It was minutes after the conclusion of the most recent District Attorney debate in downtown Los Angeles and the crowd was just starting to spill from the Aratani Theatre. Among them, a man garbed in khakis and a gingham button-up held a cellphone to his ear and kept his eyes on the ground as he gave the listener his take on the event.
“You know how it feels like the world is fucking on fire? Yeah, this was no different.”
The DA debate on Wednesday, January 29 was a melee: part protest, part political cage match and part radio broadcast. No part of the skirmish can be blamed on the evening’s moderators, clarion-toned KPCC politics reporter Libby Denkmann or the unflappable LA Times editorial writer Robert Greene. There are simply some storms in which even the sturdiest umbrella will leak. It’s safe to say we all left a bit damp.
The scene was set for profound civility. Before the candidates arrived, there were just the well-heeled moderators, empty leather chairs, and the sounds of NPR wafting through the airwaves. The soft beige lighting bordered on romantic. That part was calming, perhaps even a bit boring.
That part didn’t last long.
The candidates took the stage. Former San Franscisco DA George Gascón strode to the center seat, his fun striped socks peeking out beneath his slacks. Experienced public defender Rachel Rossi strutted to the rightmost seat, sporting gold hoops and a confident smile. And then there was DA Jackie Lacey.
When the incumbent appeared wearing a red power blazer with gleaming gold buttons, she was greeted by resounding applause and vehement “boos.” The moment was a microcosm of the evening to come, one that would be defined not by debate but by the crowd’s fierce emotional reaction to this polarizing prosecutor. It was clear that those in the crowd at the Aratani Theatre were not undecided voters, at least when it came to Lacey. They were for or against her with a fervor that felt deeply in sync with the vitriol of our current national discourse.
The second question of the night cut to the root of the candidate’s differences. It was addressed to DA Jackie Lacey.
MODERATOR: MS. ROSSI SAYS YOU HAVE AN ARCHAIC VISION OF JUSTICE. MR. GASCÓN SAYS UNDER YOUR LEADERSHIP THE DA’S OFFICE HAS QUOTE “LOST ITS ABILITY TO DISTINGUISH THE DANGEROUS FROM THE NUISANCE.” THEY BOTH SUGGEST THE DA SHOULD BE LOOKING AT WAYS TO PUT FEWER PEOPLE IN JAIL ESPECIALLY FOR LESSER CRIMES. WHAT IS YOUR POSITION ON CHARGING PEOPLE WHO COMMIT LOW-LEVEL NONVIOLENT CRIMES?
Lacey had barely opened her mouth to respond when a bold voice from the audience shouted “JACKIE LACEY” followed by a chorus of voices chanting “MUST GO!” The refrain repeated with increasing vigor until one thick shouldered man rose and pushed his way to the front of the seats, knocked over the “media only” sign and marched towards the stage. Pointing an accusatory finger directly at Lacey the man yelled, “YOU HAVE NOT PROSECUTED POLICE!” Friends and family members of the DA jumped up from their seats in the front row and were joined by plain clothed officers. Together they corralled the protestor towards the exit as the moderators struggled to wrangle the debate back on track.
But the debate was already running off the rails. The next hour and fifteen minutes would be erratically punctuated by more protests from audience members, many wearing Black Lives Matters garb and T-shirts stamped with #ByeJackie2020. The cries of the protestors rattled the air “NO JUSTICE. NO PEACE” entwined with the somber roll call of the victims of police shootings. “AJ WEBER SAY HIS NAME”… “ERIC RIVERA SAY HIS NAME”… “JOHN HORTON SAY HIS NAME.” One protestor pointed to a woman two rows behind me in a black sweatshirt and shouted “THIS IS JOHN HORTON’S MOM RIGHT HERE!”
Over this dissonant score the debate endeavored to continue, the candidates stating their perspectives on a wide range of issues.
