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Darrell Steinberg's Failed "Compromise"

In January of this year, following a council meeting in which dozens of community members showed up to demand that Sacramento address the tragedy unfolding in Gaza, Councilmembers Katie Valenzuela and Mai Vang proposed a draft of a ceasefire resolution, calling for an immediate end to Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. Mayor Steinberg initially refused to bring the item before the council, but then last Tuesday, March 19th, he introduced his own ceasefire resolution, citing an urgent need to bring our community together and heal the tensions that are dividing us. This resolution ultimately passed by a vote of 6-1, with only Lisa Kaplan opposing (Mai Vang was absent for this meeting and could not vote - more on that later).

So, great, right? Sacramento joins the chorus of cities across the country calling for a ceasefire, democracy has prevailed in Sacramento and the voice of the people was heard!

Yes, in one sense this was a victory. Adding another line to the list of cities calling for a ceasefire adds to the pressure campaign on the Biden administration, which certainly has value. However, in terms of achieving Mayor Steinberg’s stated goal of healing divisions in our community, the resolution was a massive failure, and through his actions during this whole saga, Steinberg has made a mockery of democracy and public participation.

Some Backstory

For a long time now, Gaza has been described by many experts as an “open-air prison”, due to Israel’s blockade of the region and total control over what goes in or out. Gazans have attempted to remedy this state of affairs and have mostly been massacred for their trouble (see the 2018 March of Return protests as a particularly horrifying example). Last year, on October 7th, Hamas (the political and military leadership in Gaza, to some extent) launched an attack on Israel, striking well outside the borders of Gaza and into Israeli territory and killing hundreds. In response, Israel launched a sustained bombing campaign and follow-up invasion of Gaza, having now killed over 32,000 and displaced millions from their homes.

Numerous Israeli officials have made it clear that their goal is the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, demonstrated genocidal intent towards Gazans, and the International Court of Justice has ruled that there is a plausible genocide being committed.

The United States, for our part, initially played our role as Israel’s loving ally, supporting their actions for some time in the aftermath of the October 7th attack by Hamas. In more recent months, the Biden administration has publicly used somewhat less supportive rhetoric, perhaps due to increasing public outcry over the atrocities Israel is committing and perhaps because Biden particularly noticed that some of his base of voters were beginning to abandon him in an election year. Nevertheless, we have not done anything to end our material support to Israel, which includes billions of dollars a year in direct aid, as well as weapon sales.

As a protest against both the unfolding genocide as well as our country’s support of said genocide, numerous cities across the US have passed resolutions calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza. As of this January, Sacramento had not done so, and on January 23rd, a huge group of Sacramentans came to the city council to demand that we do better. The next day, Councilmembers Katie Valenzuela and Mai Vang introduced a draft resolution.

Four days later, Mayor Steinberg wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee stating that he would absolutely not allow the city council to consider this resolution. Steinberg had two main objections to the resolution:

First, he claimed that “this proposed resolution is unfair and divisive. It does not begin to acknowledge the Hamas atrocity against the Jewish people on Oct. 7”. This was a lie; the draft resolution put forward on January 24th explicitly stated: “WHEREAS, Following the Hamas attack on October 7th, 2023, that led to the death and injury of thousands of innocent civilians. Sacramento Israelis, Jews, and others have experienced shock, trauma, grief, and fear, compounded by rising antisemitism in our nation and our city”. However, the draft resolution was primarily focused on, y’know, the active genocide being committed continuously since October 7th, and so most of it’s language was centered around the conditions in Gaza, which seems to have been Steinberg’s true objection.

Second, he claimed that this is not the sort of issue the council should be considering at all, saying, “In most cases, I do not believe our City Council should spend council time on foreign policy”, though he does also acknowledge that they may be forced to do so if people keep protesting and “the issues continue being brought to the City Council chambers in ways that dominate our time and attention”.

Unsurprisingly, protesters continued showing up and demanding that the city address this issue. Because the city didn’t formally agendize a ceasefire resolution, comments about a ceasefire were required to be made at the end of the meeting, during the section for “Matters Not On The Agenda”. At the February 6th 5pm meeting, Mayor Steinberg made the peculiar (and possibly illegal) decision to restrict comments about Gaza to a total of 15 comments for each side of the issue. The pro-Israel side only had 6 people signed up to speak, while well over 60 people had signed up to speak in support of a ceasefire, and most of them were denied the chance to speak, even though they had engaged in the process as dictated and taken all the formal steps required to allow them to make a public comment.

A couple weeks later, at the February 27th 5pm meeting, there was some chaos regarding a person who had not properly submitted a speaker slip, and people from the audience shouting things out (this occurred well before anyone had a chance to make any comments about a ceasefire, and seems to have been unrelated). Mayor Steinberg’s response was to attempt to clear the public from the chamber so that the city council could continue its business without any members of the public present. Those who had come to speak on Gaza refused to leave the chamber for over an hour, until police assured them that the meeting was not going to reconvene, so they should just go home. This unfortunately turned out to be a lie, as the council did in fact reconvene immediately after the chambers were clear.

