Black Lives Matter’s surprising target: Los Angeles County’s first Black district attorney

Holding homemade signs, a crowd has gathered in downtown L.A. nearly every Wednesday for two and a half years, screaming a familiar chant.

“Jackie Lacey must go! Jackie Lacey will go!”

Their mission has intensified in the wake of George Floyd’s death and resulting nationwide protests. But unlike other Black Lives Matter targets — including police brutality often at the hands of White officers — their aim is on Los Angeles County’s first Black and female district attorney, a homegrown prosecutor raised in South L.A.

“They think they’re going to sweep all this sh*t under the rug like it never happened,” shouted Fouzia Almarou, the mother of Kenneth Ross, Jr., who was shot dead by a Gardena police officer in 2018.

“I’m here standing tall!” Almarou yelled from a stage as she turned around to hurl expletives toward the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice, which houses the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Her office had cleared the Gardena police officer of wrongdoing and ruled the shooting was justified.

One after another, nearly a dozen parents of dead children took to the microphone to blame Lacey, a Democrat, for what they see as an unwillingness to prosecute police officers.

“Killer cops ain’t funny!” the crowd chanted in unison. “Bye Jackie 2020!”

“It’s surreal,” Lacey said of the weekly protests against her. “It’s almost like an out-of-body experience.”

In her first in-depth interview since Black Lives Matter stepped up its campaign to oust her, Lacey tells CNN she has more in common with protesters than they realize, and that in many of these cases, she’s handcuffed by the law.

“While you may look at a shooting by an officer and say, ‘Oh, they could have shot him in the leg, they didn’t have to respond that way,’ that’s not the test under California law,” Lacey said. “The test is when somebody’s life is in danger.”

Still, the pressure on Lacey since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis has been unrelenting. So much so, that Burbank Congressman Adam Schiff, a high-profile Democrat, pulled his support for her, tweeting that his endorsement of Lacey a year ago no longer “has the same meaning.”

“I don’t know why he pulled his support, but I have heard from electeds that they’re being threatened via emails,” Lacey said. “People are showing up at electeds’ houses late at night, protesting them.”

It happened to Lacey, too. But on that early morning, protesters wound up at gunpoint.

Protestors take their grievances to Lacey’s house

It was still dark when Melina Abdullah led a group of protesters to Lacey’s home on an early morning in March. It was a bold move, but the co-founder of Black Lives Matter L.A. felt she had little choice.

“We’ve been standing in front of her office, demanding that she meet with us for two and a half years and she refused to come out,” Abdullah said. “What alternative is there?”

Lacey said she has offered to meet in smaller groups after an early town hall-style meeting led to shouting.

“When it’s a large group, there’s no dialogue; it’s you yelling at me and hoping that I’ll react poorly,” Lacey said, noting that people film the exchanges with their cell phones.

That “caught on camera” moment, however, played out at her home, only that it was her husband on the video.

“Good morning” Abdullah said to David Lacey, who was pointing a gun at her and others.

“Get off of my porch!” he replied sternly.

“Are you going to shoot me?” Abdullah asked.

“I will shoot you, get off of my porch!” David Lacey said.

“I don’t care who you are, get off of my porch!” he replied sternly.

“Can you tell Jackie Lacey that we’re here?” Abdullah replied.

“I don’t care who you are, get off of my porch right now! We’re calling the police right now,” David Lacey said as he closed the door.

Lacey said she didn’t know her husband was going to the door, and that the moment felt like “utter chaos.”

“We were both asleep and I just called 911, I didn’t know what was about to happen,” Lacey said. “As district attorney, you realize that a lot of people may want to… do away with you because you’re prosecuting them.”

At a press conference later that day, Lacey apologized on behalf of her family. She told CNN that coming to her home “crossed the line.”

“Creating a situation where someone thinks that they’re about to be harmed, I don’t think that helps your cause at all,” Lacey said.

But Abdullah disagrees, saying “people have been going to elected officials’ houses for decades,” and that it is all in the quest for social change.

