LA Council’s Racism Offers DEI, PR Crisis Lessons on Indigenous Peoples Day

Oh, the irony.

On the federal calendar, today (Oct. 10) is Indigenous Peoples Day, a celebration of cultures and history of indigenous people in the U.S.

For years the second Monday of October was Columbus Day. In some places, it still is.

However, it's more complex now with debate about whether or not celebrating Columbus insults native Americans.

As such, some states, cities and towns celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day and Columbus Day. Others mark the day as Italian Heritage Day, Cabrini Day or Founders' Day. In some places, Columbus Day is celebrated in a different month, with Indigenous Peoples Day today.

In other words, inclusion is important, as many communicators know. Sometimes, overseeing DEI is part of the communicator's job.

As such today's news, which goes against inclusivity, illustrates how much work is ahead for communicators. Second, it offers PR crisis examples.

It's on tape...

One year ago someone, apparently covertly,  audio-taped a closed meeting of 3 Los Angeles City Council members, all Democrats, and a senior labor union official. They were discussing redistricting, a legitimate, controversial piece of Council business. At some point, the discussion devolved.

The audio includes Council president Nury Martinez criticizing the son of another member, Mike Bonin. She said the 6-year-old behaved “like a little monkey” (parece changuito) riding on a parade float during Martin Luther King Jr Day.

Bonin was not present during the session.

Moreover, Martinez implied she’d strike Bonin's child.

“I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner and then I’ll bring him back,” she said on the tape.

On top of that, Martinez said Bonin, who is white, adopted the child, who's Black, as a political prop.

Indeed, Martinez said Bonin handles “his young Black son as though he were an accessory.”

Augmenting her comment, another Council member, Kevin de León, implied the child for Bonin is like Martinez carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag. In other words, the child is an expensive accoutrement.

More invective and homophobia

Continuing her reputation grave digging, Martinez complained on tape that since Bonin adopted a Black child he “thinks he’s f**king Black.”

And more. Openly gay, Bonin “is a little bitch,” Martinez said of him on the tape.

Martinez proved she could spew venom in all directions. Speaking of district attorney George Gascón, born in Cuba, she said, “F- that guy…He’s with the Blacks.”

She also derided Oaxacans, an indigenous people from Mexico. 150,000 Oaxacans live in LA. It’s the largest Oaxacan group outside Mexico. The speakers also deride Armenians and Jews.

Reddit and media

[Irony #1:  A tape with elected leaders spewing racism at indigenous people gets mass media exposure on Indigenous Peoples Day. That’s no-brainer irony territory.

In addition, that the incident occurred in LA destroys the concept of that city's multicultural harmony.]

The nearly 60-minute recording was posted on Reddit this weekend. It’s not known who posted it. Similarly, who made the recording is unknown. “The Los Angeles Times” heard the recording, verified it and posted excerpts Sunday evening (Oct. 9).

Perhaps most important, it's unknown exactly why these 4 were meeting. Implications are they were arranging districts and consolidating power. Should details emerge, the second-, third- or fourth-day stories may eclipse today's hubbub.

In addition to Martinez and de León, Council member Gil Cedillo and Ron Herrera, president, LA County Federation of Labor, are heard on the tape. It’s difficult to identify everyone’s voice from the excerpts. Still, neither Cedillo nor Herrera are heard objecting to Martinez’s and de León’s remarks on tape.

More pressure

[Update, Oct. 10, 7pm PT: Several organizations, Eric Garcetti, LA's departing mayor, and other politicians called for the resignations of all 4 people on the tape.]

[Irony #2: Unfortunately, those on the tape are Latinos and Hispanics. LA County has the largest Hispanic and Latino population of any U.S. county. As you may know, we are in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month, a moment for celebrating myriad Hispanic and Latino cultures and histories.

The daughter of immigrant parents, Martinez is the first Latina chair of the City Council. Before Sunday she was a Hispanic Heritage Month hero. Not anymore.

Obviously, timing of the tape’s release was inauspicious. Significantly, it's also near the Nov. elections. Each of the four has ties with mayoral candidates.]

[Irony #3: In spite of issuing an apology Sunday evening (more below), at 11 am PT, Martinez was gone fast. She resigned her Council chair today, on Indigenous Peoples Day. Apparently, she plans to remain on the Council.]

[Update, Oct. 11, 9am PT: Martinez says she'll also take a leave of absence. In a statement, she says she'll use the time "to have an honest and heartfelt conversation with my family, my constituents, and community leaders." Also today (Oct. 11), labor president Herrera says he's stepping down from his post. Protests marked the Council's meeting today.]

[Update, Oct. 12, 3pm PT: After intense pressure, Martinez announces she'll also leave her council seat.]

[Update, Oct. 13, 1:30pm PT: The Council postpones its Oct. 14 meeting. Some members of the public continue to call for de León and Cedillo to resign.]

[Irony #4: Had Russian dictator Vladimir Putin chosen another day to switch his approach and begin attacking civilian targets in Ukraine, Martinez and crew's activities might lead the national news.

Instead, this rogue’s brutal attempt to “wipe” out Ukrainians, an indigenous people, occupies page 1 of the news. Similarly, an emergency situation in NYC involving, ironically, indigenous people, also is a major story.]

PR lessons

The PR crisis communication lessons are many. While Martinez quickly apologized, “I hold myself accountable for these comments…,” she also deflected.

As such, she mounted a poor attempt at justifying her racist chatter. Martinez said she was “frustrated” and angry with redistricting. As such, “…I let the situation get the best of me….”

Instead, Martinez should have owned her mistakes, apologized sincerely and said she’d get professional help with her racism and homophobia. Period.

In addition, she attempted to boost her image and complimented herself.

“My work speaks for itself. I’ve worked hard to lead this city through its most difficult time.”

Subsequently, there were more bungles. Sunday night the LA Times contacted councilman Cedillo for comment. He told the paper he didn’t recall the incident.

You have to think his political opponents will eat a few meals on that response. And candidates with Martinez’s endorsements for Nov. 8 elections probably have indigestion.

Too little too late

Speaking of meals, the union exec, Herrera, eventually apologized for not halting the racist dialogue. Unfortunately, he and his team made a pig’s breakfast of things initially.

In a letter to the LA Times Sunday, an attorney for the LA County Federation of Labor whacked at “illegal” taping of the meeting. Covert taping on Federation property is illegal. Moreover, the taping violates state privacy laws, Julie Gutman Dickinson wrote.

On top of that, publishing an article about the incident indicates the Times condones illegal behavior, she added. Good try.

In other words, the big mistake here was taping the meeting, not elected officials’ racist rants. Can you say 'tone deaf'? How about 'deflection'? Was a communicator consulted or a lawyer only?

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein