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‘The Next Person Can Deal With It’ – Councilmember Harris-Dawson on Criminalizing Homelessness

In an interview with Knock LA, CD8 Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson talks about Jeffrey Katzenberg, LAPD retaliation, and why the City Council keeps reducing public comment.

Los Angeles CD8 Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson stands in front of a red banner. He wears a black button down shirt and a gray blazer.
CD8 Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson. (Photo by Leroy Hamilton)

A refrain that you’ll often hear from LA politicians is that Twitter isn’t real life. However, when a particular online criticism stings, that adage can fall apart.

As part of Knock LA’s previous coverage on billionaire Jeffrey Katzenberg’s meetings with countless city officials, I reported in a tweet that CD8 Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson had met with Katzenberg at Soho House. In a now-deleted reply, Harris-Dawson extended the same lunch-meeting offer to me.

Screenshot of a now-deleted tweet by Marqueece Harris-Dawson.

Harris-Dawson, who has represented western South Los Angeles on City Council since 2015, currently chairs the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee. He was a co-author of Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to build permanent supportive housing (although much of that housing is still waiting to be built). He also voted in favor of amending LAMC 41.18 to criminalize sitting, sleeping, or lying in many public areas.

At a soul food restaurant in South LA, I asked Harris-Dawson about his meeting with Katzenberg, his decision on 41.18, Downtown Crenshaw, and how City Council makes decisions regarding the LAPD.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you talk about the decision to pass the 41.18 amendment? There’s a perception that it was rushed suddenly through City Council.

Well, I’ll start with the abrupt part. So you may or may not know, I was chairman of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee from 2016 until 2018. While I was transitioning out of the chairmanship, either the day before my last committee or something like that, 41.18 — that temporary provision — was set to expire, and so we had to extend it. And I didn’t particularly like the politics of it, you know, as chair, so I was like, I’m not gonna bring it up. The next person can deal with it. Then that next person who got the committee did several hearings at committee, held lots of discussions, and then kind of ran headlong into the pandemic. And then the city made the decision to kick the can again, saying we’re not going to touch encampments during the pandemic.

The last iteration of the process was short — very, very short — but the arc of the process has not been short. I’ve been on council for six years. My first month on council, they were debating either 56.11 or 41.18, and it’s been fairly consistent since then. It’s certainly one of the things that drove me to say, okay, we need to just put this thing to bed. In my view, as long as those things are unresolved, it’s problematic to solving [the issue of homelessness] because it makes enforcement the issue, and enforcement is not going to solve homelessness. 

Unresolved in what way?

There’s no coherent policy, and one of two things happen in that situation: One, nothing happens. And you just have a form of lawlessness that doesn’t work for anybody. The second thing that happens is the police department can decide [on enforcement] independently of the council and goes, “Okay, well, there’s no camping laws. Let me go and start fishing around and see what other things I can arrest people for.” Fortunately, LAPD had not started to do that [at the time]. But I felt like that was the direction it was going to go if we didn’t do something.

But then why not pass the “Street Engagement Strategy” or some form of that before passing 41.18?

We didn’t have the votes. It’s just plain and simple. If it were up to me, I would have done it in that order. The only way we were going to get street engagement was with 41.18.

Can you talk about why that may be? Why do parts of City Council, like Joe Buscaino — who immediately made a 20-page list of sensitive use sites upon passage — and Mitch O’Farrell seem to have this focus on police enforcement?

I try to make a habit of not criticizing my colleagues, but there’s a section of the council who you’ve named, who has a lot more energy around enforcement, and almost exclusively energy around enforcement. And they primarily see homelessness as a public nuisance, not as a humanitarian crisis. Or if they do — that’s secondary. And then there’s a set [of people] on the council who sees [homelessness] as primarily a humanitarian crisis and less as a public nuisance.

And the truth is, both sides are right. It is absolutely a public nuisance, and is absolutely a humanitarian crisis. And so the politics is really the art of the possible, and how do you get the most people on to the best scenario, and that’s kind of what you saw happen.