For a thorough review of Gascón and Rossi’s take on the biggest challenges facing the district attorney you can read part I, part II, and part III of our coverage of the first DA debate. During the second debate, DA Jackie Lacey provided a more moderate voice than her progressive opponents, emphasizing the value of community safety over swift reform. While Gascón and Rossi want to eliminate gang enhancements, Lacey believes that they are sometimes necessary to protect communities from gang violence. While Gascón and Rossi assert that they would never pursue the death penalty if elected into office, Lacey maintains that it may be necessary in extreme cases. While Gascón and Rossi desire stricter legislation to curb officers’ lethal use of force, Lacey supports the current law, which states that lethal force can be used only when necessary and is hesitant about further restrictions.
The candidates clashed on the topics of mental health and race. Gascón drew applause when he decried the LA District Attorney’s allocation of resources.
GASCÓN: THE LA DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE ACTUALLY SPENDS MORE MONEY ON OFFICE SUPPLY THAN THEY DO ON THEIR MENTAL HEALTH TEAM.
Gascón underscored his point by criticizing Jackie Lacey’s mental health specialist who allegedly has no experience in the mental health field.
Rossi focused on the issue of race, repeatedly stating the statistic that 80 percent of people in LA’s jails are people of color. In response to the racial disparity Lacey said:
LACEY: I’M A BLACK PERSON. I GREW UP IN THIS CITY. AND WHEN I LOOK AT THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO ARE BLACK AND BROWN WHO ARE IN CUSTODY, WE NEED TO LOOK FURTHER BACK DOWN THE ROAD. WE NEED TO LOOK AT INCOME DISPARITIES. AFRICAN AMERICANS HAVE BEEN BEHIND THE EIGHT BALL IN TERMS OF DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH. BY THE TIME IT COMES TO ME, PEOPLE HAVE MADE BAD DECISIONS AND PEOPLE HAVE MADE BAD DECISIONS WHICH REQUIRE THE PROSECUTOR TO RESPOND.
Rossi, bristled at Lacey’s remarks, later retorting:
ROSSI: IF YOU ARE BLACK IN LA YOU ARE 13 TIMES MORE LIKELY TO BE ARRESTED. AND I REFUSE TO BELIEVE THAT IF YOU ARE BLACK IN LA YOU ARE 13 TIMES MORE LIKELY TO MAKE BAD DECISIONS.”
But the spotlight wasn’t always on policy during the debate; eventually it boiled into a more generalized discussion of the candidates’ ideologies. Gascón attacked Lacey as a “lock-em-up prosecutor” who was only turning more progressive now that it was convenient. Rossi echoed Gascón’s sentiment saying, “We need reform. We need it now.” Lacey shook her head, seemingly flummoxed.”
LACEY: WE’RE ALREADY DOING IT. IT’S AS THOUGH MS. ROSSI AND MR. GASCÓN ARE LIVING ON ANOTHER PLANET. WE’RE ALREADY DOING A LOT OF THE REFORMS THAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.e’re already doing it. It’s as though Ms. Rossi and Mr. Gascón are living on another planet. We’re already doing a lot of the reforms that you’re talking about.
Ultimately, Lacey’s strategy was clearly to undercut the qualifications of her opponents. She called Gascón’s San Francisco DA office “a mess” and said that she hadn’t even heard of Rachel Rossi until the public defender announced she was running for office. Fending off attacks from her challengers and amidst a crescendo of protests Lacey proclaimed,
LACEY: THIS IS NOT A SPOKESPERSON JOB. THIS IS A JOB FOR A REAL LAWYER WHO UNDERSTANDS IN THEIR HEART AND SOUL WHAT A PROSECUTOR IS ABOUT.
Members of the crowd audibly groaned, riled by Lacey’s insinuation that Rossi and Gascón weren’t “real” lawyers. But Lacey forged onwards.
