For segments of the public, the city council scandal that continues to rock Los Angeles was a revelation. It upended their perceptions of a city that’s been both celebrated and lampooned for its progressive politics. It exposed the divisiveness that’s long existed between the groups lumped together under the BIPOC umbrella.
But I’m one of the many Black Angelenos who found it unsurprising when the news broke October 9 that three city council members and a labor chief had been caught on tape having a conversation in which a gay council member’s Black child was likened to a monkey; the gay council member was called “a little bitch;” and Indigenous Oaxacans were referred to as “tan feo” (“so ugly”). In Los Angeles, where Black residents represent 8.8 percent of the population but disproportionately face homelessness, hate crimes and health disparities, it was not shocking to learn that the city’s most powerful leaders harbored anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and anti-gay biases. One of those leaders, Kevin de León, is my councilman.
He and three other officials, all Latinx, made the comments in December while planning to redraw the city’s electoral districts to give Latinx residents more political power. Latinx Angelenos make up nearly half of the city but are underrepresented on the city council. When the conversation hit the mainstream press weeks after recordings of it were anonymously uploaded to Reddit, outrage spread across the country. President Joe Biden, who visited Los Angeles last week, became the most prominent person to suggest that these officials step down. Having made the most damning comments on the recordings, City Council President Nury Martinez heeded his advice, ending a run that saw her become L.A.’s first Latina city council head. The labor leader, Ron Herrera, also resigned.
Protesters, however, remain a constant presence at City Hall and plan to continue showing up until the other council members heard on the audio, Gil Cedillo and de León, make their exits as well. Cedillo has two months left of his term, but de León has two years left, making his resistance to resigning more worrisome to city officials and community members who say that Los Angeles won’t heal until everyone involved in the scandal leaves.
Anything short of a resignation from Cedillo and de León will signal that “it’s open season on Black folks, that you can say whatever you want, and there will be no real repercussions,” said Jasmyne Cannick, a political strategist, former special assistant to previous Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and a delegate in the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
As a Black woman who lives in a largely Latinx neighborhood in de León’s Eastside council district, it’s a lot to digest. I’m keenly aware that the scandal is hardly the only instance of anti-Black racism to touch this part of town and the region generally. The city council leak did not introduce me to the reality that people of color are capable of ethnocentrism and racial prejudice. In fact, Black Americans in and out of L.A. took to social media to say they had known as much all along, for they had already endured anti-Black racism from other people of color, a problem that’s been on the rise in the Golden State.
Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settled some of California’s largest racial bias lawsuits in which Black warehouse workers alleged that their Latinx colleagues denied them job opportunities, gave them the most physically demanding duties and called them monkeys, slaves and slurs. And, over the summer, reports surfaced that in Tijuana, Mexico, two hours away from Los Angeles, Haitian asylum seekers are facing mistreatment and abuse due to systemic racism. They have been turned away from housing, denied urgent medical care and brutally physically attacked because of their skin color and nationality.
But one needn’t point to the border to find anti-Black hate crimes. In 2018, Latinx gang members pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges for firebombing the residences of African Americans in an L.A. housing development in the Eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights four years earlier. The attack was unprovoked, and the targets included sleeping women and children, the Justice Department reported. At the time, I was stunned that 21st-century Los Angeles had seen an act of racial terrorism comparable to the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that cost four little Black girls their lives.
“There have been plenty of people who’ve been talking about the fact that the city is anti-Black,” Cannick said. “Being an anti-Black city doesn’t mean just what’s happening at City Hall. It means people not hiring Black people, people not renting to Black people, people not selling to Black people, contracting with them. I’m trying to be really mindful of not painting an entire community with a broad brush … but, yes, there are pockets of the city that are still anti-Black.”
The Boyle Heights bombings weren’t the first time Latinx gang members had attacked Black Angelenos due to racial animus. In 2007, Latinx gangs made headlines for shooting and killing random Black people in a campaign that the Southern Poverty Law Center described as “ethnic cleansing” of Latinx neighborhoods. Some of these incidents took place in Highland Park, a neighborhood I lived in when this killing campaign took place. Reading this news, I was terrified, for I had walked around that community clueless that my race made me a potential target. Ultimately, Black people posed no threat to Highland Park, which White transplants went on to gentrify beyond recognition.
The terror I felt then returned a few years ago as I walked through another Eastside neighborhood, and two Latinx men loudly inquired what a Black person was doing there. But Black people have long been a presence on that part of town. Prominent Black Americans such as the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, the theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and the late Black Panther Party activist Eldridge Cleaver all grew up on the Eastside.
Los Angeles is also home to a reported 23,000 Afro Latinos out of an overall Latinx population of 4.8 million. That’s likely an undercount, as the Afro Latino population has long been underrepresented by the census. Nationally, about six million people, or 12 percent of the Latinx community, identify as Afro Latino, according to the Pew Research Center.
