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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting disrupted by online hate speech


Sep 14, 2023

Not for the first time, antisemitic, racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric punctuated the afternoon, dragging out the board’s last three items and consuming a late portion of the meeting reserved for comment on items not on the board’s agenda.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors was a fairly typical example of the vital but slow-moving wheels of government, with discussions of waste disposal site expansion, enhanced fire protection and a living wage policy affecting the county’s lowest paid workers.

Then came the hate, as the meeting was hijacked by a series of racist and antisemitic comments delivered via the Zoom feed. Board Chair Chris Coursey, a former Santa Rosa mayor and veteran Press Democrat reporter and columnist, called Tuesday afternoon “the worst I’ve had to deal with in my time on boards.”

It was an escalation of a recent trend that has county officials discussing options for curtailing offensive speech without trampling on public access.

“Yesterday was definitely an escalation of hate and vile, racist, antisemitic content,” Supervisor James Gore told The Press Democrat. “And even things like people trying to read out supervisors’ home addresses. We’ve seen this group, whatever it is, pop up a few times over last two or three months. But yesterday was kind of the pinnacle of disgust.”

Prior to the COVID pandemic, people who didn’t want to attend or comment in person could watch supervisors’ meetings and submit written comments via the Granicus platform. That changed when public health orders suspended in-person meetings and Sonoma County, like most others in the U.S., pivoted to participatory Zoom connections.

The model has proved popular even as the pandemic has ebbed. Online access allows a wider cross-section of people to participate in public meetings, including those who for whatever reason are unable to do so in person.

Tuesday’s fiasco exposes the system’s vulnerabilities.

Antisemitic, racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric punctuated the afternoon, dragging out the board’s last three items and consuming a late portion of the meeting reserved for comment on items not on the board’s agenda.

It echoed an incident in July 2020, when two high-placed officials in the county Department of Health, both of them Black women, were subjected to a torrent of racial slurs and images of lynchings flooding their computer screens as they led a Zoom forum focused on homelessness.

When the slurs began to come in Tuesday, Coursey announced that if anyone were to use racist language or issue personal attacks, he would warn them with the word “stop.” If they continued, he would cut them off.

Coursey shouted “stop” multiple times over the rest of the meeting, but it did little to dissuade the intrusive callers. When the time came for general public comment, the chair limited online speakers to 30 seconds while preserving a 2-minute limit for in-person comment. That only seemed to inflame the trolls.

Some of them disguised their intentions, pretending to weigh in on substantive issues such as removing the peace officer status of park rangers, then sneaking in a racist slur or shouting an epithet before Coursey or board clerk Marcie Woychik could cut them off.

“One was talking about labor stuff, and I knew he knew nothing about it,” said Maddy Hirshfield, who attended the meeting as a representative of the North Bay Labor Council. “Then at the end he said, “F**k the Jews.”

She apologized for repeating the phrase to a reporter.

The situation created an uncomfortable tension in the board chambers, filled with about 60 people, where a state of suspended dread existed as speakers unmuted themselves on Zoom and began to talk.

One man called in a half-dozen times or more, sometimes using the name Lowe, sometimes other names — though his voice was recognizable. He repeatedly accused Coursey of infringing on his rights under the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law, before spewing out hate speech. It may have been this person who directed listeners to the website for a dramatic series that lends a pro-Hitler spin to World War II and dismisses the Holocaust.

“I really apologize for what you are having to listen to today,” said a man identifying himself as Joe Lieber, who called in to comment on redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center in Sonoma Valley.

Coursey also recognized the hurt the hateful and offensive messages may have caused.

“We had staff who regularly monitor the meeting in back offices who were visibly upset,” he said. “It would be one thing if us five elected people were listening to this alone. We’re not. This gets broadcast out into the community.”

No single person seemed to be targeted by the vitriol, but most who watched it unfold are convinced there had been a coordinated effort to organize the trolls. Who was behind it is unclear.

County staff shared with The Press Democrat a list of Tuesday’s callers. But many used first name only, and there is no way to verify accuracy.

