Abolitionist Organizer Wants to Fill Los Angeles Power Vacuum

Council Candidate Eunisses Hernandez is part of a local coalition that aims to boost services outside of law enforcement and limit crackdowns against the homeless.

Piper French   |    March 4, 2022

Eunisses Hernandez’s bid for city council comes at a decisive time year for Los Angeles. (Eunisses Hernandez/Instagram)

Editor’s note: Eunisses Hernandez prevailed in the June 7 election.

At just 32, Eunisses Hernandez already has a long record of organizing wins steeped in abolition. She has worked to remove drug enhancements from the state’s penal code, close a notorious Los Angeles jail and halt the construction of others, and champion a historic Los Angeles County ballot measure reallocating hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to community programs and incarceration alternatives. So it may come as a surprise to learn that for a long time, Hernandez wanted to become a cop.

Growing up in the predominantly Latinx neighborhood Highland Park, Hernandez saw that her family and friends’ relationship to police was mostly fearful and antagonistic. People in distress didn’t call 911 because they dreaded immigration enforcement more than the immediate threat. Police profiled her cousin so often that when he was eventually arrested, prosecutors accused him of being in a gang. Hernandez’s adolescence coincided with the Great Recession, and her family did anything they could to stay afloat and hold onto their home. They rented out rooms in their house, and one day, there was a fight between the couple that lived there. Hernandez felt helpless. She called 911, but when the police came, they only talked to her through the window of their squad car before speeding off, saying they had more important things to attend to. Maybe, she thought, she could do a better job than the cops who profiled her cousin, or the ones who didn’t even get out of their car when she called for their help.

For Hernandez, becoming an abolitionist was a long journey: one shaped by the complex experiences of her childhood and college years, and a policy and organizing career that moved her steadily towards prioritizing local action. Now, she is looking to bring this perspective into public office with a run for the Los Angeles City Council, where she hopes  to represent a district that includes Highland Park, Chinatown, and the heavily Central American neighborhood of Westlake. 

The area has recently seen the displacement of longtime residents, skyrocketing rent and housing prices, and the criminalization that has both accelerated those changes and followed in their wake. Hernandez accuses Los Angeles officials, including the councilmember she is challenging, Gil Cedillo, of failing to defend a community that has been targeted for gentrification. 

“I know this is very personal for her to be running in this district,” said Lex Steppling, the national director of campaign and organizing at Dignity and Power Now (DPN), a Los Angeles-based organization that organizes for the rights of incarcerated people. (Steppling supports Hernandez’s candidacy in his personal capacity.) “I’ve never seen a neighborhood flip that fast. And Eunisses has managed to stay there.”

Her bid to transform the priorities of local government comes in a decisive election year for Los Angeles, whose city government could go in any number of directions depending on the outcome of races like this one. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s likely departure as Ambassador to India has left a wide open election for City Hall, and the race to succeed him has already become a referendum on homelessness policy in Los Angeles. The city controller and the city attorney’s positions are both open as well. And there are eight seats up for grabs on the 15-member city council.  

In recent years, abolitionist organizers have achieved a series of previously unthinkable victories across Los Angeles County. Amidst this power vacuum at City Hall, the next test will be whether they can elect one of their own. 

Hernandez says her first real shift in political consciousness came during college, when she studied criminal justice at California State University, Long Beach. Most of the professors were former law enforcement officers, and the major felt like a crash course in the day-to-day of policing. But one instructor, Dina Perrone, taught classes on criminology and the War on Drugs, which Hernandez experienced as a revelation. She finally had a set of tools to interpret the experiences of her youth: the friends arrested for smoking weed, the mental health crises treated as crimes. And in learning about how other countries deal with issues of addiction and incarceration, Hernandez realized that another way was possible. 

After college, Hernandez worked at the Drug Policy Alliance for four years, helping pass Senate Bill 180, which ended drug enhancements that added up to 12 years to people’s sentences for past convictions, and implement Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana in California. There, she felt frustrated by “carve-outs”—policy concessions that exclude certain groups in order to get a law passed. “From what I’ve seen in policy development, we don’t go back for people we’ve left behind,” she told Bolts. 

In 2018, wanting to organize on a more local level, Hernandez moved to JustLeadershipUSA, where she became the Los Angeles campaign coordinator for JusticeLA, a large coalition of racial justice and civil rights organizations. Since its inception in 2017, Justice LA has chipped away at the infrastructure of mass incarceration in Los Angeles County. In February 2019, the coalition successfully pushed to cancel plans for a new women’s jail. That August, it also helped sink plans for a new mental health-focused jail, advocating instead for community-based, non-custodial treatment centers. “We won shit they said we couldn’t win,” said Steppling (DPN is a member of the coalition’s executive committee). “A lot of people point to [the coalition’s victories] as an example of what organizing is capable of,” he said, and Hernandez “played a really central role.” 

