Thursday, December 2, 2021

Ridley-Thomas turns council fight into voting battle

In the 2014 film Selma, there is a powerful scene in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as David Oyelowo raises a church full of blacks to fight for their right to vote — or otherwise “silence”.

“Until I can exercise my constitutional right to vote, I cannot control my life,” King says the way black pastors do. “I cannot determine my destiny, because it is determined for me by people who prefer to see how I suffer, than achieve success!”

The people on the benches move. “We won’t wait any longer,” King shouts. “Give us a voice!”

People on the benches stand up and repeat: “Give us a voice!”

In a way, I imagine, Los Angeles City Councilor Mark Ridley-Thomas sees himself in such dismissal as encouraging his mostly black and Hispanic constituencies to fight for representation. Fight for the right to count the votes. Fight, naturally, for him.

I know this is a somewhat sublime comparison. MLK to MRT. But I cannot fully claim it.

On Wednesday night, the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference screened Selma, followed by a panel discussion on disenfranchisement of black voters in Ridley Thomas, especially as the city council moves closer to voting on a redistribution plan. …

“We saw something going on,” began William D. Smart, Jr., head of the local SCLC that King famously founded and was once led by Ridley-Thomas, “especially in the 10th arrondissement.” …

Whispers of discontent echoed through the Nate Holden Center for the Performing Arts.

Dozens of people in the crowd – most of them black, many of them older – were filled with righteous resentment and exasperation at having to fight in what they see as just another battle in the never-ending war for civil rights and voter suppression.

Among them was Ridley-Thomas with his wife Avis.

“So we get up tonight,” continued Smart. “Tonight is our call to action!”

Of course, this is Los Angeles in 2021, not Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and it’s not quite that simple. But you try to say that to a bunch of angry blacks.


We will remind, last month Ridley-Thomas was accused of bribery and conspiracy. Prosecutors say that when he was the Los Angeles County Chief, he channeled government money to USC in exchange for admission, scholarship, and paid professorship for his son Sebastian.

Both Ridley-Thomas and former University of Southern California dean Marilyn Flynn pleaded not guilty. Ridley-Thomas also promised to “step back” from his duties on the city council. However, he was quickly removed from office and stripped of his salary.

That’s not good in many areas of South Los Angeles, where black angelos have long relied on the veteran politician for his leadership and ability to rally forces to tackle issues such as police reform and homelessness.

Protests have already taken place, including one in which civil rights leaders, including a contemporary of the king, the Reverend James Lawson, Jr., attacked the mayor’s office last week. There will almost certainly be more.

Black leaders rally in support of suspended Los Angeles councilor Mark Ridley-Thomas outside City Hall last week.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times) #

However, things are not going quite in the right direction.

Earlier this week, Council President Nuri Martinez appointed longtime chief of staff Ridley-Thomas as caretaker of the 10th arrondissement. She has no vote. And at the moment there are no plans to change that, although Martinez’s office told The Times that it is “considering all options.”

Pretty urgent. That’s all about meeting the needs of voters.

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From any point of view, the constituent parts of the 10th arrondissement, which includes parts of South Los Angeles, Koreatown, and Mid City, were essentially “silent.” What’s more, there is no timetable for when they’ll get their word back on city government or even what it will look like when it does.

There is never a good time for such things, but it is especially bad now that voting rights are threatened at the national level.

Just this week, Senate Republicans again blocked a bill that would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the same law King fought for in Selma – that had been overturned by the US Supreme Court.

Add to this the fast-paced redistribution of counties in Los Angeles and the black population that is being displaced from the city by high housing costs, and there is a palpable fear of losing political power in the 10th arrondissement.

Regardless, under the current plan for redistributing counties, the Ridley-Thomas area will largely remain the same, and the vote will remain roughly split between blacks and Hispanics. (The constituencies in South Los Angeles are a different matter.)

“You need to talk to the city council,” Smart said. “We need you to speak on the phone. We need you to find the next meeting. “

His voice rose.

“If you don’t like what happens in 10th, if you don’t like it, you don’t have a voice right now, if you don’t like what they are trying to isolate and try to lower, and try to suppress and try to drown out our voice by removing out of the way of our chosen leader, then you need to say something! “

Unsurprisingly, Ridley-Thomas chose to harness all this energy and fight back, although his reasons seem to be related to both defending himself and defending the rights of his constituents.

Of course, many of his supporters see it as the same, seeing him as the impossible-to-replace South Los Angeles champion.

Thus, Ridley-Thomas’s goal is nothing more than restoration in the city council. On Wednesday night, one of his lawyers told me that class action lawsuits on behalf of disenfranchised residents is a pending strategy.

“Our preliminary research shows us that the city council’s decision is unconstitutional,” said attorney John Sweeney, “and that the 10th arrondissement does have the right to challenge the appointment of someone to replace Mark Ridley-Thomas.”

The decision to change the guardian to a voting member who is not Ridley-Thomas – not even a respected person – would be “dangerous,” he said.

“We will act even harder and faster,” Sweeney said, “because the person with the right to vote, who supposedly represents the people … can do harm.”

Sweeney was less certain as to whether Ridley-Thomas would honor his previously promised departure from his council duties if reinstated, or whether he would influence the polling station reallocation process and vote.

“I think you have to take this on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “Obviously, this is an important question. But knowing MRT as well as I know him, he would like to participate in it, because it affects the people who elected him. “

MRT is not MLK.

But watching Oyelowo wake up this crowd at Selma, insisting that it is “unacceptable for them to use their power to deprive us of our voice,” it’s hard – even for a moment – not to see parallels.

“That’s the whole theme of the evening,” Sweeney said. “The screening of Selma reminded everyone that this is nothing new.”

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