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Church prayers in South L.A. underscore high stakes as Mark Ridley-Thomas bribery trial begins

At the sanctuary of Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, Mark Ridley-Thomas prepared for the trial of his life.

The seasoned legislator stood at the altar next to his wife, Avis, on Sunday as a minister beckoned the hundreds in attendance to extend their arms.

Some boroughs of the city may have already made up their mind about Ridley-Thomas’s guilt, deciding long ago that he deserved his suspension from the LA City Council and even worse after being indicted on federal corruption charges.

But here in the pews of this longstanding black church, worshipers rose and held hands toward a man they have called their councilman, legislator, lawyer, and friend.

“Take up the shield of faith,” thundered Bishop ST Williams Jr. Ridley-Thomas bowed his head and put an arm around his wife. “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit.”

It was prayer as a blessing, a plea, a battle cry.

After Williams finished reciting the words of St. Paul, the crowd boomed “Amen” and erupted in applause.

This was an ecumenical and interfaith prayer service with a very specific mission, organized to support Ridley-Thomas two days before jury selection was to begin in his federal corruption trial.

Ridley-Thomas, 68, who has a long record of Black Los Angeles, is now facing charges of bribery, conspiracy and fraud as part of a scheme in which he allegedly sent contracts to USC in exchange for special benefits for his son, Sebastian , including a job and a scholarship.

If convicted, Ridley-Thomas could face decades in prison. He has pleaded not guilty, insisted on his innocence and, as many gathered on Sunday, has held the prosecution as an affront to the black community and the cause of social and racial justice.

It’s a vision that looks beyond the pending indictments and sees Ridley-Thomas as a Christian ethicist-turned-activist and politician whose legacy overshadows the allegations of federal prosecutors.

“I think people have done a lot worse,” said Rev. Kenneth Walden, senior pastor at Holman United Methodist Church. “So we just ask for honesty. We are not asking for special treatment.”

The federal indictments, followed by the leaked backroom footage of Latino leaders plotting to consolidate and maintain their power in the city’s redistribution process while making racist and derogatory remarks, have contributed to the widespread belief that the black community of Los Angeles is under siege. The fact that the same legislators on the tape supported the effort to suspend Ridley-Thomas — preventing his voters in the 10th district from getting representation on the city council — added to the sense of resentment and transgression.

“We look at this moment as sort of a symbol of where we stand in African American politics in Los Angeles,” said Norman Johnson, a convener of the South Los Angeles Clergy for Public Accountability, the organization that sponsored Sunday’s event. . “We really feel like it’s not just him, it’s us; he’s not just on trial — we’re on trial,” Johnson said.

“And so we want to say to him, that we stand with you; we want to tell our community to stand with those who stood by us and stood by us.”

Walden kicked off the night by invoking the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. He viewed the approaching Ridley-Thomas trial as yet another challenge in the long struggle for the civil rights of black Americans.

Marching for freedom is never easy. But it’s important,” Walden said. “He’s been tried by popular opinion in some newspapers. He’s been convicted in some popular talk among some people. But we know Mark Ridley-Thomas as a servant, to everyone.

Ridley-Thomas served as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles for ten years in the 1980s before nine consecutive election victories made him a councilman, state councilman, state senator, county supervisor, and, again, councilman. member. His wife, Avis, is celebrated for founding the LA City Advocate dispute resolution program, as well as Days of Dialogue, which brought small groups around the city together to discuss community issues.

Ridley-Thomas’ political profile may include telephone operator and orator, but many of his constituents know him best for overseeing the restoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and the launch of the Empowerment Congress. Those gatherings began after the 1992 riots to encourage residents to get involved in community programs, such as mental health support and job training.

“His achievements are many,” Rabbi Steven Jacobs said in an interview. “And because he is challenged, people seem to have forgotten how enriched their lives are by his actions and his deep convictions.”

More than a dozen religious leaders from across LA, including Jacobs, spoke from the pulpit to offer prayers sprinkled with anecdotes.

Reverend Betty Wright-Riggins recalled when Ridley-Thomas and his wife visited her in the hospital in Pennsylvania.

Dafer Dakhil, executive director of the Omar ibn Al-Khattab Foundation, recalled meeting Ridley-Thomas in the late 1980s when their children were in school together. Dakhil read verses from the Quran: “God is the protector of those who believe.”

Pastor Julian Lowe of Oasis Church said from the pulpit that early in his career, Ridley-Thomas invited him to call if he needed anything. Lowe had scheduled that call in 2021. But in the days leading up to their nomination came “this terrible assault on his legacy,” when federal prosecutors unveiled a 19-count indictment against Ridley-Thomas. The charges charged him with corrupt conspiracy to secure a job and scholarship for his son, who resigned from the state assembly amid a sexual harassment investigation.

Lowe crossed the call off his schedule, thinking Ridley-Thomas would be too busy to talk. “The clock struck the time for him to speak,” and Lowe picked up the phone and heard Ridley-Thomas’ voice. “He said, ‘Mark Ridley-Thomas, how can I serve?'” Surprised, Lowe admitted that he hadn’t expected the politician to keep the deal given everything he was going through.

“Young man, you’re right, I’m on fire,” Ridley-Thomas told him. “But as long as I’m able, I’ll do the job I’ve done.”

The pews were filled with old Ridley-Thomas supporters, including Lowe and Cornel West, the philosopher and author. Former aides, lobbyists, donors, and fellow politicians, including Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), and former LA City Councilman Mike Bonin, who showed up with his young son.

“I believe all of this is terrible for him — as well as the community,” said John Semcken, an executive at Majestic Realty, the company owned by billionaire developer Edward Roski. “The truth is I don’t think he did anything wrong.”

Hilary Norton, a member of the California Transportation Commission, said she was one of dozens of former Ridley-Thomas employees who remain loyal to and inspired by their former boss. Many were particularly outraged by Ridley-Thomas’s suspension from the council as the alleged crimes predated his time on the council.

“It was unconscionable to disenfranchise the person who was always part of the community release as he was,” Norton said. “That’s why the church was full. We pray for justice.”

The typically verbose Ridley-Thomas was silent all night. He smiled at supporters and shook hands, but was rarely seen without one of his criminal lawyers by his side.

“He’s limited in what he can say publicly at this point, thanks to his highly skilled legal team,” said Vincent Harris, a longtime political aide.

“But I know that if he were able to do so, he would express his deepest gratitude for your presence tonight and for the months, years of support.”