“This racist council’s got to go!”: Crisis in Los Angeles City Council following leaked recording

“They have verbalized what they have been doing for the last five years,” said L.A. activist Kenia Alcocer after a leaked recording revealed City Council members making racist remarks

October 14, 2022 by Natalia Marques
The deep racism displayed in the City Council discussions has been front and center in local and national media.

Protesters shut down a Los Angeles City Council meeting on October 12 in response to a leaked audio recording that reverberated across local and national media on October 9. This audio was a recording of a conversation between four of the most powerful people in Los Angeles: City Council President Nury Martinez, City Council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. In the leaked audio, the four politicians made racist comments and revealed cynical plans to redistrict the city of Los Angeles to their personal benefit and to the detriment of the political power of marginalized groups.

Activists from organizations such as Union de Vecinos, the East Los Angeles local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), and Black Lives Matter successfully shouted down the City Council meeting, leading chants such as “What do we want? Resignation now!” and “This racist council’s got to go!”

Since the leaked recording was published in the LA Times on October 9, Ron Herrera and Nury Martinez have resigned. Activists are pushing for the remaining city council members in the leaked recording, de León and Cedillo, to also resign.

Acting President Mitch O’Farrell canceled the city council meeting scheduled for October 14, stating, “the people’s business cannot be conducted until we have these next two resignations.” All other members of the city council have called for the resignation of de León and Cedillo, save Joe Buscaino, once of the most conservative council members.

Crude racist comments

The deep racism displayed in the City Council discussions has been front and center in local and national media. Martinez, de León, Cedillo, Herrera made crude bigoted comments about other city council members as well as Los Angeles residents of color, and derided Black political power in LA.

Martinez was particularly harsh towards liberal-leaning council member Mike Bonin’s adopted son, who is Black. Calling the eight-year-old boy a “monkey” in Spanish, Martinez bemoaned Bonin’s supposed lack of discipline towards his child. “They’re raising him like a little white kid,” Martinez said on the recording. “I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner, and then I’ll bring him back.”

Martinez also made crude racist remarks about the Oaxacan immigrant population in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown, referring to them as “little short dark people.” A Oaxacan woman addressed these comments directly at the October 11 city council meeting, the first one after the audio was leaked. “Too bad Nury Martinez is not there to cackle in my face that we are ugly Mexicans,” the Los Angeles resident said. “I want them out of power, the power they have to be discriminating against the Mexican and African-American community.”

Redistricting as a structural form of racism

The racism revealed in the recording goes far beyond crude comments. Mike Bonin and his husband released a statement after the audio leak, accusing the four politicians of a “coordinated effort to weaken Black political representation in Los Angeles.” 

In the recording, labor leader Herrera is heard saying “I get what we have to do, right? Just massage to create districts that benefit you all.” Herrera was referring to the process of redistricting, in which officials change the boundaries of areas that specific politicians will represent. Often redistricting becomes gerrymandering, or the drawing up of districts in a way to generate an electoral outcome in favor of a party or individual.

In the recording, the politicians implied that Black political power in Los Angeles is weak. Council president Martinez expressed worries that the Black population of Los Angeles will denounce the politicians’ redistricting scheme. “Politically, they’re [Black people] gonna come after us,” she says. In response, De León described a “Wizard of Oz effect” in relation to the strength of Black constituents, saying, “you’re at the side of the curtain, its like, this big voice. It’s like there’s thousands. And when you actually pull the curtain is that you see the little Wizard of Oz.”

“25 Blacks are shouting,” says Cedillo. 

“But they shout like they’re 250,” replies De León.

The practice of gerrymandering in the US has a racist history, being often used to draw up districts in a way to disenfranchise racial minorities, especially Black people. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a victory of the Civil Rights movement, specifically banned racial gerrymandering in the form of spreading populations of color across districts to dilute their voting power. However, politicians still practice racist gerrymandering across the country. The leaked recording provides evidence that this practice is alive and well in Los Angeles, despite its reputation as a progressive city. 

In the leaked audio, the four politicians express disdain for elected officials who, in their view, express too much support for Black people in Los Angeles. Martinez says of Council President Nury Martinez says of Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, “Fuck that guy, he’s with the Blacks.” Gascón faced a right-wing recall attempt for his anti-mass incarceration policies of bail reform and eliminating gang and drug-based sentence enhancements. Martinez also called Bonin the “fourth Black member” of the city council. Bonin also faced a failed recall attempt in 2021 largely due to his left-leaning homelessness and crime policies.

“Why are [City Council officials] trying to destroy entire communities for the purpose of them having power?” Kenia Alcocer, a lead organizer with Union de Vecinos, told Peoples Dispatch. “And not just destroying communities, the fact that they are talking about the Black community as if it’s a community that no longer has any importance in the city of Los Angeles, I think it’s very, very wrong. Because they’re not building the bridge for Black and Brown unity. What they’re doing, it’s really dismantling any work that has been happening in the city of Los Angeles to bridge those communities and to bring those two communities together.

“They’re doing all of this [redistricting] to ensure that all of our organizing efforts as Los Angeles Tenants Union, and all of the organizing efforts that any organization that is dealing with housing has no power, and cannot leverage their power within their districts,” Alcocer added.

Local activist weighs in

Union de Vecinos is demanding not only that all four politicians resign, but that all decisions that were made while Martinez, de León, and Cedillo were on the city council be revised. 

In conversation with Peoples Dispatch, Alcocer pointed to ordinance 41.18 and the end to the eviction moratorium specifically as harmful decisions the LA city council has made.

Ordinance 41.18 criminalizes homelessness by banning sleeping, sitting and lying down in certain public areas, and was approved by the city council in 2021. On August 2 of this year, the ordinance was expanded to ban camping within 500 feet of a school or daycare. There are currently 41,980 homeless people in LA.

“Given the fact that during the pandemic we have a lot of families who have been severely impacted and are living on the streets, are living in their cars, [the ordinance] is not just impacting individuals, it’s impacting entire families,” Alcocer said. 

Alcocer also pointed to the recent city council decision to end the eviction moratorium, a decision which passed with a unanimous vote. The moratorium is now set to end on January 31 2023. During the pandemic, over 101,000 households received rent relief in the city of LA.

“They are ending the eviction moratorium, knowing that a lot of families still have economic and health issues, with no regard to those communities.” Alcocer said.

She continued: “They have verbalized what they have been doing for the last five years. And the thing is that we’ve noticed and we see those policies as being racist, classist policies, policies, anti-poor, anti-tenant, anti-homeless policies.”

“The thing is that we cannot only just hold these three city council members accountable to that. We need to hold the entire city council accountable to that because a lot of us believe that these are not just conversations among these three colleagues…They don’t value the lives of Black and Brown children. They don’t value the lives of tenants. They don’t value the lives of homeless people. And therefore, they don’t deserve to be in power representing communities that they don’t respect.”