LDF mourns the loss of our colleague Robert Garcia, a lifelong civil rights advocate and LDF staff attorney from 1992 to 1996. In 2000, he founded and led the Los Angeles nonprofit legal and policy organization The City Project, which fights for equal access to public resources and healthy, livable communities. “Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done,” Mr. Garcia stated in an author bio. Mr. Garcia was also an Assistant Professor at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. After a battle with cancer, he passed away on Monday, April 6, 2020. He spent his final days at home with his family, including his mother, and was comforted by many messages sent from friends and family expressing appreciation of a life well spent.
“Robert’s heart for justice was pure and strong. I deeply valued his support and counsel. His voice, his leadership and his commitment to the communities he served was unshakeable,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President & Director-Counsel. Ifill continued, “I first met Robert back in the early 1990s when I was a lawyer in LDF’s New York Office. I knew him to be exacting and passionate about civil rights lawyering. When we reconnected after I became Director-Counsel in 2013, I found that Robert was also warm and supportive. He encouraged me in notes and emails and in his presence at our annual Civil Rights Institute each Fall. Most importantly, Robert had high standards, and I regarded it as a privilege to be pushed by him to do more and to devote our resources to serving the most immediate needs of grassroots communities. I shall miss his presence and his support,” Ifill concluded.
Mr. Garcia was born in Guatemala and came to the United States at age four with his mother, sister, and other family members. In a piece titled “I am an Immigrant,” he published an interview with his grandfather, a linotypist and a labor organizer. “I remember seeing my grandfather reading all the time. I think because of his influence, I read all the time, too,” Mr. Garcia said. His passion for justice blossomed when he studied philosophy and Latin American studies at Stanford University. He went on to graduate from Stanford Law School in 1978, where he studied with legendary legal scholar and capital punishment attorney Anthony G. Amsterdam. In the 1980s, he practiced international law at a firm in New York, then served as Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York.
“Robert Garcia cared deeply about issues of fundamental fairness for people of color and made significant contributions to LDF’s environmental justice docket,” said LDF’s fourth Director-Counsel, Elaine Jones. “He was passionate and effective in his advocacy and warm and collegial in his interactions with colleagues. I am grateful for his years of unselfish service.”
Mr. Garcia was a key team member of LDF’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles, focusing on environmental justice, police accountability, and fair housing. “I learned I could make a difference as a lawyer,” Garcia said of his time at LDF. His first day of work was May 1, 1992, the first week of the famous 1992 Los Angeles riots. “The riots and rebellion after the Rodney King beating exposed evils deeply rooted in the structures of this society. They were a reaction not only to the police beating of one more Black man. They demonstrate that police abuse and urban issues like equal access to public resources, including transportation, parks and recreation, and quality education, are genuine civil rights issues of race, poverty, and democracy that are interrelated in Los Angeles and the American economy,” Mr. Garcia said in a 2012 piece about police violence in Los Angeles.
Mr. Garcia was part of the legal team in Thomas v. Los Angeles County, a class action suit LDF filed in 1990 to challenge gross abuses by the LA County Sherriff’s department in the City of Lynwood. In 1995, a jury convicted the deputy sheriffs of violating lead plaintiff Darren Thomas’s civil rights. The jury also held the department and the county liable for allowing a practice of excessive force. Faced with two dozen additional claims contained in the lawsuit, the county settled the case, providing $7.5 million in damages to the named plaintiffs, and requiring new measures for training, monitoring, and disciplining deputies regarding use of force.
Mr. Garcia also worked on Labor Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in which LDF, the ACLU of Southern California, and the Bus Riders Union challenged inequitable funding and operation of bus transportation used primarily by low-income residents and people of color in Los Angeles. In a historic settlement valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority agreed to bus fare concessions, including reduced rates and fare hike controls and a substantial expansion of its fleet of buses. “The case was a singular collaboration between heavy-weight organizers as clients and the original civil rights litigation law firm founded by Thurgood Marshall, a collaboration reminiscent of the March on Selma,” according to Garcia’s LDF colleague Bill Lann Lee.
Another highlight of Mr. Garcia’s eventful career at LDF was helping to free Geronimo Pratt from prison after he was incarcerated for 27 years for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Pratt was a Black Panther leader and a victim of the FBI’s counterintelligence operation, COINTELPRO. He was freed in 1997 as the court held that the prosecution had suppressed evidence in his original trial.
“More than he knew, Robert Garcia left an indelible mark on the Los Angeles community and in the hearts of the Black, Brown and poor people on whose behalf he worked,” said LDF’s fifth Director-Counsel, Ted Shaw.
“Attorneys seeking justice in court, and the judicial decision in Brown, were important parts of the broader Movement — but they were only a part. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others organized the Movement in the streets,” Mr. Garcia said in a 2014 article. Mr. Garcia’s respect for diverse roles within a movement made him an effective coalition builder, and he organized major efforts to establish public green spaces in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles State Historic Park, for example, would not exist without Mr. Garcia’s collaborative and tenacious advocacy. In 1999, the city approved a plan by powerful developers to transform 32 acres of open space in downtown Los Angeles into a massive industrial complex. But, as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2001, “Garcia organized a civil rights challenge that claimed the project was the result of discriminatory land-use policies that had long deprived minority neighborhoods of parks.” His organization, The City Project, worked with a diverse alliance of community, civil rights, environmental, business and civic organizations and leaders to halt the development project by convincing Andrew Cuomo, then Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to withhold federal funding.
President Barack Obama spoke at the 2014 dedication ceremony for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which was also established as a result of The City Project and coalition partners’ advocacy. “We heard from the community that, for a lot of urban families, this is their only big outdoor space. Too many children in L.A. County, especially children of color, don’t have access to parks where they can run free, breathe fresh air, experience nature, and learn about their environment,” Obama said. The former president’s words aptly capture the driving force behind Mr. Garcia’s commitment to securing public green spaces for all.
“If all anyone ever says about me is I was a Civil Rights Advocate, I will be happy and proud,” Mr. Garcia said in 2014. Mr. Garcia undoubtedly earned this title through his many years of tireless civil rights work – and his legacy will continue for many years to come. A celebration of Mr. Garcia’s life will take place at a later date.