Column: Racist recordings marked a new low for City Hall. Can it be the start of a better L.A.?
The Roman statesman Cicero, in the years before he was decapitated by political rivals in 43 BC, could not have known that one of his quotations would be engraved on the southern face of Los Angeles City Hall.
It reads: “He that violates his oath profanes the divinity of faith itself.”
The last time I noted this was in February 2019, when I wrote about the snake’s nest of political corruption scandals making news at the time, even as City Hall itself was in the midst of a rodent infestation.
“Employees shouldn’t have to come to work worried about rodents,” said then-council President Herb Wesson.
These days, there’s so much more than rodents to worry about, following a week of scandal that had me eying the Cicero quotation again as I made my way into the building for one of the more memorable City Council meetings in history.
If the oath to which Cicero referred was to serve with honor and integrity and to deliver on the promise of true leadership, the failings abounded, and the public figuratively demanded the heads of Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo.
As half the world knows by now, the three, along with labor leader Ron Herrera, were heard on a secret recording from a year ago setting back race relations in Los Angeles, the diversity capital of the U.S. Martinez, leader of the gang, called Oaxacans short, dark, ugly people and referred to the Black child of Councilman Mike Bonin as a monkey.
And so on and so on, profaning the divinity of faith itself. The conversation was a strategy session on how Latino leaders could cut into Black power and grab more for their people, ostensibly, or was it more for themselves?
At Tuesday’s meeting, council members were cursed and booed by a rainbow coalition of those who felt insulted by the bigotry and power-mongering heard on the recording. Their signs said, “Shame on you,” “Take out the trash” and “Our communities deserve better.” F-bombs flew, and a man standing next to me repeatedly banged a metal rod against a bench.
It was, at various moments, hard to know whether Los Angeles was coming apart or coming together. I still don’t know, several days later.
But that is indeed the question, with local elections less than a month away in a city of sprawling mansions and tattered tents, unfathomable wealth and abject poverty, and a prevailing sense that little if any progress is ever made on the most vexing and divisive issues.
After multiple denunciations of those heard on the offensive recording, Pastor William D. Smart of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took a slightly different tack, stepping to the podium in City Hall chambers to thank the offenders.
“Their actions have caused us to have a big coalition of people who have come out to really work together in unity and demonstrate together,” Smart later told me, saying the first order of business was to continue demanding the resignations of everyone heard on the recording. (Martinez and Herrera were the first to go.)
The recording, he said, “has helped us understand where they stand, and they have had an attitude of almost superiority — they have felt that they own parts of Los Angeles.”
At the council meeting, I sat next to Shianne Winston, vice president of Black Los Angeles Young Democrats, which she said was founded 10 years ago in the living room of mayoral candidate Karen Bass.
Winston wore a T-shirt that said, “I’m with the Blacks,” a reference to what Martinez had alleged on the tape about her sense of where Dist. Atty. George Gascón stands. When I asked Winston how she and others had made the shirts so quickly, she looked at me like the codger I am:
“Steve, we’re millennials,” she said.
“This is a huge turning point in the city,” Winston said, telling me the sentiments expressed on the recording are not surprising, but they are galvanizing.
Whereas the politicians spoke of dividing power along ethnic lines, Winston said their comments could further unite “Latino organizations, Asian American groups, Pacific Islanders … our friends and neighbors from other communities” around a common agenda.
And what’s the agenda?
All the assorted issues around income inequality and housing affordability, and also, demanding and supporting leadership that more closely reflects the ethnic makeup of the city and represents the interests of the people rather than the powerful.
Longtime activist Najee Ali stood near me with a raised, clenched fist, chanting “We are the Blacks,” part of the multiracial demand for all City Council business to come to a halt until everyone on the recording had resigned. During a quieter moment, I saw him speaking to the Rev. William Contreras of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.
“They were not looking after their community,” Contreras told me of the officials on the recording. “They were looking at what’s in it for themselves.”
Contreras, who described himself as a former missionary and said he spent three years living among the homeless to better understand their plight, was stung by Martinez’s comments about Indigenous communities.
“We are not dumb, we are not short and ugly,” he said, and people like himself are now all the more committed to demanding leaders who, “whether they are Black, white, Latino, are going to lead us not by the color of their skin but with integrity and moral authority.”
Admirable and hopeful as this notion is, kumbaya and consensus can be distant cousins, and the crude perspectives exposed on the recording could serve to further divide rather than unite.
The city has as many political fissures as earthquake faults, and the temblor this past week was at least partly about generational and leftward shifts that are welcomed by some and feared by others. On homelessness alone, the policy divide runs deep on everything from outlawing encampments to the type and cost of new housing.
And yet, while I’m wired for cynicism and conditioned for chaos, I want to believe Pastor Smart, who told me it’s possible for people to want different things but find common ground around unresolved challenges and shared humanity, and Shianne Winston, who believes we are at a turning point.
Cicero, by the way, had another notable observation that ought to be engraved on the wall of City Hall:
“The good of the people is the greatest law.”