Today, Inner City Struggle is a multi-issue organization working with youth and elders to build stronger schools, grow our civic engagement, and prevent housing displacement.
Henry earned his master’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2003. He began working with Inner City Struggle in 2005 and became the associate director in 2009.
CALÓ NEWS interviewed Perez to discuss the open letter, his vision for CD-14, the message to de León and the structural racism he believes exists in our communities.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
HENRY PEREZ, Los Angeles, Associate Director, Him/EL, Latino
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE CD-14 AND WHAT ROLE DOES INNER CITY STRUGGLE PLAY WITHIN THIS DISTRICT/COMMUNITY?
District 14 is located on the Eastside of LA. Inner City Struggle is a 28-year-old community-based organization. We cover three major communities within CD-14 (de Leon’s district) and that includes Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno. We also cover the other half of Lincoln Heights, which is in CD-1 (Cedillo’s district). Both council members are representatives of the communities we organize. Inner City Struggle organizes youth and families to come together and be a voice for change and transformation in their communities, to advocate for our most vulnerable and marginalized neighborhoods on the eastside of LA. Residents often do not have a voice in policy decisions that are made in city hall. We organize them so we can build community power in our regions when it comes to city policies and decisions. Our responsibility is to push elected officials to make the right decisions for our communities and to make sure that there are equitable investments being made in our communities. That means that residents of the city’s highest needs should be prioritized to the allocation of funding and resources.
WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST THOUGHTS WHEN YOU LISTENED TO THE RECORDINGS OF COUNCIL MEMBERS KEVIN DE LEÓN , GIL CEDILLO AND NURY MARTINEZ? DO YOU THINK DE LEON HAS THE SAME FAULT AS NURY MARTINEZ IN THE RECORDING AND CONVERSATION?
There was a definite reaction to being shocked. The shocking part was just how vile the conversation was, how disparaging it was. The way these four individuals felt so comfortable saying what they said to one another in that space. It was shocking that none of the four individuals did the right thing and called out what was being said. I know some spoke more than others. I know the former president and councilmember Martinez was the most vocal of the group, but they all participated, they were all there. Not one of them called out what was being said, and they condoned it by being silent. They are all guilty of plotting to dilute Black political power, that’s what they were there to do.. They were not only planning how to divert Black political power but also renter power in the current challenging times that we are in with displacement and high levels of families falling behind on their rent. During the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of community organizing that focused on protecting renters through the implementation of renter’s protection and that activism has continued to make sure that they continue being protected even if the city is ramping down Covid-19 rental protections. These council members are heavily influenced by landlords, developers and building owners and that conversation showed that they were there to make their bidding and not to protect the renters. I was shocked and I think that they are guilty, not just of saying some very racist remarks but also scheming to remove political power from our Black community and renter community and organizers that are fighting for renter rights. I must admit I was not completely surprised at these audios because, as a community that has been working in the east side for 28 years, we have already been apprehensive and untrusting of our two representatives, de León and Cedillo.
HOW DID THE OPEN LETTER, WHICH DEMANDS DE LEON’S RESIGNATION BEGIN FORMULATING? WHY WAS IT ESSENTIAL FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION TO SIGN THIS OPEN LETTER?
This open letter began with Inner City Struggle reaching out to some fellow eastside partners and organizations. As an organization, we issued our own statement the day after the audio leaked, after the story broke. This was on Monday. We knew that it was not enough for one organization to issue a statement or for each organization to issue its own statement. We knew we had to come together and unite during this moment. We had to stand united against racism, anti-Blackness, anti-indigenous racism, homophobia, and sexism. We had to stand together united for continued activism and power building for renters’ rights and protections. We knew that as Inner City Struggle, we had to be front and center with our partners because two of the four Latinx leaders that were at the meeting are from the east side. The east side is predominantly Latinx, and it is a community of organizing and of coalition building, building bridges across communities – in particular with the Black communities of South Central LA.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR CD-14, THE DISTRICT LED BY DE LEON? HOW WILL THE DISTRICT AND COMMUNITY HEALTH FROM THIS?
