Janelle Monáe’s anthemic, Hell You Talmbout tests the limits of a small Bluetooth speaker; ricochets off the hard surfaces of downtown as sidewalk sleepers emerge from a cluster of fifteen tents on the plaza at City Hall East in Los Angeles at 6:00 am.
A few feet away a big red bus hacks up a dark plume that settles on a large yellow banner propped up near the curb spelling “Say Her Name” in big red letters. Another sign, “Fire Chief Beck” leans against a traffic signal, staring blankly at the Mayor’s office just across the street.
The Black Lives Matter (BLMLA) encampment is exactly what you’d expect to find at the bleeding edge of the Black Liberation Movement; a tightly organized, clean, open but guarded, kid friendly, abundant, creative, gay-trans-ally friendly, loving, matriarchal space.
Melina Abdullah packs a few essentials into a bag near the food table as she begins her day. A founding, core member of BLMLA, the mother of three, tenured professor and Pan-African Studies department chair at Cal State, Los Angeles is a guiding presence here. A practiced communicator, she breaks from the scrip to consider what they’ve created at City Hall; “I don’t think we’d really articulated it before, but it’s a really beautiful loving space. We’re building the community we want to live in,” she says and excuses herself to help unload a car that has pulled up to drop off supplies.
The spontaneous action dubbed “Decolonize LA City Hall” began on Tuesday, July 12, just after the Los Angeles Police Commission announced that the 2015 police killing of a black woman named Redel Jones was deemed in policy. Shortly after tents went up at City Hall a block away from LAPD headquarters, a stone’s thrown from skid row, just down the street and around the corner from County Jail.
This is a geography of bad memories for a city that paid 2.45 Million to those arrested by riot cops during the violent “shock and awe” Occupy Los Angeles Camp eviction in November 2011. To say the City is walking on tenterhooks around the BLMLA action is an understatement. The Mayor’s political sustainability is at stake. He needs black people to vote for him if he wants to stick around.“We’re here because LAPD continues to kill its people. LAPD has killed more of its residents that any other law enforcement agency in the country for 3 years running.”
Abdullah says the spark that lit the flame that was the LAPD killing of a 30-year-old black mother named Redel Jones who was accused of stealing $80.00 from a pharmacy armed with a kitchen knife. “As single black mother of 3 children I can’t imagine what it would mean if my life was taken and my children were left without their mother,” she says.
Less hate group, more love vortex, Decolonize LA City Hall posts a daily schedule on a dry erase board near a tidy, well stocked food tent that includes meditation, community building workshops, meals, poetry, dance, yoga, bodywork and music and that’s just during the day light hours. Each day starts and ends with a themed sharing circle. BLMLA is holding space at City Hall.
Melina Abdullah is watchful as her three young children play in the camp. Guided by feminine wisdom, she has situated herself definitively on the shoulders of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells and Ella Baker; “We call ourselves a womanist, black nationalist organization with a queer and trans lens. So we’re very conscious of the power and spirit of women, in the space of women being the founders of the movement, as women being those who drive it forward,” she says.
Abdullah says the action has received tremendous support in a lot of different ways. There have also been some unexpected benefits; “We talk about building the hearts and minds of the people, but were bonding as a collective in the process.”
A cohesive collective is a good idea when you’re confronting law enforcement in Los Angeles on their turf.
“Fire Chief Beck”, the mantra woven throughout is at the top of BLMLA’s list of demands. “For this action, the goal is for Charlie Beck to go. As soon as the mayor fires Charlie Beck we’re gonna pack up and go home,” Abdullah says, and for now they have put Mayor and Chief in check.
The LAPD has cleaved a long, twisted path to arrive where they are today, in an un-winnable stand off with BLMLA. The third-largest municipal police department on the planet with an annual budget of almost 2 billion dollars, whose legacy includes the invention of SWAT (special weapons and tactics deployed to the infamous shoot out at Black Panther Party Southern California headquarters in 1967) and decades of extensively documented corruption and scandal have earned the LAPD the distinction of two federal consent decrees.
To say that BLMLA action at City Hall now in its 24th day has been underreported is a an understatement, but that doesn’t seem to deter Abdullah, or anyone else here for that matter. The stakes are too high.
625 people were killed by the cops in the US so far in 2016. 12 of those in Los Angeles. Those killed are, of course, disproportionally black and brown. The fact there is no reliable national database, no standardized reporting conventions to roster the number of humans killed by the law enforcement is telling.
Like white privilege itself, BLMLA’s direct political action at City Hall has a shelf life. It can’t go on forever. Melina Abdullah says they’ll push on elsewhere as soon as the Mayor fires the Chief. In the meantime, she’ll be building community at City Hall; “Everybody is encouraged to join us. Not just for this action but for all of the work we’re doing. It took courageous folks to ally with every black liberation struggle,” She says invitingly.