What’s happening in Los Angeles right now is practically biblical—but except for the plague part, our problems are the work of man. This spring and summer alone, the county has been rocked by devastating unemployment, especially among its Black and Latino populations, and briefly occupied by the national guard. Last month, the L.A. homeless services authority released a new homeless count from data gathered in January, showing that the number of unhoused people in L.A. County has grown to, at minimum, 66,000—a city within a city, and one whose population has undoubtedly only increased since the pandemic hit. Meanwhile, Covid-19 cases are mounting rapidly. And lest you forget: the biggest county in the United States is effectively controlled by two organized law enforcement gangs that treat its civilians as enemy combatants. In the past 20 years, the LAPD and LASD have killed almost 900 people; they have been held accountable for these killings exactly twice.
So who’s running the show here? L.A. politics is a strange game. The council reflects the city’s heterogeneity: Members grew up in Boyle Heights and South Central and immigrated from Seoul and Zacatecas. The council is officially nonpartisan, but 14 of its members are registered Democrats; one is a former Republican who recently re-registered as an independent because, well, it’s pretty impossible to win a city election as a known Republican in L.A. The 24 State Assembly members who represent L.A. County are overwhelmingly Democratic; the group includes members of the county’s Black, Japanese-American, Latino, and Armenian communities. The mayor, also a Democrat, speaks Spanish and antagonizes Trump at every turn.
A liberal utopia for the 21st century, you say? Despite this veneer of diversity, the region’s politicians are fundamentally beholden to much older power structures: the police union, the real estate market, and the white, suburban owning class. Every city council member and nearly every assembly member takes money from the L.A. Police Protective League. On June 23, council member José Huizar was arrested by the FBI for his involvement in a particularly egregious pay-to-play scheme that may well incriminate other sitting council members. The liberal mayor is dead set on bringing the Olympics to L.A. in 2028, even though it’s well documented that the city’s last Olympics, in 1984, turbocharged mass incarceration and the militarization of local police.
2020 is the first year that local races line up with national ones in L.A., which means that turnout will be high. Nithya Raman and Fatima Shahnaz Iqbal-Zubair are betting on it. Both women are progressive first-time candidates hoping to change the political game in Los Angeles County. Iqbal-Zubair is running for State Assembly in California’s 64th district, aiming to represent 466,000 residents in Watts, Carson, Compton, and Wilmington. And Raman is running for L.A. City Council in District 4, a sprawling and oddly-shaped terrain that encompasses Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and parts of Koreatown and the San Fernando Valley.
Both women’s campaigns are underdog grassroots affairs, endorsed by Sunrise Movement L.A. and recommended by the DSA L.A.’s primary guide. Both candidates are organizers at heart, aiming to be a conduit between the activist community and the political class. And both are running against corporate Democrats: incumbents who brand themselves as progressive, touting their endorsements from labor unions, women’s rights organizations, and other elected officials, but take tens of thousands in donations from police and the major special interests in their districts.
Both candidates made it through the primary: Raman barely trailing Ryu, Iqbal-Zubair lagging farther behind Gipson, though California’s unconventional top-two primary system means that Iqbal-Zubair can stay on the Democratic ticket and take her fight against her opponent all the way to the general election. Raman’s and Iqbal-Zubair’s greatest strength is their ground game, which has been completely disrupted by the pandemic—but the social upheaval resulting from mass unemployment and the recent uprising against police violence may just help their case.
When we spoke in early June, Raman had just brought her young twins to a march around the Silver Lake Reservoir in memory of George Floyd. She seemed sobered by the experience, measuring her words and choosing each one carefully. “Our local government has a lot of power to move our city towards greater justice, towards greater sustainability, towards the values that you and I hold,” she said, “and yet, they have chosen over and over again not to use those powers.”
An urban planner by trade, Raman has an astonishing breadth of work experience: She founded Transparent Chennai, an organization that uses data to advocate for people living in the slums; started a grassroots homeless outreach organization in LA; and worked with women’s groups from the Penn Thozhilalar Sangam (Women Workers’ Committee) to Time’s Up Entertainment. In 2014, in the course of doing research for a report for the City Administrative Officer of Los Angeles, she discovered the extent of L.A.’s homelessness crisis and how erroneously the city was handling it.
