Monday’s Charlottesville City Council meeting was marred by explicit racism and antisemitism when white supremacists joined public comment via Zoom.
“You can’t cut me off. It’s called the First Amendment,” said the first speaker of the night after using a racial slur.
“Actually, it is protected by the First Amendment, unfortunately,” Mayor Lloyd Snook said.
For more than a minute, the speaker used racist slurs and parroted an antisemitic conspiracy theory, drawing anger from the members of the public attending the meeting who demanded council cut the speaker off.
Snook then looked to city attorney Jacob Stroman.
“Mr. City Attorney, are we allowed to cut this off?” Snook asked.
“Yes sir,” Stroman answered.
The speaker was then muted, but not before exclaiming, “Heil Hitler. White power.”
Explaining why the council was within its rights to cut off the speaker, Stroman said to council that “the gross insult” to community members was unacceptable, “even under the broadest interpretation of the First Amendment.”
The hours following were without incident until the final minutes of the meeting, when multiple people used Zoom to repeat antisemitic and racist conspiracies and slurs.
Stroman attempted to give one of the speakers a chance to continue his comment if he could “avoid the references to hate speech and incitement.”
The speaker could not. He was then cut off.
Another speaker followed.
“This is going to be the same thing,” Council Member Brian Pinkston said after the speaker’s long-winded introduction to his remarks.
Pinkston was right.
The next couple of speakers were no different, and Snook ultimately determined enough was enough.
“We’ve had five in a row like that. I think it’s time to declare the meeting over,” he said. No one on council objected.
It is certainly not the first time people have used Zoom to broadcast obscenities and conspiracies into Charlottesville City Council meetings.
Council Member Michael Payne told The Daily Progress that during the height of the pandemic, some people would use the written comments section on Zoom to make similar statements.
“I’ve never seen a flood of virtual verbal comments like that, though,” Payne said, referencing Monday’s calls.
Pinkston told The Daily Progress he had never seen “anything of that scale or intensity” during a council meeting.
While it is possible the callers were not coordinated, it is worth noting that several of the speakers, when they weren’t using slurs or heiling Hitler, mentioned the city’s recent decision to remove the curfew at Market Street Park, where many homeless people have now set up tents.
That was not lost on Pinkston.
“I think it has to do with the fact that the city manager has taken a stand about homeless encampments,” he told The Daily Progress on Tuesday. “My sense is that people found out what we’re doing with homeless encampments on Market Street and somehow it got enflamed and picked up. These folks have nothing better to do than what they did last night.”
Pinkston admitted this was merely speculation on his part, but it is true that City Manager Sam Sanders’ decision to remove the park’s curfew has made headlines beyond Charlottesville.
Right-wing media, from local radio host Rob Schilling to the national outlets such as Infowars, have run with the story, calling the park a “dangerous homeless encampment” and alleging there was a stabbing there.
While police did report last week that a person was stabbed “in or around” the park, they have not yet provided a more specific location. Multiple people living in the park told The Daily Progress they had not heard any screaming the night the stabbing allegedly occurred, nor did they see any blood in the park the following morning.
It’s not the first time this year the city has been the target of racist and otherwise bigoted language. In January and again in June, antisemitic flyers were distributed throughout the city. And also in June, Schilling circulated a video showing Charlottesville schoolchildren participating in a Pride event; the video, which was eventually broadcast on Fox News, incited parents whose children’s faces could be seen in the recording
Charlottesville is not the only locality to receive racist Zoom callers in recent weeks. Local governments from San Diego, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, have experienced similar incidents during public comment in meetings over the past month.
Charlottesville council members say they are working on a plan for how to deal with such intruders in the future.
“It is very disturbing and does not create a safe environment,” Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade told The Daily Progress. “We have to come up with a plan to have public input virtually but weed out the bad seeds.”
Council will need to find a way to cut out the racists while still allowing members of the public to speak.
“People tell us all the time that you’ve got to be careful when you cut off someone mid-discussion, because you open yourself up to a lawsuit,” Pinkston said. “I was caught off guard, and I think Lloyd [Snook] was too.”
“It became clear we were in our rights to shut them down, and going forward, I think we’ll have better plan in place,” he added.
Even if it was the Market Street Park news that attracted the racist comments, the city is not backing down from its decision.
On Monday, Sanders explained to the council and the public that he consulted Police Chief Michael Kochis before making the call.
“I did not decide to lift the closing hours of Market Street Park under duress or without regard for the police department,” Sanders said. “I actually made the decision to protect our officers and the unhoused. I did not want to subject any of them to any additional interaction that could go terribly wrong.”
After Sanders explained his process, Payne chimed in, noting that council had received multiple emails asking for members to “discipline” Sanders.
“I want to say affirmatively, we are not going to do that,” Payne said. “This is why we hired him as our city manager.”