Thread Mark Ridley-Thomas trial

Opinion: Why Black Angelenos should be angry with Mark Ridley-Thomas

Mark Ridley-Thomas speaking on election day in 2020
Mark-Ridley Thomas speaking on election day in 2020, when he was returned to the Los Angeles City Council.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)
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It was just coincidence that Mark Ridley-Thomas was convicted of corruption last week on the same day that ex-President Trump was indicted on falsifying business records to conceal other crimes.

Yet both moments were historic.

Both were the results of aggressive attempts to hold elected officials accountable for alleged wrongdoing. And both figures have stalwart supporters who say justice hasn’t been served because these men mean too much to the public to be taken down by crimes that don’t look that serious on paper, even if they’re felonies.

Let’s note the obvious: MRT isn’t Trump.

The acclaim, coming right after a jury’s guilty verdict, showed the huge base of friendship and support Mark Ridley-Thomas amassed over three decades in office.

April 2, 2023

Trump practiced corruption in plain sight, from Day 1, during his one term in office. He has actively flouted the law, espoused racist views, encouraged largely white supporters to riot on his behalf, intentionally undermined the tenets of democracy .


Ridley-Thomas comes from a long history of Black activism that strives to fulfill the true promise of multiracial democracy, something Trump and GOP America routinely deride. As a veteran public servant — something Trump never was before being elected — MRT has advanced policies and projects based on that activism and over the years became a touchstone, especially in his years as Los Angeles County supervisor, for the possibility for large-scale institutional change.

And yet Ridley-Thomas shares with the former president an aura of untouchability, of being above the law. Before his indictment last year for corruption stemming from a scheme to reward USC with contracts in exchange for moving money and getting a teaching position for his son, the feds spent years conducting a probe that increasingly began to look damning. Yet Ridley-Thomas shrugged it off. Perhaps he thought all his years in office — City Council, state Legislature, county supervisor, back to City Council — earned him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he thought that doing good and doing something for himself on the public dime were not incompatible.

Veteran L.A. County politician Mark Ridley-Thomas is found guilty of federal corruption charges related to benefits his son received at USC.

March 30, 2023

The fact that he is Black and part of a shrinking cohort of influential Black politicians in L.A. might have actually bolstered that sense of untouchability. After the indictment there was a lot of insinuating from Ridley-Thomas supporters that Black pols like him are scrutinized far more than non-Black counterparts.

The Rev. Kenneth Walden, pastor of Holman United Methodist Church and part of a Ridley-Thomas support group called the South L.A. Clergy for Political Accountability, said in a statement released earlier this year that the indictment was part of the racial purge discussed in the now-infamous round table in which some of Ridley-Thomas’ fellow city council members tossed around racial insults and plotted a power grab. This, Walden suggested, was the real crime.

“It speaks to the pernicious effect of racially motivated animosity and a level of injustice that could easily be visited upon any Black leader,” he declared.

Was Ridley-Thomas targeted? I don’t believe so. But the reality that a double standard is imposed on Black people is all the more reason to keep things clean and not expect the kind of insulation typically given non-Black folks (but not always: former City Councilmembers Mitch Englander, who is white, and José Huizar, who is Latino, both went down for corruption).


A jury found the longtime politician guilty in a sprawling federal case involving a quid pro quo with USC. Replacing him won’t be easy for Black L.A.

March 30, 2023

More importantly, you should keep it clean precisely because it serves the interests of your Black constituents who rely on you to be fair and accountable to them. They need you in office. To get bounced because of a corruption conviction is a tragedy not because of racism but because Ridley-Thomas made choices. For job security for his son, and for funneling $100,000 to his son’s nonprofit, he imperiled the representation of all of us. He sold us out for cheap. That should make us angry.

Too many Black Angelenos seem to miss that point on purpose. They’re angry instead that someone like Ridley-Thomas, who cared so much about justice, was found guilty. Therefore, in their minds, justice wasn’t served.

But it was. Evidence was presented and a jury rendered a decision. Nor was this a case of flimsy documentation or an example of a Black man being railroaded or blindsided. The trial made it clear: Good deeds cannot be a defense of bad ones. Besides, all the good Ridley-Thomas has done was never in question. It was never on trial.

The most disturbing implication of all the grumbling about Ridley-Thomas’ conviction is that he should have gotten a pass because he merely took liberties other politicians take all the time, that he did what white people do with impunity (Trump, for instance). For any advocate of racial justice this is the slipperiest of slopes: Criticize the ethics of the mainstream, then argue when convenient that you’re entitled to those ethics, too. Such doublethink serves Black people not at all, not least by fueling cynicism about the possibility of change, about politics in general. That’s exactly what we don’t need right now.

Remember the presumption of innocence? That means we don’t punish people accused of crimes before they’ve been convicted.

Dec. 15, 2022

Self-serving behavior didn’t ultimately serve Ridley-Thomas, who has tarnished if not entirely sunk the legacy his supporters extol. His defense argued that what he did might have been unethical, but it was not illegal. Even if that were true, how is being merely unethical OK? Such assertions are not just utterly unconvincing, they’re damning.

Unconvincing and damning explanations for his prolific, unsavory misdeeds are to be expected from Trump, but for someone like Ridley-Thomas, it’s unacceptable. That we had such high hopes for him is the silver lining in all this. Our great expectations, at the end of the day, may remain the most important part of a legacy we thought we already knew.


Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion.