The People v. Melina Abdullah

As the city cracks down on free speech, Black Lives Matter L.A. leader Melina Abdullah faces eight criminal misdemeanor charges stemming from her activism.

Melina Abdullah. Photo by Daniel Escamilla.

At 15 minutes before sunrise on a rainy Thursday morning in early December, Melina Abdullah boils water for a cup of vanilla chai and begins unloading the dishwasher in the kitchen of her four-bedroom home in Central Los Angeles.

One of her three children, whose chore it was to load the dishwasher the night before, had mixed in dirty dishes with the clean, and so Abdullah sorts the basket of silverware, examining each fork, knife and spoon, putting the clean ones away in a drawer.

The heavy rainfall brings ants into the kitchen, and Abdullah gently sponges a trail of them off the granite countertop. Quoting the mid-century black political activist Paul Robeson, she muttered, “The battlefield is everywhere.”

The first light of morning clears the trees in the backyard, illuminating the face of the Queen Nefertiti statuette that sits high on a shelf beside the kitchen window.

Abdullah, a black scholar and activist, has become the scourge of the LAPD. A co-founder of the Los Angeles Chapter of Black Lives Matter and a member of the group’s national leadership team, she is perhaps the most vocal, visible and effective critic of law enforcement in Los Angeles.

For the past four years, she has organized the grieving families of people killed by police, or who died in police custody, into a formidable group of advocates seeking deep changes to policing in Los Angeles. At a time when the Police Commission—a civilian panel that oversees the department—has received public praise for passing reforms in areas like racial bias and use of force, Abdullah continues to challenge the black community of Los Angeles to demand more in terms of public safety. 

It is this uncompromising stance and relentless style of activism that has consolidated Black Lives Matter and made Abdullah powerful enemies in L.A. The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office has charged her with eight criminal misdemeanor counts stemming from her activism relating to LAPD shootings. If convicted, Abdullah could spend a year or more in jail.

The carpool to high school leaves at 7:20 a.m. Abdullah sees the minivan pull into the driveway and shouts, “Girls, time to go!” Her daughters, Thandiwe, 15, and Amara, 12, hurry downstairs, smiling politely through braces.

Three days a week, Abdullah drives them to school, but not today. She hands both of them a Vitamin C adult gummy and a bag lunch as they pass through the kitchen.

By 7:40 a.m., Abdullah guides the family Volvo through traffic in the rain, driving 8-year-old Amen to elementary school. The power is out on the boulevard, and a rainy fog descends like a shroud on the darkened intersection. Abdullah wears a dangling pair of gold Sankofa earrings and a black hoodie from the Pan-African Studies Department at Cal State LA. She and Amen talk enthusiastically about YouTube videos of cuttlefish. “Don’t forget your coat!” she calls after him at school.

On July 26, a court notice from the office of Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer arrived in the mail to Abdullah’s Mid-City home. The notice informed her she had been charged with one count of battery on a police officer, a misdemeanor.

Abdullah, a professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, had been been arrested at a tumultuous meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners in May.

At the meeting, Sheila Hines-Brim, who is the aunt of Wakiesha Wilson, a 36-year-old black woman who died in an LAPD holding cell in 2016, had pelted then Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck with a handful of a powdery substance she said was her niece’s cremation ashes. Beck was sitting on a dais at the front of the room; Hines-Brim stood up and advanced on the chief from her seat in the front row.  It happened so quickly and surreptitiously that even the gray-suited LAPD officer assigned to guard Beck missed the cloud of powder at first.

Coroner’s officials ruled Wilson’s death a suicide, but Hines-Brim and her sister have long suspected that jail officials withheld evidence of a physical altercation her niece had had with a jailer.

When city officials reached a $298,000 legal settlement with Wilson’s family in December 2017, they admitted no fault in her death. It wasn’t until four months later that Hines-Brim learned that the LAPD had fired one of the jailers for having improperly isolated Wilson in a cell and for failing to render medical aid when Wilson was found unconscious.

“They didn’t tell me [the jailer] was fired,” Hines-Brim says. “I had to be told by a reporter from Channel 4.”

Hines-Brim faces multiple criminal misdemeanor charges for the attack on Chief Beck.

Abdullah was late to the meeting that day. She was standing in the back of the board room looking for a seat when she heard Beck order police to arrest Hines.

Detective Jason Curtis, a supervisor for the LAPD’s Commission Investigation Division, which provides security at the meetings, had placed Hines-Brim’s hands behind her back and was escorting her through a crowd to the hallway. Near the rear exit of the room, Curtis told investigators, he felt a tug at his arm, turned around and saw Abdullah standing there. “Get Melina,” witnesses remember hearing an officer say shortly before Abdullah was arrested.

