LOS ANGELES -- The outrage over George Floyd’s death arrived at Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s front door in the form of hundreds of protesters gathered outside his home, loudly chanting to gut funding for the police department.
There was anger about curfews and the use of rubber bullets by police to disperse protesters. The mayor also heard calls for the resignation of police Chief Michel Moore.
It was the kind of pained outcry the popular mayor who was born and raised in Los Angeles has rarely seen since taking office seven years ago, much less at the threshold of his home.
Garcetti responded Wednesday by announcing the city would abruptly reverse plans for boosting LAPD’s spending and instead redirect $250 million from the city budget into programs for health care, jobs and “healing” aimed largely at the black community.
His decision came with a price. Los Angeles' police union Friday labeled Garcetti “unstable” and accused him of political pandering after he referred to “killers” in remarks about the proposed spending change.
The union saw that remark directed at them, and warned the cut in spending would lead to more crime. The Democratic mayor “smeared every single police officer in Los Angeles and across the nation by calling us killers,” union board member Jamie McBride said. It's “offensive. It's wrong.”
Garcetti had referred to the shift in funds Thursday at a church event, saying it had attracted attention from other mayors who talked about doing the same thing. “It starts someplace, and we say we are going to be who we want to be, or we’re going to continue being the killers that we are,” Garcetti said.
At a Friday briefing, the mayor said the shift in funding “is not an attack on any police officers,” but would come from agencies across city government. He said his comment on “killers” was misunderstood — he said he was referring to the collective burden of society for injustices that remain in the black community.
“We collectively have a choice of whether we'll be those who heal or whether we'll continue being the killers,” he said. “I won't have those words distorted.”
The dispute underscored the shifting challenges for LA’s mayor, who took office in 2013 promising to plug potholes and fix sidewalks but has now assumed the roles of peacemaker and consoler-in-chief in a city wracked by racial unrest, an unyielding homeless crisis and fallout from the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
A two-term Democrat who once harbored hopes of a 2020 presidential run, Garcetti has seen his term recast by forces beyond his control, from Floyd's death after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck, to the spread of a virus that prompted him to temporarily shutter much of the city economy.
The sight of heavily armed National Guard soldiers lining the steps of City Hall this week carried symbolic weight, as Garcetti struggled during the weekend to restore order amid violent protests. Angry marchers swarmed the streets, storefronts were smashed, cars left in flames. Thousands were arrested before relative calm returned Tuesday.
Garcetti, the 49-year-old son of former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, said a “small number” of people were responsible for the damage that prompted him to impose curfews that started Saturday night and continued until Thursday morning.
At the start of his first term in 2013, Garcetti talked of paving streets and stoking a post-recession economy. This week he was defending the necessity of the curfews.
Garcetti's legacy will be shaped in part by his handling of the racial strife and anger toward police. So far he has stood by Moore, who was ridiculed after equating the actions of those who rampaged through Los Angeles during the weekend with the Minnesota officers charged with killing Floyd. Moore quickly apologized for his comment.
And while Garcetti praises the work of officers, he also is showing critics that he has heard their calls for reform. Officials will identify as much as $150 million to slash from the LAPD budget of nearly $2 billion.
The pending cut in police funds represents a sharp break from Garcetti’s predecessors, including Antonio Villaraigosa, who made increasing the size of the department a priority.
“There are a lot easier jobs than being mayor of Los Angeles,” Garcetti said during a briefing Tuesday in which sirens could be heard wailing outside City Hall. “You don’t sign up for a job like mayor if you aren’t willing to not only take the heat, but to hear the voices.”
The protests have subsided. But the continuing virus outbreak has upended much of what daily life was like in Los Angeles, while the limping economy has left a gaping hole in the budget that is likely to require broad cuts, including at LAPD.
The entertainment industry is crippled. Dodger Stadium is dark. The city’s famous restaurant culture is largely idled. Unemployment in the LA region is nearing 20%. Tourism, an economic driver, has all but vanished.
Robert Stern, former president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the only comparable year for the city in recent decades that he could recall would be the unrest of 1968, which witnessed Vietnam War protests, Hispanic student walkouts and the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy at LA’s Ambassador Hotel.
He said the far-reaching effects of the pandemic and the economic downturn could depress demand for office space, as well as make high-rise living less attractive, chilling the city’s downtown renaissance.
“It’s hard to blame any public official for this. It was way beyond anybody’s imagination,” Stern said.
While flirting with a presidential run, Garcetti held up LA as a model for the nation and depicted mayors as the workhorses of American government. It wasn’t long ago that Garcetti said he spent virtually all his time working on the city’s vast homelessness problem. Then, beginning in mid-March, the virus took hold, prompting the mayor to issue a stay-at-home order that remains in place.
As he seeks to bring calm to the city, he has been cheered and jeered.
“You step forward to hear people’s pain. To try to understand it and never dismiss it, and to try to offer more than a voice forward, but steps forward,” Garcetti said.
“We only have hope, and we only have each other.”