San Jose activists push back against metal detectors in City Hall
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Kyle Martin.

Silicon Valley advocates pushed back Thursday on a controversial proposal to increase security at City Hall by installing metal detectors, calling the move “undemocratic” and “hostile to the public.”

In a memo to San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Councilmember Johnny Khamis proposed that his colleagues consider safety measures at City Hall by implementing metal detectors before the final budget for next year is approved. The metal detectors, which would go in front of the council chambers, are expected to cost about $124,100 the first year with an ongoing cost of $97,100 per year.

Khamis said he identified a “gaping hole” in security when a mass of anti-Google protestors chained themselves to chairs last December after the city sold public land to Google for a tech campus development. Police officers suggested the idea, Khamis said, who added that the increase in security will help prevent another similar incident, or “something worse.”

“We get threats. As an elected official, when the police rushes you out of a building it’s a bit scary,” Khamis said in an interview. “Quite frankly, sometimes I walk out of a meeting scared, because I take positions that the audience doesn’t always agree with.”

“I’m a bit concerned — people have passions that lead them to do some strange things,” continued Khamis. “We don’t want anyone in the audience hurt.”

But advocates on Thursday scoffed at the idea and said it’s another sign of San Jose stifling public debate and silencing dissent.

“My reaction is it’s scandalous to even consider such a thing,” said Sandy Perry, an advocate who is involved with Serve the People San Jose, a grassroots organization that opposes Google’s expansion into San Jose. Perry was one of eight people arrested for chaining himself to a chair at City Hall when the land deal was approved.

“Nobody in any City Council meeting has ever hurt anybody,” Perry added. “Is City Council going to be like a prison? When the public comes to a City Council meeting, do the councilmembers really see us as the enemy? As a threat? As bringing violence?”

Perry, who’s been involved with city politics for two decades, says he doesn’t recall any acts of violence during council meetings. A resident dumped garbage on the dais 15 years ago and another snuck in a bullhorn in the 1990s — the acts were considered disruptive but not violent, he said.

And although Perry and his group snuck in chains, he says there was no intent to commit violence.

“This is a very tyrannical City Council. They don’t like public scrutiny. They don’t like disclosure, and it’s the logical next step to restrict public access to their meetings,” he said. “We did not plan to and we did not commit any acts of violence.”

Khamis doesn’t see it that way. Metal detectors are a less intrusive and more affordable solution than police officers armed with guns, he added.

“What would you rather have — two officers with a gun or a machine?” Khamis said. “This accomplishes the goal without being intimidating and allows people to come speak their mind while feeling safe. A lot of police presence makes people feel intimidated.”  

Other cities across the U.S. following suit are also thinking seriously about increased security, following an increase in gun violence–especially in schools and public spaces. Neighboring cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles already have metal detectors installed in government buildings.

Still, longtime activist Shaunn Cartwright says the money spent on metal detectors could go to help shelter some of San Jose’s homeless residents. The proposal comes a week after a new report showed San Jose’s homeless count spiked by 42 percent.

“How many meals would that buy? How many times could it keep an OWL (overnight warming location) open overnight?” Cartwright told San José Spotlight. “That’s where our priorities should be because people are dying.”

Kyle Martin contributed to this report.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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