George Gascón has a mandate to confront institutional racism at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. Will he?
California was admitted to the United States as free soil, but Los Angeles was colonized by Southerners who flocked here to fulfill the dream of then-Secretary of War (and future President of the Confederate States) Jefferson Davis to extend the antebellum slave economy to the Pacific. Those men became the pillars of L.A.’s early legal community and led the formation of the office of the District Attorney.
One of the first Los Angeles D.A.’s, Isaac Ogier (D.A. from 1851–1852), emigrated to California from South Carolina where his family owned slaves. As a member of the California Assembly, he sought to ban free Black people from making the same journey west. Ogier’s term as D.A. was followed by years in which he organized vigilante groups that lynched at least 22 people. He was responsible for establishing L.A.’s reputation in the Spanish language press as a linchocracia — a form of government that permitted racially-motivated, extrajudicial violence.
His successor, Kimball Dimmick (D.A. from 1852–1853), came to California fantasizing about killing people in the Mexican-American War. In letters, he confessed to wanting just “one chance” to murder indigenous people. While he never got that chance as a soldier, as the D.A. he used the legal system to further the decimation of indigenous communities. From the 1850s through the 1870s, Los Angeles maintained an “Indian slave mart” in which authorities would entrap indigenous people who had been drinking alcohol into an open-air corral and then auction off their labor to the highest bidder. The fines and fees they generated were the second-largest source of government revenue behind licenses for saloons and gambling halls.
Benjamin Eaton (D.A. from 1853–1854) is lauded by local historians as the “Father of Pasadena” — his former estate in Altadena is a popular hiking destination. He also was related to Albert Sidney Johnston, the second-highest ranking general of the Confederate Army and the leader of the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, the only secessionist militia from a non-slave state.
Cameron Thom served as D.A. three separate times from the 1850’s to the 1870’s. Between two terms, he was a Captain in the Confederate Army, after which he obtained a pardon for his part in the War to restart his law practice. As a land speculator, he and his family pioneered the racist housing practices which would continue through the 20th Century and beyond. Rossmoyne, his 2,700 acre ranch in Glendale, was named after a Confederate soldier and later developed into tracts encumbered by covenants providing owners “perpetual racial protection” against people of color and Jews. Thom’s close relatives inherited his wealth and helped form the local realty board responsible for turning Glendale into a sundown town, for which the city has only recently apologized.
Edward Kewen (D.A. from 1859–1861) participated in William Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua, a frenzy of the manifest destiny ideology. After Walker’s downfall, Kewen returned to California and was elected to state government where he promoted the formation of an explicitly racist criminal legal system through the adoption of laws that refused to give credibility to the testimony of Black people. Kewen then served as the Los Angeles D.A. prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. When the War began, he was imprisoned on Alcatraz Island for publicly advocating secession.
Volney Erskine Howard (1873–1876) became D.A. after advocating for California’s admission to the Union as a slave state. Following the conclusion of the Civil War, he was unrepentant for his loyalty to the Confederacy and refused to take an oath to the U.S. Constitution. As a consequence, he was forced to relinquish his law practice. He later sought a pardon and was elected to serve as Los Angeles D.A.
The past isn’t dead. An unbroken chain links the earliest D.A.’s of Los Angeles to the latest.
A marble “Wall of Fame” inside the criminal courthouse in Downtown L.A. bears several of these notorious names, including the Confederate Captain Cameron Thom and secessionist Edward Kewen, honoring them for their “significant contributions to the criminal justice system.” That monument is not a relic of history — it was dedicated in 2006, paid for by the Board of Supervisors, and is maintained by the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
“Our nation is going through a reckoning,” Jackie Lacey said in her concession speech on Friday, as she blamed her failure to win a third term on what she called a “season of discontent” surrounding the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But it was more than just a season. A struggle caused her to fall — years of organizing led by Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles and its allies, including White People 4 Black Lives and a multitude of progressive groups that sprang up in the ferment under the open white supremacy of the Trump presidency.
A complete reckoning with the racism of the criminal legal system isn’t possible without an assessment of Lacey’s political strategy, bent on refusing to give credibility to critical perspectives of the criminal legal system. That strategy, which involved the grotesque spectacle of the D.A. demeaning the victims of police violence and their families, was premised on two assumptions that this election proved to be outrageously misguided: she overestimated the so-called whitelash to the Black Lives Matter movement and she underestimated its capacity to build a broad base.
