A raucous crowd of protesters packed the Los Angeles City Council chamber Tuesday, calling for the resignation of three members involved in a closed-door meeting in which racist language was used to describe colleagues — even the toddler of councilmember who wasn’t present — as they plotted to safeguard Latino political strength in Council districts.
President Joe Biden joined the deluge of criticism, saying through White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre that former City Council President Nury Martinez, who is taking a leave of absence, and Councilmen Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo, all Democrats, should resign.
“The language that was used and tolerated during that conversation was unacceptable, and it was appalling. They should all step down,” Jean-Pierre said.
The uproar was triggered by a leaked recording of crude, racist comments from a nearly year-old meeting, which also provided an unvarnished look into City Hall’s racial rivalries. Those involved in the meeting were all Latinos.
Martinez said in the recorded conversation that white Councilmember Mike Bonin handled his young Black son as if he were an “accessory” and said of his son “Parece changuito,” or “he’s like a monkey,” the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
At another point on the hourlong recording, Martinez, the first Latina appointed president of the City Council, called indigenous immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca “tan feos,” or “so ugly.”
The discussion, which also included a powerful Latino labor leader, who has since resigned, centered on protecting Latino political power during the redrawing of council district boundaries, known as redistricting. The once-a-decade process can pit one group against another to gain political advantage in future elections.
At the ornate Council chamber, an overflow crowd of protesters delayed the start of Tuesday’s meeting as they angrily shouted for de Leon and Cedillo to leave the room.
“Resign now,” the protesters yelled, sometimes embellishing the chants with profanity. Others shouted: “This meeting cannot start. This house is out of order,” and “Get out!”
De Leon sat impassively at his seat, his eyes cast downward, as protesters called on him by name to exit the chamber. Others on the 15-member Council urged the crowd to settle down and allow the meeting to begin.
Martinez has stepped down from the leadership job and apologized Monday, saying she was ashamed of her racially offensive language in the year-old recording. However, she did not resign her council seat. She announced Tuesday that “I need to take a leave of absence and take some time to have an honest and heartfelt conversation with my family, my constituents, and community leaders.”
She did not appear at the meeting.
In emotional remarks at the meeting, Bonin said he was deeply wounded by the taped discussion. He lamented the harm to his young son and the fact that the city was in international headlines spotlighting the racist language.
“I’m sickened by it,” he said, calling again for his colleagues’ resignations.
Black and Latino constituents often build alliances in politics. But tensions and rivalries among groups separated by race, geography, partisanship or religion have a long history in Los Angeles and, indeed, the country. The friction can cross into housing, education and jobs — even prisons — as well as the spoils of political power.
In one of the most diverse cities in the nation, a long line of public speakers at the meeting said the disclosure of the secretly taped meeting brought with it echoes of the Jim Crow era and was a stark example of “anti-Blackness.” There were calls for investigations, and reforming redistricting policy.
Many of the critics also were Latino, who spoke of being betrayed by their own leaders.
Candido Marez, 70, a retired business owner, said he wasn’t surprised by Martinez’s language, who is known for being blunt and outspoken.
“Her words blew up this city. It is disgraceful,” he said. “She must resign.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that the recording was posted on Reddit by a now-suspended user. It is unclear who recorded the audio, who uploaded it to Reddit and whether anyone else was present.
Calls for the councilmembers to resign have come from across the Democratic establishment, including from U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso and members Council. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has stopped short of doing so, denouncing the racist language and saying he was “encouraged that those involved have apologized and begun to take responsibility for their actions.”
Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, serving as acting president of the Council, said he was alarmed by the “casual racism” on the recording, and the brazen self-interest as they discussed “carving up the city for pure political gain.”
“Public opinion has rendered a verdict and the verdict is they all must resign,” he said.