Posted on October 16, 2020

How Black Lives Matter Reshaped the Race for Los Angeles’ Top Prosecutor

Sam Levin, The Guardian, October 15, 2020

The race for top prosecutor in Los Angeles has become one of the most important criminal justice elections in the US this year, with Black Lives Matter activists pushing the contest to the forefront of national debates on racist policing and incarceration.

Jackie Lacey, the first woman and first African American to serve as LA district attorney, is facing a tough challenge from George Gascón, a former San Francisco district attorney who has positioned himself as a progressive candidate dedicated to police accountability and reducing the prison population.

The election comes as nationwide protests over police killings and racial inequality have highlighted the role of district attorneys as some of the most influential and least accountable players in America’s criminal justice system. And the top prosecutor job in LA oversees the country’s largest local prosecutor’s office, funneling defendants into the world’s largest jail system.

The race has drawn interest from across the country, with police groups pouring millions into Lacey’s campaign, and celebrities, tech billionaires and political heavyweights such as Bernie Sanders throwing their support behind Gascón.

“Everyone understands what’s at stake with the presidential race, but what affects us most on a daily basis is the DA,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA. “The DA determines what crimes are prosecuted, what crimes go unenforced … and whether we will continue to lock up Black and brown people with reckless abandon.”


{snip}She was elected in a historic vote in 2012, becoming the first Black woman to take the lead of the agency of 1,000 lawyers.

Lacey quickly faced criticism from south LA residents and a Black Lives Matter movement that was growing in national prominence, and eventually wider backlash from liberal groups who viewed her approach as overly punitive.

They charged she had sent 23 people to death row as prosecutor, more than any other county in the US in recent years. All but one were people of color.

She has also done little to address the high incarceration rates of Angelenos, they noted, with LA locking up more people per capita than the majority of California counties. While she has made some progress on alternatives to incarceration, a recent study suggested that thousands in jail with mental illness could have been given services instead. And most people in jail are Black and brown.

Lacey has scoffed at the idea of broadly scaling back prosecutions: “Word gets around with the predators and with the criminal community that you can get away with stuff, and they will flock to your city … I want LA not to deteriorate,” she told the Guardian.

She also warned about the alleged risks of releasing people convicted of serious offenses… {snip}

Among Lacey’s biggest flaws, critics say, has been her failure to rein in police violence, charging just one officer for an on-duty killing in her eight years in office. {snip}


Many of the activists who have been fighting Lacey have thrown their weight behind her opponent, George Gascón.


Gascón became a Los Angeles police department patrol officer, was promoted to assistant chief and eventually headed a police department in Arizona and then San Francisco. In 2011, he became the city’s first Latino district attorney.

Gascón fought bitter battles with law enforcement groups once he pushed to reduce punishments for low-level offenses and investigated racism in the police department he used to lead.

But like Lacey, he refused to prosecute police shootings, even amid intense public outrage. {snip}


He successfully lobbied for a state law that would allow prosecution of officers who kill when force is “unnecessary”. {snip}

Gascón has pledged to reopen some cases of police killings in LA and has campaigned on a number of other major criminal justice reforms.


He said his office would not fight to keep people in prison when they are up for parole, has pledged not to transfer teens to adult court, won’t pursue the death penalty, and has vowed to abandon “gang enhancements”, which have long been used in racially discriminatory ways.


Gascón has racked up a wide range of endorsements, from LA’s mayor, the California governor, vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and musician John Legend.

The LA public defenders’ union, took the rare step of supporting his candidacy because, lawyers said, they viewed Lacey’s approach as so punitive and regressive that it was worth campaigning for a challenger.

“[Lacey] continues the march from slavery to mass incarceration with her policies,” said Alisa Blair, a deputy public defender, who volunteered on the Gascón campaign’s policy committee. “Her entire legacy has been one of very archaic law-and-order punishment.”