Ridley-Thomas turns council battle into one for voting rights

In the 2014 film “Selma”, there is a powerful scene in which Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., played by David Oyelowo, incites a church full of black people to fight for their right to vote – or to be otherwise ” voiceless “. “

“Until I am able to exercise my constitutional right to vote, I am not in control of my own life,” King intones in the same manner as black pastors do. “I cannot determine my own destiny, because it is determined for me by people who would rather see me suffer than succeed!” “

People on the benches are agitated. “We won’t wait any longer,” cries King. “Give us the vote!” “

The people on the benches stand up and repeat: “Give us the vote! “

In a way, I imagine that’s how suspended LA city councilor Mark Ridley-Thomas sees himself, getting his predominantly black and Latino voters to fight for representation. Fight for the right to have their voices counted. To fight, of course, for him.

That’s a bit of a high comparison, I know. MLK to MRT. But I cannot claim the credit for it.

On Wednesday evening, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Southern California hosted a screening of “Selma,” followed by a panel discussion on the disenfranchisement of black voters in the Ridley-Thomas district, particularly as the city ​​council is preparing to vote on a redistribution plan. .

“We saw something was going on,” began William D. Smart Jr., leader of the local SCLC chapter that King founded and Ridley-Thomas once led, “particularly around the 10th District.”

Murmurs of discontent echoed at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.

The dozens of people in the crowd – mostly blacks, many of them older – were full of outrage and irritation just at having to fight what they see as another battle in the war without end for civil rights and the suppression of voters.

Ridley-Thomas was among them, seated with his wife, Avis.

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

Of course, it’s Los Angeles in 2021, not Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and it’s not that simple. But you’re trying to tell a bunch of pissed off black people.


Just to recap this complicated mess, Ridley-Thomas was indicted last month on federal corruption and conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say that while he was LA County Supervisor, he directed public funds to USC in return for admission, a scholarship, and a paid teaching post for his son, Sebastian.

Ridley-Thomas and former USC dean, Marilyn Flynn, have pleaded not guilty. Ridley-Thomas also vowed to “take a step back” from his duties on city council. However, he was quickly suspended and his salary cut.

This has not gone well in many neighborhoods in southern LA, where the Black Angelenos have long relied on the veteran politician for his leadership and mobilizing power to tackle issues such as law reform. police and the homeless.

Already there have been protests, including one in which civil rights leaders, including contemporary King Reverend James Lawson Jr., descended on City Hall last week. There will almost certainly be more.

Black leaders are rallying to support suspended LA city councilor Mark Ridley-Thomas outside City Hall last week.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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

Earlier this week, board chairman Nury Martinez appointed a warden for District 10, longtime Ridley-Thomas chief of staff Karly Katona. She does not have the right to vote. And at the moment, there are no plans to change that, although Martinez’s office has told The Times it is “looking at all options.”

Too bad for the emergency. So much to meet the needs of voters.

Whichever way you look at it, the constituents of District 10 – which includes parts of South LA, Koreatown, and Mid-City – have essentially been rendered “speechless.” Additionally, there is no timeline for when they will have a say in city government or even what it will look like when it does.

There is never a good time for such things, but it is particularly bad right now, as voting rights are under attack nationwide.

Just this week, Senate Republicans again blocked legislation that would have reinstated parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – the same law King fought for in “Selma” – that were struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Add to that the rapidly evolving redistribution process of LA and a black population that is being forced out of the city by high housing costs, and there is a palpable fear of losing political power in the 10th Arrondissement.

Never mind that under the current redistribution plan, the Ridley-Thomas district would remain largely the same with voting power remaining roughly split between black and Latino residents. (Southern LA’s congressional districts are another matter.)

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

His voice rose.

“If you don’t like what’s going on in the 10, if you don’t like it you have no voice now, if you don’t like it they try to sequester and omit and d ‘oppressing and trying to silence our voices by dismissing our elected leader, then you have to say something! ”

Unsurprisingly, Ridley-Thomas has decided to harness all that energy and fight back, although his reasons seem to have as much to do with his own protection as they do with protecting the rights of his constituents.

Granted, many of his supporters see him as the same, believing him to be a Southern LA champion who cannot be replaced.

Therefore, Ridley-Thomas’ goal is nothing less than being reinstated on city council. On Wednesday evening, one of his lawyers told me that a class action suit on behalf of disenfranchised residents is a strategy under consideration.

“Our preliminary research shows us that the decision taken by city council is unconstitutional,” said lawyer John Sweeney, “and that a representative from the 10th district has the right to challenge putting someone in the shoes by Mark Ridley-Thomas. ”

A decision to swap a keeper for a voting member who is not Ridley-Thomas – even someone who is respected and from the community – would be “dangerous,” he said.

“We would go even stronger and faster,” Sweeney said, “because a person with a vote who supposedly represents the people… could do harm.”

Sweeney was less categorical as to whether, if reinstated, Ridley-Thomas would honor his earlier pledge to step down as council or whether he would weigh in on the redistribution process and vote.

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

MRT is not MLK.

But watching Oyelowo wake up this crowd in “Selma”, insisting that “it is unacceptable that they are using their power to keep us speechless”, it is difficult – if only for a moment – not to not see the parallels.

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

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