‘Open Season on Hatred’: DA Jackie Lacey Discusses Riots in LA Orthodox Community

riots jewish community los angeles
Graffiti on the Jewish Learning Exchange.

As violent anti-police protests rocked the nation, one of the first targets of rioters was Los Angeles’ Fairfax district, home to the city’s largest and best-known Jewish community. What began as a peaceful protest in nearby Pan Pacific Park on the second day of Shavuos, which fell on Shabbos, ended with the vandalism of shuls and Jewish schools and the looting of many Jewish-owned businesses.

The plethora of anti-Semitic messages daubed on community institutions led some to believe that some of the organizers from groups like Black Lives Matter and Antifa directed the looting and possibly chose the protest location with the nearby Jewish community as an intended target.

As protests still raged in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the city’s District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, spoke with Hamodia to address questions that have arisen since the riots in Fairfax last week, as well as to speak to the lawlessness still shaking America.

Why do you feel the Jewish community ended up being the target of Saturday’s violence? Do you feel they just happened to be the nearest target, or was there something else at play?

I think the way I would express it is this: The peaceful protests, I think, are something we all agree should happen. The murder of George Floyd as well as a series of other homicides or deaths of blacks in police custody is something that has been with us for some time, and it doesn’t seem to be getting that much better. Absolutely there should be peaceful protests.

What is happening is that there is a criminal element that is using this. Law enforcement resources are diverted, taking care of a peaceful protest, and they are taking advantage of that. It’s almost like open season on hatred and on criminal activity, and that is what I think has happened.

Unfortunately it hijacks the message. Really the message of these people protesting is that everyone should be treated like a human being. That no one should be murdered or treated poorly because of the color of their skin, or ethnicity, or religion, or gender. That really is their universal message, which is important to American values. But I just feel there are some people who have taken advantage of the unrest, who feel since this is happening,everybody who has a grievance, everybody who’s angry, and some people who just want to steal and loot are saying, “OK, nobody is really going to do anything right now. The police are tied up, now is the time to get out there.”

Were you involved in discussions as to whether Pan Pacific Park was an appropriate location for the protest, and do you know if the location’s proximity to the Jewish community and the risks that posed were part of the considerations the city made?

No [I was not involved in the discussions], and I really don’t know. I only found out about it when I got a text from a friend who was driving by and said there’s a protest. I looked back at the text [and it said], “There are people gathering in Pan Pacific Park.” I had no idea that was going to turn into a protest. I certainly had no idea of all the other bad things that were going to happen afterwards.

In retrospect, do you feel the protest’s organizers chose the location due to its proximity to the Fairfax Jewish community?

I would only be speculating. I’m 63 years old. And that means I was a kid during the ’60s when the protests happened in Watts. I was a newer prosecutor when the Rodney King riots happened. [During the King riots] I was working near Pacoima where a lot of the riots happened, but I noticed that a lot of the damage was in the predominantly African-American areas. This seems a lot different in that it seems like those areas are almost untouched, and that there is a conscious decision by looters to avoid those areas. I have no inside intel, but that’s what it looks like from the pattern, to avoid African-American and Latino communities and to go into areas where there’s a more diversified group of people.

Do you feel granting them the permit to use the park was a mistake, due to its proximity to Fairfax?

riots jewish community los angeles
A shattered window at a Jewish-owned store. (Joey Brecher)

No. Pan Pacific Park is a beautiful place. We have to remember not to lump in the bad people with the good people. In my opinion, the city does not have a choice as to where to allow a protest, per se. If someone says they want to do it in one park versus another, they would be infringing [on] their First Amendment rights to tell them to go to this park or that park. It’s all a matter of trying to have the foresight to assess security risks and there was nothing the city knew beforehand that could [have helped] them foresee what was going to happen in the Fairfax district, otherwise you would have had a huge police and military presence, right? It was spontaneous the way this sprung up, so I would be hesitant to fault the city [or to criticize] if they issued a license for people to protest.

What is your office’s view of how the protest descended into rioting and looting of Fairfax, and what was the role of Black Lives Matter, Antifa and/or other quasi-organized groups in instigating these acts?

I don’t have any intel that Black Lives Matter as an organization instigated the violence, and I wouldn’t pin that on them without any kind of evidence. I think that when you have a large group you are always going to have a criminal element that infiltrates that gathering and that tries to take advantage of people. That is what is scary about a mob. When you think about a mob, you think of fringe people, of lawlessness and the potential for violence.

I think we really need to be disciplined with our tongue with this one. Condemn the violence, support First Amendment rights and protest. But any bad act, we are going to hold the individual accountable. That is what we do at the DA’s office. So, for instance, in those cases where the police were able to make arrests — people have video cameras everywhere — the police are going to be able to identify a lot of the people who perpetrated this destruction on our city. Those people are going to be arrested and the cases will come to our office. We’ll look at the charges and we’ll look at the motivations. If in fact this was motivated by hatred of Jewish people, we will file it as a hate crime and will prosecute it as one, because that’s what the law permits.

How do you think the information that has been gleaned about the anti-Semitic nature of some of the crimes will affect the DA’s work, as perpetrators make their way through the justice system?

There is a lot of work to be done. [The police] have not brought us a lot of cases yet, because, guess what, they’re out in the streets. That’s where you want them, you don’t want a shortage of police because they had to bring in paperwork; that’s not acceptable. But once the city gets under control, LAPD will bring in those cases to the DA’s office and we will evaluate them. We have a really good team.

Most of these cases will go to what’s called the Airport Courthouse. I have an excellent head deputy there, Steven Katz, and assistant head deputy, Danette Meyers; between the two of them they probably have 100 years’ worth of experience, and I know them well enough that they will evaluate and see that [the cases] are expediently filed. They will contact victims, make sure restitution that is available for some of the vandalism that we saw happen is made available, and they are going to be handled professionally and well.

