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Protests, anger, tears roil L.A. City Council meeting over leaked racist recordings

A man at a microphone wipes his eye.
An emotional L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin addresses the public at Tuesday’s council meeting.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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Politicians, religious leaders, activists and everyday Angelenos directed their fury at the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday, telling elected leaders about the rage and sadness they felt over a recording in which Councilmember Nury Martinez is heard making racist remarks and denigrating colleagues.

Martinez was not in the room, announcing shortly before the meeting that she was taking a leave of absence. She stepped down as council president a day earlier.

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Hours later, President Biden took the extraordinary step of weighing in on the controversy, with his press secretary saying that he thinks all three politicians who took part in the recorded conversation — Martinez and Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León — should resign.

In the packed council chamber, a boisterous crowd echoed that view, with some calling for the meeting to be canceled unless all three stepped down. The three can be heard talking to a high-level county labor leader on the recording, whose contents were first reported Sunday by The Times.

The City Council struggled to begin its meeting Tuesday as Angelenos flooded the chambers and screamed angrily two days after a surreptitious recording surfaced on which Councilmember Nury Martinez is heard making racist remarks and denigrating colleagues.

Oct. 11, 2022

After nearly an hour of chanting and shouting, the room fell silent as Councilmember Mike Bonin gave a tearful response to the recording, in which Martinez made racist remarks about his young son, who is Black.

Martinez said on the recording that Bonin handled his young son as though he were an “accessory” and said of the child, “Parece changuito,” or “He’s like a monkey.”

“I take a lot of hits, and I know I practically invite a bunch of them. But my son? It makes my soul bleed,” said Bonin, his voice choked with emotion.

“I know I can never really know or comprehend the real weight of the daily relentless anti-Black racism my son is going to face,” Bonin went on. “But man, I know the fire that you feel when someone tries to destroy Black boy joy. Man, it’s a rage.”

Other councilmembers responded to the fury by announcing a series of reform proposals. One would ask voters to expand the size of the council in 2024. Another would create a new committee to look at ways of limiting corruption. A third would ensure that the next redistricting process — the subject of the secret recording — is decided by an independent citizens’ panel, not the council.

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, serving as acting president, announced his support for those proposals. And he denounced what he called “the casual racism,” the “abhorrent language,” the “dehumanizing racist reference” to Bonin’s son, the “denigration of Indigenous peoples” and “the familiar tropes against LBGTQ+ individuals.”

O’Farrell, who is gay, said he had attended Bonin’s wedding to Sean Arian. He described Bonin’s family as “an inspiration” to him and his partner, and the entire city.

“You deserved better,” O’Farrell told Bonin, his voice cracking. “We deserve better. The people of Los Angeles deserve better.”

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Martinez was recorded in October 2021 at a meeting to discuss redistricting, the city’s once-a-decade process of redrawing council district boundaries. During the conversation, Martinez mentioned Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, saying “F— that guy. ... He’s with the Blacks.”

At one point in the recordings, Martinez said Bonin’s son had misbehaved at a parade and needed a “beatdown.” At another, De León appeared to compare Bonin’s handling of his child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag.

The leaked recordings quickly sparked outrage across Los Angeles, with demands for the councilmembers’ resignations from Mayor Eric Garcetti, mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and numerous members of the City Council.

Martinez has apologized repeatedly in recent days, while De León said he regretted his actions and “fell short.” Cedillo said he should have intervened during the conversation, but did not mock his colleagues or make racist statements.

Cedillo and De León started out Tuesday’s meeting by sitting in their chairs. But they immediately became the subject of angry chants from the crowd, and eventually left the room.

Pastor Thembekila Crystal Coleman, addressing the council, said she welcomed their departure.

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“Their seats are poisonous. The seat of Nury is poisonous,” she said.

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) told the council that, like Bonin’s son, he was adopted by a white family and is Black. He said the city cannot move forward without the three resignations.

“Trust me, there will be a healing, because everybody in this room and everybody in this city wants that healing,” he said. “But we can’t have it without accountability.”

A leaked recording of L.A. City Council members and a labor official includes racist remarks. Council President Nury Martinez apologizes; Councilmember Kevin de León expresses regret.

Oct. 9, 2022

Under the City Charter, there does not appear to be a mechanism that the rest of the council could use to remove their colleagues in this situation. Instead, six councilmembers introduced a motion on Tuesday seeking to censure Martinez, De León and Cedillo — a largely symbolic move.

Garcetti, who leaves office in December, said he is interested in ways of rewriting the City Charter to provide more transparency and better governance. He said he’d like to see the City Council change its process for appointing members to committees and find a way to fill vacancies on the council faster through special elections rather than appointments.

In the audience, some people wore black T-shirts with white text that read “I’m with the Blacks” — a reference to Martinez’s remarks about the district attorney. Others carried makeshift signs with the same message.

Before the meeting began, the crowd chanted fuera — “out” in Spanish — using the names of Cedillo, De León and Martinez.

Councilmembers entered the chamber to the thunderous chants of “Shut it down” echoing throughout the room. Members of the public spoke for about two hours.

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said community activist Morris Griffin, noting that he’s been involved with Los Angeles politics since the aftermath of the 1991 Rodney King beating by police officers.

Griffin implored the council to change the City Charter to allow the council to force the three colleagues to resign — a move that would itself require voter approval.

So far, the only resignation has come from Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who hosted the secretly recorded meeting and occasionally chimed in during Martinez’s remarks.

VIDEO | 02:07
Mitch O’Farrell calls on council members to resign

The councilmember responds to racist remarks

The leaked audio and its aftermath abruptly halted the political rise of Martinez, 49, who in 2019 became the first Latina to hold the powerful position of council president. Martinez, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, had been considered at one point as a potential candidate for mayor.

Martinez’s decision to take a leave of absence was only the latest shake-up at City Hall in recent years. Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted last year on bribery charges and has been suspended for nearly a year.

Former Councilmember José Huizar is awaiting trial on felony charges of bribery, racketeering and fraud. And former Councilmember Mitch Englander was sentenced in 2021 for lying to authorities who were investigating Huizar.

Four councilmembers are scheduled to depart by the end of the year and a fifth, O’Farrell, is in a tough reelection fight. Cedillo, who lost his bid for a third term in June, is currently set to step down in December.

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The Rev. Rae Huang, who volunteers with the group Black Lives Matter, said she wants Cedillo, Martinez and De León to go immediately. Standing outside City Hall early in the day, she said she had no intention of letting up.

“I will be here every day until [they] step down,” she said.

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