Kevin de León may survive the worst political scandal in recent LA history. More than two months into calls for his resignation for his role in a leaked racist conversation, the council member won’t resign.
At first, calls for him to leave united many Angelenos. But now, his refusal to do so threatens to tear this city apart. We can’t let his shameful and egocentric decision divide Black and brown Angelenos. While we can’t control what De León does, we can control how we respond.
Last Tuesday at City Hall, De León’s older Latino male allies insulted Black activists with Trumpian chants of “All lives matter!” Days earlier, protesters opposing the council member disrupted a toy giveaway for low-income Latino children, culminating in a fight with him. The MAGA world dreams of Black-versus-Latino conflicts like these. On the whole, Angelenos know better.
Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”
The city does face a divide, however. On the one hand, countless Angelenos feel De León’s clinging to power sends a dangerous message: that anti-Blackness is an excusable offense in a leader. It’s why many observers of LA politics, including myself, are urging him to resign.
Other Angelenos are moved by De León’s pleas for sympathy, including some of his working-class constituents whose voices are historically unheard by the news media and others in power.
We are at a deeply painful crossroads. The decisions we make will shape race relations in this city and beyond. Among those is whether De León serves out his term or faces a recall election. That decision rests with its constituents. Only they can vote him out.
Everybody else has other battles to fight for racial justice. Those trying to bully De León into resigning by sabotaging his ability to do his job are doing so at the expense of the hungry and unhoused in his district. We must find a better path to healing than that, whether he stays or goes.
Many of De León’s constituents believe his decades-long record of fighting for them outweighs his ugly comments on the recording. He has fought epic battles for undocumented Latinos, whose labor is more undervalued than anybody else’s. Few leaders can claim responsibility for preventing more deportations, which can wreck families.
Are De León detractors neglecting his record, his current work and his future value to constituents? I don’t know, but I do know we should slow down and listen for the drowned-out voices of many of his constituents.
On a recent Wednesday night in De León’s district, I stopped local residents as they entered a grocery store in Boyle Heights to hear their thoughts on De León. The first person I encountered was an unhoused undocumented woman from Mexico who had just bought a bag of chips for dinner. She praised De León, whom she had met at local events.
“He’s the only person who’s helping us,” Viridiana, 39, told me. “Nobody else does. They just criticize us, throw trash on us and say we’re disgusting. Not him. He comes and spends time with us. He gives us food, medicine.” She used to clean houses for a living, like De León’s mother. She told me his office helped her find housing, but the contract expired and she’s on a waiting list for another place.
People like her could be the collateral damage of a motion presented by Councilmembers Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Paul Krekorian and Mike Bonin to add penalties to De León’s censure, including limiting his ability to use discretionary funds to help his district’s residents.
Some of his constituents wrote the council this month to oppose the motion, which could interrupt De León’s food giveaways and other events. “Please respect our district,” Maria Patricia Salazar, 72, wrote in Spanish. She told me De León made a mistake by failing to stop vile comments by the former council president on the recording. But she forgives him, saying we all make mistakes. “It makes me sad that so many people, following the current of others, are against him,” she said.
Another elderly constituent, Ofelia, asked me to omit her last name because she’s afraid of being targeted by De León’s critics. “They’re terrorizing our kids,” she told me, referring to the activists who have been disrupting De León’s community events. Ofelia believes residents of District 14 should decide De León’s political future.
Some of De León’s constituents want him to resign. They believe he hasn’t done enough for them, or that his words on the recording show he’s unfit to lead.
None of us can know the will of the district’s majority without an election. Constituents there must decide how to navigate this difficult moment. De Leon is a deeply flawed leader. But he’s District 14’s flawed leader.
The rest of us have our own work to do: to reckon with the issues exposed by that racist conversation as well as the backlash.
One core problem is the severe underrepresentation of Latinos in City Hall and other places of influence. That contributed to the grievance that was voiced in such grotesque and racist terms on the recording.
And although I joined calls for De León’s resignation and still believe it’s the right thing for him to do, I also believe he has been cruelly caricatured as a kind of monster in the media and in politics. The dearth of Latinos in those spaces contributes to the reductionist narrative.
Many other Latinos who are similarly disturbed told me they won’t share that sentiment publicly because they fear being labeled anti-Black. They don’t want to incur the wrath of the average liberal, who is quietly complacent about the mass erasure of Latinos, but quick to virtual signal against any rhetoric that could be construed as anti-Black.
In the righteous rush to condemn anti-Blackness, did some fail to see De León as a person, one whose words were not exactly as incriminating as his colleagues’? Those who can’t rest until he’s gone should ask themselves if they feel the same about President Biden’s expulsions of Haitians. Did they protest President Obama’s record-high deportations of Latinos? Or both Biden and Obama for separating immigrant families? If not, is it possible that some people want to trash De León because they’re cultured to see Latinos as disposable?
That thinking is all too common and dangerous, much like the council members’ antagonistic framing of Black political power in the recording. We’re stronger together and always have been.
District 14 will decide De Leon’s fate. Meanwhile, we all have another worthy task: to unlearn the biases that render us inhuman to one another.
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