Overseeing his last presidential Black History Month celebration in February 2016, President Obama opined that the month should not just be a commemoration of particular historic events, but “about taking an unvarnished look at the past so we can create a better future. It’s a reminder of where we as a country have been so that we know where we need to go.”
As clergy steeped in the tradition of Black Church leadership on matters of justice, we are keenly aware of our history – particularly of voter disenfranchisement – and the power of elected representation to steer economic and social progress.
If we take an unvarnished look at our past – a past rooted in disrespect and deprivation – we know that a future without a fully perfected democracy is unacceptable and inconsistent with our values and aspirations for inclusivity.
We watch with disdain at the continued politicking that is happening in our nation’s capital, as political agendas continue to prevent the advancement of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But it is not just in the halls of Washington where fundamental democratic principles are under attack. We are experiencing it at home, in Los Angeles City Hall.
Last October, just five days after the U.S. Attorney filed charges against Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, Council President Nury Martinez introduced a motion, acted on a mere 24 hours later, to suspend him. Ridley-Thomas was not accused of seeking bribes for personal gain. He has a 30-year track record of stellar public service – who re-opened hospitals and built parks, libraries and public transit lines – and has been a champion and reformer of our homeless and affordable housing safety net. While the media has made it easy to cast a sinister eye on all politicians accused of wrongdoing, the history of our communities ensures we are not so naive to lump all indictments into the same box.
Councilmember Ridley-Thomas immediately expressed dismay at the indictment and pledged his commitment to serving his constituents. Despite this pledge, Martinez asked the council to move forward with no findings of fact, no opportunity for the councilmember to rebut the charges, no disclosure of the legal rationale for suspension, no consideration of alternatives, and most egregiously, no consultation with those most impacted by the decision. This snap decision empowered City Controller Galperin to revoke Ridley-Thomas’ pay and benefits, thus denying his income and livelihood at the very moment he would be in most need of financial resources to fund a robust defense. The presumption of innocence, due process and constituent representation were discarded in favor of political expediency.
Council President Martinez appears to be un-phased by the threats her actions have posed. After unseating the councilmember, she recently announced plans to hand-pick a replacement. This voting member would be beholden to her instead of the district’s constituents – conveniently at a time when she is trying to rally votes on the council to support her own agenda of serving as both council president and acting mayor until a new mayor is sworn in next December. Her effort to appoint someone of her choosing raises troubling questions about the motivation to render the seat vacant in the first place.
Our position is clear – Councilmember Ridley-Thomas’ seat should be preserved, pending the outcome of his August trial.
As pastors of some of South L.A.’s largest congregations, we are alarmed by the lack of transparency, accountability and meaningful civic engagement in this decision-making process – all at a moment when voter suppression and nullification of the voting rights of African Americans and other people of color are under assault.
If we don’t want to see history repeated, if we are truly committed to creating a better future, we must ensure that checks and balances are the order of the day, and that means that the council president who unseated a councilmember to satisfy her own political agenda should not be empowered to appoint his replacement.
Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. is pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church. Rev. Dr. Mary S. Minor is a pastor at Brookins-Kirkland African Methodist Episcopal Church Church. Rev. Xavier Thompson is a pastor at the Southern Missionary Baptist Church. They are representing the South Los Angeles Clergy for Public Accountability and are original signatories to a January 28 Letter to Council President Nury Martinez on this matter.