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Side Eye: Sacramento Goes Silent

For months now, the Sacramento City Council has been suffering from a plague of malicious callers using vile racial slurs during public comment at their weekly meetings. These commenters are a continuation of a problem which began several months ago, when a specific individual, Ryan Messano, came to meetings in person to spout off white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. This came to a head on March 23rd, when this individual brought several friends along with him, and members of the community stood in protest to prevent them from speaking.

Since then, the people spouting off this hateful language have been unwilling to show up in person to a meeting, instead choosing to make comments over zoom, and over time have become more and more overt in their disgusting ideology. As in previous articles, I’m unwilling to publish the words that these people have said, as they are likely to be extremely triggering to read, but the videos are easily accessible on the city’s website, you can pick almost any given City Council meeting from the last month or so and listen to the public comments from the “Matters Not On The Agenda” section to hear just how bad things had become.

Struggling To Maintain Decorum

The City has a somewhat mixed track record when it comes to effectively curtailing these commentors. Back in the winter, when the problem first arose, the City initially thought that the best way forward was to allow Ryan Messano to speak and preach his gross ideology, while they turned their backs to him as a statement. Mayor Steinberg himself said, “Let the vile man speak,” when community members attempted to shout down the racist nonsense that Messano was saying.

After protesters let these folks know that they weren't welcome back in March, and they instead took to Zoom, the City eventually landed on a somewhat workable strategy. If a commenter went off on some kind of anti-semitic tangent, the Mayor would instruct Mindy Cuppy, the city’s “Decorum Officer”, to cut them off and issue a reminder that comments must be about topics that are germane to the City Council’s business.

Broadly speaking, this worked to stop these commentors from taking up all of the City’s time. However, they adapted, and started opening their comments directly with a rapid list of anti-Semitic and racist slurs and conspiracy theories, skipping the rhetorical build-up and attempted subtlety they had used previously, meaning that even when they got cut off, anyone listening to the meeting would be forced to listen to incredibly foul, triggering racial slurs.

Instead of attempting to reconfigure their strategy, the City decided to use the nuclear option, and appears to have entirely eliminated Zoom comments on council meetings.

Permanently Cut Off

It’s unclear why the city was not willing or able to simply cut off these people and move on to the next commenter. Muting an account on Zoom is a straightforward process, you just click a button, but for reasons unknown it would often take Mindy several seconds to get there, leaving plenty of time for these people to spew their filth into the public record. Mayor Steinberg frequently had to ask Mindy multiple times to cut them off before she would do so.

This seems like a problem that would be easy to fix: simply teach Mindy to react faster, or find someone else to manage the mute button. Additionally, the city has not made (or at least has not publicized) any attempts to track down and block the IP addresses of the offending callers, nor has there been any public word of any legal action being taken against the people who, at this point, are very clearly waging a racist harassment campaign against Mayor Steinberg.

The ability to make public comments over Zoom was an important accessibility feature of Sacramento’s City Council meetings. Commenting from home was a huge boon to anyone with a disability or who takes care of a family member with a disability, to anyone with children to take care of, to people whose work doesn’t allow them to take time off to go down to city hall, to people who don’t have reliable transportation, etc… The list goes on

Preventing hate speech from derailing your meetings is an important goal, and the city deserves credit for abandoning the failed “let them speak” strategy and at least attempting to prevent hate speech from taking over. However, a solution which removes such an important accessibility tool is no solution at all. The city must bring Zoom comments back immediately.

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