Amherst councilors accused of racism, disrespect over heated meeting on cease-fire

Fatemeh Giahi stands with others during a vigil in support of a cease-fire resolution before the Amherst Town Council at the regional middle school on March 4.

Fatemeh Giahi stands with others during a vigil in support of a cease-fire resolution before the Amherst Town Council at the regional middle school on March 4. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-24-2024 2:17 PM

AMHERST — Even with Town Council adopting a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, supporters of the measure are calling for apologies from some councilors and anti-racism training because of their actions at that March 4 meeting.

On Monday, at the first regular Town Council meeting since that vote and during an evening when appeals for American Rescue Plan Act funding were being made by representatives of the Black Business Association of Amherst Area, several residents expressed disappointment in the conduct of councilors two weeks earlier.

“At this meeting, councilors were openly rude to Palestinian, Arab and Muslim residents who went to great lengths to speak about their suffering, during what is an absolute atrocity going on right now, and to share honestly about their treatment in this town and to plead with the council to see them as human,” said Jill Brevik, a resident and one of the supporters of the resolution.

Brevik contends that councilors promoted racism by introducing amendments to the resolution aimed at explaining Israel’s actions and attempting to gut the resolution with what she called a deeply racist viewpoint.

“To treat the residents in the way that you did, at a point in which they were quite vulnerable, was abhorrent,” said Stephen Brevik, another resident supporter. “Our community deserves better — I just want you to think about that.”

In a similar vein, Leyla Moushabeck, who also endorsed the resolution, said the Town Council showed cultural disregard, was insensitive and exhibited unprofessional conduct and racist rhetoric, which caused harm to grieving and at-risk members of the community. Moushabeck asked for a public apology from several councilors, specifying that they should come from District 1 Councilor George Ryan, Council President Lynn Griesemer, At- Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, District 4 Councilor Jennifer Taub, District 1 Councilor Cathy Shoen and District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney.

North Amherst resident and attorney John Bonifaz called for the resignation of Ryan due to his conduct, including some back and forth with the audience in the middle school auditorium on March 4, or for a public reprimand from his colleagues.

“Elected officials must be held accountable when they act in ways that are contrary to their public duties and responsibilities,” Bonifaz said.

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Bonfaz also argued that some of the councilors napped during the course of three hours. “They should not be on this council if they can’t stay awake,” Bonifaz said.

Because people were offering public comment, councilors couldn’t respond directly, but at the end of the meeting they returned to the topic.

Ryan said he is deeply upset by what happened during the resolution vote.

“The same courtesy and respect that we showed those who came to speak their minds to us, as I believe was their right, was not reciprocated,” Ryan said.

Ryan said councilors needed time to deliberate and process the public input at the meeting, and when actions began to be taken, including adopting amendments, the session rapidly became chaotic. “At that point, we should have adjourned. We did not,” Ryan said.

He expressed that he is deeply disappointed in the council because members were speaking over each other without being recognized, and there was back and forth with the audience. Northampton handled the matter differently, he said, and when its council was interrupted, the meeting was adjourned and resumed on Zoom.

“We were not deliberating in any meaningful sense of the word,” Ryan said.

District 1 Councilor Ndfreke Ette disagreed with town attorney KP Law’s opinion about the atmosphere at the March 4 meeting, saying that people in the audience were being more than boisterous.

“It was serious enough for me that I had to have a recording when President Lynn (Griesemer) called for the adjournment,” Ette said. “The noise was so much, I was concerned about my safety. I had to have a recording, and it was a recording for about six minutes; I sat down and I wrote down my thoughts. The words I used was melee and pandemonium.”

Ette said some have defended this as their passion and being an example of democracy, though he saw it as hostile and preventing deliberation.

“That’s concerning to me,” Ette said. “I would like to say to the members of this town, that that is not the kind of environment we want, neither is it the kind of model that we should be expressing for those who we want to be politically active, the children who come after us.

“If we are truly representatives, then we want to express our votes and express the reasoning for our votes,” Ette said. “What happened on that Monday made it hard for me to do so, and I’m hoping and pleading with our community not to downplay the corrosive nature of disrupting the council and the deliberation that goes into whatever the council does.”

Some of the public comments on Monday came from people participating virtually who identified themselves as Amherst residents but then began making what many considered to be homophobic and antisemitic remarks, as well as white supremacist statements.

Amherst resident Jeff Kalman said he was concerned that Griesemer didn’t end these.

“I expect that the moderator would cut off someone who is spewing antisemitic rhetoric or any hate speech whatsoever,” Kalman said. “It makes me feel that you are complicit and that (you) condone this kind of speech.”

Griesemer addressed this at the end of public comment, observing she was also shocked at what people were saying.

“But the First Amendment broadly provides individual right to address the government to speak and to express themselves, including their right to say hateful and offensive things,” Griesemer said. She added that she is generally unable to shut down those conversations under the First Amendment, though she can intervene when there are fighting words, incitement of imminent lawless activity or targeting of an individual.

At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker said would like to have a statement prepared to read in response that the Town Council doesn’t condone hate speech and has appreciation for everyone, no matter their identity.

“I know we cannot cut them off, but maybe we can say something just affirming that we value everyone,” Walker said.

Griesemer said the council’s Governance, Organization and Legislation committee may draft a statement that could be read. For now, she said, councilors have to tolerate what people say.

“The bottom line is there is no perfect solution. It is horrendous,” Griesemer said.

“I would have loved to shut people down tonight, absolutely loved to have shut them down, and yet that’s not the advice I’ve received from the attorney,” she said.