Anyone thinking about blaming the police for the anarchy that grips America’s liberal cities is not paying attention. The police know how to do their jobs. The politicians, elected by progressive liberals, do not let them. And often enough, even when there are laws remaining on the books that might permit prosecution, activist prosecutors, also elected by progressive liberals, do not press charges.
Life in California, as usual, epitomizes this dysfunction. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, which downgraded many drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. In 2016, voters approved Proposition 57, which released thousands of “nonviolent” criminals. Back in 2006, the ACLU prevailed in the Jones v. City of Los Angeles case; the judgment prohibits arrests for vagrancy unless space is available in a homeless shelter.
The result has been predictable enough. California’s unsheltered homeless population is now more numerous than all the rest of the homeless in the United States combined. And why not? Along with great weather, there are no serious legal consequences for being intoxicated on methamphetamine or heroin, much less marijuana or alcohol, nor are their serious legal consequences for stealing to support your drug habit. And if you want to set up a tent, almost anywhere in a public space, nobody can make you move along until they provide you shelter.
The Crisis of Venice Beach
If California is ground zero for urban anarchy, Venice Beach is one of the epicenters. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic and preelection-planned rioting escalated the anarchy, Venice Beach was already occupied, and terrorized, by well over 1,000 homeless. Today, the homeless population in Venice Beach is estimated at least to have doubled. That is 2,000 homeless in an area of only three square miles. Several factors caused this increase.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in thousands of prisoners being released from the Los Angeles County Jail, and many of them headed for the beach. A new homeless shelter was opened earlier in the year in Venice Beach, and while it only has 140 beds (at a cost of $8 million), it serves meals to many more and has no requirements for sobriety or even a curfew.
Los Angeles officials’ response to the COVID-19 crisis had an even greater impact on Venice Beach.
For years, the streets would be cleaned once a week. This forced people living in cars or RVs to move them to allow trash and debris—including feces—regularly to get swept up and washed away. But there has been no street sweeping since March. Also suspended in 2020 by court order was a 2016 Los Angeles County ordinance that prevented homeless people from accumulating more than what could fit into a trash bin (about eight cubic feet). If that weren’t enough, since COVID came along, the police have greatly reduced enforcing the laws and ordinances still in effect that might regulate the number of homeless and their behavior.
Venice Beach residents are besieged as never before. When speaking with residents to prepare this report, one of them said “I feel like I have a house in the middle of a large homeless encampment.” Residents describe the mountains of trash that have begun to accumulate as a result of a breakdown in code enforcement, along with an explosion in the rat population. For those who have been assaulted or shot, of course, rats and trash are just a nuisance.
The degree to which civilization has receded in places where the homeless have taken over in Los Angeles is difficult to separate from the other epic distractions that have dominated the news in 2020. But these other distractions—COVID-19, economic hardship, mass rioting, and vandalism—have compounded the problem of the homeless.
For example, on one residential corner in Venice Beach, for the past few months a man has lived there, working on welding projects. Many of these projects involve converting scrap metal into knives, machetes, and axes. According to a neighbor, the man was approached by Antifa and offered marijuana in exchange for weapons. He refused, stating he only would work for methamphetamine. The entire operation, the generator, the welding torch, the hammering in the middle of the night, is hazardous and disturbing. But despite hundreds of calls to the LAPD, the man continues to ply his trade.
Police Undermined by Progressive Prosecutors
What Los Angeles needs to do is challenge the 2006 Jones ruling in federal court. Officials need to join with other California cities to put initiatives before voters that would repeal Prop. 47 and Prop. 57. But under pressure from progressive billionaires and Black Lives Matter activists, they are moving in the opposite direction.
The current Los Angeles District Attorney is Jackie Lacey, a black woman who by most accounts would be considered soft on crime. But not soft enough. Challenging Lacey in November is George Gascon, formerly the D.A. of San Francisco. Gascon is endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter, and his campaign has already benefited from more than $1 million spent by George Soros to defeat Lacey. To say Gascon would not support the ability of law enforcement to restore order to the streets of Los Angeles is an understatement.
One would think that a liberal black woman serving as L.A.’s district attorney would at least earn a respectful opposition from radical activists. But not Jackie Lacey. In March, Black Lives Matter protesters showed up at Lacey’s house, banging drums, pounding on her front door, and demanding a “community meeting.” In response, Lacey’s husband opened the door, pointed a gun at the protesters, and demanded they get off the porch. A Los Angeles judge has just ruled that California’s liberal attorney general, Xavier Becerra, should file charges against him . . . just in time for the November election.
Not long ago, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani characterized places like Los Angeles as “criminal friendly cities.” This is an accurate description. On top of everything else, California’s state legislature passed SB 10 in 2018, designed to make California the first state to end the use of cash bail for all detained suspects awaiting trials.” The legislation would replace the state’s cash bail system with “risk assessments.” This legislation was successfully challenged through a referendum petition, so this November California’s voters will decide if they want jails to release suspects without the hook of bail to improve the chances they’ll show up in court.
What is happening in Los Angeles is typical for California, and is part of larger and related policy failures. Everything California’s government has done for over 30 years, ever since the progressive grip on the state and local governments became nearly absolute, has made life more difficult for its once-thriving middle class. Excessive regulations for the law-abiding small businesses, which big business takes in stride and the underground economy ignores. Urban containment, draconian building codes, and punitive permit fees that have made housing unaffordable.
California has become a feudal economy, and if entire cities are turned into fetid, ungovernable swamps, so what? As long as the right slogans are uttered, and fists are raised in solidarity with the oppressed, it’s all good.
“Black Lives Matter.” “All Cops Are Bastards.” Let’s hear you say it, if you want to have a political career. On your knees. Raise your fist. Say what we tell you to say, because “silence is violence.” Has it come to that? Is this all it takes to remain a successful politician?
But it isn’t just politicians who have brought Los Angeles and other progressive cities to the brink of complete chaos. Activist judges, activist prosecutors, and well-funded activist attorneys have all played a role. In some respects, the legal obstacles to common-sense governance outweigh the political obstacles. The authorities in Los Angeles might easily round up the homeless and put them into supervised tent encampments in inexpensive areas, but lawsuits would stop any such sensible policy in its tracks. Instead, in feudal California, there’s an innovative workaround to the problem of homelessness to enrich our political donor class.
Instead of solving the problem for pennies on the dollar, homeless advocates demand “permanent supportive housing” that comes at an average cost of $500,000 per unit, using taxpayers’ money of course. For every unit built, hundreds of homeless remain on the streets while donor developers reap benefits. This utterly futile scheme has cost California’s taxpayers billions while the numbers of homeless have only increased.
The next step California’s progressive policymakers envision, well underway, is to erase zoning restrictions and allow investors and developers to collect subsidies and tax incentives to build rent-subsidized multi-family dwellings, randomly dropped onto the sites of demolished single-family homes. Imagine the feeling, when next door to the home you’ve worked for all your life, one of your many new neighbors—living for free in a looming six-plex—is a welder who works all night for methamphetamine.
Police in Los Angeles, as in all cities run by progressive liberals, are up against a system that is failing. It makes their jobs nearly impossible. The only way their lot will be improved, along with that of residents in Venice Beach and other besieged communities across all of California’s urban landscape, will be through a sustained realignment by voters who decide to categorically reject progressive politics.
On the other hand, California’s cities offer the example that will be America’s fate if Joe Biden wins in November.