Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Mayor E. Denise Simmons is in a face-off Monday at Cambridge City Hall with a protester seeking votes for a Middle East cease-fire. (Photo: Yaakov Aldrich)

Pro-Palestinian activists called on Cambridge city councillors to support a returning Middle East cease-fire resolution, confronting the mayor and disrupting the beginning of Monday’s council meeting as they made their case for the second time in the new year.

The protest began before the meeting, with around 30 activists standing outside the doors to City Hall’s second-floor council chamber, talking in small groups as nearly a dozen police officers watched closely.

Councillors Sumbul Siddiqui and Marc McGovern walked through the crowd to reach the staff room behind the chambers and were engaged in quiet, animated conversation by activists as they navigated the hallway.

Minutes before the doors to Sullivan Chamber opened to the public, Mayor E. Denise Simmons cut a path toward the staff room and was intercepted by a young activist who began to ask if she would support a cease-fire resolution.

Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui and aide Ammarah Rehman make their way through a crowd of protesters Monday at Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Yaakov Aldrich)

Simmons stopped walking. “Don’t push me!” she said sharply, turning to face the young man.

The activist raised his hands and stepped back, while the protestors at his back and the police officers standing around began to move toward the scene.

“I didn’t push you,” the activist said. A fellow protester who was recording the confrontation on a phone agreed.

After a tense back-and-forth over the next minute, the mayor turned away and stalked into the staff room, becoming visible seconds later on the screen over the chamber doors as she took her seat at the head of the room. 

The first regular council meeting of the new year, on Jan. 8,  was disrupted by the protesters as well with complaints the officials weren’t addressing the conflict in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians – including failure to immediately bring back a cease-fire resolution that failed in the previous term.

Another resolution is coming Monday supported by Siddiqui, Marc McGovern and councillors Ayesha Wilson and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, said Jeffrey Shen, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Pressuring officials for votes

A majority of nine councillors, including Simmons, do not currently support the resolution, and the activists in attendance were hoping to put enough pressure on the holdouts to achieve majority support. In the immediate aftermath of the confrontation with the mayor, two activists walked into the chambers and stood in the doorway, calling across the room to her to support the cease-fire.

“You can speak to my city manager,” Simmons said from the dais. “And if you would like to speak with me live, we would be more than happy to set a time with you.”

“We have asked you multiple times to sit down and have a meeting,” an activist called back from the doorway, as the sound of the mayor’s gavel rang through the chamber. “Please, Mayor Simmons, it’s a simple question.”

The mayor sat down and began to call the meeting to order without looking back at the activists now crowding the doorway.

“Simmons refused to answer a yes-or-no question,” Shen said in a speech to the activists outside the chamber. “We’ve asked for a meeting, she said no, now that we’re here, she says she wants to meet; this is a distraction! We’re going to have more actions this week, we have to keep the pressure.”

“We’ll be back”

The crowd of activists chanted loudly as the council went into a 15-minute recess, then filed down the stairs as the council resumed its session and opened the floor to public comment – now with rules highlighted on the agenda and on an easel outside the chamber.

“We are calling on our city to vote for a cease-fire resolution. We want Mayor Simmons and councillor Burhan to vote for a cease-fire, especially as an MIT grad worker,” said Mohamed Mohamed, an organizer with MIT’s coalition for Palestine. Councillor Burhan Azeem graduated from MIT, where he studied material sciences, an academic department that Mohamed explained had collaborated on defense projects with the Israel Defense Forces.

“Why are we in the business of death?” Mohamed asked. “We could be solving world problems, not causing them.”

“They’re such cowards. They won’t say anything. Simmons said nothing; not yes, not no. Nothing!” Shen said to the crowd.

“Shame!” The crowd shouted.

“So we know that we’ll be back, right?”