KCRW’s Press Play continues its conversations with the leading candidates running to be the next mayor of Los Angeles.
Past conversations include LA City Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, LA City Attorney Mike Feuer, and California Congresswoman Karen Bass.
Gina Viola, a community organizer and business owner, is now a top candidate in the race. She’s polling around 2% in the latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. That’s about the same as Feuer and ahead of Buscaino.
Viola talks about her plan to abolish the police, invest in youth development, and institute a $39 minimum wage.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
KCRW: Why don’t you introduce yourself to LA’s voters? Who are you, and why do you think you should be the next mayor of Los Angeles?
Gina Viola: I am a community organizer and activist, a mother and a business owner. And upon graduating college, I made a beeline for Los Angeles, where I've lived ever since — my whole adult life.
And when I first arrived here, I was organizing around LGBTQIA rights. A few years later, I started looking for ways to tap in to work with youth in the inner city and found my way to an organization, “Girls & Gangs,” where I mentored several of the youth in that program. And then Mike Brown was murdered by police. I was looking for a way to tap in more deeply to the racial justice movement, more deeply than just a sign on my lawn. I was looking for something.
And at a Women's March, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Melina Abdullah [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA]. She made a call out to white people to go do our work, to stop looking to them to fix what we had broken. And I started searching, and I was so grateful to find the organization “White People 4 Black Lives,” and able to tap in with them very deeply, where I'm constantly learning what it means to live an anti-racist life, and how to show up as a good ally and accomplice to our solidarity partners, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and JusticeLA.
And then [the] pandemic hit. It gave me a very unique opportunity to dig more deeply into what was going on here in city politics. Because I staff trade shows for a living, my work went away completely. So I began attending the [LA] City Council meetings, [LA County] Board of Supervisor meetings, and it confirmed what I know: We are living in a police state.
You have called for defunding the police. If you were elected, would you like to abolish the police altogether?
Yes, eventually. That's something that will happen incrementally over time, much like [how] we've been told to wait and have things come to us incrementally over time. There will be incremental change to the LAPD. But if we don't get to the heart of the racism, and the oppression of Black, brown, and poor communities have been under [due to] police, we will never change the situation.
Why not try to reform the police instead and de-arm officers in certain circumstances, such as traffic stops?
Where has that motion gone? That motion was entered, I think by [LA City Councilmembers] Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson right after George Floyd, and it still hasn't come to actuality.
Reform is a four-letter word. Police reform just means more money for the police. We cannot reform a system that is rotten to its core. That's the problem. We need to replace it.
We need to reallocate the funds that are hoarded, literally, by the police. If you look at [LA Mayor Eric] Garcetti’s most recent budget, look at the number for youth development. It doesn't even register on the charts. Folks keep saying they're worried about their safety. They're worried about young gang members coming in and robbing them. Well, what's the way to combat that? It's youth development. We need to fund youth development.
How would you get the approval from the LA City Council, who doesn't seem keen on defunding the police.
We have eight seats up for grabs in 2022, so I'm not running alone. I'm running with a cohort of other people who feel the way I do. It's time for us to divest from policing and invest into our communities. I think I'm going to have several people on the city council with me who feel the way I do.
Do the people of Los Angeles feel the same way you do? National surveys consistently show that most Americans, including most Democrats, do not want to abolish the police.
I think there's more support for defunding the police than you think because we're not just talking about defunding the police. We're talking about refunding a community. And I think whether we know it, we feel it. We are not well as a society. We are not taking care of one another. And it is time to have different priorities. Budgets are a moral document. It's time for us to decide that we want to take care of each other.
What would you say to people who feel unsafe and are seeing rising crime?
Again, you need to invest in the communities. Those follow-home robberies are supposedly youth gang members coming out of the community, going into Hollywood and committing these robberies. What if we were funding youth development in those areas where they live? The People's Budget of Los Angeles has a survey out right now on peoplesbudgetla.com. I encourage everybody to take this survey if you live in Los Angeles, and tell me exactly where your dollars want to go. What we've seen from the last couple of years on these surveys is that very little of [the money] do folks want to go into policing. They'd like to see it being reinvested in communities.
You wouldn’t be able to get a total defunding of the police initially. What would you do in the interim?
The first thing to do is to reinvest in communities. Reinvest in alternatives to policing, have mental health responders come out to calls that are unarmed [and] completely separate from police. We have domestic violence workers that go out and interrupt things that are happening that way. I think the first step to it is not hiring any new police officers. That's the first step we need to take.
When it comes to homelessness, what is your plan to house the approximately 42,000 people who are living on our streets and in our shelters?
What I'd like us to do is to talk about how [homelessness] was created. If we don't address how racism drives this, we will never move beyond this.
The history of 20th century U.S. housing policy is wealth building for white people, and wealth extraction for Black people in particular and people of color in general. Race is what plays a role in this. And until we start acknowledging that and reckoning for that, we will never move past that.
The truth is that there's lots and lots of funding for this. We have a federal stream, a state stream, a county stream, a city stream. If you amass a war chest of funds to deal with this, [the city can] truly invest in true, public government housing.
We also have to remove the public-private partnership because what we've done essentially is we’ve taken tax dollars and funneled them into the private sector. And we don't have enough housing.
What is your specific plan for housing these people?
