Harris-Dawson speaks out on council controversy

By Ray Richardson

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Eighth District City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson admitted he’s become more outspoken and defiant in the aftermath of the racist comments that rocked the Los Angeles City Council, a shift that has drawn praise from community leaders.

“I’m glad to hear him speaking in very deliberate tones,” Los Angeles Urban League President Michael Lawson said of Harris-Dawson. “The issues we’ve heard on those tapes have been going on for a long time. What I’ve seen Marqueece say is what I’ve expected him to say. His heart and mind is in the right place.”

Harris-Dawson, who represents the largest Black population among the city’s 15 council districts, has perhaps been the city’s most vocal elected official calling for the resignations of former City Council President Nury Martinez and council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León.

Martinez resigned last week from her roles as president and 6th District representative. As of Oct. 19, Cedillo (1st District) and de León (14th District) continue to hang onto their council seats despite protests and overwhelming support for their resignations.

In a Spanish-language television interview, de León emphasized that he has no intention of resigning.

“I will not resign because there’s a lot of work ahead,” de León said in Spanish to Univision. “There’s a lot of work that we have to face. The crisis that is happening in the district, the infections, the unemployment, the threat to eviction, the humanitarian crisis of the homeless.”

He added that he felt “very bad and embarrassed for the hurt, for the wounds that exist today in our communities.”

Harris-Dawson said the fallout from the City Hall upheaval has forced him to become more outspoken.

“Because of all of this, I’ve had to talk a lot more,” Harris-Dawson said in an interview with a Wave reporter. “I know that’s been a question about me. My style has usually been to talk less and act more. With this situation, I have something to offer to the conversation that no one else can offer.”

A key segment of the secretly recorded meeting featuring Martinez, Cedillo, de León and former Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera included discussions on how to minimize Harris-Dawson’s 8th District.

The private discussion on moving voter power and resources from the 8th District to Latino areas put Harris-Dawson in the middle of the City Council controversy.

“Absolutely, I took it personal,” Harris-Dawson said. “One of the great things these four people accomplished is that they put anti-Black racism into the common language. We as Black people have always known about this, but it wasn’t something that everyday people talked about.”

Harris-Dawson is one of only three African Americans on the City Council, including Curren Price (9th District) and Heather Hutt (10th District). Price and Hutt have also called for Cedillo and de León to resign. African Americans were among groups of people targeted with racist comments in the private meeting, along with Armenians, Jews, Latinos, Asian Americans and Oaxacans.

Harris-Dawson’s name was pulled into the conversation when Martinez suggested on the tape that he should make an attempt to add Los Angeles International Airport and surrounding areas to the 8th District.

Martinez’s intent, Harris-Dawson explained to The Wave, was to get him to pursue LAX, which he said would lead to a redistricting process that would cost the 8th District a large percentage of Black and Latino voters. Harris-Dawson said that “almost half” of his district is comprised of Latino voters.

On the tape, Martinez mentions calling a prominent community leader to discuss the “LAX plan” and get his opinion. Harris-Dawson said the community leader called him immediately after talking with Martinez to advise him against pursuing the “LAX plan.”

“That’s the whole point of this,” Harris-Dawson said of the LAX conversation. “It would make us a non-Black majority district.”

When the content of the taped meeting was revealed, community leaders recognized Martinez’s attempts as well and applauded Harris-Dawson for not “taking the bait.”

“On this issue, the community saw Marqueece get into the trenches immediately and fight for our community’s respect,” said Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope. “Every comment he’s made has been forceful, which was not his style. This situation pulled it out of him, but it’s always been in him.”

Harris-Dawson expressed frustration that the “LAX plan” became a topic at the meeting and that discussing the idea reflects an even larger concern. In addition to the meeting being a potential violation of the Brown Act, which prohibits secret meetings among elected officials without the public’s knowledge, the group discussed options to give Latino communities significant advantages over African Americans in the city.

“The bigger problem is with everybody who was in that room, and the way they see the world,” Harris-Dawson said. “They have a small-minded approach to the world. Their approach is, ‘in order for us to benefit, everybody else has to lose.’ I pity those folks, because it’s hard to have hope if that’s the way they see the world.”

Harris-Dawson said that the racist comments by his council colleagues revealed their true feelings.

He reflected on council discussions in 2021 to expand the ordinance restricting where homeless people could set up encampments on sidewalks, bringing up his concerns to Martinez about how the legislation would disproportionately impact Black people.

Harris-Dawson asked Martinez to adjust the ordinance so that “the streets stay clean, but we also don’t open up a large Black population to interaction and harassment by law enforcement,” he told City News Service.

“She said, ‘Yeah, you’re right,’” Harris-Dawson said. “And she literally walked out of that room and put something on the floor that didn’t do any of that.”

Harris-Dawson told City News Service he was previously puzzled by some of the votes the three council members would take.

“I thought these were people who cared about the fate of African American people in the city, but they’re voting in the same way that officials in very right-wing cities would vote,” Harris-Dawson said. “I was always puzzled by that. Now, I feel like it’s explained.”

Harris-Dawson stands by his position that the City Council will struggle to function properly as long as Cedillo and de León refuse to resign. In the meantime, both council members have been stripped of their committee assignments. If Cedillo or de León attempted to participate in a City Council meeting or voting process, Harris-Dawson said he would not interact with them.

“I won’t sit with them or talk with them,” Harris-Dawson said. “If I talk about them, I’ll be talking bad about them. Not one of us is more important than all of us. I hope the people continue to protest.”

City Council meetings were conducted virtually on Oct. 18 and Oct. 19 to keep protesters from disrupting the proceedings. Protesters converged outside City Hall on both days after Los Angeles Police Department officers prevented people from entering the building.

Protesters have indicated they will continue to show up at City Hall until Cedillo and de León step down.

City News Service contributed to this story.

Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at rayrich55@gmail.com.