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Fixing The City

‘Why the Fuck Aren’t They Doing More?’ 

Gloves off, departing L.A. Councilmember Mike Bonin says that’s what voters demand to know about homelessness, climate, policing and other crises.




Mike Bonin shown in 2019 at a press conference calling for the city to enforce short-term rental regulations. Photo: Office of Councilmember Bonin.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted 11 to 3 to broaden restrictions on sitting and lying on sidewalks near schools and day care centers. Councilmember Mike Bonin urged his colleagues to vote no. Such measures are pointless, he said, because they do nothing to house those who need shelter.

Protesters chanted “shut it down” as Councilmember Joe Buscaino spoke in favor of the measure. The meeting was shut down, but only temporarily, as police officers removed the protesters while councilmembers retreated to their offices. When they returned, only Bonin, Nithya Raman and Marqueece Harris-Dawson voted no. A final procedural vote is set for next week.

Homelessness — and the need for more humane solutions — has been Councilmember Mike Bonin’s signature issue.

But his efforts to provide housing and services led to a recall attempt last year in his district, which includes Venice, Palms, Mar Vista and Westchester. The recall ultimately failed to make the ballot, but Bonin opted not to seek a third term, citing depression and the need to focus on his own health.

Bonin spoke to Capital & Main about what Los Angeles must do to safely house its residents, and how its political system can do more.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Capital & Main: Why can’t we house those now on the street?

Mike Bonin: We’re passing these laws that say, “OK, you can’t sleep here. You can’t lie there. You can’t sit there.”

And the thing I want people to ask of policy makers is, well, where can people go? If you’re saying you can’t go here, where are you saying people can go?

We have to shift the focus, the attention and the considerable amount of money from criminalization and enforcement and put it on how do we actually house people better?

“I’m not saying we’re at a French Revolution moment, but we’re at a place of an unprecedented impatient hunger for significant action.”

What’s been the response when you ask, “Where are people supposed to go?”

Last July I gave a speech in council when we were voting on one of these enforcement policies, a big expansion of one of them.

I talked a lot about when I was young and new to California, struggling with drugs, I spent some time on the streets. Nothing comparable to what people are going through in encampments now, but I’m very acutely aware of how easy it is to fall down, and how hard it is to get back up. I opened up a lot personally and I thought I did a good job humanizing the situation.

Most of my colleagues got up and said, “Thank you for sharing that. It was very moving.” And then they went ahead and they voted for the policy anyway.

That is a lot of what’s happening in Los Angeles now where I think that people who thought of themselves as liberal or thought of themselves as progressives in elective office don’t really understand what the hell’s going on. So, it’s why I’ve been busting my butt to get more progressives elected.

Are you talking about an older guard of progressive elected officials?

Yeah, who don’t understand who are these young people who are getting elected. Why are people so angry? There’s a number of members of the council, District 1 City Councilmember Gil Cedillo [who lost his bid for a third council term in the June primary] and District 13 Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell [who came in second to challenger Hugo Soto Martinez] chief among them, who are openly hostile to young activists. They mock them. They disparage them. They’re angry at them.

Do you think that has something to do with Cedillo’s defeat and Mitch O’Farrell’s second place showing?

Absolutely. I think it had everything to do with it. I think there’s a huge sense of urgency and impatience out there. I think it’s particularly acute for young people and the climate crisis, but I think it’s the same way for renters and low wage workers in Los Angeles. They’re fucked, and they know they’re fucked, and they know that government knows they’re fucked. And they’re like, not to use the phrase too often, but they’re like, “Why the fuck aren’t they doing more?” And they’re demanding it.

I’m not saying we’re at a French Revolution moment, but we’re at a place of an unprecedented impatient hunger for significant action.

“People don’t want encampments in their neighborhoods, but they also know that moving the homeless from block to block doesn’t work.”

Why do you think pundits got the June primary so wrong? Voters were expected to cast ballots based on their fear of crime and frustration with homelessness. Mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, especially, was thought to be more formidable than he turned out to be. 

Yeah, people left, right and center were pissed about public safety and they’re pissed about homelessness, but they actually want real solutions.

