The presidential primaries tend to siphon all the oxygen away from local races, many of which have more direct impact on voters than whether such-and-so gets a few more delegates from a state. One vital measure in the arena of criminal and social justice that is being decided today where I live, Los Angeles, has captured national attention thanks in part to the organizer who led the effort to get it on the ballot — Patrisse Cullors, one of the three black women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013.
Cullors wants her native Los Angeles County to vote “Yes” on Measure R, which proposes to ensure that “accountability, transparency, and fairness is brought back to L.A.’s criminal justice system.” In its hearty endorsement of the measure, the Los Angeles Times noted that “Measure R would cement in place two improvements in L.A. County’s justice system that are so smart and so important that they’ve already been largely accomplished: It would significantly strengthen civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, and it would focus county officials on improving psychiatric care, drug treatment and other services for people who we currently send to jail.” However, the editorial board remarked that voters, by passing Measure R, would ensure that Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s department —— recently under scrutiny for deputies sharing graphic photos of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site —— or any future departments could not reverse the progress already made.
“The department is plagued with a pattern of systematic and systemic corruption that is not new to those of us who have been intimately focused on the improprieties of the L.A. County Sheriff,” Cullors wrote in a statement concerning the recent Bryant photo scandal. “Regardless of who is at the helm, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is entrenched in appalling behavior and has a decades-long culture of corruption, violence and misconduct. The institution needs extensive reforms and immediate oversight.”
Along with the opportunity to vote out incumbent district attorney Jackie Lacey, progressive Angelenos have viewed Measure R as a major opportunity to take a quantum leap forward with criminal justice reform in Los Angeles County, which many hope will set an example for other municipalities throughout the nation. The visibility and support granted to the Yes on R effort by celebrities such as Natalie Portman may aid in that effort, particularly if Tuesday’s vote is successful.
Cullors and Portman sat down together with Rolling Stone to discuss the Yes on R effort and its significance to Los Angeles County and beyond. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
ROLLING STONE: Tell me exactly how this initiative got started. What was the genesis of it?
Patrisse Cullors: So, this was really 10 years in the making, 10 years of work from the grassroots level that had been challenging [Los Angeles County] elected officials to invest into community-based services versus incarceration. We first started off as a small grassroots group called No More Jails, organizations like Dignity and Power Now; the organization that I founded here in L.A. was a part of that. And then, we revamped in 2017 as Justice L.A. And from there, Reform L.A. Jails was actually built out of Justice L.A., and we built a ballot committee. First time I have ever done a ballot measure.
What was that process like?
Cullors: First of all, it’s a lot of money. It takes a lot of money to get something on the ballot. It makes sense why people who are wealthy are the ones who can change laws and are in control of laws.
And so, that was the first thing I realized: you have to hire a signature gathering company to gather loads of signatures, especially in a place like Los Angeles. The process of getting something on the ballot is, you have to get at least a percentage of Los Angeles voters based off of the number of who voted in the last election. So, you have to get a percentage of those valid voters, you have to go and get all the signatures, and our signature gathering, we had to gather at least 143,000. You always want to gather a little bit more just in case they’re not valid signatures.
Now, Natalie, how did you come into this issue? How did it strike you? How did you personally come to know about it?
Natalie Portman: I got involved, really, through my involvement in Time’s Up. I’d been thinking about how women are most affected by sexual violence and started learning about women in prison. I read Susan Burton’s book [Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women], which brought me to her great work in L.A. with women’s reentry programs. And the vast majority of incarcerated women have suffered sexual violence — and the vast majority of men, as well. And I started learning more about incarceration and realized how ignorant I was. I mean, it’s the exact definition of privilege, that it was something I was completely unaware of. It did not affect my community at all growing up. It was something out of sight.
It’s all devastating, but for the mentally ill population, it’s particularly… It’s just nobody looks at it and comes away thinking, “Oh, that’s how it should be.” And the people who work there come to you and they say, “Help.” They’re saying things like, “We’re not equipped for this. These people need different help than what we’re able to give, but yet we’re being tasked with taking care of them and we’re not capable of it.” The system is broken. People who are in charge of the system are aware that it’s broken.
It’s really extreme. And it’s the largest prison in the world, in L.A. County. And I mean, it’s people handcuffed to tables in cages. It’s really not possible. And the only way that it’s allowed is because nobody’s seeing it. Sorry. [Portman tears up.]