Many of our communities already understand what is wrong with what these council members said, and they understand the importance of being in solidarity with historically oppressed communities. We had more than 200 people come out to de Leon’s office because they needed a space to express their hurt, disappointment and anger. A lot of our community is angry right now, and our communities are getting angrier the more time passes and the two remaining council members refuse to do the right thing and step down.
THE OPEN LETTER SAYS THE “EAST SIDE DESERVES BETTER.” IS THERE ANYBODY YOU HAVE IN MIND TO TAKE ON HIS POSITION? WHAT QUALITIES MUST THE NEXT CD-14 COUNCIL MEMBER HAVE? WHAT DOES THE ORGANIZATION BELIEVE MAKES A GOOD COUNCIL MEMBER?
At this point, we are very focused on putting enough pressure on these two council members who have yet to resign, that’s our main focus. We need a future council member that stands with renters and tenants at this critical time of high homelessness and increasing rent, where the majority of the community is a rent burden and the majority of their income is going to rent. We need a council member that prioritizes and centers the most vulnerable segments within CD-14. So much is at stake right now. Homelessness has increased so much in the past years. The Latino community is the community where homelessness has increased the most, and that is happening in the east side of the city. We are feeling the pressures of gentrification and we’re seeing the displacement happening day by day. We need security in our communities. We need equity in funding decisions and policies that serve the best interest of the majority of our residents. If we really focus on equity and centering our most marginalized communities, then we will have areas that will thrive and prosper.
DO YOU THINK CD-14 RESIDENTS HAD A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE OF DE LEON PRIOR TO THESE RECORDINGS?
Cedillo will be voted out this November because the community has seen that he has not been there for our working-class community and our highest-need renter community and instead has been more on the side of developers and landlords. When it comes to de León, I think the community began being apprehensive and untrusting of him when he ran for city council, when the community saw through him and saw he would use this city council seat as a stepping stone to higher office, whether that was as mayor, a senator or even as governor in the future. That came up frequently as he was running for council member in forums and debates before being elected, and he would never directly answer those questions or he would make false promises that he did not intend to seek higher office and that he was committed to the community to CD-14. We quickly saw that that was not true when he began his campaign and wanted to leave his post after not finishing one term as council member. The community was already untrusting of him and he just proved us correct. He showed us that he is another self-serving official who is just interested in his own political gain. We have been able to advance protection for our communities because we have been able to unite with our fellow brothers and sisters in South Central. The east side and South LA are among the communities that have the higher needs and lowest income. We always have to stand together but especially at this time to confront the powers that want to divide us, that want to dilute our power, and who have that scarcity mentality that in order for one community to succeed, another has to give up something. It was important for us that we took immediate, strong action here on the east side. We will not accept the way Cedillo or de León acted because that is not what the east side is about. They were not thinking of communities because if they were, they would know we don’t need to divide communities. History has shown us that we are stronger when we unite across communities of color.
WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THE RESIDENTS OF THIS DISTRICT?
Right now, we are approaching the midterm elections. As an organization, we are out there doing voter outreach and voter education so that we can see an increase in Latino participation in these elections. In the primaries, we saw very low participation in our communities, and we hope that changes. We have been hearing a lot of cynicism out there. We have a lot of community members telling us that their vote doesn’t matter, why would they vote for politicians that represent their needs and behave the way the elected officials behaved in the recorded conversation. Our message to them is that we must remain hopeful. Our communities have spoken out against the remarks made in that audio and demanded accountability and responsibility. I think that gives us hope, the fact that we are standing on the right side of this issue and that we want to see better from our elected representatives. If we continue to connect with one another, getting involved with local organizations that are working on social justice, we can achieve and accomplish many things for our community. We will have to come together, not just in very dark, troubling moments like the ones in the past weeks but permanently coming together to be a voice for the changes we want to see in our city.
DO YOU HAVE ANY MESSAGES FOR CEDILLO AND DE LEON?
Do the right thing. Show your responsibility and accountability and resign. The community has spoken, and our voices are growing louder each day. We want to move forward, begin healing and begin addressing some of the structural racism that exists within our communities but we can do that until you all resign.
Once they resign, there’s still a lot of work to do, it doesn’t only stop after they resign. There’s a lot of work to address the structural racism that resides in our city and one way to do that is through the redistricting process. Making sure that we call for an independent redistricting commission that includes real members of the communities.