One person calling in during discussion of an amendment to the county’s project labor agreement policy listed his name as Handsome Truth. That is the social media handle of Jon Minadeo II, a neo-Nazi who was raised in the North Bay and, until recently, lived in Petaluma. (He has since moved to Florida.) Minadeo has spawned a network of antisemitic agitators who stage combative stunts to garner attention. The antisemitic flyers he created have been found littering neighborhoods all over the country.

Hirshfield found it all quite disturbing.

She was eager to lend comment on both the living wage ordinance and the labor amendment before the Board of Supervisors. She waited patiently for more than two hours, at one point going outside to feed her parking meter. Hirshfield, who is Jewish, hadn’t expected to be subjected to hatemongering.

“My mind goes to my dad, who fought in a war so this kind of thing didn’t happen,” she reflected. “My mind goes to my mom, who traveled around with my dad during the war and experienced antisemitism, and sometimes had a hard time renting a room. To my grandmother, who came to this country at 13 years old so she could live to 14. It’s right in our faces again. And it’s scary.”

Hirshfield praised Coursey’s handling of the situation. After the shock of the initial outburst, she said, Coursey shut down a subsequent caller but moved on without acknowledging him — a tactic Hirshfield liked because it denied the troll attention.

She would welcome some sort of delay for incoming calls, much like they use on radio on television, but supports remote access.

“As awful as this is, I really don’t want to see them eliminate the Zoom capacity,” Hirshfield said. “I know it started because of the pandemic. But it allows people to participate who can’t get there, like maybe they don’t have a car. That is a good thing, and I don’t want these people to stop us from doing that.”

County officials are now discussing ending virtual participation altogether — Coursey referred to it as “the nuclear option” — as well as a system that would capture incoming calls on tape, to quickly be reviewed by staff before they are introduced to the meeting.

“You hate to change rules in a way that hurts public comment for a few disgusting actors, right?” Gore said. “But when you allow virtual input and you don’t know if they’re using real names, if they live in the community, if you’re on some hit list on the dark web, you have to take action. Because protecting public comment for everyday Sonoma County citizens is one of our foremost duties.

“We honor that. And it comes with hope, frustration, anger, all those things.”

The county would have legal standing to end its Zoom access immediately, according to Sonoma County Counsel Robert Pittman. That form of participation is not mandated.

More broadly, while elected leaders are not permitted to cut off a speaker in their allotted time because they disagree with the person’s opinion, Pittman continued, they are within their rights to do so if the commenter is widely off topic or not acting in good faith.

“These comments from (Tuesday), they’re not even within the board’s jurisdiction — or asking for anything at all, really,” he said. “They’re basically on a soapbox. If they are derailing the meeting or curtailing other people’s ability to comment, they are not protected.”

Pittman noted that there is “a pretty fair split” among counties that have discontinued remote access and those that currently maintain it.

The county had previously been contacted by the Anti-Defamation League about the recent spate of antisemitic comments, according to Gore. He is now reaching out to the state and national associations of county governments, hoping to share information and suggestions.

“When laws protect villains more than victims, something has to change,” he said. “Laws have to change.”

Pittman said the county has “started to explore” a possible law enforcement role in identifying the intruders.

Certainly, Sonoma County does not present an isolated example.

In one recent instance, a Sept. 5 Sacramento City Council meeting was bombarded by profane, antisemitic Zoom comments directed at Mayor Darrell Steinberg, as well as anti-Black slurs. Minadeo posted an edited version of that recording two days later on social media.

Several people interviewed for this story believe Tuesday’s incidents in Sonoma County are indicative of a wider change in the culture, with hate purveyors now emboldened in ways they wouldn’t have dared to exhibit 10 years ago — a shift that, at its extreme, has led to events like the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol.

Coursey thinks it’s important to publicly oppose that sort of vitriol.

“I have a grandson who is Black. His father is Black,” Coursey said. “My grandson is too young to be watching Board of Supervisors meetings. But someday he may want to find out what his grandpa did as chairman of the Board of Supervisors. He may go into the archives and look this up. And I want him to know I stood against this type of bullsh*t.”

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