JNJ’s Faith & Race Gathering Highlights Key Local Policy Struggles

JNJ’s March 21 “Faith & Race: Carry It On!” gathering at Lincoln Congregational Church drew a lively crowd of community members eager to get a handle on two big policy challenges facing anti-racism activists in LA County: how to convert a costly and ill-conceived jail construction plan into a plan that really does deliver needed mental health services, and how to push back against a new county sheriff who seems intent on undoing long-sought reforms at the LASD.

Attendees were not disappointed. On the jail question, Dignity & Power Now’s Rev. Evan “Reegie” Bunch offered a concise state-of-play analysis of where things stand since the Board of Supervisors created a high-powered Working Group on Alternatives to Incarceration and gave the group a broad mandate to look at distributed mental health services rather than concentrating them at a huge new downtown jail complex. Chaired by the California Endowment’s Dr. Robert Ross, the Working Group has 90 days to report back to the Supervisors with the benefit of community input. Rev. Bunch observed how a default reliance on “carceral humanism” in relation to persons experiencing mental illness has always poisoned the conversation and prevented clear thinking in policy circles.

On the question of what to do about Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Sharon Kyle noted that the new sheriff is openly asserting his autonomy as an independently elected officer who is not subservient to the Board of Supervisors. Kyle does not think the situation is totally hopeless; she believes that Villanueva may yet listen to the counsel of progressives who can help him save his leadership of the department from total disgrace and endless litigation. Meantime, she points out that LASD cooperation with ICE has not actually ended, despite Villanueva’s public pledge to end it.

Following the opening presentations, the March 21 participants worked in small groups to discuss what they heard and offer their own perspectives.

Everyone appreciated Lincoln’s hospitality and the pizza and salad that were provided.

Mark your calendars: the next “Faith & Race: Carry It On!” gathering will take place on Thursday, May 2, also at Lincoln Congregational Church (Arlington & King). Along with updates on the jail construction and sheriff accountability issues, May’s “First Thursday” meeting will feature opening presentations on two other burning LA County issues: District Attorney accountability and the looming effort to reform the Probation Department.

Peter Laarman