What justice and police brutality look like to BLM organizer Melina Abdullah

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Over the weekend, protests against the killing of George Floyd swept across the nation, including in Long Beach, downtown LA and Santa Monica. Most demonstrations were peaceful. But as tensions heightened and helicopters circled, TV cameras focused on images of looting. Glass storefronts shattered as people stormed in, gathering what they could and taking off. Just like that, the narrative changed.

KCRW speaks with Melina Abdullah, professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA, and an organizer of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.

KCRW: How are you doing through all of this?

Melina Abdullah: “I'm doing well. Of course, there's sorrow and pain and rage. But there's also, I feel very invigorated by the willingness of people to stand up and demand justice in the name of George Floyd, but also all of those killed by police across the country and in Los Angeles as well.”

How do you feel about the looting that broke out?

“What's more frustrating is that we are out protesting police brutality. And as soon as the police come out, they attempt to repress us and they engage in police brutality. So think about that — that we're protesting police brutality. And as we're engaging in the protest, we actually experience police brutality. So I'm much more concerned with the attacks on people than broken storefront windows.”

What are you seeing when you're talking about police brutality?

“On Saturday, we had to literally flee. I had my three children with me. And the moment police moved in off of Third and Fairfax, they began to raise their billy clubs. They hit people indiscriminately. And so this is what we experienced.

We were there chanting the name of George Floyd. We were there in prayer. We had children speaking about what it's like to be a black child and not get to actually live, but being caught in this realm of survival. And then police moved in and viciously attacked us.”

How do you account for such an aggressive response? Some reporters have been shot by rubber bullets too. 

“I think that they're really underscoring the point that's being made. That policing in this country is vicious, is brutal, and puts targets on the backs of black people. And anyone who stands alongside and demands justice for black people often gets some of that as well. These are peaceful marches until police move in. 

I think that they feel empowered and emboldened to do whatever they want, because what we're seeing is police are not held accountable for their actions. Police are not prosecuted even for murder. So if we think about brutality and the beatings of our folks, we know that they're not going to be held accountable for that. And so they're doing what they do, doing what I think American policing has been designed to do from day one.

I teach. My area of research is really looking at the history of oppression and discrimination, as well as the fight back on the part of black people. When we think about policing in this country, it evolves out of a system of slave catching, which literally puts targets on black people's backs. 

And so I think what we're moving towards in this country is really having a serious conversation about what transformative justice is, what different approaches are — reimagined approaches — to community safety and public safety. ... And so you're starting to hear people uplift the call to defund police, to prosecute police. And those are the things that we see moving in this moment.”

Doesn’t society need a police department to be safe?

“In communities like mine, most communities of color, when police come, we don't see ourselves as safer because of their presence. I'm petrified at my children walking home and seeing police on the corner because they are regularly harassed by the police. 

… My middle daughter, who's 13, has had police call on her in the classroom four times in one semester for things like having a look in her eye. And so police are not seen as forces that keep us safe. They're seen as repressive forces that really evoke fear and anger and rage among most people of color. And this is not just my own personal experience, but when I teach ... the majority of my students are students of color. This is almost universal.”

You’ve mentioned defunding the LAPD, and you’re pushing for a “people's budget.” What is that?

So a people's budget is one that looks at the city more broadly and says, ‘What are the needs of Angelenos?’ … Black Lives Matter and allied groups began to say, ‘What we don't need to do is spend 54% of the city's general fund on police.’ That's what's being proposed by Mayor Garcetti.

We don't need to be increasing the police budget by almost $200 million as we're slashing things like access to housing, as we're slashing things like after-school programs. 

And we're challenging Mayor Garcetti to take his budget back and listen to the voices of the people.”

Police unions also have a lot of power. Have you seen any responses by them for a “people's budget?”

We haven't had any conversation with the mayor. He has not responded to what the people's budget is demanding. We've heard in [the] media what the Police Protective League wants. And so what the Police Protective League put out just a few days ago is that the reason they should have a budget increase is because they're doing jobs beyond policing. 

Well, our answer to that is they have no business or expertise doing those jobs. They say they're doing the jobs of social workers, EMTs, drug rehabilitation counselors. And we say they don't have any business or training to do that. 

Let's give that money to actual social workers, and EMT's, and drug rehabilitation counselors, and youth workers. And put police back in their place. If we need policing, then they should be focused on policing.”

What does justice look like — for the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others?

Also justice in the names of people like Kenneth Ross Jr. and Christopher De’andre Mitchell, and Keysha Wilson, and all of those Angelenos who've been killed by police. So oftentimes it's easy to look across the country and not remember that LAPD and LA County Sheriff's Department are two of the most deadly law enforcement units in the country.

So we have to lift that up. Justice for us looks like — and I'm just going to speak first from a personal perspective — it's not having to fear my children being able to make it home from school safely. It's not being worried. And I have a growing anxiety as my youngest child — my son is 10 years old — how is he perceived as he tries to navigate this world? Justice looks like allowing them to be children.

Justice looks like not having to march. We don't march because we want to march, or go to City Council meetings or police commission meetings because we don't have anything better to do. We do this because we think that this is the only way that we can provide safety for our folks. And so justice looks like being free to fully live rather than just survive.

And it begins by investing in those things that allow for our freedom and divesting from those things that repress, oppress and really victimize us.” 

—Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Jenna Kagel



  • Melina Abdullah - professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and an organizer of the Black Lives Matter movement - @DocMellyMel