No, no, no. I can understand why you get emotional about it. I mean, this is an unsustainable system.
Portman: As soon as I started visiting, I said I need to be involved. I was lucky enough to meet Patrisse through [fellow actor and activist] America Ferrera, another person who I knew through Time’s Up. And I was just so in awe of Patrisse’s obvious leadership and intellect and work.
I know that the County Sheriffs have already started some reforms, but this measure would, I guess, really just formalize those reforms, make it so that they wouldn’t be reversible.
Cullors: That’s exactly right.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what else it would do?
Cullors: Sure. Measure R is tasked with doing two things. It’s tasked with providing legal powers to our civilian oversight commission, powers that it didn’t get when the community fought for it to be in existence. We said the only way a civilian oversight commission can actually do its job as if it has the power to investigate and has the power to legally call forth documents and officers. So this measure will give our civilian oversight commission subpoena power and other investigative powers to track and also stop harm that’s happening at the hands of the County Sheriffs.
Number two, our civilian oversight commission is going to be tasked with developing a feasibility plan, one that will look at cost savings — what is it going to take to actually decarcerate our jails from people with mental illness, drug dependency, and chronic homelessness, and what are the cost savings to then put those dollars into community based services?
How would a Yes on R vote actually decrease mass incarceration?
Cullors: At this point, there has been such pressure at the local level for the county to change, that what we know and understand is that many of the county officials are waiting on this measure so that they can say, “Listen, the people of Los Angeles want us to change the way that we’re dealing with incarceration in this county.” We have created enough pressure. That’s why if this law was just something that a bunch of policy wonks did that was divorced from the community, I don’t think it would get that far. The law is powerful because the people are powerful, and the people are the ones that put this on the ballot and I think that’s really, really critical for people to understand.
It’s like the Voting Rights Movement happened, and sure, the national government could have changed voting rights —— but it was the pressure of the people, black people in particular, challenging the suppression of voting rights that actually transformed the country and its relationship to black people. This measure is transforming the county’s relationship to people who are incarcerated and the people who are loved by people who are incarcerated.
Black Lives Matter has always been focused on mass incarceration, reforming jails. Was this just part of a greater effort?
Cullors: Yeah. I think it’s always hard to separate between like what is me and what is the work. So much of the work is deeply personal for me. The local work in particular has so much to do with what I witnessed growing up in Los Angeles, being in a community that was over incarcerated, a community that was over-policed.
And then, there is my older brother, who is 40 now — I’m going to be 37 this year — he spent much of his life in and out of prison. We recognized, later on, that he was criminalized for his mental illness. And so, this is why Reform L.A. Jails speaks to both the brutality that happens inside the County jails by the Sheriff’s Department, but also the mental health crisis. It was really important that we made that connection.
What did you see when you went on these visits to see incarcerated women, men, and children? And what did you recognize as the most urgent problems to be addressed?
Portman: I was shocked by so many things, unfortunately. First of all, to see juveniles incarcerated. I mean, we’re the only developed nation in the world that does that, and then, many of them end up in the system their entire lives. That’s deeply, deeply disturbing and something I was not aware of. To see the overcrowding, particularly in the jails. And those spaces are not created for long-term stay —— so there’s no outdoor space, no exposure to the outdoors. And some people ended up there for years. And if people have preexisting mental illness, addiction, I mean, it just feels like the least conducive place to getting better.
Right. It’s not about rehabilitation.
Portman: It’s not at all. It’s not at all.
And also, to understand the enormous cost of incarceration in those bad conditions…for that amount of money, you could keep putting people in the fanciest mental rehab. It’s so weird because you keep being like, “Oh, is this like a cost thing?” And then you’re like, “No.” When you understand how expensive it is, it’s like you could be putting these people with the nicest rehab: arts, outdoor, nature, environment.
It’s just so clearly punitive and not rehabilitative, and just like 10 minutes from where I get my fancy coffee. It hurts your stomach going [to the jail] and coming back, [saying], “Oh, everyone’s living their privileged life next door to where people are being tortured.”
Say you have success on Tuesday. Is a similar remedy to address issues within the Los Angeles Police Department?
