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Officials condemn racist, antisemitic comments at Committee meeting, look for solutions

Tuesday’s Common Council Ordinance Committee meeting on Zoom. The video is not online.

Repercussions from Tuesday’s ugly intrusion into a Common Council Committee meeting include a behind the scenes effort to shut down such “Zoombombing” in the future, according to Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Lisa Shanahan (D-District E).

“Everybody’s a little bit on edge that this might happen again, (so we’re working) to figure out, to give the staff direction about how quickly they can (intercede),” she said.

“City staff is researching our options. We will continue to strictly enforce our existing rules for public comment. All comments must begin with the speaker’s name and address, be on a topic on the agenda, not last more than 3 minutes, and not include threatening, hateful, or sexually explicit language,” Majority Leader Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) said.

Shanahan stopped public comment Tuesday after at least five commenters tried to use their time to make hateful comments against Jewish and minority members of the community.

“We find these comments as a group absolutely abhorrent,” Shanahan said. “This is not how we know Norwalk to be and I apologize on behalf of everyone having to listen to these just absolutely horrific comments.”

Zoombombing became a widespread term in 2020 when video conferencing became popular in response to pandemic social distancing. It’s the “unwanted, disruptive intrusion, generally by Internet trolls, into a video-conference call,” Tufts University explains.

“All this zoom-bombing is part of a national movement by white supremacists to call into city council meetings across the country and make lewd and vulgar remarks, especially racist and anti-Semitic comments,” Diana Diamon wrote on Palo Alto Online.

“Marginalized people and groups are disproportionately impacted and targeted. These incidents are not, ‘a fluke’ or ‘some troublemakers’ playing a prank. This is systematic oppression of marginalized groups and institutions of higher education,” Tufts said.

Further, Zoom meeting hosts “have a responsibility to our community to respond immediately when it happens,” Tufts said. “Responding brings repair to those who are harmed. This is an opportunity to act in solidarity with communities directly targeted in a zoom attack.”

On Wednesday, Mayor Harry Rilling released a statement “unequivocally condemning” the “ignorant, racist individuals” who dialed into the Ordinance Committee meeting.

“These individuals are bigots, and such statements are incredibly gross, obscene and hateful and demonstrate the exact opposite of what the City of Norwalk stands for,” Rilling said. “We are a community that values diversity among race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality and more. Our Norwalk Police Department Detective Bureau has initiated an investigation into the comments made last night. Our Law and IT Departments are actively developing new protocols to help ensure an occurrence like this one never happens again in our community.”

“While it brings us some comfort that these individuals were likely not Norwalkers, unfortunately, we are seeing a national trend among this type of vitriol,” Council President Darlene Young (D-District B) said. “The Norwalk Common Council unequivocally condemns any and all acts of hatred. Hatred has no place in Norwalk and runs directly counter to the values we hold most dear. We constantly aspire to be a diverse and welcoming city to people of all faiths, races, and nationalities.”

“I am disappointed to hear that hateful language was used to harm and disrupt our community,” Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer LaToya Fernandez said. We are committed to fostering a sense of belonging for all. As the DEI Officer for the City, I will continue to provide safe spaces of support for those impacted by these offenses and ensure that we continue to engage in professional learning opportunities that promote inclusion.”

And on Thursday, Republican Town Committee Chairman Fred Wilms released a statement, noting that he and other RTC members had attended the Zoom call to speak against the proposed redistricting ordinance.

“I was disgusted by the vicious hate spewed by these individuals,” Wilms said. “The language against Jewish people in particular, struck me as right out of a Nazi playbook. I join everyone else in condemning this hate speech. It has no place in Norwalk, nor anywhere else. I am glad the police have been brought in to investigate.”

The Norwalk Police Department Detective Bureau is “working in collaboration with the Prosecutor’s office at G.A 1 Stamford to determine if such comments were criminal and motivated by hate or bias. If so, they will pursue criminal charges against the parties responsible,” a news release said.

There’s conflicting information online about the legality of Zoombombing.

“When the pandemic started, the FBI quickly recognized zoombombing as an illegal action,” Interactio states. “…Zoombombing is now considered a cyber-crime, and any victim of a teleconference hijacking can report it as an incident.

“While highly disruptive, most acts of Zoom bombing are not illegal,” NordVPN wrote. “The public and even some lawmakers see Zoom bombing as a mean-spirited but ultimately harmless prank — and often the victim’s own fault for not taking proper precautions. However, it is illegal to disrupt Zoom meetings through criminal means.

“Regarding the criminality of the content of the words that were spoken, we had a review conducted by the Stamford GA Prosecutors’ office. The content was deemed Hate Speech protected by the First Amendment,” Norwalk Police Chief James Walsh said. “We are continuing to collaborate with Federal and local authorities to pursue other cyber-related criminal charges.”

A Norwalk citizen wondered if the intrusion was accomplished by AI.

“We are looking at all possibilities at this time,” Walsh said.

Shanahan said that when Council members reached out during their meeting, the State’s Attorney informed them that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.

But Norwalk requires that public commenters stick to agenda items, Shanahan said.

“We were grateful that we have these rules that we could cut off public speech, but at the same time, it puts us in this horrible position of having to scrub our participant list and look for names that seem out of line,” she said.

Like the person who signed in as Rudy Hess.

Part of the problem was that Assistant Corporation Counsel Darin Callahan was running the meeting, not someone well versed in Internet tech.

