Khan: San Jose leaders have disregarded our democracy
Half of the seats in the San Jose City Council chambers were covered in blue plastic tarp to prevent people from sitting there on Dec. 5, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Earlier this week, San Jose, the mayor, City Council and city administrators breached core democratic values of open government and freedom of speech for all people by engaging in the racist and shameful act of tarping council chamber seats to prevent people of conscience from attending a council meeting and speaking out in support of a ceasefire in Gaza.

On Tuesday, San Jose residents and other concerned citizens organized an action to attend the scheduled city council meeting and peacefully speak in support of Palestinian lives. They intended to demand that the city council pass a resolution calling for a cessation of the brutal, ongoing Israeli aggression in Gaza that has killed thousands of people, including more than 4,000 children.

What was our city’s response? The tarping of several rows of seats, a reduction in capacity in the council chamber and increased police presence.

The city’s decisions and actions that night are an absolute affront to democratic principles and contrary to our constitutional rights of free speech, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

We are in a moment where our tax dollars are financing the mass killing of Palestinians and where countless members of the United States government at all levels have endorsed and sanctioned such atrocities.

At a bare minimum, our elected leaders—local, state and federal—must be made available for and open to accountability. It’s also critical that we protect and uphold our citizenry’s rights to express their criticisms and offer direction and feedback to our government and seats of power.

These are the lifelines and cornerstones of our democracy and republic.

Instead, our city leaders—namely Mayor Matt Mahan and the San Jose City Council—violated these core tenets by censoring and suppressing the voices of our fellow community members and turning people away from what should have been an open space and public forum.

City officials offered the following explanations for the drastic, unprecedented measures of tarping seats: “to ensure peaceful and respectful public comment,” fear of “disruptions” and acting in “an abundance of caution.”

These justifications for the extreme, selective tactics used by the city display an explicit or at least implicit bias that Palestinians and Muslims—along with those who support and stand in solidarity with them—are prone to violence, incivility and unruly behavior.

We are—by inference—dangerous, disruptive individuals incapable of peaceful and respectful discourse that necessitate “an abundance of caution,” more police officers and the tarping of seats.

The actions of San Jose officials essentially paint our people as terrorists, a long existing racist and troublesome trope that can and does have deadly and tragic consequences for our community members, especially Muslim, South Asian, North African and Middle Eastern people.

This is just the latest example of a discriminatory, concerted, continuing effort to criminalize, vilify and intimidate communities of color, to suppress speech in support of Palestinian lives and to squelch criticism of Israel and of United States policies that disproportionately harm already marginalized peoples.

This was a failure of leadership. This was a betrayal of our democracy. This was a violation of our collective rights. This was fear mongering. This was racist.

Mayor Mahan and Councilmembers Peter Ortiz, Omar Torres, Sergio Jimenez, Rosemary Kamei, David Cohen, Dev Davis, Bien Doan, Domingo Candelas, Pam Foley and Arjun Batra:

We demand that you apologize for this offensive, problematic, targeted decision by San Jose.

We demand full transparency about how this decision was made, including release of all communications related to the tarping of seats and increased police presence for Tuesday’s meeting.

We demand that you protect free speech and promote government accountability in our city by holding a new and full public hearing to permit those prevented or dissuaded from attending and speaking at Tuesday’s meeting to come forward and voice their positions.

And we demand that you establish firm measures to prevent this type of demeaning stereotyping and racist suppression of the voices of Palestinians, Muslims and other communities of color and conscience from ever happening again.

Sajid A. Khan is a San Jose resident, member of the Muslim community and local attorney/public defender.

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