Column: Stop attacking activists — political change at City Hall wouldn’t exist without them

Protester Julia Rick screams at City Council members on Dec. 13.
Protester Julia Rick screams at council members as others mock and taunt embattled City Councilman Kevin de León at a council meeting on Dec. 13.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Lately it feels like the Los Angeles City Council has declared open season on activists.

Last week, departing Councilmember Paul Koretz told his critics, “I yield my time. F— you,” during a recorded City Council meeting — a reference to a viral public comment made during a 2020 public Zoom meeting convened by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Former Councilmember Gil Cedillo, whose racist comments caught on tape spurred calls for his resignation, accused his critics of “warped zealotry.” Later in his non-resignation letter he called himself a victim of cancel culture and likened himself to the singer Lizzo, a comparison that elides the different responsibilities that pop stars and elected officials shoulder.

On multiple occasions, Councilman Kevin de León has brawled with his critics. During a campaign event last year on Olvera Street with former Sheriff Alex Villanueva, video shows De León pushing a protester and grabbing the cellphone of another.


And last Friday, De León, Santa hat askew, body-slammed activist Jason Reedy into a table after Reedy got in his face. Councilmember Monica Rodriguez called Reedy’s behavior “terrorism.” Last Saturday, a disruptive protester was shoved out of Councilmember Traci Park’s inaugural ceremony by a member of the audience.

City Councilman Kevin de León, left, confers with Council President Paul Krekorian at a council meeting on Dec. 13.
Embattled City Councilman Kevin de León, left, confers with Council President Paul Krekorian at a council meeting on Dec. 13.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The city’s highest-ranking officials are openly attacking their critics, and it feels all too similar to the way Donald Trump stoked violence against protesters at his presidential campaign rallies in 2016.

Yes, the protesters are loud and aggressive and they disrupt city business. Violence has no place in healthy political discourse, and for what it’s worth, I don’t think protesters or politicians in L.A. are seeking violence — unlike the Trump supporters who attacked the U.S. Capitol last year.

But it’s one thing if protesters curse, yell and express anger. It’s a completely different thing when elected representatives, who can enlist LAPD officers for security, partake. Trump’s disastrous tenure as president, culminating in a literal attack on the Capitol, has shown us how aggressive behavior from politicians can encourage their supporters to be aggressive too.

And it’s worth asking: Would this moment of political change at City Hall have happened without loud, disruptive activism? Have decades of droning away during the public comment section and other accepted venues had any discernible effect?


Meanwhile, three former City Council members are facing federal corruption charges, and on the leaked City Hall recordings everyone can hear for themselves the casual racism and blatant political corruption that goes on behind the scenes.

Is it any wonder that people feel they need to shout to be heard?

UCLA professor and activist David C. Turner said it’s a deeply troubling sign when elected leaders or their supporters attack their constituents and critics. All protest is by nature confrontational, and no social movement has ever succeeded without violating the rules of decorum. People forget that even Martin Luther King Jr. could bring cities to a standstill when he came to town, Turner said.

“There’s always this dichotomy drawn between those who protest nicely versus those who are disruptive or confrontational,” Turner said. “But if you study social movements, you know that they need one another. Real change doesn’t happen without both.”

Radical demands create the rhetorical space for more moderate reforms to occur, said Brent Simpson, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina who studies social movements and activism. Being associated with aggression and violence hurts public perceptions of protests. But more confrontational protest can draw attention to lesser-known causes and rally support for more moderate groups, Simpson said.

“By presenting this so-called radical flank, the movement’s moderate groups end up looking better than they would,” Simpson said.

It’s important to note that many of those shouting at public meetings have already attempted to have dialogues in accepted venues, said Zen Sekizawa, a founding member of J-Town Action and Solidarity.


“A lot of people are painting us as immature kids who want to yell for no reason, but it’s actually quite the opposite,” said Sekizawa, who is 47. She says the group, which formed two years ago to advocate on issues of gentrification and homelessness, has members as old as 86 and as young as 10.

For the past two years the group sought meetings with De León’s office about preventing a sweep of the homeless encampment at Toriumi Plaza in Little Tokyo. After months of back-and-forth trying to set a date for a meeting that never took place, the encampment was abruptly cleared and fenced off this past March. A lot of the activists’ anger comes from the feeling of being strung along, Sekizawa said.

Sekizawa said the group’s actions are informed by a long history of displacement and disrespect by the city. Her family used to run the famed Little Tokyo punk venue and restaurant Atomic Cafe, which was displaced twice by developers. The building that once housed it was demolished in 2015 to make way for Metro’s Regional Connector. And just down the street from the plaza, at the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, hundreds of Japanese Americans were rounded up and bused to incarceration camps in the 1940s.

“We all talk about this. We all remember it. And that’s why the sweep feels so hypocritical,” Sekizawa said.

Steven Chun, another J-Town Action member, said the group has faced constant violence and attempts at intimidation. De León supporters have shouted Asian slurs at them and many J-Town members have been shoved. Chun was the protester De León pushed away at the Olvera Street campaign event.

“It’s important that everyone ask themselves why they are so focused on civility and decorum,” said Chun, 23. “It does nothing to challenge their power if you just protest how they want you to protest.”


A J-Town Action member, Sheryl Quock, 28, captured the video of De León shoving Reedy. When people criticize their tactics, Quock points to the work the group does besides shouting at meetings. Most of their time is spent feeding low-income seniors, providing food, healthcare and mental health services to homeless people, and organizing with other Little Tokyo groups.

“What we are expressing is driven by what we see on the ground, and having people that we know who we’ve been helping die on the street,” Quock said.

I’d argue that everyone who attends a council meeting or engages with the city is an activist, whether you’re seeking a preferential parking district, zone change or De León’s long-overdue resignation.

It sets a dangerous precedent when we excuse attacks and violence against protesters. Elected officials need to find a nonviolent way to engage.

It’s their job to listen, even if we are shouting.