Jasmyne Cannick knows how to translate activism into change.
With backgrounds in the fields of journalism and politics, the Black lesbian commentator and strategist canvassed for and helped pass measure R, which created stronger civilian oversight of Los Angeles law enforcement earlier this year. For years, Cannick also sounded the alarm about Ed Buck — the Democratic donor now facing charges for the deaths of several gay Black men — until Buck was finally arrested in 2019.
Now, as cities across the United States protest police brutality and the killing of George Floyd, Cannick talked to Out about how demonstrators can translate the incredible energy from the streets into lasting political reform.
Think this isn't your issue? Cannick also has a message for white LGBTQ+ people who prefer to sit on the sidelines during this historic moment for social change. [Note: this interview was conducted before all four police involved in George Floyd's killing were charged.]
You wear many different hats. Describe your background and the work that you do.
My background is both in news media and in politics. So, on the political front, I've worked in the state legislature. I've worked in Congress. I worked for city governments. I currently work in city government right now for an elected official. I ran for office this year. I think I get sworn in next month. I won my election. I'm really involved in politics at every level. I've worked at every level of government as a strategist, as the architect around winning elections. I just spent two years working on the first criminal justice reform ballot measure in L.A. County, which we passed in March, I’m so happy. That was measure R.
And then on the news media side, I've been a journalist for a long time. I've done a lot of commentating on media. I've done radio forever. I have a podcast. So that’s my background. People always like to label me as an activist, and I'm like, 'No, that's not what pays my bills.' I'm not a community organizer. But I am a person who is in touch with the community and talks a lot about how to get things done. And I demonstrated that around the whole Ed Buck situation, so I used my influence in my role working in politics because that was a situation that involved not only politics but it involved criminal justice reform. It involved racism. It involved a whole bunch of different issues. It involved the media too, just in terms of how they were reporting on it. And so I try to use my background my expertise in ways that I find to be useful.
During this particular time, with the George Floyd situation, I've been doing a lot of work in the media just trying to break down and explain to viewers and listeners the history of these types of protests, particularly around the looting and the vandalism. There's obviously been a lot of talking about that and not letting people get locked in [about] what the real issue is. … But also, just looking at what the pathway forward is. I am a political strategist. That's what I do for a living, so I'm always invested in what the endgame is. I know that in this country, we have only ever gotten significant change related to human and civil human and civil rights by one of two means: either it was a court ruling or it was a piece of legislation.
The folks in the street need to wield that same energy in the political realm. If you want police officers prosecuted, then you need to change the law. And this is how you do that. Because protesting and yelling in the streets are only going to take you so far. I get it, I'm a Black woman. I understand the frustration and the anger. But I also was a consultant for a police union for quite some time here in L.A., so I know it from both sides. When we have these controversial shootings, [police officers] deserve the opportunity to go before a jury. But we don't often get that. Usually, what we get is nothing. Maybe over the past a year or so, police departments have been just firing officers, but that never led to criminal charges. Very rarely do you see a DA have the guts enough to charge a police officer. And usually, if they do, it's under cover of authority. It's not like murder or manslaughter. So, when those things happen, it's a real big thing. But it's not a consistent situation. It's not something that happens every single time. There's a controversial shooting with a police officer and that seems to be what the protesters want. That seems to be what people who are upset about George Floyd's killing want. It doesn’t matter if it’s L.A., it doesn’t matter if it’s New York, doesn't matter if it's Ferguson, or Minneapolis, they want to know that police officers who blatantly murder someone, that they will face criminal charges.
I've been working the past week to spearhead those conversations around how you make real change. Because a lot of these people who are marching don't know their history. They're young. They have no idea how politics works, or the influence of unions. And so, it's been a very interesting time just breaking all of that down and having these various conversations and showing people this is what needs to be done. Doesn't matter if it's California or New York, no matter what the state is. These are the rules, these are how you change the laws.
And how do we make change? Where do we go from here?