“She doesn’t get to hide just because she lives out in kind of suburbia,” Abdullah said, arguing that public officials give up some of their privacy when they become public servants.

The fundamental disagreement over this issue is indicative of the broader chasm between Lacey’s approach to her job and the expectations of protesters. They want stark change to correct what they see as generations of pain brought on by a broken criminal justice system that victimizes people of color.

Lacey doesn’t disagree with that, she says, but she views change as something that can occur by fixing the criminal justice system, not dismantling it.

“If you’re talking about redistributing funds, I absolutely agree with that,” Lacey said of her view on defunding the police.

“I’ve advocated for mental health funds to go to communities of color since 2013. I’ve been advocating for treatment of drug addiction for a long time. But if you’re talking about, let’s just take all the police out of our community and if a crime happens, just let someone else respond, I just don’t think that’s realistic.”

While other politicians, including Adam Schiff, marched with protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Lacey’s refusal to pick up a bullhorn has created the appearance that she hasn’t laid bare her true allegiance. Black Lives Matter views her ambitions as “narrow,” ineffective and favoring the police.

“We wanted to be open to thinking about how can we allow her to be a more progressive district attorney and act in the interests of Black people as a whole,” Abdullah said of their initial approach to Lacey. “When you have somebody who is Black, it doesn’t always mean they carry the interests of all Black people.”

“They’re treating me like ‘the man,'” Lacey said. “But if they only knew that I’m the girl from the neighborhood.”

From South L.A. to a seat of power

Lacey grew up in the Crenshaw district of South Los Angeles, born to parents who moved from the South.

“They talked to me at an early age about Jim Crow and racism,” she recalled.

A graduate of the University of Southern California Law School, her seminal case as a prosecutor was tried in front of famed judge Lance Ito — an early use of L.A. County’s hate crimes law that led to convictions for the beating death of a homeless man.

“I actually went to law school to figure out how I could help people who didn’t know their rights and didn’t know the law,” Lacey said.

Becoming L.A.’s first Black DA since the office was formed in 1850 seemed like a win for the community when Lacey took office in 2012.

“I get in here and the most vocal group who wants to take me out is a group known as Black Lives Matter,” Lacey said.

It is opposition the group says is necessary given the current climate.

“As a Black woman, I would rather be celebrating other Black women, and I do,” Abdullah said. “My allegiance is to Black people, not to an individual Black person who wouldn’t mind selling us out.”

Lacey has a hard time rationalizing that approach. Now 63, she says her upbringing gives her a much different view of Los Angeles than that of younger protesters.

“I remember when my parents’ home was broken into and they put bars on the window,” she said, adding that her top priority as a youth was “just getting home safely” on her walks to and from Dorsey High School.

“People don’t realize in the seventies and eighties how dangerous it was in Los Angeles,” she said. “I remember when (my parents) used to complain that police don’t care about our neighborhood.”

That’s why she doesn’t take a poisonous view to the institution of policing, she said. But her opponents see her as catering to police, especially since as the district attorney of the largest jurisdiction in the nation, it is her job to potentially prosecute police officers who use excessive force.

Black Lives Matter has created “Jackie Lacey’s Seven Deadly Sins,” a list of what they see as her most egregious affronts to the Black community. They include disproportionately pursuing the death penalty against defendants of color and relying on the testimony of corrupt cops.

But number one on that list: Ed Buck, a Democratic political donor and a resident of West Hollywood.

‘How many disadvantaged Black men have to die…?’

Buck, a White gay man, allegedly invited a Black man to his home for sex and plied him with drugs until his death. The case was fodder for rumor, until he was accused of doing it a second time. That’s when activists began to question whether it was criminal.

“How many disadvantaged Black men have to die before Jackie Lacey will prosecute this Democratic donor?” they asked.

“I didn’t know him. He gave a minuscule amount to my campaign. I think a hundred dollars,” Lacey said. “We gave it back.”

Then it happened a third time, only this time the man escaped Buck’s apartment and called police. Protesters outside Buck’s home got their wish — charges were filed against him, including for battery and administering methamphetamine. Federal charges of distributing meth were added later, for which Buck will face trial next year.