Lacey and her allies failed to account for the reality that the weekly protest outside the Hall of Justice for the victims of police violence was just the tip of a massive moral iceberg. Roiling the waves of our long hot summer was a campaign of anti-racism that challenged every corner of the social justice movement in Los Angeles to recognize that representation is not the only marker of progress or a sufficient remedy for the open wound of racism this nation, this state, and our present-day institutions are founded upon.
As a candidate for District Attorney, George Gascón promised to confront the racist outcomes plaguing the criminal legal system with reform. But he must go deeper than reform and contend with the institutional racism ingrained in the office’s DNA which has never been publicly acknowledged. It did not just inform her campaign, it is also the governing technique of the region’s police, sheriffs, and courts, who have confused justice with the social harms caused by carceral practices. Reform will never be sufficient where nothing short of a reconstruction is needed.
Prosecutors make hay about representing “The People” in court, but they are not apolitical actors insofar as they favor policies the electorate has incontrovertibly rejected. Gascón has been given a mandate to challenge the norms, doctrines, and dogmas that have grown in their ranks like moss without the sunlight of accountability, and he should give no quarter to those who insist on pursuing their lost cause by maintaining anti-democratic practices that subvert the will of the people and perpetuate the mass incarceration regime.
In turning away from Jackie Lacey, the voters have also demanded changes to the practices of the 1,200 unelected line prosecutors who are deputized by the elected official they serve. Gascón will have to account for how that bureaucracy contributes to California’s carceral system being one of the most racially disparate in the world: for every one white person locked up there are 8.8 Black people, according to The Sentencing Project. Gascón should constrain the discretion of his deputies and do what is necessary to disempower those who resist the people’s demand that the D.A. address systemic racism.
But the most significant use of prosecutorial power Gascón has a mandate to change is the normalized refusal to hold police accountable when they break the law. Elected prosecutors have a duty to hold officers to account for unlawful conduct, but they have more often declined the trial of such cases, effectively sheltering police in a zone of impunity. That is what was going on at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office under Jackie Lacey. Just a few weeks before the election, the L.A. County Inspector General excoriated the D.A.’s handling of the Sheriff’s investigation into the Banditos, one of the Department’s deputy gangs. The report strongly suggested Lacey’s office failed to interrupt a coverup, going along with what appeared to be a “purposefully perfunctory investigation” into alleged crimes by overstating minor inconsistencies in witness testimony, failing to appreciate the patterns and practices of the deputy gang, and minimizing the danger they posed to the public.
The Inspector General’s criticism of Jackie Lacey’s questionable conduct paralleled the demands of Black Lives Matter L.A. that she should use her power as D.A. to hold police accountable. Lacey argued her discretion to decline charges in almost every case was rooted in what she called a “basic tenet of criminal law” that she cannot ethically file charges unless she believed a jury would convict the person of that crime. In voting her out, the electorate saw through the absurdity of this position, which would elevate the status of the D.A. to that of a monarch. But even more fundamentally, the people said Lacey’s beliefs were wrong about how a panel of jurors — one that existed solely in her imagination — might weigh the evidence. As it turns out, Lacey suggested in an interview in the final weeks of the race that she didn’t really believe in the concept of excessive force that much anyway. She told The Guardian: “When somebody doesn’t want to be arrested and they start fighting, all bets are off.”
George Gascón has signaled his intention to right Lacey’s wrongs. He has already advocated for reforms to the legal standard by which police may use deadly force, and made promises to re-open some of the police accountability cases Lacey declined. He has not specified which cases those might be, and the Los Angeles Times’ James Queally speculated those cases might be the murders of Brendon Glenn and Hector Morejon, two of Lacey’s most criticized declinations. Other names are being floated, and the activists who have been buttressing the families of victims of police violence are already demanding more. BLM co-founder Melina Abdullah has promised to continue protests and hold Gascón accountable if he doesn’t get it right.
The groundswell that lifted Gascón to victory has every reason to make bold demands and have high expectations for how he will lead. But we may also begin to see new possibilities for deeper change if he is willing to reckon with the system’s racist roots. Jackie Lacey spent her years in office obscuring so much of what was going down at the D.A.’s office by under-resourcing departments such as the conviction review unit that would be unflattering to her, and impoverishing the public’s expectations for justice in the process. How effective she was in lowering those expectations remains to be seen. However, the people’s defeat of Jackie Lacey gestures to monumental shifts towards abolition.