Cullors: Yes. I think you’re asking a really good question around if Measure R is passed and when measure R is passed, how does it set the precedent for other local law enforcement across the country? I think what’s most important is that Measure R, comes out of community organizing, and that we’ve built a local movement that will impact the national landscape and is already impacting the national landscape. For example, I was in Bakersfield last month, and the sheriff there, that’s the sheriff who said, “It’s cheaper to let someone die.” If you remember that viral video, “It’s cheaper to let someone die that they’ve harmed, than to give them help.” That sheriff is also the coroner.
What stands out as one of the more egregious injustices that Yes on R seeks to correct, one that perhaps the press isn’t illuminating?
Cullors: We don’t talk about what happens to a mom when her child is missing in a jail, which is a common factor with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. They would literally, purposefully, move people from jail facility to jail facility after they’ve almost killed them, brutally beaten them, so that the family couldn’t find out, that the family. My brother went missing for almost 60 days after he was brutally beaten in the Sheriff’s Department. What happens to the mother who can’t actually access her child? That’s the most inhumane thing to do to a parent. I can’t even imagine being, now, a mom of a four year old if he went missing, and I knew that a government agency had him.
And I think that is what drives me. It’s the human impact. I think, at the end of the day, we can change the law, and I’m so grateful for the tools [to be] able to change the law. But I’m going back home to my brother, who has severe mental illness, who’s been completely criminalized by the system, and that’s a whole other campaign that I’m fighting.
And so, all that Measure R is doing is giving families the capacity to fight harder and more efficiently for the people that we love so much.
How do you see —— given what you’ve seen in those jails, Natalie, and given what you know about the initiative from working with Patrisse —— how do you see Measure R benefiting all of Los Angeles? And people who don’t live here?
Portman: Well, first of all, it seems that when there’s more fairness everywhere that, hopefully, will benefit everybody.
Ideally, yes. A lot of people, I think, don’t understand that.
Portman: Listen, all of the issues are intersecting homelessness, mental illness, addiction, incarceration, sexual violence, are all intersecting. And so, if you care about homelessness, think about the enormous number of people who are incarcerated here who then are released back into society with not a penny to their name, many of them in debt from the prison system or the jail system. Going on the street, what are their options? The health and wellness and stability of the entire community is based on the health and wellness of every individual in that community.
Luckily, we have a referendum system in our state that allows, like Patrisse was saying, the people to focus attention on what matters most to them, to us. And I think Patrisse is setting an incredible example for measures that people can take to other parts of the country. The activism that’s happening, some of the people who have been working in Louisiana and Texas… everyone’s methods are informing other people how to change the system.
Obviously, there are opponents to this. What are they saying?
Cullors: We have one opponent, and it’s the Sheriff of Los Angeles County [Alex Villanueva]. It’s a very common sense policy, and unfortunately, our Sheriff is not very “common sense.” I will admit it, I vouched for his candidacy.
A lot of people did.
Cullors: Exactly. I really did. I was supportive of him, and he just conned us all. Literally. I wrote a [Los Angeles] Daily News article that said the Sheriff of L.A. County conned us all. And it’s unfortunate because I’m not actually a person who leads with skepticism. I’m not. I’ve obviously grown up where I’ve had to sort of grow that muscle in me. I really wanted to believe in him.
I wanted a new Sheriff. I thought the last one [Jim McDonnell] did a poor job when it came to his relationship with the community. He eventually iced us all out. This Sheriff talked a really good progressive game, and he’s failed miserably and he sounds often like Trump. He’s very irrational. He doesn’t come with any facts. I mean, he actually tweeted out, and then later deleted his tweet, that he was against Measure R and said a bunch of things that were not grounded in any facts. That’s why he had to delete his tweet. First of all, you can’t actually be up against a measure. He was in full on Sheriff outfit, and he was talking about it on Twitter.
Cullors: And so, just really, he’s our single opponent, and he is saying that the measure is unnecessary, that it’s going to cost the county millions of dollars in lawsuits. Once that first subpoena happens from the civilian oversight commission, they will be suing us, and we have to be prepared for that. The organizing aspect of this, to me, is the most important because we’ve organized a local political movement around what accountability can look like for the Sheriff’s department around what adequate mental health care and treatment could look like for the rest of Los Angeles. On March 3rd, we win. On March 4th, we keep fighting.