The first thing I would do is amass a war chest of the funding. There's a lot of funding there, like the HHH funding. It's great. But unfortunately, again, it's being used to enrich private contractors.
We have not built enough affordable housing with that HHH fund. So if we amass that war chest quickly, if we take government lands and repurpose them and turn them into transitional housing that we can utilize — while building that war chest to build true public housing — that's what we need.
There hasn't been any public housing built since 1995 in this country. It's all been a public-private partnership. We have given that scenario three decades to work, and it is clear that it does not.
Public housing developed a bad reputation in many cities, including in Los Angeles, because it became a place to sequester poor people in concentrated locations where problems would flourish. As a result, housing has been spread out across the city. How would you find properties across LA City Council districts to build public housing?
We have a tremendous amount of government-owned land. LAUSD is the second largest landholder in LA, and lots of the school properties and buildings are now empty. Those buildings need to be identified and transferred to transitional housing right away.
I don't think we should pigeonhole public housing anywhere. We should also have social housing with mixed-level incomes and affordable units that have tenants rights with them, so that they're low-income [or] no-income housing, in perpetuity.
Tent encampments are all over the city, and some of them are havens for illegal activity such as prostitution and drug dealing. What is your immediate plan to address them?
We have to stop blaming the folks who are forced to live on the streets for the conditions that have happened living on the streets. That's the first thing we need to do. Immediately, we need to service those encampments. I've seen firsthand what the city's response has been to this, and it's abhorrent and inefficient. They've used [LA] Sanitation and the LAPD to deal with human beings. This is not an answer to this scenario.
We need to provide services immediately, so that we can transition people quickly away into proper transitional housing. Look at the missed opportunity with the hotels. FEMA was going to reimburse us 100% for any of the hotels we bought during COVID, which we could easily be utilizing now as transitional housing. Why didn't the city do that? The plan to use the hotels was to put 15,000 people in them. I believe at the height of Project Roomkey, we maybe had 4400 people in those rooms.
Who do you think is to blame for that? Mayor Garcetti?
It's an interesting question. I think it's [like] the Spider-Man meme. Everybody is so busy pointing the finger at one another. It's impossible to tell who's to blame for that. And that is by design.
Lots of neighborhoods don’t want shelters in their neighborhood. How would you circumvent that as mayor?
One of the things we need to do is educate the public at-large. And I think they need to understand that if there's anybody in their community that's not well, the whole community is not well. I think when we start talking that way on the regular, folks will understand that there is a need for those services to exist in their communities.
There has been a lot of sympathy and empathy for the unhoused. This is the number one issue on LA voters’ minds. But when it comes to the practical reality, they don’t want, for example, a collection of tiny homes down the block.
I would call those tiny sheds, and they look like a concentration camp. And of course people don't want those in their neighborhoods. They know that's not housing. Deep down they know that's not housing. That's the problem — our solutions right now are the problem.
Well any kind of interim housing. That’s just an example. People just don’t want any kind of shelter in their neighborhood. And they understand the issue perfectly well.
It’s an interesting dynamic. It's one thing to pull up with some food to an encampment, and it's a whole other thing to actually go out and speak to people living in the encampment.
I know it's changed me. [I watched] Jane Nguyen of “Ktown For All” … going … directly into encampments with a wagon behind her. And I thought, ‘My goodness. If she can do this, I can do this.’
And one of the things I started doing during the pandemic was I joined “Street Watch Hollywood.” And I started going out to support my neighboring encampment, the one that's closest to my house. And all I did was go weekly in the beginning. But it made a difference. [After] going five or six times, folks started to recognize me. They started to open up to me. We started to connect. I started to listen directly to what was needed on the streets.
If more folks did this, I'm telling you, you would have a whole different scenario about what housing people wanted. I think when more communities come together, realize we can do these things and coexist peacefully together, you're gonna see a lot of change.
I understand you’re calling for a $39 minimum wage. How would you make that happen?
Not easily, that's for sure. But I think it's pretty plain to see that wages have not risen with the housing prices. And if we don't fix that gap, we're just going to continue, like I said, with the same old, same old.
I recently heard a police commissioner say that the LAPD is not paid enough to live in the city of Los Angeles, and [officers] make about $50 an hour. What I'm proposing is even less than that.
How would you make that happen with a local restaurant who's just struggling to make ends meet with minimum wage?
We'd have to look into some subsidies. I think there has to be a way to [subsidize] small businesses to get that minimum wage up to where it is an actual living wage, and people can thrive.
Would you raise taxes?
I don't think we need to raise taxes. I think we need to reallocate funding. Half of our city's budget right now is going to the LAPD. How about we take a chunk of that and put that aside for subsidizing people's wages?
And how much would that be?
How much would I take from the LAPD for that?
Yes, and how much would it cost to subsidize the wages under your proposal?
I actually don't have that in front of me, I'm sorry.
But if you look at Garcetti’s budget, there are so many places [where] community investment doesn't register on the chart, along with youth development.
And if we reallocate funds into those places, we will have revenue streams for them. We don't necessarily need to raise taxes. We have the money. It's [about] how we spend it.
We’ve been asking all the mayoral candidates what their favorite guilty pleasure song is. What is your favorite to sing at the top of your lungs when there’s no one around?
This is good because my husband is a DJ. He’s part of a DJ duo [called] Eskimo Brothers, so there’s always music playing in my house. The music I play when I’m alone would be Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas.”