Public commenters at recent council meetings in Larkspur and Tiburon have disrupted the proceedings with racist or antisemitic remarks.
The incidents both occurred during meetings on Sept. 20. At the Tiburon meeting, two speakers made bigoted statements during online public comments about the town’s climate plan. One denied the existence of the Holocaust, while the other made slurs and threatened violence against Jews.
At the Larkspur meeting, during the public comment period on the city’s communications team, two public commenters made racist and antisemitic slurs, laughed and repeatedly used white supremacist phrases.
The incidents are part of a pattern of racist and antisemitic disruptions at public meetings throughout the Bay Area, said Marc Levine, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s regional office. Other sites include Walnut Creek, Sacramento and Sonoma County, he said.
“Public meetings across the country are under attack by white supremacists. They are coordinating and victimizing public meetings,” said Levine, a former state assemblyman who represented Marin. “They’re not happening in isolation and it’s very important to understand that. These are coordinated attacks by these extremists to peddle in hate and stoke fear.”
Holli Thier, a councilmember from Tiburon who is Jewish, said the attacks were even more reprehensible because they happened between the holy holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“We invite and we need all of our elected officials and residents to stand with us and not be silent in the face of hate and discrimination,” Thier said. “I lost family in the Holocaust. I think we really have to speak out and make sure that something like that can never happen again.”
Sky Woodruff, Larkspur’s city attorney, said during the council meeting that it was the third such disruption. He said the city has rules of decorum to limit profanity, but noted “all members of the public have a full fair and equal opportunity to be heard.”
“Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “We do have to allow these comments to occur.”
Some expressed concern that the comments could come from anyone and anywhere because of teleconference meetings.
Larkspur City Manager Dan Schwartz called the statements “awful.”
“It was really jarring for all of us,” Schwartz said. “We do condemn this, but frankly I am dismayed that court rulings say that this is somehow protected First Amendment speech. I don’t think this is what the First Amendment was written for. I’m so disappointed in the court system.”
Levine plans to speak about the issue Wednesday with the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers and share tips for responding to extremist disruptions at public meetings. Tactics include sign-in and participation requirements, barring threatening conduct, time restrictions and requiring written comments.
“We don’t want hateful rhetoric to take over public spaces and we just recognize that violent language does not occur in a vacuum,” Levine said.
Elected officials in Larkspur and Tiburon condemned the comments.
Larkspur Mayor Gabe Paulson said, “I think what is so disruptive about it is the element of surprise. As a council we definitely condemn it.”
Jon Welner, a councilmember in Tiburon, said it was “disappointing and disheartening to hear these vile anti-Jewish comments during the council meeting.”
“I was pleased the council was able to respond promptly and decisively,” he said. “Tiburon is a warm and welcoming community. There is no place for hate in our town.”
Councilmember Isaac Nikfar called antisemitism, hate speech and racism “unacceptable.”
“I also believe that it is my responsibility as an ally to the Jewish community to stand up to antisemitism in all forms,” Nikfar said.
Jack Ryan, mayor of Tiburon, said he was “shocked” by the comments.
“I personally condemn this targeted hate,” he said. “And as a public entity, we have some work to do to try to prevent hate speech from tainting the public political process. Luckily, there are resources available, as this hate virus is not unique to Tiburon.”
Between 2021 and 2022, California had a 41% rise in antisemitic incidents, from 367 to 518, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Tyler Gregory, chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the meeting disruptions would likely proliferate, just like the spate of antisemitic flyers that were distributed throughout the Bay Area over the last year.
“The more we can do to explain this is a small coordinated effort of people who know their First Amendment rights and are trying to get a rise out of us, the better and more measured our responses will be,” Gregory said.
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