Though Justice LA comprises reformist organizations as well, the coalition is guided by abolitionist principles. Hernandez told Bolts: “Some basic questions that we ask ourselves in doing this work: will this policy decision leave anybody behind? Will this policy decision build something we’ll have to destroy in the future? Will this policy decision give more money and more power to the systems that are harming us? If it’s yes to any of those questions, then we have to go back to the drawing board.”

In early 2019, Justice LA successfully petitioned the Board of Supervisors to establish an Alternatives to Incarceration working group, which Hernandez was appointed to as a community stakeholder. The ATI working group would go on to produce a report, “Care First, Jails Last,” that laid out a roadmap for overhauling the county’s existing system of policing and punishment. Working from the findings of that report, the coalition fought for a ballot measure to redirect 10 percent of LA County’s general funds to incarceration alternatives like community programs, which passed in November 2020 with 57 percent of the vote. 

Implementation has been bogged down by bureaucratic delays, though the measure remains one of the most politically significant and financially impactful criminal justice reforms to emerge from the 2020 uprising. Jody Armour, a law professor at USC who supported Measure J, says the ballot measure centered on abolitionist themes rather than shying away from them. “#DefundThePolice part of Measure J was plainly communicated and ‘resonated powerfully’ with many voters,” Armour wrote on Twitter.

Along with Ivette Alé, a fellow Justice LA organizer, Hernandez also co-founded LA Defensa, a  women- and femme-led group that focuses on the judiciary as an understudied lever for carceral power (one early project was a website allowing residents to weigh in on their experiences with Los Angeles County judges). Hernandez still works at LA Defensa, but told Bolts she’ll step away soon to focus more fully on campaigning, calling the race a continuation of her community organizing. “We’re trying to take this—the wins, the experiences, the coalition—to City Hall, because right now, they’re not coming through for the people,” she said. 

Cedillo, Hernandez’s opponent and the incumbent District 1 councilmember, was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run and received Sanders’s endorsement in February 2021, more than a year before the primary or Hernandez’s entrance into the race. The early endorsement angered many left organizers in Los Angeles, who have criticized Cedillo for voting to criminalize homeless encampments, ordering homeless sweeps in Westlake’s MacArthur Park, and failing to use his position as chair of the council’s housing committee to forestall gentrification and displacement in his district. Hernandez saw an opportunity. “That motivated other people to step up,” she told Bolts. 

Cedillo’s office did not respond to Bolts’s questions about his record and platform.

Hernandez is challenging incumbent Gil Cedillo (Council member Gilbert Cedillo/Facebook)

Hernandez says she wants to prioritize alternative crisis responses, such as sending trained mental health workers to some 911 calls instead of police. She supports the People’s Budget LA coalition, which has demanded a vast reallocation of funds from the LAPD to community care programs. “My goal is to build our work locally,” she said. “I want to be part of the budget committee.” 

She also wants to fight criminalization of homelessness. Hernandez told Bolts that she rejects Cedillo’s support for encampment sweeps and that she opposes a recent municipal ordinance Cedillo backed, 41.18, which restricts where unhoused people can sit, sleep, and store belongings. She also hopes to implement a Universal Just Cause ordinance to strengthen eviction protections for tenants and ensure access to counsel during the eviction process. 

If elected, Hernandez would join a city council that has long been unfriendly to progressive priorities. A small, two-person progressive coalition has emerged in the last two years, resulting in a number of 13-2 votes—notably on 41.18. But the bloc may soon vanish. First-term councilmember Nithya Raman saw her district distorted by the 2021 rezoning process, in what some believed was a ploy to reduce progressive voter power, and Mike Bonin, who has long been the council’s staunchest left voice, recently announced his retirement for mental health reasons, after a campaign targeting his work on homelessness came very close to triggering a rare recall vote. 

Still, Dahlia Ferlito of White People 4 Black Lives, a Justice LA coalition member, said they thought it was important for people with Hernandez’s convictions and movement background to seek office: “If it didn’t matter, then our opposition wouldn’t be doing everything humanly possible to ensure that we do not have a voice in the electoral sphere.” Besides Hernandez, there are a number of other left-wing candidates running for council this election season.

Hernandez will have the discretion to do more within her district, where council members have long enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy. Right now, homelessness policy in Los Angeles is especially balkanized: laws are passed by the full council, but each member can interpret them somewhat differently in their own district. 

In one council meeting in January, Cedillo successfully got 28 locations in his district designated as enforcement zones under the homeless criminalization ordinance 41.18. Hernandez told Bolts she would decline to propose 41.18 locations in her district. (This is what Bonin, the progressive councilmember, has done in his district.) 

On one particular issue, she may get a chance to finish what she started with Justice LA. In 2019, the Board of Supervisors vowed to close Men’s Central Jail, an infamous and decrepit Los Angeles County penitentiary that Hernandez described as a “dungeon.” It’s a long road to closure, and then there’s the question of what comes after. “Men’s Central Jail now sits in my district,” she told Bolts. “I’m going to be a part of the plan to shut it down—and the community engagement that happens to inform what gets built on that land.”