Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Protesters at Cambridge City Hall on Monday. (Photo: Yaakov Aldrich)

The first regular Cambridge City Council meeting of the new year was disrupted by protesters demanding the body endorse a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians. After the Monday meeting moved online, protesters demonstrated for hours outside council chambers and made plans to return for the next meeting.

Similar protests began early in 2023 focused on getting “justice for Faisal” – Arif Sayed Faisal, a young Bangladeshi killed by police while holding a knife during a mental crisis on the streets of Cambridgeport. Several meetings were conducted over Zoom videoconferencing as a result of the disruption.

Despite the protesters’ intention to return next week, Mayor E. Denise Simmons said on Wednesday that all meeting will he held in person, all but ensuring a replay of Monday’s events.

A steady stream of protesters made their way into council chambers before the meeting, mingling with other citizens planning to comment on agenda items. Many protesters wore keffiyehs under their coats, while those holding signs waited outside chamber doors, where a handful of police officers kept an eye on the growing crowd.

“We felt like it was important to show up because the city failed in November of last year to pass a basic cease-fire resolution calling for an end to the killing in Gaza … We want to let them know that this is not something that they can ignore,” Jeffrey Shen, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said in an interview. “We’re calling on them to reintroduce a cease-fire resolution and actually pass it this time. We’re also calling on them to pass a resolution in support of South Africa’s filing at the International Court of Justice, which is that Israel is committing genocide in Palestine. We want Cambridge to be the first city in the country to sign on in support of South Africa’s filing, to really send a clear message to Israel and to the United States government that’s backing this genocide that this has to stop, and that the people of the U.S. stand with Palestine, they stand with South Africa.”

Meeting goes to Zoom

Nearly 80 people signed up to speak during the meeting. After a few in-person commenters spoke on improvements to Jerry’s Pond in North Cambridge, the activists began to be called up and the protest began in earnest.

“I’m urging this council to reconsider its position on a cease-fire,” Casey Wong said. “The keffiyeh I’m wearing today is my father’s, from the year the first intifada began. This is 40 years old, proof that Israel has been waging war against Palestine long before October. Please reconsider.”

The Nov. 20 policy order resolution would have had councillors support U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s call for a cease-fire in Israeli retaliation for an Oct. 7 attack by the Palestinian group Hamas. But the question was called to an immediate vote, and councillors who hoped to tweak the language were instead forced to approve, reject or vote “present” on the original language. When most voted present, the 2-0-7 result meant the order failed, though technically not because anyone was opposed.

The council could reintroduce a cease-fire order in this new legislative term, the City Clerk’s Office said.

The group of protesters Monday cheered and clapped for each activist after they spoke, even after the mayor asked them to stop several times. “Excuse me,” Simmons said, speaking through the first hail of applause from the protesters, “You are entitled to be here. We welcome you. But we do not have yelping, clapping, hissing and booing, and we don’t do it for a reason. There may be people [here] that have another opinion, and we want them to feel as comfortable as you feel comfortable.”

The mayor asked each activist to keep their remarks on agenda items, and eventually started asking the clerk to shut off the lectern’s microphone after the first sentences of off-topic speeches. After 26th speaker Sana Qureshi urged the council to support South Africa’s case in The Hague, Simmons called for a recess and ordered the meeting to be moved to Zoom.

Confronting a co-sponsor

Cambridge city councillors Sumbul Siddiqui, left, and Ayesha Wilson listen to protesters Monday. (Photo: Yaakov Aldrich)

Councillors Sumbul Siddiqui and Ayesha Wilson were the last to leave the room, and Suhail Purkar, an organizer with the PSL, engaged them in conversation as they stood to go. “You got elected with the Muslim vote, right?” Purkar said, addressing Siddiqui. “Can you please promise that at the next meeting, you will reintroduce the cease-fire resolution and introduce a resolution so that the city of Cambridge will endorse South Africa’s filing at the International Court of Justice? Can you commit to your community right here?”

Both councillors demurred, citing procedural difficulties in filing such a resolution, and left the chamber to resounding chants of “Shame on you!”

Wilson is a new councillor. Siddiqui was co-sponsor of the failed November order and one of two votes in favor of it. She and returning councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler are signers of a Tuesday letter to the White House from local officials nationwide calling for a cease-fire. Somerville council president Ben Ewen-Campen has also signed.

Two-hour “People’s City Council”

The activists poured out of the council chamber and filled the second-floor corridor, where they began chanting under the watchful eye of nearly a dozen police officers. Purkar invited the activists who had prepared remarks but had not been able to deliver them to speak before the crowd in an impromptu “People’s City Council.”

They also went to councillors’ social media to comment there, moving methodically through a list of the politicians on the other side of the chamber doors.

“I want to start with my personal favorite … former mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. Her constituents asked her to put [the cease-fire proposal] on the agenda, and she didn’t listen to us,” Purkar said to the crowd. “We got to leave her a little note for now, saying please do this, and we’re going to come to your office next week.”

An hour later, almost 50 activists remained in City Hall, chanting with undiminished energy. Protest leaders checked in periodically on the now-remote meeting, and announced to loud cheers that their chanting could be heard whenever the councillors with offices closest to the protesters unmuted themselves to speak.

“People will remember”

Eventually, Purkar announced to the group that they had underestimated how long the meeting would take but promised that they would return to picket the next week after a recurring protest in Washington, D.C., where activists from Boston will join contingents from around the country. The activists left City Hall after nearly three hours, chanting “We’ll be back!” as they filed down the stairs.

“In Boston, you know, we have more people coming out for Palestine than we’ve ever seen in the past year,” said Daven Mcqueen, an organizer with PSL, in an interview after the protest. “The thing about the City Council is that they work for us as their constituents … they have a responsibility and a duty if they’re going to be true to their job and true to their word and listen to us. The fact that they are so willing to hide behind procedure and rules is really shameful and embarrassing – the people will remember, and history will remember.”