Abdullah was held at the Metropolitan Detention Facility and released on the same day. She told detectives she did not recall grabbing Curtis’s arm. None of the cops interviewed for the police report said they witnessed the alleged arm-grab. Gina Viola, a woman with the activist group White People 4 Black Lives, has repeatedly claimed responsibility.

Abdullah forgot about the arrest. She did not know the city was pressing charges until the notice arrived in the mail.

“I was very surprised,” says Abdullah, who has a silvery voice. “I thought it was going to be an arrest without charge, which has happened several times in the past.”

Juan García, an LAPD spokesman, said the commissioners do not comment on pending cases.

Photo by Daniel Escamilla

This was not the first time Abdullah had been arrested at a Police Commission meeting. Two previous arrests were related to acts of nonviolent protest deemed too disruptive: She was arrested on suspicion of resisting a peace officer in May 2016 and for refusal to disperse after an LAPD lieutenant declared one such meeting an unlawful assembly in 2017.

Since 2015, the LAPD has made 20 arrests in or stemming from Board of Police Commission meetings, according to a public records request. The city filed charges in six of the cases, including Abdullah’s. Organizers with Black Lives Matter complain that black activists are disproportionately penalized. Five of the six people charged were black, theLAnd has confirmed; the identity of the sixth person is unclear.

Supporters of Abdullah’s packed the Los Angeles County Superior Courtroom for her arraignment on August 31. Among those in the crowd were Wilson’s family and the families of four others who were killed by police in recent years, or who died in police custody: Keith Bursey, John Horton, Donte Jordan, and Angel Ramos.

At the arraignment, Abdullah was shocked to learn that the number of charges against her had multiplied. What began as one criminal misdemeanor charge is now eight. The new charges date back nearly a year, to two separate Police Commission meetings from summer 2017.  

“I think everyone—and we have a pretty substantial legal team—all the attorneys were surprised,” Abdullah says. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, are these all from the same date?’ And that’s when we realized … it was from three different dates.”

In the first instance, she was charged with willfully disturbing a public meeting, interfering with the business of a public agency, and failure to obey an order to disperse at the Police Commission meeting on August 15, 2017. Abdullah had been arrested with two white women activists for failure to disperse at that meeting. Like Abdullah, the two white women, one a commercial film producer, the other a graduate student in criminology, were arrested for resisting a police officer. Only Abdullah was charged.

In the second instance, she was charged with two counts of willfully disturbing a meeting and one count of intentionally interfering with Police Commission business at the meeting on July 25, 2017, for which she was not arrested at the time.

Prosecutors filed the charges on July 24, 2018—one day before the statute of limitations was due to expire for the July 25 incident.  

Abdullah’s defense team argued in a court motion that the new counts were “hasty and vindictive,” and asked L.A. Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan to dismiss the city’s criminal complaint as “a cynical attempt by law enforcement to silence one of the loudest and most effective critics of LAPD practices.”

The case against Abdullah, which could have far-ranging implications for free speech in Los Angeles, is not the only city-led effort to silence activists. The City Council also recently created a new set of rules against public disruptions—aimed at banning those who disrupt L.A. City Council meetings from attending future meetings—that went into effect on Jan. 1. Public disruption is a time-honored activist strategy to bring pressure to bear on government officials. Abdullah’s lawyers say the city is treating legitimate forms of dissent as a crime. She calls it “policing black anger.”

Prosecutors from City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office deny their push to indict Abdullah was politically motivated.

“The People underscore that there is no wish to affect the content of the defendant’s public comments, or prevent her from attending public meetings,” prosecutors stated in a court filing. “These are her rights.”

Abdullah’s behavior at meetings, they say, is criminal, not political, its targets are “the agents of police authority” and its motive is the “intent to disrupt police proceedings.”

“Whether with respect to law enforcement officials or public hearings, the People do seek to assure that the defendant abide by the rules that all members of the public must follow,” they wrote in the court filing.

TheLAnd complied with a request from the City Attorney’s Office and submitted questions about the case via email. After more than a month, the City Attorney’s Office failed to respond to questions including how authorities arrived at the charges for those specific dates.

Prosecutors say they have 17 LAPD officers, including members of the security detail for the Police Commission meetings, who will testify that Abdullah’s nonviolent protest crossed the line from free speech to “obstructing and intimidating” the L.A. Board of Police Commissioners.

