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Culver City Council Ignores Residents’ Opposition to Surveillance Drones

A report from Kenny Stevenson.

City Hall, Culver City.

On Tuesday, April 10th, Culver City held an election for two new city council members. The city voted for Daniel Lee and Alex Fisch. I voted for these two candidates because Lee and Fisch are two progressives who were endorsed by the Culver City Democratic Club, and are actively against the proposed drilling expansion at the Inglewood Oil Fields, but that’s for another time. Before I talk about this election, I want to talk about something else that the city council did, one month before the election.

I was at the special Culver City Council meeting on March 13, 2018. I sat and watched as representatives from Vigilant Solutions, along with the Culver City Police Department, made a pitch to spend over $200,000 on having Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) installed throughout Culver City. I heard the pitches about how these readers would make it easier for the police to be able to track a vehicle containing a perpetrator because they would be able to scan and store every license plate that comes in and out of Culver City. I listened as over 50 members of the community (Culver City residents and residents of surrounding LA areas), spoke out against the ALPRs, especially how Vigilant Solutions has a third-party contract with ICE, and Culver City is a sanctuary city. I watched as councilmember Meghan Sahli-Wells voiced her worries about the program, and I listened as the mayor himself, Jeff Cooper, expressed his concerns with working with a company that also works with ICE. I watched and heard as the council voted down the proposal. It failed.

Then the meeting shifted to talk about drones, and there was a palpable shift of the energy in the room. CCPD wanted to buy four drones totaling $70,000, and has tried three times to get it passed by the council. They claimed that they want to use the drones to help patrol large groups of people, go places that helicopters can’t, and then had the gumption to suggest drones could have helped in the Parkland shooting. Over 30 members of the community, and Los Angeles proper, spoke up about the militarization of the police, the evidence of policing against brown and black people, and how drones have been used to target people of those communities. I heard a black woman who has lived in Culver City for over 30 years, talk about the CCPD’s past, including how one of the officers from the Rodney King incident was employed by CCPD for six years after the trial. She talked about how drones would be a step toward the past.

The mayor was clearly angered at the crowd and became very defensive anytime someone called out the council or the police. I was sensing from the tone of the mayor that he might just vote for the drones just to retaliate at the people who were telling him that he would be responsible for brown and black bodies being subjected to more persecution at the hands of the police. Then Meghan Sahli-Wells spoke about how approving drones would hurt all of the community outreach the police had been doing over her term. As a resident of Culver City, I agree with Ms. Sahli-Wells. She made it very clear that she heard all of the concerns voiced by the people, and how she agreed with them. She heard and expressed sympathy and empathy for all of the people of color who spoke and talked about how the militarization of the police specifically effects their communities. It was one of the most impassioned speeches I have ever heard, and it seemed like she was about to cry. It was clear why that was, as she voted against the drones, without any hesitation all three white men, voted to approve the drone funding. In fact, the overarching argument from the other councilmembers was that “drones were inevitable”, or “my kids have them, so I mean, nothing we can do.” Except there is something that could have been done. A stand could have been made, but it wasn’t. These white men yielded their power, privilege, and authority to support a program that only benefits the police.

It is important to mention that this vote happened on a day that the vice mayor, Thomas Small, the only person of color who sits on the council, was out with a scheduled surgery. They knew he was going to be absent scheduled the vote anyway. This sends a message that the council members intentionally attempted to push through this funding measure, because they inherently knew that their support was on shaky ground. The lack of hesitation to approve the drones by the three white men on the council (Jeff Cooper, Jim Clarke, and Goran Eriksson) compared to the onslaught of opposition from people of color was chilling to witness. It was obvious that Cooper, Clarke and Eriksson had an agenda, and used their political will to force drone surveillance on Culver City residents.

At the election on Tuesday the 10th, Meghan Sahli-Wells asked the council for more community outreach and engagement before they vote on the drones. Clearly the people were against it, and the council needed to listen. Had this been approved, the vote would have probably been pushed to after the election where Daniel Lee and Alex Fisch won. Alex Fisch attended the city council meeting on March 13th and vehemently opposed the drone program. Daniel Lee spoke out against them at every previous meeting when the drone program was discussed, and wasn’t in town for the final meeting, but cared enough to have someone deliver a message against drones on his behalf. Had Cooper, Eriksson, and Clarke agreed and postponed the vote to conduct more outreach, Lee and Fisch would be on that council, and I am certain I can say that the outcome would have been in favor of the people. Instead, we witnessed a typical display of white male privilege, where a group of white men enacted paternalistic measures and refused to listen to anyone who would be impacted by their policies. After all, clearly they don’t feel pressure to act on behalf of certain residents in their community because they likely believe that there will be no consequences. They act entitled to behave in any way that suits their personal agenda, regardless of the outcome. If that is the case, perhaps those of use with political will can challenge their authority and unleash political consequences.

Kenny Stevenson is a resident of Culver City and an activist with White People 4 Black Lives. White People 4 Black Lives (WP4BL) is a white anti-racist collective and activist project of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA) and operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). WP4BL is rooted in acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.awarela.org