On October 9, 2022, the LA Times and Knock LA reported on a secretly recorded conversation between three of my City Council colleagues and a powerful labor leader. They made appalling, racist remarks about various groups and people, especially about Blacks and including about my young son. A year later, as people look back, they keep asking me for my thoughts. I’ve written about what I heard, what I felt, and what I think was missing from the discussions sparked by the scandal.

By Mike Bonin

For most people, the infamous Fed Tapes are probably a receding memory. They saw the news last October. They might have heard or read one or two of the most offensive snippets.

That is not how it is for me. It is seared in my memory. I listened to the whole tape. I read the full transcript. I heard the voices of my colleagues attacking and mocking my little boy, describing him with ugly racist epithets, and laughing at the thought of beating him. I can still hear Nury’s poisonous slurs and cruel laugh, and Kevin’s conspiratorial whisper and malicious tone.

A year later, I am still angry and disgusted. I am still processing it, still wrestling with what was said, and what I heard.

The infamous tapes revealed a conversation between my colleagues Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, and Gil Cedillo, and labor leader Ron Herrera. They schemed to increase their power. They expressed racist, anti-Black views and plotted to diminish Black political influence. They spoke of grudges and conspiracies, maligned coalition politics, and derided those who practice it. As part of the conversation, they criticized my alliance and friendship with Marqueece Harris-Dawson. Nury complained that “Bonin thinks he’s fucking Black.” Kevin interjected to note that my son was Black. He was insistent on making that point, stating it repeatedly until Nury picked up on it.

Nury then began to tell a story about my son. She used vile racial slurs and ugly tropes. Her comments, and the casual venom with which she said them, were shocking and disgusting. When people heard what she said, public outrage was so intense, it forced her to resign. But the racism and the ugliness weren’t just in the specific words she used. They were in the story she told – a story that reflected and reinforced layers of societal racial bias.

Her tale was set more than four years prior, on a float at the Kingdom Parade in South Los Angeles in 2017, celebrating the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. My son, a few weeks shy of his third birthday, accompanied me, along with other elected officials and their family members, on the council president’s float. My son is beautiful, smart, funny, kind, strong, resilient and brave. He exudes joy. His smile is infectious and his laughter warms my heart. Like most boys, particularly at that age, he was energetic, curious, and playful. He was an exuberant toddler having fun at a spirited event. But that is not what Nury saw. She saw him as wild and out of control, acting so disruptively that she said he threatened to overturn the flatbed truck we were riding on.

She was doing what society does to Black children – subjecting them to a different standard, viewing them and treating them as older than they are. It is a widespread phenomenon. Studies show that Black children (and especially Black boys) experience an insidious form of bias and systemic racism in which people perceive them as older and less innocent than other children. A recent report said “This stereotype often treats Black children like they do not deserve to play” and denies them needed “nurturing, protection, support, and comfort.” As scholar Philip Atiba Goff has said, “The problem is we rarely see our black children with the basic human privilege of getting to act like children.”

In the conversation on the tapes, Nury made clear that she felt my son’s playing and climbing on the float was behavior so egregious that he needed aggressive physical discipline. Someone in the room made a slapping sound. Gil suggested pinching him. Nury, the self-styled champion of a “families first” agenda, said she should have taken him around the corner for a “beatdown.”

Her call for corporal punishment is an example of a pernicious phenomenon. For decades, research has shown that Black children are likelier than others to receive harsh discipline and punishment. Even in elementary school, Black boys are much likelier than others to face discipline, suspension, and even arrest. Scientific American reported that “half of the 17,000 preschool students who were suspended or expelled nationwide in 2021 were Black boys—even though they represent about 20 percent of enrolled children.”

These destructive concepts are hard-wired in our society and in the American psyche. The Black brute. The wilding super-predator. It’s how 16-year-old Ralph Jarl was shot in the arm and the head for ringing the wrong doorbell. It’s how 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer in his own neighborhood while playing with a toy gun. It’s why, as one Black mother told me after the tapes came out, “When you become the parent of a Black boy, you’re always worried about what they might do to him. You never sleep through the night again.” Black girls face a similar dynamic, Studies show people “perceived that Black girls as young as age 5 need less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort than their white peers. They also believed that Black girls know more about adult topics, including sex.” Black girls are more likely than girls of other groups to become victims of sex trafficking.

