Tensions between Black and Latino residents in L.A. 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 that nearly all the callers wanted to discuss during the public comments portion of the virtual meetings was the leaked audio involving Martinez, a Hispanic woman who hurled crude and racist comments against Blacks and Americans of Oaxacan descent during a private meeting in October 2021.

Much of the anger was directed at council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, neither of whom attended this week's meetings, 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.

De León defended himself in a television interview with Spanish-language station Univision, saying he "will not resign."

"I'm so sorry. I am very sorry, and that is why I apologize to all my people, to my entire community, for the damage that those painful words caused on that day last year," he told Noticiero Univision anchor León Krauze, according to a transcript released by the network.

"No, I will not resign, because there is a lot of work ahead," de León said.

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

During Wednesday’s meeting, a representative from the L.A. 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, 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 L.A.'s reparations task force, called in Tuesday in her capacity as a regular citizen, decrying the “institutional racism” that still exists. “Racism from the city's leadership will in no way be tolerated by Black Angelenos,” she said.

Protestors at the Los Angeles City Council meeting
Anger flares at a Los Angeles City Council meeting on Oct. 11. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag)

Dozens of angry callers — many using expletives and insults — flooded the meetings, giving credence to the perception that the 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 hearings to go forward in person, with one describing him as “cowardly.” O'Farrell had justified moving the hearings online after Councilman Mike Bonin, who delivered an emotional speech at an Oct. 11 meeting addressing racist comments that Martinez made about his young son, tested positive for COVID in the hours after that meeting. Bonin was in close physical contact with several other council members.

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. “[He] 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 L.A. City Council, [and his critics] acting like he killed someone.”

Nury Martinez
Former L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag)

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

“No resignations, no meeting!” 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 present in the room in 2021 when Martinez referred to white council member 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, who is gay, as a “little bitch.”

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 in June, is leaving office in December. De León is not up for reelection this year.

Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León
L.A. City Council members Gil Cedillo, front left, and Kevin de León at the council meeting on Oct. 11. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag)

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 affecting the Black community that the council worked on.

“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,” said council member Nithya Raman, who successfully pushed for a city charter amendment that created an independent redistricting commission.

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 Angelenos to begin to heal.

“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,” he 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.”