Hate-laden remarks bombarded the Atherton City Council meeting Wednesday night, Sept. 20, in what apparently is part of a trolling effort by extremists targeting public forums across the country.
The objectionable rhetoric jarred the beginning portion of the Atherton meeting as the council took public comments on a variety of topics.
The ambush through the video-conferencing platform Zoom started when an antisemitic profile image popped up on the screen. The image was taken down once town administrators noticed it.
But soon after, several commenters, one by one, got on Zoom to try to further disrupt the meeting.
They would introduce themselves as residents, even citing fake street addresses, and begin their comments cordially enough before their talk quickly veered into the start of a racist or other bigoted rant. Some of those callers also used profanities.
They were booted from Zoom once their words turned noxious.
“I’ve never seen this before,” Vice Mayor Diana Hawkins-Manuelian said.
But she pointed out that the council has an obligation to allow the public to address the town. “You never know if there's going to be a real person out there that actually has a real comment or question,” she said.
Still, Hawkins-Manuelian said before the public-comment session closed, “Those calls got me rattled.”
Town Manager George Rodericks later told The Almanac that continuing with the public comments despite the hurtful language was difficult.
“You don’t know what people are going say until they say it,” Rodericks said, “but the minute they spew off offensive remarks, we remove them.”
The antisemitic views heard and seen during the public commentary were “particularly painful” given major Jewish celebrations this month - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he added.
He believed that the offending speakers timed their appearance because of those important dates in the Jewish calendar. “That’s probably why it’s happening,” he said.
In his 13 years on the council, Mayor Bill Widmer said, he had never encountered something like it.
“I thought someone hacked my phone,” Widmer said. “It was a little bit embarrassing.”
But the town will remain vigilant to block questionable callers and keep them from dialing back in, he said. That could mean two staff members monitoring the Zoom system to better filter out suspicious commenters, instead of just one.
Widmer added that the town “absolutely” does not condone any hateful behavior and language. “Anyone doing inappropriate things need to be silenced or asked to leave,” he said.
A rash of such cases has exploded recently nationwide, including two incidents elsewhere in California. On Monday, Sept. 18, the San Diego council was taken aback by a number of people phoning in racist, antisemitic and homophobic sentiments during the public comment period of its meeting. A similar episode hit Monterey's council meeting the next day.
Over the past several weeks during their meetings, several city councils in Maine had to contend with Zoom callers spouting hate against various groups.
The anti-hate organization Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been monitoring such incidents.
“The ADL Center on Extremism is tracking an increase in antisemitic speech and trolling efforts at public forums such as city council, county board and state house committee meetings,” the organization wrote in a blog post last month. “Extremists and bigots are using the public comment portion of these events, especially those with the option to call in virtually, to push antisemitic, white supremacist and anti-LGBTQ+ narratives.”