"People out of state are descending"
This week, Los Angeles Sheriff Villanueva sent his Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) to Venice as part of what he said was an operation willed by the people to move the houseless population in the city. “[People from out of town] are descending …for the free services.,” he claimed. “Something has to be done.” (One story claimed people “cheered.”)
It’s been read by most journalists as a power-play by the sheriff who runs the largest sheriff’s office in the country and who has set himself right in the middle of various political firestorms stemming from the ongoing culture wars in the county (and Southern California) as well as a predictable backlash to policing, prosecution and incarceration changes in California.
Less reported and, I think, equally important (and linked to the Venice operation by Villanueva himself in a press conference) is a large marijuana bust in Antelope Valley, which included the rescue of puppies.
Villanueva’s point is simple and oft-repeated by him – the political culture in Los Angeles is being weighed down by local elected officials (and, by extension, the LAPD who is controlled by those officials) while the sheriff is unhampered by bureaucracy and was elected by the people to enact their will. (Elected officials often recoil at the idea of facing off against a sheriff for this reason, I think – they are also elected and don’t like the idea of going against someone who may hurt their election chances.)
This is an age-old argument in favor of sheriffs, who are elected on the county level and have the benefit of no oversight and no real rules. (Villanueva, for example, can insert himself in Venice even though it’s under LAPD jurisdiction. Rather, the rules don’t say he can’t do that.) Sheriffs existed long before city police – some (e.g. sheriffs) say the office goes back to Arthur the Great – and when urban police forces formed in cities, sheriffs derided them as “mere code enforcers.” (“Paralysis by analysis” Villanueva put it.) The idea behind urban police was that they served to enforce rules that made capitalism better by restricting union organizing, made it hard to be unemployed, and kept the streets reserved for commerce and the transportation of goods. They were, to put it bluntly, tools of the establishment.
Do the people want one man, elected by a majority of themselves to whom they can look to for leadership and accountability, or do they want a convoluted system where the chief of police has only that authority and power the council wishes to give him? He may have all the responsibility, but none of the authority to meet it.
Sheriffs, on the other hand, have always seen the role as more populist and, at their best, responsive to the will of the (white) people. In fact, so-called Constitutional Sheriffs are elected and immensely popular in the West because the voters associate bad law enforcement with people being on the take. I asked a woman at a far-right sheriff rally if she liked her sheriff, and she said he did “because he respects the Constitution.” She went on: “The sheriff before him was corrupt and only did things for money. He didn’t arrest people who paid him. [Our sheriff] stands up for our rights.” She cited as an example her sheriff’s commitment to gun ownership; he had just testified against gun control measures pending in the state legislature.
Villanueva confuses people because he ran to the left of his predecessor. He was backed by the local Democratic party as well as many social justice and lefty organizations. Yesterday, the Democratic party renounced their support for the sheriff and asked for his resignation. (They join the Board of Supervisors.) Villanueva’s comeback was that the members of the party were “millionaires;” he then read the house values for several members of the Civilian Oversight Commission, who have been extremely critical for the sheriff for good reason.
I think many people would perceive Villanueva as “switching parties.” Sheriffs run unaffiliated in California, so actual party designation is less important, but I actually don’t think he is. For one thing, local parties do not often mirror national ones; a lot of bad sheriffs are Democrats (although some are switching parties, usually associated with state politics).
Villanueva’s moves are tried and true sheriff.
First, assert a populist agenda, preferably one with some sort of culture-war angle. Houselessness is a great one (like “immigration”) because it encompasses so many different things. Even the sheriff’s own work showed that – veterans, the under-employed, the young, those with mental health concerns – but the people don’t care why the reasons exist. Similarly, the “drug trade.” Cartels! Water! Puppies, for God’s sake, there were puppies!
Second, argue that your opponents are out of touch. He argues that he is fixing the “failures of local politicians in regard to the homeless crisis.” (Villanueva has come just short of calling people “socialist” though I bet it’s coming.) This includes calling other officials “millionaires” and claiming everyone is somehow “elite” but him. (It’s hard not to associate this move with the bad-faith and racist attacks on Black organizers, often accused of being out-of-touch and wealthy, implying that the money is ill-gotten.)
Third, look to other sheriffs (or MMA personalities) to back you up. Sheriff Mark Lamb – Protect America Now extraordinaire – has already praised Villanueva. And can someone please explain the MMA guy to me?
I do think Villanueva has grown hulk-like the political landscape in California. The pandemic has created a powerful resurgence of anti-vaxxers, already floating about the state, and they have moved definitively to the right and merged with other interests trying to recall Newsom. District Attorney George Gascon also faces a backlash being fueled by victims’ rights groups as well as other right-leaning interests who are looking for opportunity.
This might be why Villanueva feels entitled to be more brazen, his sense that the political landscape is just slippy enough – right and left are not only more polarized but also vaguer in their political stances – that he can assemble a new coalition and get re-elected (Or whatever. He doesn’t even seem to like his job.) The backlash feels to me like a general agitation over everything deemed liberal or progressive, from higher education to BLM movements, to the ACLU, to Mike Bonin. But there’s no actual policy platform or goal – which makes perfect sense for Villanueva to pick the vague shibboleths at the intersection of law enforcement and culture: houselessness and drugs. Look for immigration next, is all I’m saying.