Protesters hold signs outside behind a barricade.
Protesters called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war outside of Mexican Heritage Plaza in East San Jose on Jan. 29, 2024, ahead of a visit to the plaza by Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in town to highlight the need for reproductive rights. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Interrupting Vice President Kamala Harris during a San Jose appearance made Maimona Afzal Berta’s voice shake and her body tremble, but she felt compelled to stand up and speak out.

“Madame Vice President, we demand a ceasefire now,” Berta yelled out in the middle of the packed theater at Mexican Heritage Plaza on Monday afternoon, right as Harris was beginning a talk about reproductive rights.

Berta held a Palestinian flag over her head, and continued to call out for a ceasefire in the deadly Israel-Hamas war. She was quickly ushered out of the theater by security guards and Secret Service agents, while members of the audience clapped, chanted over her or echoed her statement.

Just hours later, Berta took her seat at the wooden dais of the Santa Clara County Office of Education, where she is the board president.

A few seats down from her was Raeena Lari, another board member, who was also standing in protest with Berta at the theater Monday, holding up a handmade, dark red cloth sign that read, “ceasefire now.”

Berta and Lari’s action during Harris’ talk marked one of several protests from audience members calling for a ceasefire and for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel, which temporarily halted discussion during the second stop of the vice president’s “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” tour.

They were two of at least three locally elected South Bay officials counted among several groups of people who chose to interrupt Harris to have their message heard. Gilroy Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz also interrupted the event, along with her mother.

Berta and Lari accounted for two of five Santa Clara County Office of Education board members who voted in favor later that night of adopting a resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

“I know our students and youth, including my children, are watching my actions,” Berta told San José Spotlight. “What’s happening in Gaza right now has a direct impact on our children here because they are witnessing all of this violence unfold right before our eyes. And not enough adults are saying this is wrong, and we want the killing to stop.”

As an educator, mother and a board member who has faced crowds of people unhappy with her decision making, Berta said she didn’t make her decision to interrupt Harris lightly, and noted it followed other attempts to get messages to the nation’s leaders.

Berta and Lari signed and helped circulate a community letter last fall in support of safety, health care, water, food and education for all children in Gaza, and sent it to White House officials. They also met with Congressmembers Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren to push them to call for a ceasefire.

Lari said she believes Harris’ discussion of reproductive rights is an important topic, but as a board member working on behalf of children locally, she felt she must speak against the violence in Gaza, which has been called a “graveyard for children”’ by the leader of the UN.

“I wish that we didn’t have to do it,” Lari told San José Spotlight about her protest. “But it feels like there is no end to what is happening there. Things are getting worse by the hour it seems. I think history will not judge us well if we don’t speak out at this point.”

Berta noted reporting from Jezebel that miscarriages have increased by 300% in Gaza. Lari pointed to an NPR report on UN statistics that women and children are the main victims of the war so far, with “an estimated two mothers losing their lives every hour.”

Harris noted during the talk that everyone has a right to have their voice heard. She said everyone wants the conflict to end as soon as possible, and that she and President Biden are working on it every day, but added that she was at the theater to focus on reproductive freedoms.

John Pelissero, a senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said elected officials have an obligation to model good citizen behavior.

“One way to look at that is you get to protest, as citizens get to protest. On the other hand, if you’re an elected official, while you might not agree with all the policies of the Biden administration, shouldn’t you demonstrate that you will respect and tolerate what the speaker has to say?” Pelissero told San José Spotlight. “If you’re an elected official and you’re giving a speech, don’t you want those in the audience to allow you to give that speech?”

Pelissero noted that students will see the actions taken by board members and said it’s important to demonstrate how to protest effectively and fairly.

He said elected officials in general should consider the venue and method of their protest actions carefully.

“I’m not sure the public would always see it as a good and fair or respectful engagement in protest if you are doing it to interrupt another elected official,” he said.

Some members of the audience on Monday also said, despite the violence in Gaza, they felt the interruptions distracted from the important message of reproductive freedoms and justice that Harris was championing.

Berta sees it differently.

“There is no reproductive justice during genocide. Those two can’t coexist and so it would be hypocritical of me to attend the event and pretend that over 10,000 children have not been killed, when that’s having a direct impact here locally,” she said.

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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