The police union, and I’ve been in their cross hairs for quite a while, the police union and the corporate landlords, they both did aggressive campaigns against Eunisses Hernandez [who won the District 1 city council seat], against Hugo Soto-Martinez [top vote getter in the District 13 race], on behalf of the opponents of Erin Darling, [who leads the vote count to succeed Bonin in District 11], the police union against Erin directly. I think the landlords went after Katy Young Yaroslavsky [District 5 candidate who was in first place to succeed termed out incumbent Paul Koretz]. They really went heavy, the more conservative special interests against all of these progressive candidates. All of the candidates they targeted for defeat came in first.

And what I took from that is that people are willing to go beyond the soundbite and the knee jerk on how to respond to things. So, people don’t want encampments in their neighborhoods, but they also know that moving the homeless from block to block doesn’t work. They want to know who’s going to actually move people inside. They know that there are some areas that have crime up, some that don’t, but they also know that just having more cops doesn’t prevent crime. You need to actually address the causes of it.

With more progressives on the council, what could they prioritize that you could not? 

Having four or five progressives isn’t twice as many as two. It’s exponentially more in terms of force. The whole weight of the discussion changes. The debate shifts to the left, the conversation becomes more progressive. And I think you then have both the potential to do more, and you also have the obligation to do more.

When there’s one person who’s objecting, two people who are objecting to the direction 10 people are going, OK, it might be a 10 to two, 13 to two vote. When you’ve got five or six people, one, that makes it hell of a lot easier to get seven or eight, but it also changes the whole nature of the debate.

What role do you think that L.A. City Hall corruption plays in inaction or complacency on the part of elected officials?

I don’t know how much it plays in the inaction or in the complacency. I do think it adds a lot to the anti-establishment, anti-incumbent fervor.

It didn’t drive any of the races, but I do think that it sort of helped create a baseline disrespect for the establishment or incumbents. It was just another, these people all suck. Let’s get rid of them.

“L.A. just does such a bad job with land use. L.A.’s whole planning is based on exceptions and favors.”

Do you think that there might be more structural reforms coming? It strikes me, and I don’t think I’m the only one, but this idea that you’re the king of your district and you can do what you want, and you can stand in the way of a project, or make one happen, that that really lends itself to corruption. [City Councilmembers have an informal — but consistently practiced — agreement that they will not oppose development projects in another member’s district.]

It can; it doesn’t inevitably. It certainly can, people can use that. I think if people are corrupt, they’re going to find a way to be corrupt. If they didn’t have the ability over land use, they’d find some other way to do something shitty. It’s a combination of where you’re going in your head, and opportunity. And it was a convenient marriage in those cases.

Is our current land use system — things like the approval and permits for real estate developments — fertile ground for corruption?

It is. L.A. just does such a bad job with land use. L.A.’s whole planning is based on exceptions and favors. Our land use codes are for the most part pretty outdated, and so they don’t reflect what we need for today. So to get done, even good projects, you often need an exception from the code, but that means that the person who makes the decision on what exception gets approved has a tremendous amount of power. I’ve always been of the belief that we should be constantly updating our codes every 10 years or so, and then don’t deviate from them except in the most extreme circumstances.

But when I first got into office and I was saying that, I was on a panel and there was a land use attorney on the panel with me and when he left, he said, “Mike, your colleagues are never going to go for that. They want the power.” I’m like, I would prefer never to have to make another land use decision in my life, so I can work on expanding the minimum wage or something like that. But he was right. There’s a resistance to giving up that power.

What’s next for you after your term is up?

I am not going to quietly fade away. That’s for sure. One, in the short term, I’m going to do anything I can to elect these progressives and to help them have an effective transition and a good start. Then I will probably do some combination of maybe teaching and journalism, or podcasting and continued political advocacy. Whether it’ll be training younger activists or working on homelessness policy at the state or national level, I’ll definitely be staying engaged.

You’ll be able to speak more freely.

Yes. There’s some who think I’ve spoken too freely as an elected, so God knows what I’m going to be doing when I’m not. I think the country’s falling apart, but I’m really encouraged that we may have a group of people here who are going to be able to help write a different chapter for Los Angeles. And I will stay engaged every way I can to help them.

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

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