“The report found that the city was actually spending over $100 million on homelessness at that time,” Raman told me. Most of this wasn’t even considered a “homelessness expenditure,” she explained, because the resources directed at the unhoused community were so ineffective that librarians and park rangers ended up acting as de-facto homelessness services providers. And the worst part: “I found that at least 87 million of that money was going towards putting homeless [people] into jail”—in other words, to the LAPD. Moreover, the city was trying to concentrate its homeless resources downtown, hoping that it could sequester its unhoused population in Skid Row. In reality, of course, this meant that unhoused residents who chose to make their home elsewhere in the city were left high and dry.
In 2017, Raman co-founded a neighborhood coalition on homelessness, SELAH, to do outreach to the unhoused community in areas like Silverlake and Los Feliz: prosperous neighborhoods where homeless people are generally met with indifference or habitual police sweeps. The message undergirding her campaign is simple: You can’t claim to care about housing and homelessness while taking money hand over fist from luxury developers and giving the police free rein to criminalize unhoused people. Raman said that this contradiction was resonating with the district’s wealthier residents as well as its young progressives. “That inequality” —the disconnect between luxury condos being slapped up on every corner and the growing number of Angelenos sleeping on the streets below—“is impossible to ignore,” she told me. “And I don’t think it’s about ideology, I don’t think it’s about left versus right, at all. It’s really about: ‘Is this working for you?’”
David Ryu, Raman’s opponent, is not one of the worst people on the L.A. City Council. He isn’t currently in federal custody. He doesn’t wear his old LAPD uniform to council meetings. To my knowledge, he has never placed a dream catcher on his council podium and spoken of his Native heritage to pay lip service to Black Lives Matter while routinely authorizing brutal police sweeps of homeless encampments. (The bar, as you can see, is low.)
And yet, Ryu remains emblematic of the death grip that business and the real estate industry has on the city’s politicians. Despite vocally pledging to eschew contributions from developers, he used loopholes to keep taking their cash. Last year, he proposed a set of reforms that the California Clean Money Campaign and others called “worse than not passing anything at all.” In Raman’s eyes, this hypocrisy is particularly damning.
“David Ryu has made a name for himself by calling out City Hall’s culture of corruption, while benefiting from this culture himself,” she told me later, over email. Ryu owns rental property, but won’t recuse himself on council votes involving tenants’ rights. In late 2019, Knock LA reported that the mother of the L.A. 2028 Chairman for the Olympic bid donated to Ryu in the months before a scheduled City Council vote on the matter. He ultimately voted in favor of hosting the Olympics in L.A., which at the very least has the appearance of impropriety. And the council member has failed to address housing costs in his district, dragging his feet on affordable housing construction even as homelessness in the district jumped 53 percent last year. (Ryu did not return a request for comment for this article.)
There are just 15 members on L.A.’s council, which means that each member represents at least 250,000 constituents—a tremendous amount of power. So if Raman wins, she just might have the capacity to transform her district: creating robust neighborhood associations and community access centers, opening up her council office to act as a hub for residents, and treating unhoused residents as neighbors and constituents rather than undesirables. Raman is fighting for codified sanctuary city status, a housing guarantee, and a just transition to 100 percent clean and renewable energy for California by 2030. She has detailed policy plans on revising planning codes, bringing back single room occupancy housing, and changing the county’s water usage.
Making these ideas a reality would inarguably represent a seismic rupture from the City Council’s present priorities. Raman is a rare candidate, as capable of holding a room as she is ready to discuss the boring bureaucratic details of how many times various city council planning commissions met last year (Immigration? Four. Planning and land use? 35). But can she alone hope to sway a council that has historically voted unanimously on nearly every bill?
Raman’s response: She won’t be alone. The people of Los Angeles will be fighting with her. Normally, I’m disinclined to be too hopeful about the people’s capacity for sustained involvement in local politics. But after witnessing the events of the past month, I’m starting to feel differently.
As a high school science teacher at Jordan High School in Watts, a historically Black neighborhood in South L.A., Fatima Iqbal-Zubair saw daily the impact of disinvestment and state neglect in L.A.’s Black and Latino communities. “That’s the first thing I noticed,” she told me. “The inequity.” High school sophomores were coming in with a third-grade reading level. Many students were undocumented; others were homeless. The school itself was built with environmentally hazardous materials, and students didn’t have clean drinking water at home.
