In the hour-long tape that captured Los Angeles City Council members trading slurs during a closed-door meeting last year, few were spared. Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo, and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera disparaged their colleagues—particularly Councilmember Mike Bonin, whose 3-year-old son occasioned some of the group’s most vile comments—and their constituents, picking out Black, Oaxacan, Korean, Jewish, Armenian, poor, and unhoused people for ridicule. Recorded in secret in October 2021 and leaked anonymously almost a year later, the roving conversation was suffused with expletives and epithets, as the speakers alighted on political allies and enemies. At the time, the council—a 15-member body tasked with representing more than four million people—was in the middle of redistricting. “I get what we have to do,” Herrera summarized: “just create districts that benefit you all.” As if courting the judgment of Solomon, Martinez repeatedly referenced plans to “slice and dice the baby.”
What the officials said has rightly stirred outrage. But they deserve more criticism for what they were doing at the time: gerrymandering council districts to explicitly undermine the power of tenants. Besides ruining four political careers (so far, Martinez and Herrera have resigned; Cedillo and de León were stripped of committee appointments), this moment will be meaningful only if we connect the council members’ racist speech to their racist practice of class domination and tenants recognize that the political process is rigged against the propertyless. At bottom, the scandal reveals not a racial or ethnic alliance so much as an alliance between the state and real estate.
The lever the council used to turn its racist animus into racist action was the suppression of tenant power. The district held by Nithya Raman was “the one to put in a blender and chop up left and right,” de León said, months into his mayoral campaign. “It serves us not to give her all of K-Town,” agreed former Council President Nury Martinez, “because that solidifies her renters’ district, and that is not a good thing for any of us.” It’s easy to see the council members’ deliberate gerrymandering as an attack on a progressive political opponent, but it was equally an attack on the people they disparaged—“dark,” “little,” “shoeless,” “ugly,” “cocoa,” those from the “village,” and those with nowhere “to shit.”
Just as the “war on drugs” and the “war on crime” were in effect wars on the poor and people of color, L.A. City Council has waged a war on tenants with the same results. The majority of L.A.’s Black and brown residents are tenants—specifically, those tenants who have highest rent burdens and live in the worst conditions. Given this reality, this council’s record of tenant policies is as damning as the tapes. “If legislation benefited renters … it was in trouble,” Bonin wrote Tuesday, cataloging the roadblocks the trio had erected to prevent tenant reforms. (Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson chimed in to agree.) Under these members’ tenure and Martinez’s leadership, this council failed to enact a true eviction moratorium during the pandemic. Thousands likely lost their homes, whether because they were harassed by their landlords, pushed out by poor conditions, evicted by default judgments for forsaking arcane procedure, or expelled in court, where tenants lack access to public defense. This council starved its housing department of funds, hollowing out the few protections tenants have—an anti-harassment ordinance, for instance, has failed to help a single person yet. Forcing tenants from their homes as rents surge, the council’s policies exacerbate decades of state-sanctioned displacement, by which Black and brown communities are not just shuffled but removed from the city altogether.
Of course, those who can’t afford to move make their homes on the street. This council made it a priority to banish and incarcerate unhoused tenants, who are disproportionately Black; Black people make up 9 percent of the county’s population but 42 percent of its unhoused. In 2019, the council placed expansive restrictions on living in cars. In 2021, it rushed to restart encampment sweeps, which had been paused for a year of the pandemic. Then it circumvented a constitutional injunction to revive the city’s “sit-lie” law, 41.18, to make camping, sitting, or lying down in public a crime in most of the city, subject to fines and imprisonment. In 2022, it banned bike repair on the street. Finally, the council increased the budget, staff, and discretionary powers of a police department that disproportionately targets, harasses, and murders Black and brown people, expanding a penal system that disproportionately cages them.