If the goal is to have police officers prosecuted, then folks need to work on getting a state law passed to create an independent prosecutor's office. Bonnie can’t investigate Clyde and Clyde can’t investigate Bonnie. We need to take the decision on whether or not to prosecute police officers out of the district attorney's office. There's an inherent conflict of interest there because the district attorney needs the police or the sheriff or whatever the law enforcement agency is to help them make their case. And so they're very reluctant to criticize them, to investigate them, much less prosecute them. And so how you circumvent that, how you get around that is you have an independent prosecutor's office, and a real independent prosecutor's office is not inside of a DA’s office. It does not report to the DA. It’s its own independent office that looks at these types of cases.
For example in L.A., on the public defender’s side, we have the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office. But we also have the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender's Office. That office is for cases where there's a conflict of interest inside of the public defender's office. We do not have that on the district attorney's side, much less the independent prosecutor's office. And so, in order to have the independent prosecutor's office, you need to have some sort of state law written. But it's going to be very hard for people to get that done, because a lot of lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, they take money from the police union. And so they're reluctant to write any type of law right that is going to interfere with the amount of obscene money that they get from these police unions. It's a lot, but that's what politics is about. You have to get into the weeds. You have to know what you're dealing with and what you're up against. But it is possible.
In L.A., like I said, I was one of the architects of measure R, which is a reform L.A. jail ballot measure here. And the reason why we had to do a ballot measure was because we couldn't get the county board of supervisors to reform the jail system to make the changes that we wanted. And so we raised the millions of the dollars that it took to just put it on the ballot ourselves. And that's basically what I think needs to happen from state to state. And so all of the allies, all of the folks who are mad about the George Floyds of America — because there's more than one George Floyd, this has been going on for quite some time — that’s what they need to get together and do. They need to pull their resources. They need to put their money where their mouth is. And they need to show up on election day and they need to vote, and just circumvent the lawmakers, circumvent the police unions, and get it done.
For Out readers — LGBTQ+ people who span every community — do you have any next steps for them on how they can enact change right now?
First of all, it starts with owning and acknowledging the fact that the LGBT community includes people of color. There's not this separation here. “What can the LGBT community do to help Black people?” Because Black people are LGBTQ too. Black men who get pulled over who happen to be gay, who happen to be bi, or trans men and women who happen to get pulled over — they're not being pulled over because of their sexual identity or orientation. They're being pulled over because of the color of their skin.
That's an ongoing issue within the LGBT community, this ignorance around that. I get your question. I'm gay, I get it. You're Out and you want to make this relevant to your readers. But I think that's a problem. Why does it have to relate specifically to the LGBTQ community for it to be relevant when it's a human rights or civil rights violation? For a community that is always leaning on the Black civil rights movement and calling out MLK, calling out Bayard [Rustin] every chance they get, like, it would seem like folks would get it, even though they don't. I cringe a little bit at those kind of questions because it's like there's some separation between the two. I’m a Black lesbian. I'm really clear on that. I belong to both communities. When there's some injustice going on towards LGBT people, it doesn't have to be explained to me in a way that is supposed to make me care and understand. It could be white LGBT people or something. I would already get it. I just think that there's not enough of that going on in the LGBT community right now. We still have the same racial issues that have permeated throughout the community for decades longer than I've been around. It’s getting a little bit better but it's not completely there yet. So I really don't know how to break it down into a way that they should care. They should already care.
I do understand the question is problematic. But there are also many of our readers and followers who are non-Black who don't see it as their issue. So I guess the challenge is, how do you make people have empathy?
That’s hard. That’s much bigger than just our community. That's just a human thing — people just don't have empathy. But if you look at Ed Buck base — for quite some time, people did not care about the fact that Black gay men were dying at that man's house and being harmed and being hurt. It was just not an issue. People didn't care. And I would say, after the second guy died, then people really started to wake up. I spend a lot of time trying to point out the holes in the criminal justice system just in terms of, for example, how Black gay victims are treated versus, let's say, white female heterosexual female victims. If you look at how the Harvey Weinstein victims were treated versus the Ed Buck victims. So we still have a lot of work to do. Your readers should care because, I forgot how this saying goes exactly but: today’s me, and tomorrow's you.