Judge Sullivan allowed the case against Abdullah to proceed. Abdullah’s next hearing date is set for Jan. 22.

The arrest report puts Abdullah’s eye color as blue, but in person, her eyes are a hazel that flashes a lucent green in direct light. She is 5 foot 3, with an amber complexion and dark curly hair graying gracefully at the sides.

Abdullah, who kept the last name of her ex-husband, a teacher and filmmaker, was raised in East Oakland mostly by her mother, who taught elementary school in the Bay Area for nearly 40 years. Her father, an avowed Trotskyist, had worked for the Carpenters Union in the Bay Area. Her paternal grandfather was Günter Reimann, a famous Marxist economist and part of the Communist opposition to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. He fled the Nazis in 1934, ending up in New York.

At home, Abdullah keeps a post-it on the fridge with a list of childcare chores for neighbors and BLM comrades to fulfill in the event of her arrest. It is part of what she calls “womanist mothering,” a concept analogous to the African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. “With every arrest, people know what to do,” she says.

Abdullah, who has a Ph.D. in Political Science from USC, believes the spirits of those killed in police shootings communicate through her and other members of Black Lives Matter. She keeps photos of Ezell Ford and many others who were killed by police on a low covered table in her room that holds an incense bowl and candles. “There was a muzzle imprint in his back,” she says of Ford, a 25-year-old black man who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness and was unarmed when he was killed by police in 2014. “This is a social justice movement, obviously,” she says, “but it’s a spiritual thing.”

“I do this work in large part for my kids… The way I keep my kids safe is to transform the system.”

Melina Abdullah

When Black Lives Matter learns of a new officer-involved shooting—”I don’t think there’s many we’ve missed,” Abdullah says—they go quickly to the scene and hold a candlelit vigil soon after the body has been removed. “Sometimes we’re literally standing in blood,” she says.

They pour out libations to honor the victim, recite prayers and introduce themselves to the shell-shocked family. Emulating a custom from West Africa, Abdullah will refer to the family members using honorifics like “brother,” “sister,” “mama” or “baba” (a word that means father).

The first response is grief, shock and anger at the sudden, violent loss of a loved one. The almost immediate second response, Abdullah says, is a recognition that, for African Americans, the fate of the individual life of a loved one is inextricably tied to the race as a whole.

Experiences like that have created powerful bonds between Abdullah and many of the families whose relatives were shot and killed by police, or who died in police custody. “We develop real friendships,” she says. She estimates she has made contact with 50 or 60 such families. She gets calls and texts from some family members every day, and feels a responsibility to always pick up. “I carry a lot of guilt,” she says.

Abdullah is especially distressed when the victim of a deadly police shooting is a teenager. Her actions in both of the incidents from 2017, for which she is now being charged, involved a teenage victim.

On August 15, 2017, she was arrested for an act of civil disobedience in the boardroom after the commission ruled that the controversial shooting of 18-year-old Carnell Snell, Jr. was justified.

On July 25, 2017, she prevented the Police Commission from hearing public comment on the shooting of 18-year-old Kenney Watkins because the department’s family liaison had not notified the teen’s mother.

“How could you possibly rule on the murder of a teenager, rule on the murder of an athlete, a scholar athlete, rule on the murder of somebody who was a community member beloved by his family and his community, without the presence of his family?” she demanded of the board at the time.

“I do this work in large part for my kids,” Abdullah says of her activism. “The way I keep my kids safe is to transform the system.”

For the past four years, Abdullah has played a leading role in a series of bold and physically demanding BLM protests calling for greater accountability of the police to the public.

There was a seven-day tent encampment outside of LAPD headquarters; a 54-day encampment outside of City Hall; an overnight encampment outside the Windsor Square residence of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti; a 5:30 a.m. “wake-up call” protest outside of District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s home in Granada Hills.

The group called for Chief Beck to be fired right up until the day Beck retired in June. Black Lives Matter members regularly catcalled Beck at Police Commission meetings. They occasionally stood and turned their backs when Beck began to speak, or raised their fists in the air during the chief’s remarks at meetings.

Since Lacey became D.A. in December 2013, her office has reviewed the cases of nearly 500 officer-involved shootings or civilian deaths in police custody. She has declined to prosecute in every case, even in one unusual instance when Chief Beck recommended the prosecution of one of his men. Lacey, who is African American, has avoided meetings with Black Lives Matter.

Abdullah has led a rally outside of Lacey’s main office at the Hall of Justice in downtown every Wednesday afternoon since October 2017, calling for Lacey’s resignation.