One of the reasons this interview happened is because I wrote this article about Jeffrey Katzenberg, which was about how some people have more access to City Council offices. While you met with Jeffrey Katzenberg after the 41.18 amendment, he was meeting earlier with other officials, like Paul Koretz, and expressing support for what was essentially passing 41.18.

I met with him afterwards. I didn’t know about the other meetings that he was having [at the time]. I did send the signal to his team or I sent a signal out that was like, “Wait a minute, I know Paul [Koretz]. Why is he meeting with all these other people and not me? I was the author of [Proposition] HHH! What’s up with that?” And [Katzenberg] has supported other things that we’ve done in the neighborhood.

What’s odd about it, and one of the reasons why I had such a big reaction [to your Tweet] was that 41.18 didn’t come up at all [with Katzenberg], which makes sense now, because we were meeting after [the vote]. When I read your thing, I was like: “Did he lobby me on 41.18?” And I was like, “yeah, never.” And I had someone with me, actually a staffer with me, and she was like, “No, it never came up.” [Katzenberg was] really focused on and was asking for feedback on healthcare services, mobile healthcare services for homeless people. So yeah, things you probably have heard about by now. Basically, figuring out if there’s a public-private partnership that gives people services on the spot. He wanted my opinion about it. 

Do you know if it’s something he has invested in or anything like that?

He’s definitely interested in investing. It didn’t sound like he had decided. He was exploring it. I will tell you that he was really hot on the idea, and I think it’s a good idea.

There was an article recently that at the rate affordable housing is being built in Los Angeles, the projections for availability are pretty dire. Proposition HHH was supposed to help with that. With 41.18, what I think people are very much worried about too is that in the fine print it does say that it can be enforced without an offer of housing. With a dwindling housing supply and permitted enforcement, how is that supposed to be helpful?

I think people should be concerned about that, and I hope people watch it. The thing that put me over the line with 41.18 is the situation in the streets of my district, where I had people telling me, “I don’t care if I’m blocking your church, or if I’m blocking the school. I’m not going anywhere unless I have to, unless you’re going to come back with something that says I have to leave, or else I’m not leaving.” … What I would like to see is [a police officer] say to that person, “Okay. You’ve got to leave or else there will be consequences.” But I know that that’s not a shared view on the council. Some people want people to pile up tickets, and eventually incarcerate somebody. And it’s of course ridiculous, inhumane, and immoral to incarcerate somebody for being a nuisance.

Can you say if there are any locations you are going to be submitting for your list of 41.18 sites?

We haven’t submitted anything yet. We’re working on lists. Our lists will be well short of a dozen, and typically they’re in places where we have encampments that happened during the pandemic. So another one of the challenges is, we have encampments in a lot of places that we didn’t before, like at schools. [Normally] nobody would make an encampment at a school because there are hundreds of people coming and going every day and bells ringing. Well, you leave the school vacant for a year or two years or however long it’s been, then you get encampments in those places.

I wanted to ask about Downtown Crenshaw and the Crenshaw Mall eventually being sold to Harridge Developers. 

I was really proud of the Downtown Crenshaw crew. You know, they basically took an idea and turned it into a real offer in a short amount of time. It didn’t get there. But, you know, it was improbable from the beginning, and they made a lot more progress than I think any of us thought that they could make. … I hope that the Downtown Crenshaw group stays at it, because it’s not like that’s the last parcel in the Crenshaw district.

So why did their offer fall short?

I don’t know. There’s some people out there that think the council has a role in a sale like that. We don’t. We were not privy to what the conversations were. We didn’t know who the bidders were. We don’t know what the bid amounts were. Yeah, I mean, Downtown Crenshaw tells us they bid this and the other person did that. Okay, if you say so, but we haven’t actually seen the bids. It’s no different than if you’re selling your house. You don’t have to tell your city councilperson. 

There was a protest outside of your house, and I’ve seen folks say that you met with the group that won the bid.

