By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Issues that continue to plague the community, including homelessness, over-policing, the high cost of cash bail, absentee landowners, education and gentrification, brought out hundreds of residents to attend the Community Coalition’s third annual People Power Convention at Los Angeles Trade Tech College June 9.
On a day filled with guest speakers, workshops and community discussions, members of the Community Coalition unveiled its “People First Platform,” an agenda to address and rectify the needs of black and brown families in South Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles has failed to meet its promise to black and brown people in South L.A.,” said Alberto Retana, executive director of the Community Coalition. “Rather than placing people first, it has prioritized the interests of corporations, politicians, bail bond companies and greedy developers. It’s time for us to place our people first. Just like Rosa Parks no longer sat in the back of the bus, we will no longer stand in the back of the line while the wealthier, whiter parts of L.A. sit in the front.”
The People First Platform, developed with the involvement of thousands of South Los Angeles youth and residents, will be the coalition’s mission in the years to come. The initiatives will include Demand Our Dollars, Generate Justice and Build Thriving Communities.
Demand Our Dollars proposes that tax dollars get funneled back into South Los Angeles by closing corporate loopholes, reinvesting dollars into drug prevention, treatment and re-entry; leveling the playing field for cannabis opportunities; and funding youth education and development.
Generate Justice demands an end to California’s failed cash bail system; preventing youth from entering the juvenile justice system; delivering full amnesty for traffic fines and fees and decriminalizing traffic tickets; and stopping the building of new jails.
Build Thriving Communities proposes removing nuisance sites in South Los Angeles, seizing and rebuilding vacant lots and revitalizing local parks.
“We are in some interesting, dangerous, precarious times,” said keynote speaker Angela Rye, the principal and CEO of IMPACT Strategies, a political advocacy firm in Washington, D.C. “But we must remember that we are not alone. I stand in solidarity with [Community Coalition] and I want to commend you for the People First platform. We have to fight back because the battle is huge.”
Workshops included “the People’s Justice,” “the People’s House,” “the People’s Health” and “the People’s Land. “
Speaking on the People’s Justice Bail Reform Now! panel were Kelly Lyle Hernandez, professor of history and African American Studies at UCLA and founder of the Million Dollar Health Project; Tiffany Townend Blacknell, Los Angeles County public defender; and Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life.
“Your freedom is on the line if you cannot make bail,” said Hernandez, who added that $82 billion was spent to place people behind bars and that Los Angeles operates the largest jail system on earth. “We need to take that money out of policing and incarceration and put it into jobs, schools and health care.
“The California Court of Appeals declared the California bail system is unconstitutional. If you have $50,000 in the bank after you’re arrested, you write a check. But 70 to 80 percent of the people, most of whom are black and brown, cannot afford bail if they are arrested. Most of the detainees are being held for DUI or drug possession,’’ Hernandez said.
“Ninety-five percent of arrestees plead guilty,” said Blacknell, who added there is more trauma when an inmate is sentenced to jail. “Studies show that sexual assault and violence happen in the first seven days of an inmate’s incarceration.”
Pausing, she added, “Harvey Weinstein posted $1 million for bail and he is now safe. That means he won’t rape anyone else.”
“I was sentenced to prison six times after a policeman killed my son,” said Burton, adding that the traumatic event sent her spiraling into a world of drug and alcohol abuse. Burton eventually turned her life around, founding A New Way of Life, which helps formerly incarcerated women.
“We need to call on our legislators and hold them to the vote to pass SB 10, which would ensure that a court evaluate whether a defendant can safely be released while awaiting trial,” Burton said. “Our old, homeless and mentally ill need to escape the clutches of the bail system.”
Another persistent issue continues to be homelessness. According to statistics, California is the richest state in the wealthiest country in the world, but it encompasses nearly eight million people living below the poverty line, which has dramatically swelled the rolls of the state’s homeless population.
City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the former executive director of the Community Coalition, said that with the recent passage of Measure HHH, the bond measure to build supportive housing, the homeless issue is finally being fought.
“Just in the past two weeks, the number of homeless in Los Angeles actually decreased for the first time in six years,” he said. “We all need a decent place to live in this city and we are working to house homeless and working people.”
Three local residents and members of the Community Coalition shared their experiences living in South Los Angeles.
“I look out of my window on Slauson, and I see buildings shut down and the jobs disappear,” said Sharon Webb, a grandmother. “People used to walk home and feel safe. Now the children have to be escorted home from school.’’
“There’s been a plague in our community,” Fernando Mosqueda said. “We need equity and gun reform. We are accepting the fact that these conditions are normalized.”
“The dream is getting further way,” said Chris White, a longtime resident. “I see digression and disinvestment in South Los Angeles. I see a rise in violence and an uptick in homelessness. From where we are until now, things have gotten worse.”
White said the cash bail system is particularly egregious for communities of color. He said he became ensnared in the criminal justice system and his bail was raised from $1,000 to $2 million.
“They did not let me fight for my own freedom,” said White, who was incarcerated for 13 years. “I felt betrayed by the justice system.”
White said that family members, desperate to get other family members out of jail, have been forced to put up their houses in order to make bail. Many have lost their houses in the process.
White said he has started the Equity Justice Coalition, a court watch program that monitors the judges and district attorneys from “railroading” victims that have been arrested.
“We have to abolish the crooked cash bail system,” he said. “If a person doesn’t have a way to pay bail, the courts should find another way to secure their release.”