Melina Abdullah stands in front of a chalkboard displaying the names of people killed in police shootings.
Melina Abdullah. Photo by Daniel Escamilla.

In Los Angeles, Abdullah’s involvement with Black Lives Matter has earned her accolades from civil society: she was appointed to the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations in 2014; recognized by LA Weekly as one of the 10 most influential Los Angeles leaders in 2015; bestowed with social justice awards by the Young Women’s Christian Association and the California Teachers Association in 2016, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and National Association for Ethnic Studies in 2017.

Abdullah has also gained a certain notoriety among police. Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents the 10,000 police officers in the LAPD, told me that most officers in the union “don’t believe in the philosophy her organization represents.”

Abdullah refers to members of Black Lives Matter as the heirs of the Black Power movement that started in the Oakland of her childhood. She teaches a course at Cal State LA called Black Power. Her mother was a volunteer in a school breakfast program run by the Black Panther Party. She counts former Black Panthers, many of them now octogenarians, including Henry “Hank” Jones, one of the defendants known collectively as the San Francisco 8, among her oldest friends and mentors.

Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, defined power as the ability to define a phenomenon and make it act in a desired way. It is a dictum Abdullah inculcates in her college students. When applied to policing, she says, it means “defining public safety beyond police.”

But the group’s strategy of disruption at Police Commission meetings may be alienating more mainstream critics of the LAPD.

Joe Domanick is associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College and the author of two critical histories of the LAPD. Until recently, he says, the idea that five prominent civilians successful in fields like business or law could set policy and oversee the third-largest police department in the country was kind of a joke.

But in the last three years, the commission brokered a new shooting policy emphasizing “de-escalation,” and equipped officers with body-worn cameras and cameras mounted on the dashboard in patrol cars. “Those were big gets,” Domanick says.

“I know Black Lives Matter has a series of goals that are reasonable, but you’re not seeing that reasonableness in those meetings,” he said.

The people Abdullah says she worries about alienating are black and Latino families who feel their son or daughter was unjustly killed by police. She dismissed the department’s reforms as window dressing from Chief Beck and the LAPD Public Relations Division. “Charlie Beck built a PR machine of 70 sworn officers plus civilian support staff and workers,” she says. “They’re going to outmaneuver us.”

What good is new policy, she asks, if there aren’t consequences applied consistently to an officer who escalates rather than de-escalates a confrontation, who racially profiles, or whose body-cam or dash-cam records evidence that he acted of out policy?

Abdullah argues that the LAPD is expanding into areas of society traditionally controlled by social workers and other mental health professionals. The department’s $1.6-billion budget proposal for 2019-20 calls for a 10-percent increase in LAPD funding and includes funding for new homeless initiatives by the police, according to a report by the Los Angeles Wave Newspaper Group.

“They’re being placed in a position of handling jobs that are best left for social workers, which is why we see deadly interactions like the case of Brother Africa on Skid Row,” says Abdullah, referring to Charly “Africa” Keunang, the unarmed homeless man killed by police on skid row in 2015.

Asked what the L.A. Police Protective League thinks of Abdullah and Black Lives Matter, president Craig Lally says: “Her organization hates the police.”

Trial attorney Carl Douglas—a 12-year protégé of Johnnie Cochran, one of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys—will serve as Abdullah’s lead counsel.

“I was brought on because I view myself as being a trial Dogg—that is a capital D with two Gs,” says Douglas, who specializes in police misconduct cases.

His appointment in October marked a new and more aggressive turn in Abdullah’s defense.

“My mentor was Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.,” Douglas says. “I follow his approach to litigation in that I am always aggressive and forward thinking.”

Douglas says he plans to take the city to task for what he sees as the political and racial overtones of the decision to prosecute Abdullah. “Melina Abdullah is an articulate firebrand who makes institutions of power uncomfortable,” he says. “I so believe in her right to voice opposition to structures of power that I am working for free on her behalf.”

He asserts in a court motion that city authorities chose to prosecute Abdullah because she is a well-known leader of Black Lives Matter, an outspoken critic of the LAPD and of District Attorney Jackie Lacey, and because she is black.

“This is probably the most selectively righteous criminal motion I have filed in 10 years,” Douglas says.

Douglas has asked Judge Sullivan to order the City to disclose two years’ worth of communications between the City Attorney, LAPD, and D.A.’s office relating to Abdullah. The request seeks “records that would reflect the discriminatory effect of the City Attorney’s decision to prosecute.”

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