Anyone who’s ever driven through District 64 can tell you that it’s polluted. L.A. smog is bad everywhere, but the air quality gets noticeably worse the farther south you go. Oil wells abound. Over a quarter of the state’s refineries lie in Iqbal-Zubair’s district alone. Remember the nightmare oil refineries from the beginning of the original Blade Runner? That’s what Carson, a city in the district, looks like in 2020. The Marathon, the largest refinery in the U.S., is festooned with a gigantic American flag, life being more dystopian than fiction. A few months ago, it exploded.
A Muslim immigrant from Dubai who wears a hijab, Iqbal-Zubair is no stranger to feelings of otherness in the U.S. “At Bernie rallies people would say ‘Ilhan Omar! Ilhan Omar!’ to me,” she said, which felt tokenizing, especially coming from other progressives. (“You know, you wouldn’t like it if someone called you some random white woman’s name!” she laughed. Was this a sly Karen reference? Hard to say.) If elected, Iqbal-Zubair would be the first Muslim person to sit in the California State Legislature. Still, she is quick to acknowledge that her background is very different from those of the young people she taught in Watts. “My experience isn’t the same as what my students went through,” she told me. “There’s more historical trauma there, more systemic trauma.”
“There were people in Watts organizing for good schools, organizing for clean air and environmental justice for decades,” Iqbal-Zubair added. “People have been ‘woke’ long before Bernie, people have been organizing, but their voices were not heard in the media. It’s not a sexy news story….and that’s what got me angry, that they’ve almost given up engaging with local officials and they’re just organizing on their own now. And they make these small changes.” But the big changes remain stubbornly elusive.
That’s not because activists aren’t working hard enough. It’s because the deck is stacked against them by their own representatives.
During Iqbal-Zubair’s years teaching in Watts, she began doing environmental organizing work in the community. In 2019, she became the education commissioner for District 64’s Assemblyman Mike Gipson. Going in, Iqbal-Zubair didn’t know much about Gipson’s record. He seemed decent: a Black Democrat who was born in Watts a year after the 1965 uprising and had been in elected office for decades, serving as a council member in Carson before his ascendance to the assembly. Hoping to use her new post to expand on her community advocacy work, Iqbal-Zubair said she quickly realized that the education commissioner position was “a very superficial and honorary role” rather than an opportunity to make change.
When I reached out to Gipson for comment, he responded: “We worked tirelessly on education issues and fought for policies to transform our education system” and claimed that Iqbal-Zubair failed to show up for a single meeting as commissioner. Iqbal-Zubair strongly denies this accusation and provided email and text message evidence to refute it. She told me in addition that when she started asking around about Gipson’s record, she discovered that the Assemblyman was failing to meaningfully address pollution in his district. Since his election to the State Assembly in 2014, he has declined to vote on a number of bills designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, hold crude oil companies to a higher standard of caution and transparency, and make California carbon free by 2045.
Nonetheless, Gipson was adamant in his denial that his votes were not influenced by lobbyists. He said, “I will continue to stand up to the notion that I can be influenced by special interests. Money doesn’t buy me. I have received support from several different entities including labor organizations, Planned Parenthood, and even police unions, but that hasn’t changed my progressive values and has certainly not been reflected in my forward-thinking legislation.” Though it’s commonplace in California for politicians, even those who self-brand as progressive, to take money from an array of special interests, it’s difficult to square Gipson’s central claim here with his frequent “absent” votes on environmental issues, the tens of thousands of dollars he takes from Chevron, Valero, Davita, the trade association California Independent Petroleum Association, and other oil and gas industry players who have significant financial interests in the area, and the district’s notorious pollution.
Iqbal-Zubair told me she felt like Gipson was betraying his own community. In September 2019, she resigned from her post as education commissioner and decided to run against him. It’s a long shot for someone with no flashy connections and no background working with other elected officials, including those decidedly to her right, to enact legislation. And though Fatima has an excellent command of the issues and a strong sense of ethics, that political inexperience shows at times. With four months until the election, her campaign is still getting off the ground—and while she has gotten the support of neighborhood activists and local chapters of progressive organizations, it’s likely that most of her constituents in District 64 still don’t know her name.
