Racism behind closed doors causes turmoil in Los Angeles politics

A leaked recording of racially charged comments made by city council members has turned into a national scandal in the United States

LA racism controversy
Nury Martinez in April. The former LA City Council president resigned from all posts on October 12.Damian Dovarganes (AP)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

On Tuesday, October 11, dozens of protestors burst into the Los Angeles City Hall, chanting slogans and calling for three council members of Latin American descent to resign.

The three councilors - along with a labor leader - were caught on tape making racist comments about the African-American son of a white member of the council, who was not present. The audio recording of the conversation, which took place in October 2021, was leaked to media outlets last weekend.

“Resign now!” protestors screamed at Nury Martinez, President of the Los Angeles City Council, while the chamber was in session. Others demanded the same in Spanish: “¡fuera, fuera!”

It took several minutes for the noise to stop. The protestors only calmed down to listen to Councilman Mike Bonin, who recently heard the tape recording in which some of his colleagues refer to his adopted son as a “changuito,” or a “little monkey.” Through tears, he reflected on the comments: “My husband and I are both heartbroken. For our family and for Los Angeles. I am reeling from the revelations of what these people said. Trusted servants who voiced hate and bile. Public officials are supposed to call us to our highest selves. And these people cut the spirit of Los Angeles.”

On the recording, Martinez, 49, tells fellow council members Kevin de León, 55, and Gil Cedillo, 68, that Bonin and his husband are raising their son “like a white kid” and that he needs “some slaps” to correct what she perceived as the child’s bad behavior at a Martin Luther King Day parade. At one point in the audio, Bonin is referred to as “pequeña perra” - “little bitch” - by Martinez, who also calls his son an accessory that the white councilman uses “like a Louis Vuitton bag.”

Minutes after Tuesday’s session began, Martinez resigned the presidency of the council. She resigned her seat on October 13.

On the audio recording, the three council members discuss how they can increase their political power in a city with 4.8 million Latinos. They propose gerrymandering 15 municipal districts to keep African-American voters - who make up less than 9% of the population in a city of 10 million people - from gaining political representation.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin sheds tears as he speaks about the racist comments directed towards his son during the council's meeting on Tuesday.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin sheds tears as he speaks about the racist comments directed towards his son during the council's meeting on Tuesday. Sarah Reingewirtz (AP)

“Fuck him, he’s with the blacks,” Martinez says, referring to Los Angeles County District Attorney Geroge Gascon. For about one hour, the three council members and labor leader Ron Herrera also criticize Jewish and Armenian communities. While most of the comments are made by Martinez, the three men never contradict her.

The three politicians also joke about the physical appearance of Latin American immigrants of Indigenous descent, particularly residents of Los Angeles hailing from Central America or the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

“I see a lot of short, dark people,” Martinez is heard saying, referring to new immigrants living in Koreatown. “I don’t know where these people come from, how they got here… so ugly, horrible.”

Martinez is Mexican-American, the daughter of immigrants from Zacatecas in Mexico. She and council members De León and Gil Cedillo were planning on chopping up the district encompassing the Koreatown neighborhood, to facilitate efforts to push Councilwoman Nithya Raman - of Indian descent - out of office.

Martinez, the first Latina to have presided over the LA Council, resigned her representation of the 6th district with a long letter that made no reference to her racist slurs. She concluded her statement by writing that, during her nine-year-long career in municipal politics, she had hoped to inspire “little Latina girls to dream.”

Odilia Romero, a Mexican-American human rights activist of Indigenous descent, organized rallies to protest against the politicians.

“We [Latinos] are almost 50% of the population [of Los Angeles]. We have a lot of power. These people rose to their positions with a colonial mentality, while having disgust for Indigenous peoples,” Romero says. “They love our food, our mezcal, but they don’t love us.”

Los Angeles is no stranger to racial tensions and explosions of violence. In 1992, after four police officers almost beat motorist Rodney King to death, riots broke out, during which 53 people were killed, hundreds injured and billions of dollars in damages incurred. 50 years before that, Mexican-American residents rebelled against racist policies and police brutality.

“For me, as a Latino,” says columnist Gustavo Arellano, of The Los Angeles Times, “what bothers me most is that this will ruin the reputation of Latino politicians for a long time. Who’s going to have trust in them after this? Nobody. People will say that they only work for [some members] of our community. These people devoted themselves to public service, but now they’ve put us in a position where we look like we’re part of a racist conspiracy.”

Sociologist Manuel Pastor - who has written about the cohabitation of Blacks and Latinos in South and East LA - points out the rapid demographic change in the city. Between 1980 and 2000, the white population went from 67% to 47%. As many pro-Trump, conservative voices warn of racial minorities becoming the new national majority, Pastor believes it is important for Latino leaders to cultivate coexistence, instead of widening divisions.

A protester outside City Hall during the Los Angeles City Council meeting.
A protester outside City Hall during the Los Angeles City Council meeting. Ringo H.W. Chiu (AP)

Some Latino-majority neighborhoods have turned their backs on the remaining two councilors caught on tape. The two men refuse to resign. On Friday night, protests were held in Boyle Heights to demand the resignation of De León, who represents the area.

“Resign now! You don’t have the support of this community because of what you said and what you allowed [Martinez] to say,” a resident told a local television station. President Joe Biden has also said that De León and Cedillo should resign.

Strangely enough, De León was a leader in the anti-Trump movement. During his time in the State Senate, he pushed for legislation that made California a “sanctuary state.” This prohibits local and state agencies from cooperating with ICE regarding undocumented immigrants who have committed misdemeanors.

EL PAÍS reached out to Councilman De León, but received no reply.

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