All of this ultimately led to Mayor Steinberg drafting his own version of a ceasefire resolution, and putting it on the agenda to be considered on March 19th.

The Mayor’s Resolution

Mayor Steinberg’s draft of a ceasefire resolution was put together, according to him, as the result of a process of meetings and negotiations with both the Jewish and Palestinian community here in Sacramento. In fact, the number of participating organizations was quite small, and though it’s hard to find any public information about it, the only organizations we can say were definitely involved in the process are CAIR Sacramento (the Council on American Islamic Relations Sacramento branch) and the Sacramento Jewish Federation, and only CAIR ended up publicly supporting the resolution once it was drafted. So much for the power of principled compromise, eh Darrell?

To be fair to Steinberg, his version does at least acknowledge some of the harms that Israel has committed since October, and it does join the chorus of similar resolutions from other cities in calling for Israel to immediately stop its campaign of violence in Gaza. However, it is riddled with problems that make it clear how little community participation truly went into drafting it: 

  • It calls for a “bilateral” ceasefire - a meaningless term since all ceasefires necessitate a ceasing of fire by all parties, which only serves to rhetorically remove any blame for the conflict from Israel.

  • It takes great pains to treat both sides of the conflict exactly equally, down to using identical sections of text but with the names swapped. Drawing an equivalence between the perpetrators of a genocide and its victims is disgusting, and unacceptable coming from our city leaders

  • The original draft from CM Valenzuela and Vang called for an immediate release of all Palestinians who are imprisoned in Israel without trial as a condition of the ceasefire; Steinberg’s resolution does call for their release, but as an afterthought, not a core component.

  • Unlike the original draft, Steinberg’s version does not mention US military aid to Israel, nor does it mention Biden at all other than a call to send humanitarian aid to Gaza.

  • Steinberg’s resolution calls for a “two-state solution” without any acknowledgement of why that might be controversial and unacceptable to people on both sides of the conflict.

  • Neither resolution uses the words “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing”, or makes any acknowledgement of the ICJ case against Israel.

Theoretically, these problems were all possible to fix, or at least lessen in some way. After all, democracy is a process, and city council meetings allow for amendments to be made, right? True, except…

Where Was Mai Vang?

As you may have noticed, Mai Vang was not present at the city council meeting on March 19th (follow the link the view meeting recording). It turns out that Councilmember Vang had a planned family event that had been on the books for quite some time, and had always planned to miss this meeting, long before there was ever a ceasefire on the agenda. Her twitter account posted a statement about this that evening, which was also read into the record of the meeting by Councilmember Katie Valenzuela. 

According to her statement, Vang had explicitly asked the mayor to postpone this resolution until she could be present, but “the Mayor felt it was necessary to push forward tonight”. Mayor Steinberg claimed that this matter was too urgent to wait, but if that’s true, why did he wait until March to introduce a resolution? Would one week longer truly have mattered? Obviously it wouldn’t have made a difference in terms of the resolution’s impact on the overall push to pressure President Biden to call for a ceasefire. However, there is another, less noble reason why it would have mattered to Steinberg to not wait for Mai Vang to return.

At the Sacramento City Council - and in fact with most legislative bodies or organized meetings of any kind - if you want to make a motion, you need to have another person “second” your motion. If no one is willing to do so, your motion will not be considered by the council. Attempting to amend a resolution requires a motion, which means it requires at least two people to support debate and a vote about that particular amendment.

Councilmember Katie Valenzuela, who introduced the original draft resolution along with Mai in January, was present at the meeting on March 19th, and could in theory have made a motion to attempt to amend this resolution - however, without Mai Vang present, it is unclear who would have been a “second” for any amendments. No other councilmembers have made any public statements in support of the resolution Vang and Valenzuela initially attempted to introduce, nor do any of them have a reputation as allies of the Palestinian community.

By choosing to not delay the meeting - and in fact using his power as Mayor to skip past the Law and Legislation Committee and rush the resolution to be heard on March 19th - Mayor Steinberg was able to ensure that his resolution would get an up or down vote without amendments. The language he chose to include, with all its messy problems, was final, and as he made clear several times throughout the night, he was simply unwilling to do anything that delayed a vote.

A Shameful Council Meeting

The meeting opened with a completely packed house. Or rather, it would have, except that security was significantly increased, so it took ages for everyone to file in, and the council was forced to delay discussion of the ceasefire item for about 20 minutes while people took their seats.

In addition to the full house, dozens of Sacramentans still waited in line outside city hall for their chance to speak on this item. 82 people inside the chamber signed up to speak, as well as an unknown number of those standing in line outside. Unfortunately, all those outside, as well as several of those inside, would lose the chance to say their piece.

Mayor Steinberg crossed to the other side of the dais briefly to present the item to the council, along with a few co-presenters who had been a part of the drafting process. The only organization officially represented was CAIR; all of the Jewish presenters were very careful to state that they spoke only for themselves. The Palestinian presenters spoke about their own loss of loved ones in Gaza, and about how, despite the flaws, they support the resolution because ultimately, a ceasefire is the most important thing.