Why not run for Carson City Council first? I asked her. Iqbal-Zubair told me that she has less of a connection to Carson, where she lives and would be eligible to serve on the council, than Watts, where she taught and still does organizing work. And at the end of the day, she’s really running against Gipson first and foremost. “It’s personal,” she explained.
Iqbal-Zubair has a lot of big ideas: universal single-payer healthcare regardless of citizenship, free public transit, comprehensive school reform, universal pre-k and free college tuition, and a “just transition” to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Still, her first goal when she gets to the assembly is to pass campaign finance reform. She sees it as a reform that has to be made before she can hope to get things like the Green New Deal and affordable housing passed. “Everything is about money in politics,” she told me. But before she can hope to pass publicly-funded elections, she has to win—and she’s facing off against an opponent who receives the second most special interest money of the 120 members in the California State Legislature and has been known to fight dirty.
There was an LAPD chopper circling over Raman’s house in Silver Lake the night we spoke, and it was setting her on edge. “Gosh, it feels like there’s a helicopter right on top of me,” she said at one point.
The noise of the blades churning the air overhead was just one more reminder of the ubiquitous presence and power of the Los Angeles Police—as if we could forget. In L.A. County, the police force is like a particularly cruel God: all knowing, thanks to dozens of state-of-the-art helicopters that perform aerial surveillance sweeps around the clock; highly lethal; and, if not technically omnipotent, inoculated from the consequences of its actions. It may be actually richer than God: the L.A. political class is completely in thrall to law enforcement cash. David Ryu has accepted $45,000 from the L.A. police union during his re-election campaign alone (though in light of the uprising following George Floyd’s murder, he has said he will return or redistribute the money). Gipson is a former cop; today, he takes thousands in donations from police PACs.
Raman and Iqbal-Zubair told me they would spurn law enforcement donations; both recently signed the #NoCopMoneyCA pledge (Ryu tweeted about the pledge hours after Raman, in a copycat post that was roundly pilloried online). But it’s not like the police were offering up their cash in the first place. Iqbal-Zubair has taken pains to highlight the environmental racism plaguing her district, which is inhabited by predominantly Black and Latino residents due to redlining. Raman’s homelessness report identified the need to divest funds from policing long before the current moment. In recent months, she has hosted a conversation with Dr. Melina Abdullah, a leader of Black Lives Matter L.A., and been a vocal advocate on Twitter for the “people’s budget,” local activist groups’ alternative to Mayor Garcetti’s proposed spending plan, which would have granted 54 percent of the city’s unrestricted funds to policing (the LAPD’s total budget is over $3 billion, including fixed healthcare costs and pension funds; the L.A. Sheriff’s Department gets another $3.5 billion from the county budget).
In L.A., the uprising following George Floyd’s murder has stayed hyper-focused on local policing. Black Lives Matter L.A. has highlighted entrenched police violence in Los Angeles County, calling for justice for the 886 victims of law enforcement killings since 2000. Under pressure, Garcetti and the City Council announced they would try to cut $100 to $150 million from the $3 billion LAPD budget. Activists said it wasn’t enough. On June 15, a coalition led by BLM L.A. had the opportunity to present the people’s budget before the City Council, an unthinkable reality just six weeks ago, made possible because of sustained organizing from local activist groups. These developments have happened in spite of, not because, of the City Council, as Raman has pointed out.
After the killing of George Floyd, Mike Gipson introduced a bill to ban police chokeholds and carotid restraints, which he touts as “the toughest police officer reform in the state.” Gipson has also co-sponsored or helped write other criminal justice reform bills. But activists, and candidates like Raman and Iqbal-Zubair, believe that we need to be thinking beyond piecemeal reforms. As many have pointed out, chokeholds had already been banned by the NYPD for 20 years when Eric Garner was killed by one in 2014.
At a June 10th online meeting with Watts community leaders, Iqbal-Zubair listened as Jacqueline Badejo, an activist who described herself as an “ecological organizer,” spoke of the LAPD’s neocolonial presence in Watts. “One of my dreams, honestly, is for Watts to become its own community again,” Badejo said. She called for an end to over-policing: “So these children can have a positive future, so we can really begin to focus on the environment, on the healing process.”
Iqbal-Zubair told me that organizers like Badejo have taught her that people in marginalized communities already know about what their communities need. “For how many years have people been telling you the solutions?” she said, addressing Gipson. “ Listen to the people on the street, listen to what they’re saying. They’re telling you what the state could do, which is demilitarize police, defund police!” She paused. “What if you had someone listening to you and actually implementing these [policies], what change could happen?”
