Public comment at Tuesday’s SF Board of Supervisors veered into a cesspool of racist ant anti-semitic comments, in a pattern we’re seeing proliferate across the Bay Area, and really, the whole country.
Readers of this site are well aware that local government meetings’ public comment sessions can often devolve into eccentric chaos. But things went especially off the rails at Tuesday’s SF Board of Supervisors meeting, which featured many commenters and characters chiming in on matters like eighth-grade algebra and reparations (which were items on Tuesday’s agenda), plus rants about the Bible, and their conspiracy theories about secret government surveillance programs (which were not on the agenda). And as she does every week, the board’s clerk Angela Calvillo did her diplomatic best to warmly say,“Thank you for your comment,” and attempted to sound like she meant it.
But the remote public comment session Tuesday, where people can just call in anonymously and say whatever they want without accountability, turned into a rash of four racist and anti-semitic comments in about a 15-minute span.
“We need to purchase as many cattle cars as we can and ship these (n-words) and (k-words) back to their homeland,” one commenter said. Another complained about “racism against white people” and offered some explanation of “This is the reason the Jews were called that.” That was followed by a commenter identifying himself as “Kai Kater” who said “I just don’t feel like white Europeans should have to pay reparations when all the slave ships that brought Blacks here were Jewish-owned ships.” The whole thing hit boil a when the next commenter led with “These vermin (k-words) brought the (n-words).”
A furious Board President Aaron Peskin cut the whole thing off. “I fought to have unlimited remote public comment. I will be introducing a change to the Board rules,” he said, referencing his previous support of remote public comment. “This will be done. Ain’t gonna happen in these chambers in this city. It is over.” Indeed, today’s Chronicle notes that Peskin is considering ending remote public comment altogether.
This is not just a San Francisco phenomenon. The Bay Area News Group reports that two Marin County meetings were disrupted by racist slurs in public comment, both the night of September 20. That night in Tiburon, the News Group reports that one commenter “denied the existence of the Holocaust, while the other made slurs and threatened violence against Jews." That same night in Larkspur, the News Group says “two public commenters made racist and antisemitic slurs, laughed and repeatedly used white supremacist phrases.”
Meanwhile up in Santa Rosa, the Press Democrat reports that the Santa Rosa City School District is limiting public comment to in-person commenters and email because of similar bigoted public remarks. According to a release from the district, “a series of disruptive hate speech comments and inappropriate behavior” forced the decision. That same report notes that Sonoma County supervisors limited public comment to those in person after racist and homophobic comments disrupted meetings for two weeks in a row.
The News Group adds that hate speech has also recently disrupted city council proceedings "in Walnut Creek, San Jose, Richmond and elsewhere, to gatherings of agencies such as the South Bay’s Valley Transportation Authority," and, "Attendees were shocked by sudden racial slurs, pornographic images and more."
This is effectively a nationwide problem, and is also happening as far away as Bangor, Maine.
“Public meetings across the country are under attack by white supremacists. They are coordinating and victimizing public meetings,” the Bay Area's Anti-Defamation League regional director Marc Levine told the News Group. “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.”
It comes down to a classic ‘This is why we can’t have nice things.’ Remote public comment serves a critical role for those who aren’t able to attend meetings that are inconveniently timed for those with work or family obligations. But the process is being broken by what seems a coordinated effort, if not an informal one, and is apparently inspiring copycat acts. So we may lose remote public comment, in SF and across the country, and it's all thinks to the racists and the bigots testing boundaries.