Reflections on a Moment of Change

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By Jon Regardie

Mark Ridley-Thomas was 11 years old when the Watts Rebellion broke out in August 1965. More than a half-century later, images from the uprising that which lasted six days and resulted in 34 deaths, remain indelibly etched in his mind.

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.

In a FaceTime interview, Ridley-Thomas spoke with Los Angeles magazine 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. (The original article has been edited by the campaign 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 wrote: reduce the harm by the agencies sworn to protect and serve us. Where does that work begin?

It begins with training, and it ends with consequences. First, we need intensive and extensive training, for officers.  Second, we need prosecutors who will step up and prosecute officers who kill unarmed civilians. And perhaps most of all, we must challenge the impunity under the color of law that protects officers who have demonstrated they are not psychologically or emotionally mature enough to handle the weight of a life or death decision.

That said, I want to stipulate that I am not anti-police. I am anti-police abuse, anti-police misconduct, anti-police brutality. So I am not anti-police; I am pro law enforcement accountability.

These are more than just words. These principles define the role of responsible law enforcement in a civil society. In a democratic society law enforcement should not be permitted to dominate. It has to be integrated into the range of public safety, health care, educational and other services designed to help people to live a better quality of life. And democracy requires no less than that.

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?

Many. I have long advocated for moving away from a police-dominant model of public safety. Alternatively, community-based models provide a range of interventions that are indeed effective. All too often we ask law enforcement officials to be social workers, when they aren’t equipped to handle all non-criminal social or mental problems. So that needs to change.

Also, we lock up people unnecessarily.

For example, we have evidence that diversion works. Over 4,000 people have been effectively diverted to treatment over the last four years. And 3,000 more are eligible as we speak.

This has had a tremendous impact on public safety, and is fiscally advantageous. To divert someone costs $70 per day, according to our fiscal analysts. To incarcerate is $600 per day. Do the math! So the additional work that can and should be done is to make for more robust infrastructure to support people in crisis, which effectively means we need alternatives to traditional law enforcement and solutions that done default to incarceration only.

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.

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, and after that, a full work-up you’re put on your way either to an appropriate shelter or to your permanent residence.

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

So if we had more of these facilities, we’d have fewer people interacting with law enforcement, and we’d have more resources to help people rather than cause them to become part of a vicious cycle. There has to be an extensive network of such facilities. It’s called the safety net.

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?

We need marches. We need demonstrations. I think we need acts of civil disobedience.  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. But there is no replacement for the dialogical encounter. To sit down and talk out our differences is a mark of civility.

And as you might expect, dialogues 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?

Racism pervades so many aspects of our lives.  We’ve seen it in a very pronounced way with COVID-19. In education: the inequitable distribution of resources as 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.

Take the housing market: homelessness is disproportionately African American as are evictions.

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 distribution of primary social goods looks like in our society.

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 blipalbeit, a big oneand 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?

It strikes me that the contours of this crisis and the response to it are different from what we’ve seen in previous iterations of unrest and resistance. But it’s simply too early to fully know.

What we do know is that today’s uprising is not localized; it’s fairly far-flung. It is far more multiracial in its character than any time in my nearly five decades studying and participating in social change movements.  What’s not unusual is that it’s being driven by young people. Consider that Dr. King was 26 when he launched. Jesse Jackson began his activism at age 19 and John Lewis was 21. Rosa Parks, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer were a bit older, but not by much.

So the question now is what will be the lasting results of this uprising? Sustaining the struggle is the real test. Producing results that tame the beast — meaning causing bureaucracies that oppress to be transformed, is the test. And it takes sustained audacity and temerity. It takes an ability to hang on in there, to do that. The only thing we know is that with persistence and hope, “joy cometh in the morning.”