A large crowd of Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrators that had gathered outside Long Beach City Hall earlier in the day to speak out against police use of force eventually made it inside the Long Beach City Council chambers. Once inside, they forced an impromptu grilling of the council and the Long Beach Police Department on which measures they plan to install to ensure the city is not the next setting for a viral shooting video.
The disruption started with one woman slipping into the line formed for Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal’s farewell comments, and used her time to spin a characterization of Lowenthal as compassionate to say she wished that Lowenthal and the rest of the council had conveyed that sentiment, after multiple officer-involved shootings left Long Beach residents dead.
That quickly gave way to a long succession of residents who commandeered the meeting and made their way to the lectern to demand the city take action to stop police brutality in Long Beach.
In a rare move, the council took a special vote to allow for additional speakers to have their voices heard, many of whom were calling for an independently elected citizen oversight commission.
Byron Barnett, the brother of Donte Jordan who was killed by the LBPD in November 2013 spoke first and called for Mayor Robert Garcia and the police department to address the issues that have led to so many officer-involved deaths nationwide.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk about compassion, I’ve heard a lot of talk about people becoming all they can be when the odds were against them,” Barnett said. “It would be nice if we could grow up and see what we could be, it would be nice if our lives weren’t cut short by these guys right here.”
One by one, people speaking to the council recounted stories from their past where seemingly innocuous activities had resulted in being contacted by the police department. Some claimed their civil rights had been violated for little more than being a black man or woman in the city.
Reverend Matthew McHale shared an alternate experience. As a white man in a predominantly white neighborhood, McHale spoke of the time his friends were caught in Stearns Park after hours partaking in “illegal” activities. McHale said they quickly dispersed when they saw a LBPD squad car pull into the park and drive in their direction. However, after the car pulled alongside the group it continued driving without stopping to question what they were doing.
“I’m not saying I’m not grateful for that, but what I’m saying is that that’s not an experience that would be afforded to black people, to latino people or even Cambodian people in this city in that park,” McHale said. “That is an injustice.”
The crowd, while respectful, intermittently peppered the council chambers with chants of “Black Lives they matter here” and “Say his name” every time a speaker mentioned a person who had been lost to police gunfire.
It was a raw and emotional plea from a community that feels it has been disproportionately targeted by the police department and the ensuing violence that sometimes occurs. The council sat attentively, and took in the uncomfortable testimony of people claiming to have to been wronged by the police force that has sworn an oath to protect this community.
Keith Davis, a teacher and resident of the city, said he had always asked himself the question of why every time he walked down Pine Avenue at night he more often than not saw black men being questioned by the LBPD. One night, he said, he became one of those men when trying to use a crosswalk at Ocean. He was called over by officers when he inadvertently started walking at the wrong time, an interaction that ended in his legs being spread and his person being searched.
“I pay my bills, I don’t break the law, I pay my taxes but yet I still don’t have the freedoms that I should be afforded here in America and in Long Beach,” Davis said. “My question to you is what are you going to do with your police staff? How are you going to talk to them about sensitivity training and tell them ‘no, you cannot do this’ because to me it’s just a matter of time before another incident happens, and it’s going to happen in Long Beach.”
The demonstration outside city hall, like many others across the county, was held in the wake of recent high-profile deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota at the hands of those respective police departments. A larger BLM rally in Dallas last week was thrust into chaos after a gunmen opened fire injuring 11 law enforcement officers, killing five.
Because it was an impromptu public comment session there was no dialogue from the council or the mayor outside the motion and vote to allow for the extended speakers list. It’s unclear what measures the LBPD is considering adopting and how long it would take to institute any changes that resemble the demands from the crowd last night.
While Mayor Garcia and the council sat and listened to the comments last night, he expressed condolences for the families who have lost loved ones in the past weeks online, issuing this statement hours before he and other city officials gathered to mourn the fallen officers in Dallas last Friday.
“Feeling pretty sad for our country today,” Garcia wrote on his Facebook page. “So many families grieving unthinkable losses. We need to support and send love to the families of our fallen Dallas Police Officers and the Castile and Sterling families. We need to be better as a country. We have to recommit ourselves to making our nation a society where love and empathy is shared and given to all.”