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Black Lives Matter Activists Push To Vote Out Los Angeles Prosecutor

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Black Lives Matter activists are trying to pull together a daunting feat in next month's elections. They're trying to vote out the county's district attorney who has come under pressure for what activists call a lack of police accountability. And many see this race as a test on whether the energy from this summer's protests for racial justice can be channeled into the ballot box. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Outside the district attorney's office in downtown LA, Black Lives Matter activists unfurled a scroll half a block long. It was inscribed with the names of hundreds of people killed by LA police or sheriffs in the eight years since LA County's top prosecutor, Jackie Lacey, took office.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Jackie Lacey must go.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Jackie Lacey must go.

FLORIDO: Police accountability has become a top issue for Black Lives Matter activists across the country. In Los Angeles, BLM activists have made it the top issue in the race for district attorney. Their message - that Jackie Lacey does not hold police who kill accountable, having prosecuted only one in her eight years in office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH WILLIAMS: No people have ever voted their way to freedom or to liberation.

FLORIDO: Joseph Williams is a local BLM organizer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: But we also know that during this time, we have the opportunity to do the most concrete thing in our power to make sure that Jackie Lacey is not still our district attorney next year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's right.

FLORIDO: Among those in the crowd was Rahad Coulter-Stevenson, an actor. He started coming to these rallies after Minnesota police killed George Floyd in May. He said they've made him more engaged in local politics.

RAHAD COULTER-STEVENSON: I see how important it is to know who the DA is and, like, what their record is and what they've been doing and holding them accountable.

FLORIDO: Melina Abdullah is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter LA chapter. She says organizing some of BLM's supporters to vote has taken work. Many of the movement's young, progressive core activists are disillusioned with their options for the White House.

MELINA ABDULLAH: But it's important that we be aware of everything that's on the ballot. And the role of the district attorney is huge.

FLORIDO: The district attorney decides whether to prosecute police, she tells people, and how aggressively to go after low-level offenders. When she puts it that way, she says...

ABDULLAH: We are met with much less resistance. And in fact, a lot of our younger and more radical organizers are enthusiastic about going to the ballot box, even if it's only to vote her out.

FLORIDO: A spokesman for Lacey declined an interview request. But in a recent debate with her challenger, Lacey defended her record on police accountability.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKIE LACEY: I am fair. I do prosecute law enforcement officers. On the other hand, I don't demonize them. I don't prosecute them for political reasons. And I think it's important for people to remember that, that the LA County District Attorney's Office has never looked the other way. We do, in fact, look at these cases. But they're challenging. They're difficult.

FLORIDO: Her challenger is the former district attorney of San Francisco, George Gascon. He's running as a progressive reformer and has promised to reopen closed cases of police killings. In recent weeks, the persistence of BLM activists has paid off for them. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti withdrew his support for Lacey and endorsed Gascon. Lacey's also lost support from many of the county's top Black leaders. University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour says that is significant because Lacey is Black and has often made her race central in her campaigns.

JODY ARMOUR: But her strongest critics are also Black women. And so there's growing understanding that representational politics alone are not enough.

FLORIDO: BLM's campaign against Lacey has at times grown tense. In March, her husband pointed a gun at protesters outside the Laceys' home, prompting a lawsuit. Professor Armour says unseating the leader of the nation's largest local prosecutor's office will be no easy feat. But he said if BLM's campaign succeeds, it'll be a clear affirmation of the influence of this summer's racial justice movement.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.