Well before the L.A. City Council scandal, Afro Latinas such as Tanya Katerí Hernández, Zahira Kelly Cabrera and Dash Harris Machado have consistently raised awareness about anti-Blackness in the Latinx community. In Los Angeles, one of the city’s most powerful women, Cecily Myart-Cruz, has Black and Mexican heritage. She heads United Teachers Los Angeles, which condemned the racist remarks of the city’s Latinx leaders.
“When anti-Black rhetoric continues leading to the death of Black folx to this day, it is abhorrent that these elected officials would speak and condone racist slurs and words of violence against a Black child — especially from the mouth of a former LAUSD school board member in a BIPOC community,” UTLA said in a statement. “As educators, we are here to make sure our students and our communities do not face this type of harm.”
Martinez served on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District from 2009 to 2013. On the recording, she said that the Black son of White Councilmember Mike Bonin needed a “beatdown,” attributing what she perceived to be the child’s misbehavior to lenient White parenting. Meanwhile, de León implied that Bonin flaunts his adopted son like a fashion accessory. But de León’s main complaint concerned Black political power in Los Angeles, which he compared to the “Wizard of Oz.” “When you’re at the side of the curtain, it’s like this big voice, it sounds big,” he said. “It sounds like there’s thousands. And, then, when you actually pull the curtain … you see the little Wizard of Oz.”
Latinx leaders filled only four of the city’s 15 council seats when the recorded conversation about redistricting took place. Black lawmakers, meanwhile, occupy three of the seats on the council despite the Black community’s much smaller population. While some news outlets have implied that Black people have too much power in the city, they have not made similar arguments about White lawmakers, who are also overrepresented on the city council, occupying six seats despite comprising 28.5 percent of L.A.’s population. In California and across the country, Black people are second only to White people in voter turnout. That gives the candidates they back an edge, including the late Tom Bradley, elected L.A.’s first — and, so far, only — Black mayor in 1973.
“Just because a person’s Black doesn’t mean that they can’t represent a district that is primarily White or primarily Latino,” Cannick said. “And the same goes for other groups. I mean, hell, we know that because for a long time all we had was White representatives.”
California’s Black leaders have been willing to collaborate with leaders from other marginalized groups for the best interests of communities of color. As electoral districts were redrawn a decade ago, three civil rights organizations representing Black, Latinx and Asian-American Californians worked together on “unity” redistricting maps to maximize the political power of their communities.
But talk of cross-racial collaboration to better serve L.A.’s marginalized groups was not heard on the leaked recordings of the city officials. Instead, the foursome focused on forming “a little Latino caucus of our own,” as Herrera put it.
The City Hall scandal broke with just weeks left of the mayoral race between Rep. Karen Bass — who would make history as the city’s first woman mayor — and billionaire Rick Caruso. Supporters of Bass, who is Black, say she’s capable of unifying Los Angeles. In the early 1990s, she started the Community Coalition to empower Black and Latinx Angelenos to improve their neighborhoods. The Los Angeles Times editorial board endorsed Bass for mayor last week for this very reason, noting that public pessimism following the City Hall scandal threatens to unravel any sense of racial solidarity in Los Angeles.
In her resignation letter, Martinez doubled down on the idea that she viewed herself primarily as a representative of the Latinx community, writing that she hoped she’d inspired “all little Latina girls across this city.” But it’s unclear which Latina girls she hopes to inspire. Are little Indigenous Latina girls or Afro-Latina girls included? Her remarks on the recordings indicate that she has a much narrower view of the Latinx community than actually exists in Los Angeles.
It’s tempting to think that Martinez’s resignation letter and the refusal of de León and Cedillo to resign means that Los Angeles will never rebound from this scandal. But this is the city that recovered from the 1992 rebellion, and there are already hopeful signs in the wake of the current crisis. More than a week after the leaked audio hit the press, the demonstrations against those involved have not let up. Angelenos have protested at City Hall and the district offices and residences of council members. The vast majority of these protesters have been Latinx Angelenos declaring that they won’t stand for racism against Black or Indigenous communities.
“It is as it should be,” Cannick said of this development. “If there was a Black elected official [involved in such a controversy], Latinos would be expecting us to hold them accountable.” L.A.’s Asian-American leaders have also gotten involved, holding a press conference Friday vowing their community won’t be used to further stoke racial tensions and stressing the importance of speaking up when others express bigotry.
The protests and the press conference won’t bring Los Angeles together overnight. The remarks the council members made on the recordings unearthed difficult emotions — pain, anger, distrust. But these efforts of support send a signal to the city’s marginalized communities that directly contradicts the message sent by the men who kept quiet as their powerful woman colleague spewed one hate-filled insult after another. They say simply: “You’re worth speaking up for.”