If Iqbal-Zubair and Raman had the time to knock on every door in their respective districts, they’d probably have their elections in the bag. But both campaigns, already long shots, have been disrupted by the pandemic, which has rendered canvassing impossible for precious months on end. The inability to go door-to-door right now is a major loss, and their opponents have deep pockets and name recognition on their side.
“There’s never been a point in my campaign where I’ve questioned why I’m running,” Iqbal-Zubair told me. “But I remember there was one night like two weeks ago…and it scared me that I even thought this, but I was like: ‘Should I continue this race?’ It’s hard for an underdog to run. This race is in Mike Gipson’s favor.” At the end of the day, though, she says she’s doing it for her students. She was still able to get 32.5 percent of the primary vote out of nowhere, and expects to have more volunteer support and a more robust campaign structure as the summer progresses.
Raman appears more confident. “Obviously we’re at a different moment now, because of the pandemic and because of the Black Lives Matter protests,” she said. “But even during the primary, I think we were very easily able to make a case to people that what we have been doing in Los Angeles wasn’t working for the majority of residents.” She came within 3 percentage points of Ryu in the primary, and that was with another progressive challenger in the race. The March vote already saw significantly higher turnout than usual for municipal races in L.A.; dissatisfaction with the status quo, heightened focus on the inner workings of City Hall, and the desire to elect progressive down-ballot candidates in the absence of a main course option just might conspire to tip the race in her favor.
Raman and Iqbal-Zubair are similar candidates in many ways: charismatic and driven women of color who come to electoral politics with a sense of moral outrage at the status quo, an earnest desire for change, and the policy initiatives to enact it. But the districts they’re running in are as diametrically opposed as you get in L.A.—and their respective campaigns prove that the term “grassroots” can contain multitudes.
Raman’s district, one of the city’s wealthiest, is also the center of cultural production for the entire nation. Raman herself is not exactly unfamiliar with that culture. In 2019, she briefly served as the Executive Director of Time’s Up Entertainment before stepping down to run for City Council. With personal connections to the industry as well (her husband is a writer and executive producer on Modern Family), a number of campaign staff who are current or former industry players, and what can only be a formidable rolodex, she was able to tap into L.A.’s powerful entertainment world for her campaign, snagging endorsements from the likes of Jane Fonda and Natalie Portman and building a sizable online following.
Among young progressives in L.A., Raman is spoken about as a sort of celebrity. Volunteers I spoke to about her campaign gushed over her charisma, her sense of purpose, her uncanny ability to remember people’s names. Though it’s incredible that Raman’s campaign was able to attract around 600 unique volunteers (by her estimate), it seems unlikely that a candidate running to represent South Los Angeles could generate this level of attention. “Fatima’s district is dealing with so much systemic racism, and it’s invisible for Hollywood,” Nicole Levin, a hub coordinator with Sunrise Movement L.A. who’s worked on both campaigns, told me. “I worked in entertainment for a few years. No one knew there was oil drilling in L.A.” That disparity has, unsurprisingly, been reflected in media coverage: Raman has received plenty of attention from local and some national press, while Iqbal-Zubair has attracted virtually none.
Both candidates are hoping that their constituents will see them as a link between grassroots organizing and the electoral system. But that’s a tougher pitch to make in South L.A., where generations of residents have been betrayed by officials at every rung of elected office. Today, between Trump, the economic and health disparities produced by the pandemic, and the most recent state-sanctioned killings of Black Americans, people living in wealthier, whiter districts are beginning to have the sense that politics is their everyday life. People in poor and disenfranchised neighborhoods, of course, have always known that.
This isn’t to dismiss the radical potential of Raman’s campaign. If anything, her strength of messaging has made an incredible feat of organizing look almost preordained, an idea whose time has come. In a race where she’s still the underdog—Ryu raised a record-breaking million dollars for the primary fight and outspent her three to one—harnessing the cultural capital associated with her candidacy seems like a savvy move more than anything. But at the end of the day, the uphill battle that Iqbal Zubair’s fighting is an even steeper one. And for true progressive change to happen in this country, Watts needs good representation just as much as Hollywood does.