budget proposal. Black Lives Matter-LA then began planning the People’s Budget.

‘This is a brand-new moment’

The People’s City Council set up a GoFundMe page in April to support its efforts to keep pressure on city leaders during the pandemic; as of May 25, it had raised about $1,500. After Floyd was killed May 25, and protests grew in Los Angeles, donations to the GoFundMe page swelled to $2.5 million from 50,000 people.

The number of protesters outside Garcetti’s house also grew, from a few dozen to over 2,000. Hundreds of people crowded Police Commission and City Council telemeetings, demanding budget cuts for the LAPD. A 21-year-old whose 30-second public comment went viral — he called LAPD Chief Michel Moore a “disgrace” and capped off his remarks with “I yield my time, f— you” — said he had never been to a protest prior to Floyd’s death. The tactic of swarming hourslong public comment sessions on telemeetings is being replicated in other cities, from Iowa to New York.

David Turner, center, and Melina Abdullah, to his right, at the Los Angeles City Council meeting on June 15, 2020.

“What we’re seeing is a wholesale recalibration of what’s possible in policing reform,” said Pete White, a longtime activist and the founder of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. “This is a brand-new moment that is part of a long-term movement.”

The first sign that city officials were listening came when Garcetti announced the $150 million reduction in the LAPD’s budget. It’s not yet clear how the city will reallocate the money, and racial justice activists say that the trim isn’t nearly enough. They plan to be a constant presence at future City Council meetings, as they were Monday.

“You have the power to remake Los Angeles to protect little Black boys like I was, to protect little Black girls like my sister,” David Turner, a researcher for Black Lives Matter-LA, said at Monday’s meeting. He later added, “Now is your opportunity to do the right thing and be on the side of justice.”

The City Council must hammer out a budget deal by the end of the month.