San Jose blocks residents demanding ceasefire in Gaza
More than 100 residents called on the San Jose City Council to pass a resolution supporting a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war on Dec. 5, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Bright blue tarp covered every other row in the San Jose City Council chambers on Tuesday, reducing seating by half, when the city learned through social media that residents were rallying for a ceasefire resolution over the Israel-Hamas war.

More than 100 residents came to City Hall to speak during public comment wanting councilmembers to introduce a resolution calling for peace. Instead, security limited attendees from entering the chambers and relegated residents to a separate room to watch the meeting through a livestream. The move left many viewing the actions as racist and hindering residents’ ability to participate in local government.

San Jose covered half of the chamber’s chairs in blue plastic tarp to prevent people from sitting there. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on Islamic American Relations San Francisco Bay Area chapter, said she received numerous complaints about the blocked-off chairs and locked stairways at City Hall. She said people told her they were concerned this was targeted against people of Muslim or Arab descent.

“Attendees reported being intimidated by the unusual procedures and sensed their civic engagement was being hindered,” Billoo told San José Spotlight. “Recognizing that access is crucial for civic engagement, especially as these mobilizations spread across the region, (we urge) elected officials to guarantee that their constituents encounter no unnecessary obstacles in their advocacy efforts.”

Mayor Matt Mahan’s office directed questions from this news agency to the San Jose Police Department, noting that was the department responsible for the chambers. SJPD deferred to the city manager’s office.

Carolina Camarena, spokesperson for the city manager’s office, said the city limited the seating to ensure peaceful and respectful public comment—and has taken similar actions before, though did not specifically state when. A review of council meetings over the last four years indicates there have not been any similar seating limitations, with the exception of social distancing requirements implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The city of San Jose welcomes everyone at City Hall. We respect the rights of individuals to peacefully and respectfully provide public comment at city council meetings,” Camarena told San José Spotlight. “We understand that many Bay Area cities had seen disruptions at city council meetings, and out of an abundance of caution, San Jose made the decision to reduce capacity in the council chambers.”

Resident Maya Hashemi was prevented from entering the council chambers during the meeting. She said she didn’t think much of sitting in the other room, but was confused when she finally entered the chambers to speak and saw several empty seats.

“They were only taking five or six people out (of the room) at a time, which I thought was kind of weird,” Hashemi told San José Spotlight. “I have been trying to rationalize it. Maybe they are concerned about safety because it is such a heated topic, but a part of me thinks it’s potentially a show that (the city) is not 100% okay with this.”

She said the meeting also had a heavy police presence, which not only felt like a waste of city funds, but also like an intimidation tactic or effort designed to limit the number of people speaking out in support of a ceasefire. She believes racism likely shaped the city’s decision.

Sources inside City Hall told San José Spotlight that councilmembers are considering bringing a resolution forward. The city does not typically take a stand on international policy, but did consider cutting ties with its Russian sister city Ekaterinburg and sent a letter there amid escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war. Mahan said if any councilmember introduced a resolution, it would likely come before the entire council by January because of the city’s agenda process and Christmas holiday.

Resolutions supporting a ceasefire have been gaining popularity in the Bay Area, with cities such as Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond taking official action. San Francisco is considering a similar resolution, with more than 2,000 residents lining up at City Hall on Tuesday to support a call for a ceasefire, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

After the Oct. 7 attack by Palestinian armed group Hamas claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Israelis, Israel retaliated with nearly two months of  bombing in Gaza—paused by a four-day ceasefire—which killed more than 15,000 Palestinians, 40% of which are children according to the United Nations.

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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