It’s hard to know where to begin. The chain of events that’s unfolded in LA over the past few days is extraordinary, but maybe it’s just the logical outcome of the way this city has been run for the past several years. Honestly, while it’s surprising that the recording of three councilmembers talking about redistricting has been leaked, there’s really nothing surprising about the discussion. Anybody who’s been following LA City politics over the last decade knows that Los Angeles is run by a corrupt elite that’s rigged the system. We should all be angry, but I don’t know why anyone would be surprised.
The first City Council meeting after the Times broke the story was intense. I watched it on video. The Council chambers were filled with angry people chanting and yelling. President Pro Tem Mitch O’Farrell kept trying to calm the protesters down, but they were furious and wanted to let the Council know it. The crowd finally got quiet when it was announced that Councilmember Mike Bonin was going to speak. Bonin’s son was the target of one of the numerous racist slurs that Nury Martinez utters on the recording, and Bonin was visibly upset. He gave an emotional speech condemning racism in general, and thanking all those who had reached out to support him and his family since the news broke.
It’s understandable that Bonin was shaken by the release of recording, and I don’t doubt that his speech was heartfelt. He loves his son, and he knows that this episode will likely cause his son to feel pain and anger. But I wish Bonin would acknowledge all the pain that he’s inflicted on low-income people of color during his time in office. When public comment began, I wasn’t surprised to hear one of the speakers accuse Bonin of hypocrisy because of his actions as a member of the City Council. Referring to Bonin, the speaker exclaimed, “The one that’s pointin’ the finger has done the most name callin’. Put us off Venice Beach. All the black people. He put us all off Venice Beach for some real estate. Fuck you, Mike Bonin.”
Now, I’ve never heard Mike Bonin use any racial slurs, but there’s no doubt that Venice has grown a lot wealthier and whiter during his two terms on the City Council. (Bonin didn’t start this trend, but he’s done nothing to stop it, either.) And Bonin has taken plenty of campaign cash from developers and lobbyists during that time. While Bonin may talk about ending racism and creating a just society, he’s voted over and over again, along with the rest of the City Council, to support policies and projects that promote displacement and gentrification.
Former Councilmember Jose Huizar is facing trial on corruption charges, in part because he helped a developer reduce the amount of affordable housing required for the 520 Mateo project in Downtown. Did Mike Bonin object to reducing the affordable housing requirement? Hell no. He voted to approve the project.
Interestingly, many of the biggest residential projects recently approved in Downtown have zero affordable housing, and the developers of these projects are often allowed to skip paying the Affordable Housing Linkage Fee. Other residential projects in LA have to provide affordable units to get increased density, but in Downtown they can get more density by asking for a Transfer of Floor Area Rights. Has Bonin spoken out against developers using this loophole to dodge affordable housing requirements? Hell no. He voted to approve these projects just like the rest of his colleagues on the Council.
When a property owner wanted to demolish 40 rent-stabilized units in Hollywood to make way for a new hotel, did Mike Bonin object to the eviction of low-income families in the middle of a housing crisis? Hell no. He voted to approve the project. Mike Bonin has joined his fellow councilmembers over and over again in awarding zone changes and general plan amendments to developers, delivering huge profits for investors and fomenting real estate speculation while thousands of low-income people of color were kicked out of their homes and LA’s homeless crisis spiralled out of control. During his time on the Council, Mike Bonin has presented himself as a progressive who wants to fight injustice, but if he really wants to learn about the root causes of injustice, maybe he should take a look in the mirror.
The other speaker who caught my attention was Damien Goodmon, of Downtown Crenshaw Rising. Damien’s comments at the meeting were thoughtful and incisive, as usual, but one thing he said rang especially true for me….
“This entire city government is in need of an exorcism.”
That sentence really sums up how I feel about City Hall right now. The environment created by the Mayor and the City Council is so toxic, and the poison has also bled into the City departments and boards and commissions that are supposed to be serving the people.
Instead of real planning to confront the challenges that LA faces, we get plans formulated by lobbyists and land use attorneys that seemed designed to enrich their clients. Instead of meaningful debate on the issues by well-informed public servants, we get cheerleaders who pat each other on the back for doing a great job, no matter how bad the outcomes are.
Damien is right. LA City government needs an exorcism. But holy water and Latin chants aren’t going to do the job. Instead, we, the people, are going to have to take action. This isn’t just a matter of electing a new mayor and a few new councilmembers. This is a matter of changing the deeply corrupt culture at City Hall. We need to pay attention to what they’re doing. We need to call them out when they’re serving themselves instead of the people. We need to show them that there are consequences for their actions, whether that’s at the ballot box or in the courts.
And this isn’t a short-term commitment. This will take much more than a year or two. This is about long-term, concerted activism with the goal of making sure our public servants really serve us.