In all the sound and fury of last fall, I wish there had been more teaching moments about what was behind the words we heard. I wish that with national attention focused on the tapes, more attention had been paid to the obstacles and risks Black children face. I wish the discussion had pivoted to how to remove those perils, and had generated actionable solutions to protect Black children.

* * * * *

I heard other things on the tapes. Things that made me feel guilt and shame. Things that touched upon my own worries and insecurities – as a father, as a gay male, as a white man raising a Black child. I kept asking myself: is this my fault? Was being an elected official harming my son? Did I pick too many fights and make my family a target? Did I subject my son to this by bringing him with me to public events?

I grew up at a time when gay men could not marry and few gay couples had children. There is a quiet residual echo of judgment in my head, hammered home over decades of religion and culture, telling me my family is not legitimate. I try to live my life in defiance of that view, but the words on the tapes raised that voice from a whisper to a shout.

The taped conversation’s more explicit denigration of transracial adoption hit hard and resonated even more deeply. At one point in her story, Nury said “It’s like the oddest thing, it’s like Black and brown on this float. And then there’s this white guy with this little Black kid.” A bit later, she claimed I was not teaching my son anything, and that I “treat him like a little white kid.”

There is an unpleasant truth behind that. A Black child of white parents suffers because they are being raised by people who lack the lived experience to teach their children how to thrive and deal with issues of race, culture, and identity. That means it is essential for Black children with white parents to be in Black spaces, immersed in a community that embraces and shares their heritage. I took my son to City Hall with me occasionally, so that he could see that the presiding officer at the time, Council President Herb Wesson, looked like him. I frequently brought him to places that would affirm and celebrate his identity, like the Kingdom Day Parade. I wanted him to feel pride, community, belonging.

Nury and Kevin and the others sought to deny my son that. They clearly felt that he did not belong on that float. To them, he was not a Black child at an MLK celebration. He was, as Nury and Kevin mockingly said, an accessory to a white guy. Kevin compared him to one of Nury’s luxury handbags. Herrera said that my son was so out of place that if we left the float, the crowd would beat us. According to them, my son was somehow less Black and somehow less deserving to be part of the African-American community.

Like other Black children with white parents, my son has parents who did not grow up navigating a racist society. My husband and I have not faced the hazards, threats, and perils of anti-Black racism, and that makes it hard for us to learn to recognize them, and know how to respond and when to fight. But it sure as hell wasn’t hard to hear the anti-Black racism in what Nury, Kevin, and the others said. They spoke clearly enough, loudly enough, and maliciously enough that everyone could hear it.

* * * * *

There was so much ugliness on those tapes. The virulent anti-Black racism, expressed casually and reflexively. The conspiracy to diminish Black political power. The offensive and disgusting slurs against the Oaxacan community. The anti-Semitism. The attempts to disempower renters and kneecap progressives. The contempt for multi-racial coalitions. The crass, cynical effort to hoard power. Listening to those tapes was like hearing a rapid-fire assault on every element of Los Angeles.

But I heard beautiful things, too. Not on the tapes, of course, but in response to them.

I heard outrage and moral indignation from across the city and throughout the country. I heard everyone from street vendors to neighborhood leaders to President Biden denounce the comments and demand resignations. I heard Latinos issue condemnations, insisting those four people did not represent them. I heard workers and union leaders insist they did not speak for labor. I heard a huge and swelling chorus, proclaiming that Nury, Kevin, Ron, and Gil were not the voice of Los Angeles.

I heard a new generation of young progressive leaders – Eunisses Hernandez, Hugo Soto-Martinez, Nithya Raman, Isaac Bryan, Caroline Menjivar – model a new politics, heart-centered, generous, and committed to multi-racial coalitions. I heard a diverse, growing movement insisting on a positive vision for Los Angeles.

I heard from parents from around the world, voicing support. I heard from adoptees, expressing solidarity. I heard from hundreds of Black men, sharing their experience and strength. I heard from countless Black women, embracing my son, and declaring they were his new aunties. I heard from a huge village of people determined to protect my son and other Black children.

I heard things far more powerful than the voices of Nury, Kevin and the others.

In response to their divisiveness, I heard solidarity.

In response to their racism, I heard strength and resolve.

In response to their cynicism, I heard hope, and even faith.

In defiance of their hatred, I heard love. And that love will prevail.

This piece was re-printed from Mike Bonin’s substack with his permission

Photo by the author

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