Tensions between Black and Latino residents in LA spike in wake of Nury Martinez scandal

Officials in Los Angeles are struggling to contain the fallout stemming from the leaked audio of racist comments made by former City Council President Nury Martinez that forced her to resign.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the council held virtual meetings to try to move forward from the Martinez scandal after angry protesters disrupted in-person meetings at City Hall last week. But the topic nearly all the callers wanted to discuss during the public comments portion of both meetings was the leaked audio involving Martinez, a Hispanic who hurled crude and racist comments against Blacks and Americans of Oaxacan descent during a private meeting held in October 2021.

Much of the anger was directed at council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, both of who did not attend either meeting, for their involvement in the Martinez scandal, with several callers demanding their resignations. So far, the two men have refused to step down. Both chaired high-profile committees that dealt with housing and homelessness before being stripped of their duties this week.

Hundreds of people from LA’s Oaxacan community, along with prominent leaders from Indigenous communities across California, protesting at City Hall on Oct. 15. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

During Wednesday’s meeting, a representative from the LA County Business Federation — an alliance of 220 organizations representing over 410,000 employers in the city — delivered a stark message to Cedillo and de León.

“Your residents and our own colleagues have spoken,” she said. “It’s time for you to step down so that our city can move forward and begin to heal and finish tackling the many important issues that have been placed on hold because of your refusal to do the right thing for the city. You’re proving yourself completely unfit for office, and we’re calling on you to step down now.”

Christian Green, a sociology and African American History professor at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, said during Tuesday’s meeting that the past week was a “total disgrace and disheartening,” adding it was mind-boggling to see Cedillo and de León maintain their seats on the council.

“We deserve more than an apology,” Green said. “We keep talking about the word healing. But we cannot heal without facing the truth. What these elected officials did was revolting, repelling, repulsive, sickening, uninviting, and unsavory.”

Khansa Jones-Muhammad, a Black commissioner on LA’s reparations task force, called in Tuesday in her capacity as a regular citizen, decrying out the “institutional racism” that still exists. “Racism from the city’s leadership will, in no way, be tolerated by Black Angelenos,” she said.

Protesters at the Los Angeles City Council meeting in the Council Chamber at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.  (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Protesters at the Los Angeles City Council meeting in the Council Chamber at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Dozens of angry callers — many using expletives and insults — flooded the meetings, attesting to the perception that the fragile relationship between the Black and Latino communities is in an especially precarious state. One caller used clown music to mock the chamber, while others suggested the removal of the entire council.

Several callers raised past grievances relating to systemic racism, while others called the chamber complicit with the actions of their Hispanic colleagues who had been caught on tape.

Callers sharply criticized acting president Mitch O’Farrell for not allowing the hearing to go forward in-person, with one describing him as “cowardly.” O’Farrell had justified moving the hearing online after Councilman Mike Bonin, who delivered an emotional speech at an Oct. 11 meeting addressing racist comments Martinez made about his young son, tested positive for COVID in the hours after the meeting. Bonin was in close physical contact with several other councilmembers.

But not all callers were against de León and Cedillo remaining on the council. A woman, who didn’t identify herself, asked de León not to resign. “[de León] has done a great job, and his real voters in his district respect him,” she said. “I know the pressure on him is great with the LA City Council, [and his critics] acting like he killed someone.”

Council President Nury Martinez motion to appoint Heather Hutt as an interim council member for the 10th District, failed to receive the 10 votes required for a public hearing at City Hall on Tuesday, Aug.  30, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.  (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Council President Nury Martinez motion to appoint Heather Hutt as an interim council member for the 10th District, failed to receive the 10 votes required for a public hearing at City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The virtual forums did not stop dozens of protesters on Tuesday and Wednesday from making their voices heard outside City Hall.

“No resignations, no meetings!” protesters chanted, with some attempting to force their way into City Hall. Police officers in riot gear were able to push them back without incident.

Cedillo and de León, along with labor union leader Ron Herrera, who has also since resigned, were in the room in 2021 when Martinez referred to white councilmember Mike Bonin’s 7-year-old son, who is Black, as “parece changuito,” or “that little monkey.”

“They’re raising him like a little white kid,” Martinez can be heard saying in the audio. “I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner, and then I’ll bring him back.” She also referred to Bonin as a “little b—.”

A female caller at Tuesday’s meeting who did not identify herself by name vented frustration over the remarks. “This is nothing new for us. We’ve dealt with this kind of specific racism towards Black Americans from the Latino community before,” she said. “We’ve been dealing with it for a long time.”

The recording of the three powerful politicians discussing with a labor leader how to maintain their grip on power and expand Latino influence in the city has plunged the council into turmoil, and with Martinez’s resignation could dramatically reshape it. Cedillo, who lost his bid for a third term last June, is leaving office in December. De Leon is not up for re-election this year.

Councilmember District 1 - Gil Cedillo, left, and Councilmember District 14 - Kevin de León, right, at the Los Angeles City Council meeting at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.  (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Councilmember District 1 – Gil Cedillo, left, and Councilmember District 14 – Kevin de León, right, at the Los Angeles City Council meeting at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A group of protesters affiliated with Black Lives Matter has been camping near de León’s home in Eagle Rock since Sunday morning to ramp up the pressure on the embattled council member to resign. They also want a review of redistricting decisions and other policies that the council members worked on affecting the Black community.

“What came out of the recordings we heard last week was clear evidence that our city’s redistricting process was manipulated for personal political gain,” LA Council member Nitya Raman, who successfully pushed for a City Charter amendment that created an independent redistricting commission, said Tuesday .

Council member Paul Krekorian now has the unenviable task of restoring trust in the city council after being voted unanimously to be the next president. On Tuesday, he described this moment as “one of the most challenging times” the city has ever faced and said it was time for Angelinos to begin to heal and bridge gaps.

“I just need to reiterate that we just can’t allow two members who are in a position now of having dishonored their offices to hold the business of the city hostage,” said Krekorian, who has vowed to advance tangible steps to ensure that the power of the council president is reduced and not increased.

“It’s a privilege to serve in City Hall,” Krekorian said. “It’s a privilege to serve in any kind of public service. And we have that privilege. We have to commit ourselves to setting aside the differences that divide us, setting aside the idea that we serve a faction or a group, or a neighborhood at the expense of others. Los Angeles can’t afford that kind of thinking anymore. We have to recognize that you serve all of the people of Los Angeles.”

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