The Mayor had held a press conference prior to the council meeting, with the same supporters, and his comments largely echoed what he had already said to the press. He primarily emphasized that, to him, the goal of this resolution isn’t about resolving any violence in the middle east, but rather about healing divisions within the Sacramento interfaith community. He claimed that he wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to speak (during the press conference he even claimed that they would go until 2 or 3 in the morning if necessary), but made sure to preemptively blame people in the crowd for being “disruptive” in the event that he was “forced” to clear the chambers.

Most of the rest of the meeting was devoted to public comment, and comments largely fell into three groups. First, a few people half-heartedly supported the compromise resolution despite recognizing its flaws. Councilmember Katie Valenzuela would echo this perspective in her brief comments later in the evening. Second, members of the Jewish Federation and other local Jewish organizations staunchly opposed the resolution, claiming that it “doesn’t mention October 7th” or “doesn’t condemn Hamas” or whatever - none of which is true, to be clear, but that was generally the stated reason for opposition. In her comments at the end of the night, Councilmember Lisa Kaplan fell into this same group as well, though she monologued for quite a bit longer about it.

The third group, comprising the overwhelming majority of public commenters, were people who supported a ceasefire, but could not support this resolution as written. Over and over again, Palestinians spoke about the tragedy of losing family and friends, Jews spoke about the horror of watching a genocide being committed in their name, allies spoke about the importance of allowing this pain to be felt and heard and to inform the process.

It was clear that most people present wanted to see amendments made. Very quickly, a rallying cry emerged: No Mai, No Vote.

The crowd was predictably a little bit rowdy, with some heckling occurring. This most frequently took the form of laughter at an absurd comment, or someone shouting to call out a lie, but was generally fairly mild. Mayor Steinberg, however, began to lose patience with the heckling (as well as some public comments that were fairly critical of him directly) around 60 or 70 comments deep, and finally, at 9pm, preemptively ended public comments and ordered the police to clear the public from the chambers.

To be clear, at no point was any commenter prevented from speaking by the crowd. The person making a comment at the time when public comment was shut down had an Israeli flag draped over them like a cape, and was in the process of claiming that one of the activists “in the room”, who they would not name directly or identify in any way, had been threatening them. People in the crowd naturally responded negatively to this potentially slanderous accusation, but did not actually stop the speaker from speaking. In fact, the speaker was only stopped by the Mayor himself, who cut them off in order to denounce the lack of “decorum” and order the chamber cleared.

A large contingent of activists remained in the chamber to protest this absurd violation of not just their right to speak, but the mayor’s direct promise that everyone will be able to speak. Sac Bee journalist Robin Epley also stayed in the chambers, and has several videos on her Twitter feed from that day documenting the entire affair. Finally, at around 11pm, police declared an unlawful assembly and started making arrests.

(image above of protesters from the 3/19 city council meeting pulled from this CapRadio article)

When the meeting finally reconvened at 11:23, the energy was muted and tense despite the empty room. Mayor Steinberg gave a typical condescending Steinberg speech about the importance of decorum and the value of compromise, before ending with an angry promise to become even less tolerant of protesters going forward. Other than the previously mentioned comments from Katie Valenzuela and Lisa Kaplan, no one else spoke, and the resolution passed 6-1.

The Failure of Compromise

Having observed his tenure as mayor, it is clear that one of Darrell Steinberg’s driving ideologies is what he calls “principled compromise”. He constantly highlights the importance of it, not just on this issue but on a whole wide range of issues that come before the council. He also frequently uses it as an excuse to justify why he supports an item that contradicts other principles he claims to value.

The events surrounding the passage of his ceasefire resolution show the failing and lack of viability of that ideology. It’s true that compromise is frequently necessary as a part of the political process - but that compromise should be made between two sides who have real principles and are forced to meet in the middle in order to make some progress toward their goals. The person who holds up compromise itself as the goal tries to please everyone but will instead find themselves hated by both sides and will never be in a position to persuade others and make progress towards their own goals. Steinberg has enthusiastically put himself into this role, which would be fine if he was a mediator, or working in retail or whatever, but it is a useless trait to find in a leader.

Beyond that, the specifics of this issue make valuing compromise morally indefensible. Why should we have to compromise with people who are supporting an active genocide? Sometimes the only thing to do is simply take a stand for what is right, even if it will make some people mad. By insisting that, for instance, the Jewish Federation be given a role in drafting a ceasefire resolution, even though they do not support a ceasefire, the Mayor sabotaged his own efforts to heal divisions, increasing them instead - and all for nothing, as the Jewish Federation refused to support his resolution in the end (an interesting parallel to his carve-out for the real estate industry in the text of Measure C, but that’s a subject for another day).

Our community deserves better than Mayor Steinberg’s embarrassing lack of principles. Victims of a genocide deserve better than being forced to compromise with those who tolerate their victimization. The democratic process in our city deserves better than constant ham-fisted attempts at censoring protest.

Mayor Steinberg, you ought to be ashamed.

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