That’s false. The person operating the mall, which was Ken Lombard, has been around since the ’80s, and introduced me to a person who eventually won the bid, but then he didn’t end up getting it. It was during the pandemic, so there weren’t any meetings. We did a couple Zooms with Downtown Crenshaw, and we did a couple of those with various people bidding. I think the people who got it – we did a Zoom with them, but it wasn’t memorable. 

Downtown Crenshaw had posted on their website that they wanted the support of you and Mark Ridley-Thomas in the sale.

The only leverage a councilmember has is to threaten to not approve entitlements, and if I threaten to not approve entitlements, you know what will happen? The owner will sue the city, and guess what? The city will lose and will lose all authority over entitlements. So I wasn’t gonna say a word.

Do you believe that it is proper for the Planning and Land Use Committee [which Harris-Dawson chairs] to move forward with projects spearheaded by Jose Huizar, who was indicted for a pay-to-play scheme? For example, development at the former LA Times building. 

There’s a legal requirement. In other words, once the window opens, the person is entitled to an answer in a certain amount of time. That’s not discretionary at that point. So you can’t just say, “Oh, that guy got in trouble, so everybody shut down.” You cannot do that. I guess you could have the option of saying, “We’re saying no to everything,” and everybody else starts back from scratch. We tried to do that as much as we could while the seat was vacant. Once we got a new councilmember, we tried to defer to that councilmember, and really get their guidance for what they thought could go forward and what they thought had to stop.

You recently spoke to the LA Times in a piece about the LAPD delaying handing off traffic stops to non–law enforcement. Is there anything City Council can do or any law you could write that could expedite that process?

Not that I have seen or heard of. If there were, I would put it forward yesterday and push it towards a vote. The pretextual stop is such an ominous and undefined thing. It’s really hard to get your hands around. It’s really good because we have a lot of activists pushing on it and calling out the contradiction and hypocrisy of the pretextual stops. And we have some activists and even some people who are involved in law enforcement who are retired and will tell you like, “Okay, this is a pretextual stop. This isn’t a stop for traffic safety.” … I think that this is, for me, the signature law enforcement reform that has to happen, and it has to happen soon. I mean, I’m not leaving the council until we get that done. 

Are there laws that City Council can write that could specifically criminalize police actions?

No, because most of that is controlled by the state. It’s very limited. Just as an example — the explosion on 27th Street. We don’t know that anyone has been disciplined for that, even though the chief admits that his own people screwed up. [Rhonda Mitchell, CD8 Director of Communications, mentions Chief Moore’s statement that two LAPD members have been removed from the bomb squad.] That’s not discipline — that just means you can’t play with fireworks. It’s a state law that protects their identity. The state’s beginning to move on it, but it’s, you know, it’s slower than I’d like it.

There is a lot of frustration with the perception that councilmembers don’t criticize the police enough in LA

I share that frustration.

[Solomon Rivera, CD8 Chief of Staff: You need to do some reading on the history of the LAPD — there’s been times where the police chief’s more powerful than the mayor. It’s not that long ago. And even right now, you know the power of LAPPL.] 

I think if you ask the police department: Do I complain enough? Yes — to the police union. If I complain enough, I would be maybe one or two on the list. And I think that’s true of Nithya [Raman], too. I represent the part of the city where the police department is the least popular. It always has been, and I don’t expect that to change. But even in my district, people don’t like LAPD, but they like their officers. And so I get pushback, like, “Oh, you’re too hard on them, you’ve got to take it easy and they’re only trying to help and these guys are good guys,” even though we know the department is — it’s a tricky thing. 

I do think that unlike other departments, there’s a hesitancy to call out [the LAPD’s] mistakes. If, for instance, when the sanitation department spilled that sewage, nobody hesitated to say anything. The police department explodes a couple of blocks: “Well, we have to do an investigation and we have to look into this. Look into that.”

Why is this, though?

Because it’s their relative power compared to everything else.