Lacey said she didn’t cave to protesters; rather, it took that long for the evidence to fit the law.

“When we got that third person who lived, then we were able to file a case,” Lacey said, arguing that the first two cases were ambiguous.

“It reminds me of the John Belushi story. There was a woman who supplied him with drugs, he overdosed, and people wanted the DA to charge her with a crime,” Lacey said. “Ed Buck is similar in the sense of here were men who used drugs that Ed Buck supplied, but we don’t know whether he injected them or they injected themselves.”

That attention to legal detail offers insight into Lacey’s methodical approach to her position. It also explains why Lacey and protesters are fractured over another topic: police shootings.

‘No matter who you have in this job, they still have to follow California law’

Lacey and Black Lives Matter are so far off on the topic of police shootings in Los Angeles County that they can’t even agree on how many there have been.

Black Lives Matter has compiled a list of more than 600 people killed by police since Lacey took office in 2012. Lacey puts the number at about 340.

Both sides agree either number is too many, but Lacey touts another figure she says must be considered: “14 or 15 of those shootings” involved citizens who were unarmed, she said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ll look at a case on television and say, okay, this is coming my way. Let’s see what it’s about,” Lacey said. “And I open the book and I say, ‘Oh, no one mentioned that the guy had a gun, or the woman had a knife.'”

According to an official tally by her office, Lacey has reviewed 252 fatal shootings through May 2020. One of those cases resulted in charges against an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy. The rest were declined.

Lacey said that’s because the law leaves her with little wiggle room when a citizen is armed and it can be argued the officer was in danger at the time they pulled the trigger.

“No matter who you have in this job, they still have to follow California law,” she said.

But Black Lives Matter points to Lacey’s support from police unions as a reason to be suspicious, since unions are largely seen as an obstacle to effective police reform.

Lacey says she is generally pro-union, which makes her liked by more than just police.

She boast nearly 20 endorsements from unions and trade associations, including the L.A. County Federation of Labor.

“But they are not in here making the decisions,” she argues.

Aside from shootings, Lacey said she has still filed charges against 200 police officers or sheriff’s deputies for various other on and off-duty behaviors. And her long-stated goal has been to keep people from coming in contact with police, she said.

“Why are police called out for a mental health crisis? Shouldn’t that be a social worker?” she asks. “Why is someone called out if someone is homeless and trespassing? And what can we do to get more people off the streets to discourage people from committing crimes to reduce recidivism?”

Those statements may sound similar to those of protesters, but the gap appears too wide for ground to be made up before the November election.

“Unless Jackie Lacey were willing to bring charges in all 609 cases of those who were killed by police, yeah, it’s too late,” Abdullah said. “She has proven over the last seven years who she is.”

‘My next term will be my last’

Black Lives Matter doesn’t make endorsements, but their call to oust Lacey can only benefit Lacey’s challenger, George Gascón. That’s why it’s ironic that he’s a former Los Angeles police officer and assistant chief, and more recently San Francisco’s district attorney.

But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t face the same scrutiny as Lacey, since Black Lives Matter considers the system ripe for the “over-criminalization of people of color and poor people.”

“And so, no matter who occupies the office, there’s going to be a problem with the office itself,” Abdullah said.

Despite years of protests, Lacey still enjoys broad Democratic support and nearly won a third term outright, getting just shy of the 50% of votes needed to avoid a general election.

But that was before George Floyd.

L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti has left his prior endorsement of Lacey ambiguous, conceding to a criminal justice reform website that “it may be” time for a change.

Gascón has endorsement issues of his own — San Francisco Mayor London Breed has endorsed Lacey over her former DA.

No matter how the election turns out, Lacey tells CNN “my next term will be my last.”

I think I’m going to care less about what people say and more about… how I want this book to end,” she said. “I want to see less juveniles in our… system, less people on the streets.

“I don’t want it to end like this, right?” she continued. “That as the first African American to hold this job, and protesters ran her out. That doesn’t seem like a just ending.”