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What Happened When 'Black Lives Matter' Protesters Met With Los Angeles Police Chief

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By Charles Davis

Melina Abdullah began her week in jail. On Monday, the Cal State professor was one of two people arrested for trying to deliver a letter to Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck on behalf of protesters who for almost two weeks now have camped outside LAPD headquarters. They've been holding signs declaring "Black Lives Matter" and demanding an end to what they see as a pattern of impunity for cops who kill unarmed people of color. By Friday, she was meeting with Beck himself—and while he didn’t meet any of their demands, the fact that he was even acknowledging them was portrayed as a sign of progress.

“It was worth it,” Abdullah told reporters at a press conference immediately after she and three other activists met with Beck to discuss the deaths of people such as Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old black man who was unarmed when he was shot in the back last August. “It’s through the demonstrations, through the refusal to go by and just let this pass as another shooting that we don’t respond to that we even got the meeting.”

While the two officers who shot Ford are currently on desk duty, activists want them fired. Beck, however, claimed his hands are tied. “We asked the chief of police to remove them from duty, he refused. He cited this long bureaucratic process and basically said that we’re looking at a timeline of March or April where it’s possible that he may engage in disciplinary action,” said Abdullah. That, argued other speakers, is a delay that is there by design.

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“The truth is that this process which they claim is the result of concerns from the community does not serve the community,” said Nana Gyamfi, an attorney with the Crenshaw Legal Clinic who attended the meeting. “It is a process designed to appear to serve the community, when in fact it serves the police,” she said. “It serves the police when it takes almost a year or more to decide if this is a shooting that should have happened.”

In Los Angeles, it’s not just the police who are taking things slow. Protesters want District Attorney Jackie Lacey to indict the two officers who shot Ford with murder, but she, too, says her investigation is ongoing; by contrast, after the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown it only took a few days for St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to convene a grand jury—though, of course, many critics contend that process, too, was designed more to placate the public than deliver justice to Brown’s killer.

The failure of the processes currently in place—or success, depending on one’s perspective (or cynicism)—is why Pete White, an organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, told me he brought up the name Steven Eugene Washington “to highlight why there’s mistrust.” In 2010, Washington was walking along Vermont Avenue in Koreatown when, according to the Los Angeles Times, police cruising by said they heard a loud sound. Whipping their car around they saw Washington, who allegedly gave them a “hard” look—he was autistic—and reached for his waistband, grabbed an object and then pointed it at them. Claiming he feared for his life, the officer driving the car then shot him in the head.

Washington was unarmed. The object near his waistband was a cellphone that had not in fact been removed from its holster. Presented with that information, the officer who killed him revised his story. "I — honestly, it was so quick so then I was — it was a split second. You know, I couldn't tell."

As White told it, Beck and the other high-ranking LAPD official in the room, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, both “got really, really tense” when he brought up the case. That’s presumably because while the LAPD itself ruled the shooting was justified, it was one of the exceedingly rare cases where the LA Police Commission disagreed, its five members unanimously ruling—or rather, recommending, since its rulings are not legally binding—that the officers involved be disciplined. Beck reportedly initiated disciplinary proceedings, though both officers remain on his payroll.

LAPD spokesperson Jack Richter told me the department had no comment on the meeting.

At the press conference, meanwhile, people taking part in the Black Lives Matter protest outside LAPD headquarters—ranging from dozens to hundreds at a time since it began December 30—lamented that they had to be there at all.

"It’s sad that we’ve got to do this,” said Jasmine Richards, a young black woman who stressed she was not an “activist” or an “organizer” but rather a regular person spurred to take action by the killings from New York to Ferguson to LA. “Why do we have to chant ‘black lives matter’?” she asked. “And when we chant it, why does everybody say ‘all lives matter?’ We know that. We know everybody else’s life matters. But when can we get some justice for our lives?"

Here's a full video of the press conference:

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Charles Davis is a writer whose work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, The New Republic and Salon. Follow him on Twitter and read more from him on his website.