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California

Man accused of racist drawing: ‘They’re trying to crucify me’

Herb Wesson
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson.
(Los Angeles Times)

The man accused of making racist threats on a public comment card directed toward Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson said that he would apologize but insisted that the drawing of a burning cross and a man hung from a tree with a racial epithet amounted to satire.

Wayne Spindler, an Encino-based attorney who specializes in immigration law, told The Times that he didn’t expect such an uproar and denied that he threatened Wesson.

The 46-year-old said his exercise of free speech in the vein of the controversial French publication Charlie Hebdo has been inflated in order to stymie participation. Wesson, the first black councilman to serve as president, was sending a message to City Hall critics, he alleged.

“This is what you get when you go against us,” Spindler said of his arrest on May 13 at City Hall, where he is frequently seen at council meetings. “It’s a warning. [Wesson] is setting an example to tell all the other activists: Stay out.”

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A spokeswoman for Wesson emphasized that the councilman strongly supports and defends the 1st Amendment.

“The issue at hand is not about the right to free speech,” according to Vanessa Rodriguez. “Rather, [it is] about one individual using racial epithets to threaten another’s life, and that will not be tolerated in the most diverse city in the nation.”

In Spindler’s telling, the blue marker drawings submitted during a May 11 committee meeting in Van Nuys are a portrayal of Los Angeles politics. The card appears to depict a Ku Klux Klan figure holding a sign that states, “Herb = [N-word].” The image of a body dangling from a tree by a noose is evocative of the lynching of blacks in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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The burning cross, he said, refers to how the city is “burning down with corruption.” The person hanging by the tree captured how Department of Water and Power customers would suffer with a recently approved rate increase.

“We’re getting lynched with a 20% rate hike,” Spindler said.

The hooded figure that resembles a Ku Klux Klansman carrying a noose, he said, was a spin on the animated icon from the city’s water conservation campaign, Save the Drop L.A. Spindler said he just added legs and arms.

And the use of the N-word to label Wesson?

“He gets called this by black speakers, white speakers,” Spindler said.

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Wesson has asserted a different interpretation, and pointedly addressed Spindler near the end of the meeting where the card was submitted.

“He calls me the N-word and has [an image] of me hanging from a tree,” Wesson told the audience. “So I just want to go on record to make sure that the city attorney’s office knows that this idiot has done what he’s done, not man enough ... to come up to my face and say something like that.”

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When Spindler began to respond from the audience, Wesson instructed the sergeants to “show him the way out,” according to audio of the meeting.

“You get out. You get out,” Wesson said. “Nobody’s threatening you. You just need to treat people respectfully, and you don’t know how to do that.”

But as Spindler sees it, Wesson silenced him and prevented him from giving a response.

“Rather than challenging me to a fight, how about asking for an apology? He never did. I tried to explain,” Spindler said, reiterating that he would apologize for the card. “You don’t say, ‘Come up and say it to my face,’” he added, cackling. “That’s not constituent services!”

The card was later shown to police, and investigators with the LAPD’s Threat Management Unit concluded that the drawings warranted taking Spindler into custody.

Spindler said that two days after the meeting, he was following a typical routine when he was arrested as he entered City Hall. LAPD officers handcuffed him and put him in jail, booking him on a felony count of making a criminal threat. He was released on bail that night.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County district attorney’s office, confirmed that prosecutors were evaluating the case and deciding whether to file charges. Spindler is scheduled to be arraigned June 10.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day’s top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

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After news of the arrest emerged this week, Spindler said he has felt anger, fear and mortification. He insists he is not a Ku Klux Klan member, although he sometimes wears a white hood with a swastika at council meetings.

Spindler says he wears the hood to symbolize the “clan” mentality of the LAPD, and he wasn’t wearing a hood on the night of the May 11 meeting.

As an attorney, Spindler said he often represents immigrants facing the prospect of deportation. On Thursday morning, shortly after photos of him were plastered in the news media, he had to appear at a hearing in Adelanto for a client, he said.

Najee Ali, a local activist and director of Project Islamic Hope, called for Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to file hate crime charges against Spindler. Others have called for his law license to be revoked or for the State Bar of California to discipline him, but Spindler said his City Hall protests should be kept separate from his part-time legal practice.

“They are trying to crucify me because I have a bar license,” Spindler said. “Do you want to take a guy’s livelihood away?” Spindler has had a long history of outrageous behavior during public meetings, City Councilman Paul Koretz said. But the councilman said the comment card took things into new territory.

“This is reaching a point where one wonders if he isn’t a real danger,” Koretz said.

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, one of three black members of the council, said the drawing of the noose was unprecedented and a “direct communication of an act of violence.”

Spindler said he meant no harm, and if he could do it over again, he would fill out his comment card a different way.

“I would put down, ‘Boring meeting, vote no on the proposition,’” he said. “But we don’t have time machines, do we?”

matt.hamilton@latimes.com | Twitter: @MattHjourno

emily.alpert@latimes.com | Twitter: @LATimesemily

david.zahniser@latimes.com | Twitter: @davidzahniser

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