L.A.’s Longest-Serving Politician Is Cautiously Optimistic That This Is a Moment of Change

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas talks criminal justice reform, systemic racism, and how the current protests differ from the 1992 uprising
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Mark Ridley-Thomas was 11 years old when the Watts Rebellion broke out in August 1965. More than a half-century later, one image from the uprising that started with a traffic stop, and lasted six days and resulted in 34 deaths, remains indelibly etched in his mind. In a FaceTime conversation with Los Angeles, he recalled standing on the corner of Vernon and Hoover avenues and seeing the militarized trucks of the National Guard roll through the neighborhood.

“What I saw was very young men with rifles on that truck,” he says. “They looked not much more than in their late teens, their early 20s at best. I remember it distinctly. They were red-faced. I don’t know if the red faces were fear or anger. But it was pronounced. Yeah. That I remember.”

Today, Ridley-Thomas is a Los Angeles County Supervisor who has spent decades addressing racial justice and police reform. As a member of the L.A. City Council in the wake of the 1992 civil unrest that erupted after four white police officers were acquitted on charges of beating Black motorist Rodney King, Ridley-Thomas helped usher in changes including creating a civilian oversight panel for the LAPD, and ensuring that no future chief would have the unfettered power of Daryl Gates, under whom the department gained a reputation as a paramilitary organization. In the effort to rebuild a battered South L.A., Ridley-Thomas chaired the council’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Recovery and Revitalization.

Ridley-Thomas, the only current Los Angeles city or county elected official who also held public office in 1992, began his political career after helming the local branch of the civil rights organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He is currently seeking to return to the City Council, and faces attorney Grace Yoo in a November runoff election for the District 10 seat.

Ridley-Thomas spoke with Los Angeles about activism and change amid the Black Lives Matter-propelled protests that overtook the country after the killing of George Floyd, as well as police reform and systemic racism in Los Angeles and beyond. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

The killing of George Floyd is the latest in a line of killings of unarmed Black men by law enforcement agencies across the country. On Twitter you recently synthesized the situation by stating the need to “reduce the harm by the agencies sworn to protect and serve us.” Where does that work begin?

There is a need for more intense training and there have to be clear consequences for discharging one’s weapon against an unarmed person. There has to be more in the way of prosecutions for such behavior so as to remove the specter of killing unarmed individuals with impunity under the color of the law. That’s the narrative that defines this at this moment. And it’s significantly what drives the depth of the critique against law enforcement.

I want to stipulate that neither my politics nor my policies are anti-police. Over the entirety of the time I’ve been doing this work, it’s always been anti-police abuse, anti-police misconduct, anti-police brutality, anti-the excessive use of force, lethal and otherwise. There is significant difference to be made. I am pro accountability.

These are more than just words. These things mean something. They go to how progress is shaped in the context of civil society, and the role of law enforcement in the context of that society. In a democratic society law enforcement should not be permitted to dominate. It has to be integrated in the context of the range of services and possibilities for people to live a higher quality of life. And democracy demands accountability.

There are many discussions right now about what tasks law enforcement should take on and what resources should be directed to those departments—it’s certainly more involved than a blanket call to defund the police. What options do you see for exploring and rethinking modern policing and how it’s funded?

I think there’s an argument that can and should be made for alternatives to incarceration, as we have worked on it and recently produced a pretty substantial report [the County’s 100-page Care First, Jails Last report, released in March].

It speaks to what is often referred to as a paradigm shift, moving from a punitive posture with respect to managing behavior to what could be described as a care-first model. Now why a care-first model? Because if in fact in this region—we’ll call it for the sake of this conversation Los Angeles County—is the largest mental health ward in the United States of America: that is the jails of Los Angeles County. Then it’s best that if we really want to help people rather than harm people, if we want them to do better rather than worse, the interventions have to be of a clinical nature rather than a punitive nature. It means that notions of diversion become much more relevant, and the outcomes arguably better.

We now have evidence of that, having stood up the office of Diversion and Reentry, and the extent to which over 4,000 people have been effectively diverted over the last four years. And 3,000 more are eligible as we speak.

It would seem to be that more of that helps redefine how public safety and community standards should take shape in the context of our communities. Add to that it is far more cost-effective. To divert is $70 per day, according to our fiscal analyst. To incarcerate is $600 a day. It’s more cost-effective with better outcomes. So the additional work that can and should be done is to make for more robust infrastructure to support people in crisis, which effectively suggests that law enforcement has to have alternatives over and above jail cells.