The moment I decided to be in public office, I had to say, “Okay, now I’m part of the governance structure.” And my primary role is not a critic, which I had been all of my life. I had been criticizing the system, pushing on the system, trying to make the system change. And one of the ways you can make the system change is by pressuring it. [But] once you’re inside of it, that’s not your role. Your role is to make it work as well as you possibly can.

I could shit on the Department of Transportation, Sanitation, Street Services. I mean, all you have to do is walk outside. But is that the way to get better service? Does the department just go, “Screw him? He doesn’t like us, we’ll do the bare minimum?” And there’s a history of that. 

Another criticism I hear a lot about City Council is the frequent cancellation of meetings and the reduction of public comment. Can you speak on that?

I’m not in control of that, but where I do control it is in PLUM. So if I know that my meeting starts at 1 PM, and I know that three of my members have other committee meetings that start at 3 PM, that means I have two hours to get my work done, or else we lose quorum, and you have to disband. So I’ll say at the top of the meeting: “Okay, we have 12 items, each of these items is going to take five to seven minutes, at least.” So we need that time and whatever time we have left is going to be for public comment. That might mean only half the people that call in get to talk, and on another day, we may have time to spare. And so you manage it in that way.

I have definitely left people in the queue, because if we didn’t stop taking public comment and actually take votes, we wouldn’t finish. It’s easy [to manipulate] when you’re against a project or against something getting done or against something moving forward. As far as you’re concerned, public comment can last forever. It’s like when minimum wage was being debated. The business community would have loved for us to still be having public comment now. Right? They would want it to go on forever. 

Can you talk about your votes on two protest bills? You voted nay on a bill to ban flashlights at protests, but voted yay on the bill to ban protests within 300 feet of someone’s home. 

The flashlight one — I just thought it was lazy. As a guy who’s gotten light shined in their face by police officers more times than I can count, the idea that we can now make it illegal for someone to shine a light back at them, I just had a problem with that. I understand lights are more powerful now and they can do things. But this thing was not nearly specific enough to even consider seriously. 

On the 300 feet in front of people’s homes — I was reluctant on that, because I feel like there was enough laws that … if the police really wanted to stop it, they have all the threat they need. I think what really led me over is I think about people’s neighbors. And I think about the danger. I mean, everybody talks about the situation with Mr. Jackie Lacey and Black Lives Matter. Well, I know there’s some neighborhoods people live in, where if people are walking down the street yelling at people they don’t know at night, it’s dangerous. I just think we need to do what we can to stop something really bad from happening before it happens. 

Many critics say that the law is in violation of the first amendment. 

It might be. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time the city attorney produced something that violates the first amendment. The point is, you got to figure out something … I was talking to one councilmember who people were protesting at 6:00 in the morning or 5:00 in the morning. And her neighbor was like, I just got off work at 3:30 AM. Like, why do I have to put up with this? And again, I understand every protest is inconvenient. I’ve been on the other side of that. I remember I protested a building, and our target was on the fourth floor. But on the first floor was a therapeutic chiropractic center, and people were getting medical care, so they came out like, “wait, what are you guys doing?” And we continued with our protest, but we didn’t go back every day. Or we tried to go on weekends. 

The targeting people at their houses — and activists aren’t going to admit this — but targeting people at their houses is a product of the pandemic. The right-wingers are the main reason I voted for it. The left-wing people are annoying and disruptive, but the right wing people are violent. And I don’t make any bones about saying that they’re violent — they behave in a thuggish way. And their orientation is to intimidate.

Is there anything else you would like to say to Knock LA?

What I would say to Knock and to homelessness advocates, especially the more radical ones — I’m very grateful that you’re there. I’m very grateful that they push on all of us, including me, because it’s easy for the conscience of the city to get lost and end up in a situation that’s even more morally untenable than the situation we have now, which is people living on the street. I would ask people to just dig deep, really take a hard look at the issue, and then press on solutions. If I had a critique, it’s that it’s great to see what you’re against, but also say what you’re for that’s actually achievable. You say, “we want housing to appear for every homeless person tomorrow.” I would vote for that, but I don’t know how it would actually happen.