“It took him a minute to figure out how to mute them. And then they figured out how to unmute themselves,” Shanahan explained. “We’re going to get training in how to address that…. It’ll get nipped in the bud sooner.”

Cutting off public comment was the last choice she wanted to make, she said.

“I guess we’re lucky to live in the United States of America where free speech is protected,” she said. “But unfortunately, I guess that also means that we have to subject ourselves to some speech we really don’t like, and that’s the situation.”

Updated 8:42 a.m.: More information.

Comments

7 responses to “Officials condemn racist, antisemitic comments at Committee meeting, look for solutions”

  1. Tysen Canevari

    Just a terrible thing to see in Norwalk. A town based on its diverse population. Perhaps, we should be conducting city business in council chambers in person where it belongs. Then we dont have to listen to the phrase, “Can you hear me?” ten times or more during the session or look at backgrounds of peoples living rooms and kitchens. If you want to publicly address the council then come in public and do it or write an email to be added to the minutes.

  2. walter o’reilly

    Shame on City Hall. If you’re going to make zoom meetings,a regular thing since the pandemic, then they should have someone operating the system that knows what they’re doing and have safeguards in place. Zoombombing has been going on since the pandemic.

  3. DIana Paladino

    No question we all express deep concern and disappointment regarding the recent community meeting that took place. The comments made during the session were disheartening, and it was indeed an unpleasant experience for all participants, myself included.
    Despite the negativity, I must commend our Norwalk officials for handling the situation with grace and professionalism. It’s disheartening that we had to navigate such senseless statements from mindless individuals. I believe the officials did their best in managing the situation.
    As a regular participant in city meetings, I’ve come to appreciate the convenience that the Zoom platform provides. As a mom of three kids, it has allowed me to stay actively involved in civic matters without missing a beat. The flexibility Zoom offers, especially during adverse weather conditions like the recent icy evening when kids were out of school, is invaluable.
    Losing the Zoom platform due to the actions of a few individuals would be unfortunate. Zoom has become an essential tool that extends beyond the pandemic; it is now integral to how the world connects.
    Perhaps the City of Norwalk explores alternative platforms or considers utilizing features such as webinars within zoom. Implementing additional security measures, such as requiring participants to register with a valid email and full name, which could add an extra layer of protection against such behavior.
    I believe there must be a way to address these challenges without sacrificing the convenience and accessibility that platforms like Zoom provide. I am sure that there is a way to ensure the safety and integrity of our community meetings while preserving the benefits of virtual participation. I understand the want to perhaps make meetings hybrid as well for those who have the preference. But I do think that the virtual option has really engaged a larger number of people, like myself that would not have been able to be a part of meetings due to scheduling, kids etc. We need to see the value in that. Not everyone is at a point in their lives where they can just dash of to a city meeting for a few hours in the evening. We must also remember that the individuals who are volunteering to serve, have families and commitments as well. We need to embrace everyone and give them tools now available due to technology to be a part of city engagement as well.

    1. Ana Tabachneck

      Amen

  4. Drew Todd

    Funny I didn’t know this was only a White Supremacy problem as one person is quoted as saying. It’s a nice way to bring racism into the discussion and of course blame blame blame instead of actually taking care of the problem!! However as a Jewish Male who has 2 Jewish Children I am sickened that a Norwalk meeting went this way. However I am glad the comments were stopped and cut off and condemned by the Mayor, Members of the CC and the RTC. What I’m still surprised about is WHERE is the condemnation from the DTC and our State Senator who can’t keep his mouth and posts shut not ONE WORD condemning this. That sure says a lot about them! I find it very disheartening and more so that Bob nominated a knows Anti Semite for a State position. But how do stop these what’s the word Zoombombing is IN PERSON MEETINGS period! In case the City and CC missed the memo the “pandemic” has been over for a long time now! There is ZERO reason not to hold IN PERSON MEETINGS!! If people want to comment they MUST come in person and NOT online. Enough of the nonsense. And you watch how these keyboard warriors in these meetings just go away. Anti Semitism and Racism is not welcomed here in Norwalk and TBH the people in the City have been great in battling this. We need to keep the fight and call it out when we see and hear it! We do not back down that’s for sure!

  5. John O’Neill

    Interesting — I find it incredibly naive for some of those quoted above to be surprised that bigots are in our midst? AND, by the way bigots come in all sizes, shapes and colors. To think otherwise is also incredibly ignorant. The solution is pretty simple. Of course that solution, as all things today, is made complicated by trying to please everyone. Live Meetings/Video for all to see. Comments only at Live Meetings. For the small segment of our population who disagree, it might be time to get out of your home and see the world. East Avenue is a good place to start. Let’s all grow up for goodness sakes.
    As a side note our schools are failing. Maybe some of this hysteria-energy from our elected officials needs to be directed at the Board of Ed and their failed policies.
    In fact, I look forward to seeing how our new Common Council members handle the failures of our school system. IF they give a damn about their constituents they’ll spend more time fighting educational imbalances and less time on RFP details. Yes, 2024 will be an interesting year.

  6. Tysen Canevari

    @Drew Why would they want to do meetings in person anymore when we have all the time in the world to make rules like banning backpacks which no one will follow or enforce? Ok caller are you there? Yes can you hear me? I can hear you but cant see you? Wait this button isn’t allowing me to raise or put down my hand! There you go we can all see you now caller! Ok tell us your fake name and address now that you just looked up online to remain anonymous. Your three minutes are up John Doe but our experts will have 15 minutes to counter your claims! Welcome to business as usual in Norwalk!

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