This past Sunday, I arrived in beautiful Amsterdam for Bloomberg’s annual CityLab conference to host conversations with city-based artists about how they use their canvas, whether it’s TikTok or murals or anything in between, to tell the story of a place. Coincidentally, I was feeling pretty good about the story of my own newly-adopted city, Los Angeles, and had been looking forward to returning home when I received a distressing breaking-news alert on my phone, reporting that several members of the Los Angeles City Council had been recorded making anti-Black and anti-indigenous comments on a leaked audio tape during a meeting last year.
The story is still unfolding, but here is what we know so far: During an October 2021 meeting, then-Council President Nury Martinez, councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin De León (who is my council member at the time of this writing), and then-president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Ron Herrera, were recorded making racist remarks about their constituents and disparaging their colleagues. The audio, which leaked earlier this week, revealed Martinez referring to the Black child of a white council member as a “changuito,” a Spanish word for little monkey. She called Oaxacan immigrants living in Koreatown “short little dark people.” She called a gay member of the council a “little bitch.” Meanwhile, multiple people on the recording can be heard complaining about Black Angelenos, and openly discussing plans to divide up the city along racial lines in ways that would protect their own power while doing little for the residents they are supposed to serve.
The scandal has become more than just local news. On Tuesday, the White House said that all three members of the city council should resign. Martinez eventually acquiesced to public outrage, but managed to drag out her resignation over three days, first by relinquishing the council presidency (Monday), then taking a leave of absence (Tuesday), then finally fully resigning (Wednesday). Cedillo and De León, as of this writing, still haven’t stepped down.
Over the past few days, I’ve been overwhelmed with disgust at the actions of people who should know better. But I’ve also taken the time to think more deeply about what this particular, very classically American scandal says about our politics and society in the post-Obama, post-Trump era—and what we can do, as a citizenry, to more effectively govern ourselves at a time when our faith in the democratic process is, understandably, dwindling...