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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Dakota Smith, David Zahniser, Julia Wick and Benjamin Oreskes

Protests, anger, tears roil LA City Council meeting over leaked racist recordings

LOS ANGELES — The L.A. City Council struggled to begin its meeting Tuesday as Angelenos flooded the chambers and screamed with anger two days after a surreptitious recording surfaced on which Council member Nury Martinez is heard making racist remarks and denigrating colleagues.

Then the crowd went silent when Council member Mike Bonin asked to speak.

Martinez made racist remarks about Bonin’s son in the recording as her colleagues, Council members Kevin de León and Gill Cedillo, laughed and made wisecracks.

“I take a lot of hits, and I know I practically invite a bunch of them. But my son? it makes my soul bleed,” Bonin said through tears. “Asking for forgiveness is a good first step. Well, it’s a second step because first you must resign and then ask for forgiveness.”

“I know I can never really know or comprehend the real weight of the daily relentless anti-Black racism my son is going to face, but man, I know the fire that you feel when someone tries to destroy Black boy joy. Man, it’s a rage,” Bonin added.

Soon after, the council went on a brief recess. The meeting came after Martinez said Tuesday she would take a leave of absence from the Los Angeles City Council.

The comments elicited outrage across Los Angeles, with demands for her resignation coming Monday from Mayor Eric Garcetti, mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and numerous members of the City Council.

“This has been one of the most difficult times of my life and I recognize this is entirely of my own making,” Martinez said in a statement. “At this moment, 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. I am so sorry to the residents of Council District 6, my colleagues, and the City of Los Angeles.”

Inside City Hall, dozens of Angelenos chanted and waited with eager anticipation for the doors to the John Ferraro Chambers to open.

When they finally did, people streamed in. Among the group was Sade Elhawary, who with a group of fellow organizers walked in wearing black T-shirts with white text: “I’m with the Blacks” — a reference to Martinez using a profanity to refer to L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón and saying he was “with the Blacks.”

“For us it was about not just representing and being proud of being ‘the Blacks,’ she said, making air quotes with her fingers, “but also providing the platform for other people of color to be proud to stand in solidarity with Black people in a way that shouldn’t be denigrated or diminished in the way that she did.”

Prior to the meeting, the crowd chanted “fuera” — “out” in Spanish — with Council members Cedillo, de León and Martinez’s names. Cedillo and de León were also heard on the tape.

Council members took their seats as thunderous chants of “We’re with the Blacks” and “Shut it down” echoed through the room. Bonin sat with his head bowed and hands clasped as the crowd continued to chant.

Cedillo and de León were at their seats as the audience screamed at the elected members.

“This entire council is meeting today to work through these issues, and let’s respect people who showed up to give their voice,” said Council member Mitch O’Farrell, who served as Martinez’s second-in-command and is currently acting president.

After several minutes of impassioned anger from the crowd, with some folks saying, “The meeting cannot happen,” Bonin stood up and spoke.

“Can I please ask for this opportunity to begin so that we can speak and you can speak to the issue that had been brought here?” Bonin asked the crowd, to no avail.

Before the meeting, a group of religious leaders held a news conference outside City Hall.

“This ends today. This ends right now. I will be here every day until our City Council members step down,” said the Rev. Rae Huang, who volunteers with Black Lives Matter, appearing with the group roughly an hour before the council meeting.

The leaked audio and its aftermath halted the political rise of Martinez, 49, who in 2019 became the first Latina to hold the powerful position of City Council president — a post she resigned from on Monday.

Martinez represents San Fernando Valley communities including Van Nuys and Sun Valley.

Martinez’s remarks, made during an October 2021 meeting over the city’s redistricting process with two other council members and the head of a labor group, targeted City Councilman Bonin and others.

She said Bonin handled his young Black son as though he were an “accessory” and said of the son, “Parece changuito,” or “He’s like a monkey.” And she referred to “little short dark people” in Koreatown as “Tan feos” — “They’re ugly.”

Speaking about Gascón, Martinez said, “F--- that guy ... He’s with the Blacks.”

Council members de León and Cedillo and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera all also apologized Sunday for their role in the conversation. At one point, de León had appeared to compare Bonin’s handling of his child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag. Herrera resigned from his position Monday night.

Martinez served on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, then joined the City Council after a come-from-behind race in 2013.

She led the council through the rocky first year of the pandemic, focusing on helping renters and a vaccination requirement for city. She also pushed to redirect money from the Police Department to social services and other following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.

Protesters on the left and the right sides of the political spectrum targeted her and other politicians in 2020 and 2021 by gathering — sometimes with bullhorns — outside their homes, prompting Martinez to support a law barring protests close to a target’s home.

A group returned Sunday night to her home in Sun Valley on Sunday to protest her racist comments, according to a video posted on Twitter.

The leaked audio of Martinez and her colleagues revealed explicit conversations about the council district maps that had recently been proposed by the city’s 21-member redistricting commission.

The once-a-decade redistricting process reshapes the city’s 15 council districts and sets off competition among various groups over political power and representation.

Martinez’s leave is the latest shakeup at City Hall, which has been rocked by numerous scandals over the last few years. City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted last year on bribery charges, while former City Council member José Huizar is awaiting trial on felony charges stemming from downtown development.

Former City Council member Mitch Englander was sentenced January 2021 for lying to federal authorities about his dealings with a developer.

Martinez’s leave also arrives at a key moment for City Hall. As many as five council members could depart by the end of the year, depending on the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.

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