How does the designation of “hate crime” specifically affect how cases will be handled, and how will your office determine which cases are deserving of this designation?

There is an enhancement if a case is filed as a hate crime. There’s usually more custody time. So what we’ll look at is evidence that crime was motivated by hatred of one group or of a particular group of people. So, of course you look at the words that were used. If words that were spray-painted could be argued to be concretely anti-Semitic, or hatred expressed toward Israel, then you have the evidence.

My goal now, because so many cases will be coming into the office, I want to make sure it does not get lost among all the vandalism and looting cases. I have already sent emails to my team that supervises the Airport Courthouse to say, “Heads up, look out for this.”

Multiple witnesses and retailers affected by the rioting told Hamodia and other news outlets that LAPD did next to nothing to stop the violence or to protect businesses, leaving store owners with little option but to do what they could to chase away rioters and try to take back stolen goods themselves. What is your comment on those accounts?

I have heard [LAPD] Chief [Michael] Moore speak and I really believe they did the best they could. They were between a rock and hard place. This whole protest is about police brutality. Excessive force and people dying at the hands of police. Now here they are — they have a choice between saving and protecting people’s lives, making sure that no one gets hurt. Remember in 1989 and back in the ’60s people got killed at the riots. The police had a choice to make to protect life versus property. When there was serious damage to property, or property got set on fire, they did what they could. But just step back for a minute and imagine, if they had pulled out batons or started shooting the looters, or any kind of heavy-handed tactics, the media would have fried them. They would have fried them and said, “Look, this is how [the police] are.”

Given the emergency and what was going on at the time, I would not say they did not do anything. Our work is not over yet. I have said there is a lot of video evidence and they will be using it to go back and to get some of the folks that were responsible.

I want to reiterate, make sure your readers understand, if you were victimized or anything of that nature, please preserve any tape and check with neighboring businesses, even across the street — you’d be surprised what these cameras can pick up. Check with them right away, because digital stuff can get erased after a couple of weeks. Get that footage to your local police as soon as possible.

Many public officials have been legitimizing the cause of protesters, while calling for an end to violence. Others feel that no discussion of the issue can move forward until violence stops. What do you see as a path towards restoring order on America’s streets?

My Dad was the most influential person in my life. He was not educated, but I have this memory of him reading a lot of books by Dr. Martin Luther King. I have a book that he left when he died called, Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community. My Dad circled a passage that I think is so relevant; it says, “Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations.”

It’s so true. Although people think that violence will change the hearts and minds of people, I beg to differ. Organized protests appeal to people’s conscience and encourage people to sit down and take a look at the issues and to take a look at their own conscience and ask themselves, “What can I do to make this better? Am I guilty of this kind of bias when I look at someone who looks different than me, and what can we do to sit down and [work] together?”

As the first African-American woman elected to this position, I am keenly aware that particularly in my own community, people expect a lot from me and I accept that. But unless we are willing to sit down and listen to each other and work towards progress, it will feel like we are no better than we were 50 years ago. n

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‘A Real Mentsch’: LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s relationship with the city’s Orthodox community

Jackie Lacey, 63, worked her way up through Los Angeles’ prosecutor’s office, handling some of the county’s highest-profile crimes. In 2012 she ran for and won the seat of Attorney General, making her both the first woman and the first black person to occupy the post. Since then, she has led what is the nation’s largest prosecutorial office, overseeing some 1,000 lawyers, 300 investigators, and 800 other staff members.

In her tenure, Mrs. Lacey has gained a reputation as a rigorous advocate of “law and order,” while simultaneously endorsing and initiating efforts toward criminal justice reform.

Since assuming her role as DA, she has worked closely with Los Angeles’ Orthodox community on a range of issues, largely focused on security challenges and anti-Semitism.

Activists say that they have found her to be one of the most responsive voices in the city to the needs and concerns of their community as it continues to face rising challenges.

“We’ve reached out to her on a number of issues and had several meetings between her and Orthodox leadership. Whenever we’ve needed her, the DA has given us an open door and been both available and responsive to our needs,” said Dr. Irving Lebovics, chairman of Agudath Israel of America’s California division.

When an online provocateur decided to make Los Angeles’ Orthodox community fodder for one of its “exposés,” the DA played an active role in working with organizational leaders to work on an effective way of protecting its citizens and institutions from becoming a target.

“This person was terrorizing the day schools and shuls, so we reached out to the DA to brainstorm about what we could do about it. She put us in touch with her own staff and others in the city who could help, and we worked out an approach,” said attorney and activist Gary Apfel.

Mrs. Lacey’s initial professional interactions with the Orthodox community were in meetings with the Aleph Institute, a Chabad organization that services the needs of Jewish convicts, and advocates for criminal justice reform. Among the policy goals that the DA and Mr. Apfel, who has long been associated with Aleph, share is a desire to fight the trend of prisons being used as government’s last resort for the mentally ill, and to work harder at finding ways to deal effectively with the clinical needs of this population.

Mr. Apfel said that while initially unaware of the anti-Semitic nature of many of the attacks in Fairfax during the recent rioting, once contacted, Mrs. Lacey was quick to see to it that her attorneys focus on the potential role bias played in the vandalism and looting.

“Not long after we reached out to her about what happened in Fairfax, she let us know that she assigned one of the top hate-crime experts in her office to investigate the crimes perpetrated on the Jewish community, which shows that it’s a priority to her,” said Mr. Apfel. “She’s a real mentsch, and on multiple occasions has personally involved herself when she thought she could help our community, and I have confidence that she will do her utmost to see that justice is served here as well.”