Racist City Council recording sparks outrage on campus, spurring community action

Signs outside Los Angeles City Council Member Kevin de León’s residence in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 19, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

A racist audio conversation between LA Council President Nury Martinez, LA County Labor Federation President Ron Herrera, and council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León sparked public outrage earlier this month, leading Martinez and Herrera to step down and putting pressure on Cedillo and de León to follow suit. Part of the 14th Council District, Occidental College is represented by de León, who has refused to leave amidst ongoing calls for his resignation.

Rory Hayes ‘21, a staff member at Oxy Arts and the Center for Community Based Learning (CCBL), is a constituent and lives down the street from de León in Eagle Rock. Hayes said they love their community, and worry that de León’s actions reflect poorly on it.

“When I first heard about the leaked audio, I think I was really disappointed,” Hayes said. “Kevin de León represents a neighborhood that I have had the privilege of living in from the past, at this point, almost six years, and there’s so much beauty in this neighborhood. It really disgusted me to hear somebody saying such terrible, callous, racist things about the same people that they represent.”

Hayes said they support the prospect of de León’s resignation. Protests have been ongoing outside de León’s Eagle Rock residence, and given de León’s refusal to step down, Hayes said they expect these protests to continue.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they double down,” Hayes said. “And I would be more than happy for them to continue until he resigns, because I agree that he should resign, I agree that he needs to give up his seat.”

On-campus, community organizations have also expressed frustrations. Sunrise Oxy is the on-campus chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a political organization for policy action on climate change. In an email sent to the student body Oct. 12th, Sunrise Oxy called for the resignations of those involved. The organization said the student body should make themselves heard.

“As part of the Los Angeles community, we believe that it is vital that the Occidental community understand and participate in Los Angeles politics, especially when incendiary events occur,” Sunrise Oxy said via email. “This act was not in a vacuum; the leaked conversation was about strategically redistricting Los Angeles in order to devalue the votes of certain ethnic and racial minorities.”

The comments were made during a behind-closed-doors meeting of Latino leaders, who convened to discuss new maps proposed by LA’s redistricting commission. Martinez voiced frustration over the panel’s suggestions to move key economic assets, including Van Nuys Airport, out of her San Fernando Valley district; others discussed how Koreatown, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, would be split up in the redistricting process. Peter Dreier, a professor of politics and Urban & Environmental Policy at Occidental, said that this context is important for understanding the comments’ potential political impacts.

“What they were talking about in between their ugly racism in that audio tape was a situation of limited council seats,” Dreier said. “It’s a power play within City Hall of a handful of politicians trying to secure their power by trying to make sure that the redistricting favored Latino politicians, particularly themselves.”

Emma Galbraith (sophomore), lead organizer at Sunrise Oxy, said that the whole situation made clear what many in the political community had already suspected was going on behind the scenes.

“A lot of it just laid very, very explicitly bare the link between what certain high powered individuals in Los Angeles are doing to the constituents of Los Angeles, and how that is illustrated by the language that they use,” Galbraith said.

Recording Reaction
Emma Galbraith (sophomore) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 21, 2022. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

According to Dreier, the leaked recording draws issues of representation to the forefront. While symbolic representation — the actual representation of racial, ethnic, and gender minorities on the council — is important, Dreier said, the real goal is greater political representation for these groups.

“There should be fewer people that look like me on the LA City Council — you know, white men — because we’re a smaller share of the population,” Dreier said. “But the thing that gets missed or obscured — and that’s the major conversation that we have — is what do those people stand for when it comes to public policy?”

While the situation at city council seems grave, Dreier said, he does not want students to get pessimistic about the future of city politics. In particular, Dreier said that he hopes the ongoing controversy will not discourage voters from participating in the upcoming midterms.

“That’s what the corporate establishment wants,” Dreier said. “If people don’t remain active in politics because they hear some politicians who are progressive say these racist things, it’s a self imposed version of voter suppression.”

For those not registered to vote in LA, Dreier said he still sees one important opportunity for political action: the student body should call on de León to resign.

“Because that’s one way students can exercise power, even if they don’t vote in this district,” Dreier said.

In an Oct. 23 email to the Occidental College staff and faculty, politics professor Martha Masuoka, along with politics professors Movindri Reddy and Regina Freer, attached an open letter calling for de León’s resignation, and asked colleges to consider signing, offering staff an opportunity to participate.

According to Galbraith, while students who are not California residents cannot participate directly in the local California elections, there are still opportunities to volunteer and campaign.

Recording Reaction
Olivia Plum (first year) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 21, 2022. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

In addition to organizing volunteer work for its members, Sunrise Oxy also offers weekly hang-outs for students to convene, unwind and engage in local community activism. Olivia Plumb (first year), press lead of Sunrise Oxy, said these sessions have become an important space for students to feel heard.

“I think it can be a really, really useful kind of space in that sense,” Plumb said. “Because a lot of times, especially as students, it’s really easy to feel powerless in situations like this. Where these are some of the most powerful people in LA who are saying these things, and offering us a space in a community where we can do something small that starts at chipping away at these problems can feel really empowering.”

Contact Sam Reed at sreed2@oxy.edu and Grace Meadows at meadows@oxy.edu