LACEY: THIS IS NOT A JOB WHERE YOU LEARN. THIS IS NOT AN ENTRY LEVEL JOB AND MS. ROSSI IS TRYING TO GET PAY BACK FOR WHAT HAPPENED TO HER CLIENTS. SHE HAS NOT BEEN A PROSECUTOR AND REALLY MR. GASCÓN HAS NOT BEEN A LITIGATOR. THIS IS THE LARGEST OFFICE IN THE COUNTRY RESPONSIBLE FOR 170,000 CASES A YEAR AND WE NEED A PROSECUTOR WHO BELIEVES IN VICTIMS, WHO PROTECTS THE COMMUNITY AND WHO DOES THE RIGHT THING EVEN WHEN PEOPLE ARE YELLING AND SCREAMING AT THEM. YOU HAVE TO HAVE THAT COURAGE AND HAVE THAT STRENGTH.
The small speech elicited a roar of applause from the Lacey supporters in the audience, including a number of prosecutors that I recognized. But the protestors were unbowed and their chants gained a rhythm. Their raw emotion evoked memories of a speech from the first DA debate, one that happened to be given by the woman seated two rows behind me in the black sweatshirt: Helen Jones, the mother of John Horton.
JONES: MY NAME IS HELEN JONES AND MY SON JOHN HORTON WAS BEAT TO DEATH IN 2009 IN MEN’S CENTRAL JAIL. HE WAS BEAT TO DEATH IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. THEY BUST HIS LIVER, THEY BUST HIS KIDNEY, THEY BUST THE MUSCLE IN HIS BACK. THEY HIT JOHN SO HARD IN THE HEAD WITH A FLASHLIGHT THAT THEY LEFT A PRINT OF THE LINES OF THE FLASHLIGHT ON HIS FOREHEAD, A BLOOD CLOT AND A KNOT. HE WAS HIT TWO TIMES ON THE SIDE OF HIS TEMPLE. HE HAD A BIG GASH ON HIS SHOULDER. THEY MESSED UP PART OF HIS PELVIS AND HIS PANCREAS. AND AFTER HE TOOK THIS BEATING, TEN SHERIFF’S DEPUTIES, THAT’S KNOWN AS THE 3000 BOYS GANG ON THE THIRD FLOOR, AND THAT’S A SHERIFF’S GANG.
AFTER THEY BEAT JOHN, THEY THEN TURN AROUND AND SAID HE HUNG HIMSELF. AND NOT ONLY DID THE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT COVER THIS UP, BUT ALSO THE COUNTY CORNER HELPED COVER IT UP TOO. FOR SEVEN LONG MONTHS, I COULDN’T EVEN GET AN AUTOPSY REPORT BECAUSE THEY WAS GIVING ME THE RUN AROUND AND TELLING ME IT WAS GOING TO BE READY HERE. IT WAS GOING TO BE READY THERE. AND IT TOOK ME SEVEN LONG MONTHS WHEN LAWYERS FINALLY GOT INVOLVED FOR THEM TO CHANGE HIS CAUSE OF DEATH FROM SUICIDE TO NOW UNDETERMINED. SUICIDE IS SUICIDE. YOU CAN’T TAKE SUICIDE OFF AND TURN IT TO UNDETERMINED AND THEN DON’T LET NOBODY KNOW THAT Y’ALL CHANGED IT FROM SUICIDE. AND NOW Y’ALL SAYING Y’ALL DON’T KNOW HIS CAUSE OF DEATH. AND THAT’S WHERE HIS DEATH STANDS AT TODAY. AND I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW FROM THE DA’S THAT’S RUNNING TODAY IS: WHEN THIS CASE CAME ACROSS JACKIE LACEY’S DESK, SHE DID NOTHING. IF THIS CASE WOULD HAVE CAME ACROSS YOUR DESK, WHEN IT CAME ACROSS HERS, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE ABOUT IT AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO ABOUT IT TODAY IF YOU BECOME THE DA?
While Lacey believes she has the courage to do the right thing even in the face of yelling, the protestors at the second debate seemed to question her courage when prosecuting members of the law enforcement community. Does she have the courage to stand up to that community or will she falter when her colleagues and supporters are doing the shouting?