I’ll cite an example: psychiatric or mental health urgent care centers. We’re building more and more of them in the county of Los Angeles. The way you access them is through either the paramedics or a police officer or sheriff. You have to be escorted there as a result of having a psychotic break. Absent those centers, individuals end up in one of two places: [the first is] the emergency room of local hospitals that are ill-equipped to accommodate them.

“I want to invoke what is commonly known now: that you cannot get well in a cell”

The other option is that they would be taken to jail. And I want to invoke what is commonly known now: that you cannot get well in a cell. Therefore the alternative is the mental health urgent care centers where there are immediate interventions, three meals, a diagnostic assessment, dispensing of meds, the ability to shower and rest, and after that full work-up you’re put on your way to an appropriately positioned shelter that’s been cleared by the center. Or, if you have a permanent residence, which is conceivable, but you just got off your meds and had this episode, you would be afforded the opportunity to return to your place of residence.

Thirdly, those two options failing, you may require hospitalization.

So if you had more of these facilities you’d have less people put in jail, then you’d have more resources for law enforcement to help people rather than cause them to become part of a vicious cycle.

So there has to be that: an extensive network of such facilities.

In 1995 you founded Days of Dialogue, an annual event that brings people together to begin discussing race and other subjects that many individuals might otherwise not address. How can that be used now for the region at large?

There is no replacement for the dialogical encounter. It’s a mark of our civility. We need, in my view, marches. We need demonstrations. I think we need acts of civil disobedience and we need dialogue. So all of these strategies, all of these tactics, all of these methods are essential to push forward serious systemic structural social change.

And as you might expect, a dialogue is being teed up as we speak.

You wrote in a recent Los Angeles Sentinel Op-Ed that “we fail ourselves, and future generations, if we only view this as a criminal justice issue,” and go on to describe the need of addressing economic concerns, including amidst the COVID-19 crisis, which disproportionately impacts African Americans. Let’s talk about this economic inequity. How do we as a society begin to address this systemic economic racism?

It cannot be denied that racism pervades so many aspects of our lives: in healthcare. We’ve seen it in a very pronounced way with COVID-19. In education: the state of education particularly as it relates to the Black learner is profoundly troubling. Think about it in terms of the economy: the unemployment rate for African Americans has once again nearly doubled that of counterparts who are white. And in the context of Depression-like unemployment numbers we know what impacts that will have in terms of the quality of life of African Americans and the communities they predominantly reside in.

The housing market: there’s no mystery why homelessness is disproportionately African American for example in Los Angeles, because the eviction rate is higher for African Americans.

So I think we have to understand this in terms of some of the fundamental inequities in our society. From an economic point of view it goes to what the redistribution of primary social goods looks like in our society. What are citizens to do? What do civil right really constitute?

Many people are hopeful that the current protests will finally lead to action and change. But there is concern as well that this will be a blip—albeit, a big one—and that the issue will fade from public consciousness. As someone who has worked on these matters for more than three decades, do we have reason to believe that this moment will lead to substantive change?

I’ll go as far as saying this: it does strike me that the contours of this crisis and the response to it may be different from that which we’ve seen in previous iterations. The closest example that we can think of is ’92; that is the Rodney King verdict and the uprisings that ensued.

The conscience of the nation has been pricked, but it’s too early to know. It has to sustain itself. You have to be able to see what things flow from it that are substantial and lasting.

What we do know is that this is fairly far-flung. It is far more multiracial in its character than it has ever presented itself at any point in time that I can document over the past nearly five decades. And there’s the extent to its being driven by young people, which is not unusual. Consider that Dr. King was 26 when he launched. Dead by the time he was 39. So all of that is relative.

But the extent to which the energy that [younger generations] are bringing to the equation, is rather powerful.

Now [the question is] what they do with that, whether they have a sufficient appreciation for the historical record, so they build on the progress that has been made rather than ignoring it and thinking it when they declare themselves. That’s where the test will be, because taming the beast, namely causing bureaucracies that oppress to be transformed, is more than waking up in the morning and shouting from the rooftop. It takes a degree of audacity and temerity. But it also takes a degree of integrity and the ability to hang on in there, because every day is not going to be a good day. The only thing we can hope for is that joy cometh in the morning.


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