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Full accounting of weapons and apologies received: Strategy Center declares victory over LAUSD militarization

Mike Szymanski | May 26, 2016

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The Strategy Center’s Fight for the Soul of the Cities at a protest outside LAUSD headquarters.

A vocal and sometimes disruptive group of mostly student activists declared victory this week over federal weaponry being used by LA Unified police. The group received letters of explanation and apologies from two board members and the school police chief.

The Labor/Community Strategy Center’s Fight for the Soul of the Cities, a nonprofit civil rights group, received a complete accounting of the 61 rifles, three grenade launchers and a mini-tank the district received through the Department of Defense 1033 Program that allowed local governmental agencies to acquire the surplus military equipment for free. The Strategy Center has protested the district‘s possession of them for 18 months.

Strategy Center’s Eric Mann said this is the first time in the nation that a social movement forced a police department to return all the military-grade weapons.

“This happened because it grew out of concern by the young people of South LA, Boyle Heights and Mar Vista Garden,” Mann said. “It is an important breakthrough secured by the participation of hundreds of young people, teachers, parents and community residents who ushered this victory.”

Citing in his letter such violent episodes as the 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery, the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and even the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York, LA Unified police chief Steven Zipperman explained that he thought his 400-person school force needed to “become better equipped and better prepared to protect students, staff, administrators and the school community as a whole against an armed encounter, attack or mass shooting incident in our schools.”

Manuel Criollo with students

Manuel Criollo with students at a protest.

The need for the mini-tank, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, was necessary after Sandy Hook when he “recognized a need for an armored rescue response vehicle,” he wrote. Those cost up to $250,000 and of course are not in the school district’s budget, so he got it through the 1033 program.

“The vehicle was never deployed nor driven to any LAUSD school or incident,” Zipperman noted, and it was relinquished in November 2014 after nine months. He provided a detailed list of the weapons and when they were disposed of in his letter.

The police chief noted the sensitivity of having “military-like” equipment and a military presence within a civilian setting and wrote: “The LASPD regrets that not recognizing this aspect of your group’s philosophical stance may have strained our relationship with the Labor-Strategy Center and various members of the school community.”

Originally, the Strategy team called for the reduction of the police force by 50 percent, as well as a list of other demands, and in February caused the delay of a Committee of the Whole meeting attended by the school board members.

School board member George McKenna, who chaired that committee, said he “respected the rights of organizations to peaceably assemble and protest, and we look forward to continuing our important work with all community groups on the many issues of civil rights, immigrant rights and education equity that affect the lives of our children and families every day.”

In another letter to the Strategy Center this week, school board President Steve Zimmer, who met with the team a few weeks ago, said, “Our recent meeting and dialogue has led me to review my actions as Board President during this difficult period. Upon reflection, I failed to understand the amount of pain and frustration our participation in the 1033 program could cause in the community and especially with our partners from the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the Fight for the Soul of the Cities. The campaigns have been such important allies in our effort to transform school climate throughout LAUSD.”

Zimmer acknowledged, “I regret that I did not listen carefully enough to our student activists or to activists who have been struggling against systemic racism in many forms for years. I now understand that especially in the context of the many conflicts between law enforcement and communities of color across the nation, our participation in this program may have created perceptions about the role of our district and our school police that my silence exacerbated.”

Zimmer insisted that the weapons were never intended for use other than in training but added, “I now understand that even the possession of such weapons in the context of this moment damaged trust that we now must all work to rebuild.”

Meanwhile, three dozen civic groups including ACLU, UTLA and school charter organizations have sent a letter to Zimmer and district officials calling for an end to the use of random metal detector searches on campuses. Zimmer had no immediate comment about the call for a meeting by Pastor Mike Cummings from We Care Outreach Ministries and other community leaders.

The apology letters from Zimmer and Zipperman about the 1033 Program came after an April letter from board member Monica Garcia, who also apologized for the school district’s involvement in the federal weapons program.

Students were organized at Roosevelt and Augustus Hawkins high schools and came from throughout the district, said Center Strategy organizer Manuel Criollo. He said, “This campaign is dedicated to the black freedom movement in Ferguson and beyond because Strategy Center was moved by the dedicated activists, organizers and everyday people who stood up to the Ferguson police and its 1033 Program war machinery after the shooting of Mike Brown, which has lit a beacon of hope and struggle.”

And they don’t plan to march on the school district anymore. At least for now.

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