Amid Protests, L.A.’s New Civil Rights Department Gets a Home

Formed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the city’s Civil + Human Rights and Equity Department is setting out to quash discrimination and bias, but not everyone is sold

The Monday morning dedication of the new headquarters of the city’s Civil + Human Rights and Equity Department started as ribbon-cutting events normally do: Capri Maddox, executive director of the entity launched in July 2020 to address racism and inequity in Los Angeles, was flanked by a cadre of city leaders. She began describing the opportunities offered by the space, which includes a conference center named for late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

“We will be able to get into good trouble there,” Maddox said.

There was a festive air as she thanked a battery of department general managers, lauded the architects who designed the space, and detailed the importance of a unit that will investigate discrimination claims in the fields of commerce, education, employment, and housing.

Interruptions began five-and-a-half minutes in, when Maddox mentioned Mayor Eric Garcetti, sparking boos from a collection of protesters—some holding signs decrying the state of homelessness, one wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt—who had gathered behind a line of TV cameras. Maddox picked back up, but two minutes later, when she brought Garcetti to the podium, members of the group began unleashing expletives and one turned on a bullhorn. Although there were many times more people there to applaud the opening, the protesters drowned out comments from Garcetti and City Attorney Mike Feuer. More foul language and invective was hurled. The microphone was turned off.

The protesters’ choice of venue was questioned by District 10 Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, himself one of the targets of those shouting.

“It’s very revealing that those who mar the image of legitimate protest or strategic protest would do so on the occasion where the issue of civil rights, human rights, anti-racism, and equity was the order of the day,” Ridley-Thomas told Los Angeles Monday afternoon. “We were there to call attention to the unfinished agenda of justice in the city of Los Angeles. And the best the detractors could do is try to drown out the legitimacy of that claim.

“How do you defend shouting down the call for justice?” he added. “Why would you use your bullhorn to fight racial and gender equity? Obviously they got it twisted.”

The event picked back up in the conference center, one of three separate spaces that make up the 6,000-square-foot headquarters for a department also known as L.A. Civil Rights. It currently has about ten employees and, according to city documents, a $3.3 million budget for the 2021-’22 fiscal year.

The department was formed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the subsequent nationwide protests, with a mission to focus on reducing bias and injustice in Los Angeles, and also partnering on equity endeavors with city groups including the Human Relations Commission and the Commission on the Status of Women. Maddox said the conference center will be available for these and other organizations to have meetings or hold dialogues.

Department efforts to date include launching a citywide anti-hate campaign, dubbed L.A. for All, as the city experiences a surge in hate crime reports. The department’s Human Relations Commission issued a report exploring policing and the Black community.

L.A. Civil Rights will also be a place where people can walk in off the street to report incidents of discrimination or bias. There will be an intake process, and investigators can look into allegations.

“We’ll be focusing on discriminatory practices in the private sector,” Maddox said in an interview. “If you’ve been disciplined or fired from your job because of your citizenship status, or you’ve been denied housing for a similar reason, or if you have discriminatory practices in commerce, if they search everyone’s bag of a certain race or if there’s red-lining where they’re charging a different interest rate based on your ethnicity, we want to make sure that we address those issues.”

The department will have the ability to impose penalties or other enforcement action, though details are not yet clear.

The ribbon cutting also had an air of symbolism, as the headquarters marks the transformation of a portion of the mausoleum-like Los Angeles Mall, an underground space with notoriously sketchy escalator service across from City Hall. The new offices inject a bit of light and life into the dim passageways that formerly held a bookstore, card store, and hair salon.

For all the work the new department has on its plate as it addresses bias and injustice across Los Angeles, City Controller Ron Galperin noted there is also a need to examine the practices of local government. During remarks as part of the opening event, he pointed to a report from his office identifying pay disparities within the city itself. He referenced the discrepancy between what a white man and a Black woman can make.

“It is through the creation of a department like this,” Galperin said, “that we’re going to once and for all address this.”

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