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Community Resistance Against Policing and Displacement: Los Angeles Community Action Network by General Dogon, Skid Row resident and member of the LA CAN

March 2, 2011

The Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) has been organizing to preserve the right of low-income residents to remain and thrive in their communities of choice since 1999. From 2002 to 2010, LA CAN was actively engaged in preventing gentrification and mass displacement in downtown Los Angeles and, in particular, the Skid Row community. With the Staples Center and LA Live came luxury condos, lofts, fine restaurants, upscale coffee shops, and other signs pointing to the City’s efforts to gentrify all low income residents out of downtown. LA CAN members organized and fought back.

City officials figured in order to get developers to invest in downtown and to get the new gentry (yuppies) to patronize downtown, they had to remove all of the poor residents out of downtown. The first attack was on the residential homes of low income tenants who primarily lived in residential hotels. Residents were targeted for displacement through City plans, such as the redevelopment plan approved in 2002 (which was later invalidated), and by owners who illegally evicted residents so they could turn low-income hotels into condos and lofts.

LA CAN members organized tenants in dozens of buildings throughout Skid Row and the newly-named “Historic Core” to prevent displacement and the loss of housing. Members went door-to-door for months, educating tenants about their rights and building a resident organizing committee focused on preventing gentrification. After creating a grassroots policy plan to supplement tenant education and organizing efforts, residents gave testimony to the Community Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Commissioners and to City Council, demanding a moratorium on the conversion or demolition of low income housing units. The temporary moratorium was enacted in 2006. In 2008, after five years of organizing and fighting back, tenants won the largest housing victory in LA’s recent history: the City Council approved a permanent residential hotel preservation ordinance that protects more than 15,000 low-income homes Citywide, about 9,000 of which are in Downtown Los Angeles.

After residents successfully fought for and won their right to stay on the land, the attack on poor people went from our homes to attacking our basic civil rights on the streets. In September 2006, just months after the residential hotel moratorium was passed, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then-Chief William Bratton created and launched the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI). SCI brought more than 100 extra police officers into the 50-block community of Skid Row, making it the most heavily policed community in America.

The publicly stated purpose of SCI policing was to increase law enforcement resources in order to target serious crime – or what they termed the “outside criminal element” that comes into Skid Row and preys on vulnerable people. However, the implementation focused almost entirely on mass citations for minor infractions, escalating charges for minor crimes, illegal detentions, inappropriate policing of people with serious mental disabilities, and other supposed “quality of life” policing. SCI was a clear mechanism for gentrification and forced removal of poor and homeless residents, through harassment and/or incarceration.

One can just imagine all of the dirty, do-low policing that can be done with an extra 100 pigs that were only in our community for one reason……to move us out!

In the first year of SCI, cops wrote more than 12,000 citations, which was 48 to 69 times the rate of citations issued citywide. The 1,000 citations per month were largely for “crimes” such as cross walk violations, or flicking a cigarette butt onto the sidewalk. Many of the people targeted were those with disabilities – for example, a person in a wheelchair who could not get on the curb fast enough after crossing the street. Additionally, crosswalk violations were illegally used as a means to detain, cuff, and search individuals.

Also, under SCI policing, cops were averaging about 750 arrests per month in the 50-block target area. In a community home to about 15,000 people, more than 19,000 arrests were made in just the first two years of SCI. Community residents going to and from their homes would be stopped for no reason, asked if they are on parole or probation, and often cuffed while a warrant search was completed. The level of harassment and intimidation was so high that many residents reported they were afraid to come out of their homes in fear of being stopped or arrested.

Again, LA CAN members organized to fight back and protect our right to remain in our community. Resident members of LA CAN formed a CommunityWatch program to monitor and videotape police activities; we added a citation defense program to our legal clinic to fight some of the unfair tickets; we developed “know your rights” trainings for residents and conducted them at various sites; we met with Mayor Villaragosa’s staff, LAPD Commissioners, and other decision-makers responsible for the devastation caused by SCI; we gathered documentation to file a formal complaint with the Department of Justice; and engaged in numerous other coordinated activities in adamant opposition of SCI policing. This resistance has come at a cost – with many active residents facing retaliation by LAPD through harassment and arrest. The lead organizer is currently facing unfair criminal charges for the second time in three years.

At the end of 2010, LA CAN members submitted petitions to the Police Chief and Commission with signatures from over 3,600 residents and businesses owners calling for the end of SCI policing. Additionally, LA CAN’s civil rights committee discussed many possible responses to the information we were receiving in the clinic and in our street outreach, and decided to complete a 5-page survey with Skid Row residents that we did not know personally to further gauge the impacts of SCI. The final results of the survey produced the following responses and statistics:

 

  • More than half of the respondents (53.6%), both homeless and housed, had been arrested in just the past year. This compares to an adult arrest rate in the State of California of 4.9 percent.
  • As a result of arrest, 51.5% lost their housing, 42.4% lost access to social services, and 16.4% lost employment.
  • Although LAPD touts improvements in biased policing (formerly racial profiling), 75 percent reported being profiled by police in the past year due to their race, economic status, or residence in the Skid Row community. Almost 80 percent of respondents reported they do not feel safe from police violence and police harassment.
  • The report also includes previously unpublished data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 2007 Homeless Count that shows that the most prevalent form of victimization reported by those surveyed was police harassment (37%), exceeding assault (24%) and robbery (18%).

 

In response to our presentation of the above data and personal stories, members of the civil rights committee met with LAPD Commission President, LAPD Inspector General, and other representatives on January 5, 2011. We again urged them to use their influence to end the racist and unjust Safer Cities Initiative. Members also created three additional recommendations for the LAPD:

 

  1. Expand and utilize the “SMART” team in downtown Los Angeles: LAPD has a SMART team model that includes specially-trained officers in mental health and Department of Mental Health professionals that is supposed to be called to a scene when a person with a mental illness is involved. Although the LAPD has sustained dozens of extra officers in Skid Row for more than 4 years, the SMART team hasn’t expanded at all and is generally not used in interactions with mentally disabled residents.
  2. CREATE A POLICY TO REQUIRE A COMMUNITY TASKFORCE FOR SPECIAL INITIATIVES: This recommendation is to ensure that before any special policing, such as Safer Cities, starts in a community, the LAPD be required to meet with the residents and stakeholders of that community and review the action. This will not only redirect monies to services where they’re most needed but will give residents and stake holders voice and power in what’s going on
  3. EXPAND THE ABILITY OF RESIDENTS TO PROVIDE COMMENDATIONS AND MISCONDUCT COMPLAINTS: This proposal demands that police misconduct complaints and commendation forms are available on-site with officers and that they be offered to citizens when stopped. Many people have fear of retaliation that will keep them from walking into a police station and therefore may never end up filing a complaint when mistreated.

 

A report on the above cited policy recommendations is expected at the March 1, 2011 Police Commission meeting, as well as a report from LAPD officers in response to our human rights assessment. We urge concerned residents to join us at the Police Commission in this next step in ending Safer Cities and eliminating discriminatory practices and policies from our community. Contact General Dogon at LA CAN to get involved: (213) 228-0024, stever@cangress.org.

We believe that until LAPD and other City Officials are forced to recognize the reality that they cannot police their way out of poverty, there will continue to be resistance. There will continue to be struggle. We will continue to stand up and push back against all forms of oppression orchestrated by the politicians of the City of Los Angeles and the developers that line their campaign coffers.

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