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Can Progressive Justice Organizers Help Karen Bass Find the Way?

Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors: Two weeks ago, Candidate Bass issued a public safety plan that harkens to a 1994-crime-bill-style pro-police system that puts targets on the backs of Black people.
Help Karen Bass Find the Way

Karen Bass campaigning for mayor of Los Angeles

We love Karen…not Karen Bass, not KB, not Congressmember Bass, not mayoral candidate frontrunner Bass…Karen. The Karen who came to deliver guest lectures at West LA College and Cal State LA…driving a hoopty, speaking truth, inspiring students. The Karen who helped build a Black women’s leadership curriculum for the Los Angeles African American Women’s Public Policy Institute. The Karen who reveled in the wisdom of Dr. Michael B. Preston, Dr. Merv Dymally, Ms. Gwen Moore and made comrades of Michael Zinzun and Cheryl Grills. The Karen who gleaned wisdom from the Black Power Movement and the global Third World liberation movement. The Karen who circled with us in raggedy backrooms and mourned the loss of her father, and then her daughter. The Karen who refused to straighten her hair as she contemplated running for office. The Karen who…a generation or two ahead...modeled for us what it meant to be a Black woman leader, who grounded herself in womanism and revolution. The Karen who scoffed at the required elected official uniform of St. John knit suits and built an organization (Community Coalition) that rejected celebrity-style leadership.

Two weeks ago, Candidate Bass issued a public safety plan that harkens to a 1994-crime-bill-style pro-police system that puts targets on the backs of Black people.

Somehow, that Karen gave way to a candidate for Los Angeles mayor who, during last night’s mayoral debate, pledged to increase the LAPD budget. Even more dangerously, when mostly young, Black protestors stood up and shouted their outrage, Karen-the-mayoral-candidate, responded by invoking that she had lived through the January 6th white-supremacist terrorist attack on the Capitol, a very dangerous comparison that is not lost on the Congresswoman, who once spoke forcefully against the “Black Identity Extremist” designation advanced by Trump.

On Monday, Candidate Bass’ progressive, young, Black campaign manager, Jamarah Hayner, resigned. Two weeks ago, Candidate Bass issued a public safety plan that harkens to a 1994-crime-bill-style pro-police system that puts targets on the backs of Black people. While white-supremacist-capitalist Rick Caruso would undoubtedly be worse, there is little daylight between their stated public safety positions. 

Bass confides that she is attempting to stave off right-wing attacks that seek to tie her to radicalism. While we understand that there must be a pragmatic approach that can actually win the votes of a diverse Los Angeles electorate, it is not only failed vision, but failed strategy to attempt to out-Caruso Caruso or out-Buscaino Buscaino. Pandering to affluent white Westside and Valley voters at the expense of Black, Latinx, and working-class ones can cost her a base that she cannot afford to lose. An overreliance on particular polls, skewed data, and paid consultants can overlook the pulse of the community, with which she seems to take for granted.

Despite the propaganda put out by LAPD, the Police Protective League, Sheriff Villanueva, and other pro-police, right-wing interests—along with cowardly liberalism a-la Eric Garcetti—Angelenos are not hiding under their bedcovers afraid of smash-and-grabs that are rerun endlessly on local news channels. Angelenos are disgusted that we live in a city that creates conditions where 60,000 of its people are forced to live in tents, where our children are so depressed that they are taking their own lives, where people are on the brink because the mutual aid programs built in the 2020 pandemic have dried up and we still don’t have enough food, money for rent, or utilities. No one in South Central feels safer when a police cruiser rolls through at drive-by speed. No one is relieved when a police chopper flies overhead…shaking our dishes from cupboards and surveilling our homes and neighborhoods.

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There is no data to support the notion that police prevent crime or violence. There is, however, Loyola Marymount University study, that confirms that 62.3% of Angelenos want to redirect the LAPD budget. What we do know is that Black motorists are profiled at a rate that’s five times our population share, that we’re searched at three times the rate of everyone else – even though we’re less likely to be holding contraband, that police solve less than 2% of violent crime, that the LAPD budget will have risen 52% in the last 10 years if this proposed increase goes through, and that it gobbles up about 50% of the City’s general fund.

What we know is that every dollar that we spend on police is a dollar not spent on permanent supportive housing, healthcare, mental healthcare, youth programs, and community resources.

What we know is that an expansionist approach to policing means placing unqualified, violent, armed, racists in our parks, on public transportation, and in our neighborhoods.

We know that LAPD killed 20 people last year—including 14 year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta—that it recruited from right-wing extremist outlets, that several officers participated in the January 6, 2021 failed coup on the Capitol, that cops violently beat protestors in the wake of the #GeorgeFloyd uprisings at the command of Chief Moore, that they violently target activists, and that they have already shot four people and murdered a man in the midst of a mental health crisis this year.

Anticipating our critiques, Candidate Bass says that “we can have both public safety and justice.” We can. Public safety, though, is not synonymous with policing. In fact, it is most often the antithesis of it.

What we need right now is a Mayoral candidate with vision, one that can liberate us from the woes of a houseless crisis, gentrification, and an LAPD that is the most murderous police department in the country. We need a Mayoral candidate with the kind of vision that will transform the City of Los Angeles and create healing for our communities and families. Right now, Congresswoman Karen Bass is not that candidate. But that doesn’t mean she can’t become that with the urging of progressive justice organizers and all who share our vision.

Patrisse Cullors (left) and Melina Abdullah

Patrisse Cullors (left) and Melina Abdullah

We believe in courageous conversations and calling our folks “in”...and Karen has been our folks. Our concerns have been communicated in every way imaginable…lovingly, thoughtfully, with great intention and care. And, it seems that voices from the other side have had greater effect on the positions that she has taken. Our choir needs more voices. It is our prayer that progressive justice organizers will continue to work on Candidate Bass, and that she will remember that she was once one of us and find her way.

Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors