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Anaheim council members voted unanimously this week to boot a sister city commissioner after he blamed China for the Coronavirus pandemic during a public meeting.

Yet, it became clear that the controversy had become about much more than the words of now-former commissioner Larry Larsen as the discussion evolved at the council’s Tuesday meeting.

At one Sister City Commission meeting, Larsen used the “China virus” nickname for Covid-19 — one of a few racist terms commonly used to scapegoat Asian Americans for the pandemic — while slamming the possibility of a sister city relationship with a Chinese city. 

Larsen was appointed to the commission by Councilman Jose Moreno, who stands in the minority on a number of issues on the council and frequently clashes with the panel’s majority faction.

Many among the council majority criticized Larsen’s words, saying they perpetuate harm and violence toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

But, in those remarks, they also found time to fit in a few shots at Moreno, as majority faction Councilman Trevor O’Neil said: 

“Council member Moreno I’m disappointed you never demanded an apology or an explanation from Mr. Larsen since he was your appointee. I can tell you if any of my appointees made statements like those against any member of the community … I would immediately remove that appointee.”

He continued: 

“You only offered to reach out and have a conversation with your friend … I can only draw the conclusion then that your reticence to act stems from the fact you accepted campaign contributions from Mr. Larsen … maybe that’s your idea of pay-to-play politics?”

To that, Moreno responded: “Well played, Mr. O’Neil. Well played.”

While Moreno — at this meeting and a previous one on the issue — voiced disappointment and criticism toward Larsen’s remarks, he indeed spent nearly as much time defending Larsen, advocating for understanding rather than immediate condemnation.

“I believe strongly … (that) before we condemn, we seek to learn and engage and then figure out what is the appropriate method to engage the situation,” Moreno said.

Moreno wrote a letter to Larsen on the issue, which he read aloud Tuesday night: 

“I hope you understand that, in attributing the tremendous human cost of the devastation of Covid to a people, racializes a global pandemic and inflames a rise in hate and violence toward our Asian American neighbors, families and kids.”

Moreno said he was disappointed Larsen didn’t apologize while he was defending himself during public comment.

“It was regrettable and … the hardest thing to do is stand up to your friends when they’re transgressing your values,” Moreno said. “It’s easier to condemn people you don’t like, people who are fundamentally opposed to you, but the most difficult thing is to stand up to a friend and say you’re wrong.”

Larsen, during public comment, said that to be accused of being racist “is the most vile thing I can be accused of.” 

He decried Councilman Jordan Brandman, who put forward the discussions about Larsen’s remarks, as raking him “through the mud” and trying “to destroy my entire reputation that I’ve worked my entire life in this city to develop.” 

“Over the past 15 years, and long before that, I’ve invested more time, more energy and more money working with the inner city, most at risk kids in this city and Jordan Brandman calls me a racist?” Larsen said.

He recalled his 15 years of experience with the Anaheim Union High School District, his relationship with Superintendent Mike Matsuda — “who happens to be Asian last time I checked,” Larsen said — and his advocacy for district elections in the city. 

“So the city is well represented … by hispanic council members. I couldn’t be more proud or happy. How racist is that of me?” Larsen said. 

“Tonight there’s going to be a kangaroo court and lynch mob and they’re gonna destroy me and my reputation, kick me off the sister city commission, which you put me on, for saying ‘China virus,’” he added. “And I’ll say it again.”

Councilman Avelino Valencia said “while I agree we should provide opportunities for this type of growth, I do believe the public comments stated today, by one of the commissioners who is in question, reaffirmed that the opportunity to grow and learn from our mistakes was not taken.”

“Because of that, I don’t believe it should be at the expense of our community to continue to provide a platform for an individual to use this type of rhetoric in the future,” Valencia said.

Moreno questioned whether his colleagues would keep this type of zero-tolerance attitude against racism in the future: 

“The question before us is not so much will we act tonight but what actions will you follow with to be constant in the application of this awareness of how racial language creates discord and distrust?”

He recalled the time he was “silenced” by Mayor Harry Sidhu for questioning the rhetoric of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who used some of that same rhetoric — nicknames for the virus like “kung flu” — in public.

“My friend (Larsen) had the opportunity (to apologize) and he didn’t take it. That said, a year ago, I mentioned at this dais our president was fomenting this language … and Mr. Mayor, you shut me down,” Moreno said. 

He continued: “You (Sidhu) said he was a great leader and you were honored to join him … a year later a sister city commissioner says those exact words and now you want to condemn him and remove him from public service.”

To that, Sidhu replied: “Last year, President Trump was the president. I respect all the presidents today. I respect President (Joe) Biden. What they say in their platform is their choice and I respect what they say. Stop playing politics here and trying to bring our city council into this mess. It is not going to be tolerated.”

Brandman, who originally put forward the discussion, at the beginning of the conversation said he didn’t mean to “inflame” anything with the item. 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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