Gaza Resolution Supporters Seek Apology, Receive Rebuke Instead


Photo: American Friends Service Committee

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, March 18, 2024, Part 1

This meeting was a hybrid meeting and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

During general public comment at the Amherst Town Council meeting on March 18, several supporters of the Resolution for a Ceasefire in Gaza said that they felt disrespected by remarks made at the March 4 council meeting by Councilors Andy Steinberg (at large) and George Ryan (District 3), who both voted against the resolution, along with Freke Ette (District 1). Below are the residents’ remarks, followed by a response from the councilors.

Jill Brevik said, “I want to reflect on the recent ceasefire resolution that was passed on March 4. I don’t want to move past what was a problematic example of an area in this town where we need to see improvement. 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 that is going on right now and to share honestly about their treatment in this town, to plead with the council to see them as human. The councilors promoted racism by introducing and voting in favor of two problematic amendments to that resolution, showing they were refusing to listen to hours of education provided by marginalized residents. They gutted an overwhelmingly popular fact-based resolution in favor of a few unfounded views and their own deeply held racist beliefs. As the public’s ability to tolerate these abuses in silence reached a breaking point, certain councilors called us “shameful, divisive.” They dehumanized the residents in the room the same way that they were able to dehumanize civilians in Gaza. On behalf of many who are still shaken, I request a public apology, a formal reprimand of Councilor Ryan, the completion of promised antiracism training, and the addition of a trauma informed training. 

Stephen Brevik agreed. He stated, “The way the [March 4] meeting was managed was a circus. There are a few of you on this council that I hope have done some reflecting since this meeting, specifically Councilor Ryan, Councilor Steinberg, Councilor [Lynn] Griesemer. I hope you’ll do the right thing and apologize for your tone, your language, your behavior, your ignorance. You guys got a tough job, we get that, but you have been entrusted with our leadership in this town. To treat the residents in the way that you did at a point in which they were quite vulnerable, was abhorrent. Our community deserves better.”

Layla Moushabek added, “During the March 4 meeting, several councilors were, at best, dismissive to my community’s experiences, or completely oblivious to the harmful, racially coded rhetoric they use during private and public discussion. At worst, councilors were overtly hostile to the grieving, marginalized Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim community members who were required to educate and petition again and again for recognition. I ask for a public apology, especially from Councilors Griesemer, Steinberg, [Cathy] Schoen, [Pam] Rooney, and Ryan. Perhaps then, this council may begin to rebuild our trust.”

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

  1. That people who serve in public office are public servants. Councilor Ryan said at the March 4 meeting, “You think we basically work for you.” Anyone who thinks that they are not a public servant does not belong in public office and should resign. George Ryan should resign. The council should publicly reprimand him for his conduct.
  2. It is important that members of this council, as in any member of an elected body, stay awake for public proceedings. If you cannot stay awake because you have a condition or you’re too tired, then you should not be in public office. There were members of this council asleep during key portions of the testimony on March 4.
  3. We need people who are honest and transparent with us as constituents. We were told in one particular meeting that a councilor could not talk to us about the ceasefire resolution, because it would violate open meeting law, which was preposterous.
  4. This council needs to be accountable to the resolution it passed to end structural racism and commit to reparations. That means supporting Black-owned businesses.

Councilors Ryan, Ette, and Steinberg Respond, Chastising Behavior of Public
In response to the above comments and to the meeting on March 4, Ryan stated, “I have some things I need to say. I was deeply upset by what transpired two weeks ago at the Amherst Middle School—not by the period of public comment in which many of those present spoke with passion and, at times eloquence. I agreed with the decision to extend the comment period beyond what was allowed by our rules, so that everyone who came out that night and who wished to speak had the opportunity to do so. 

“What upset me was what happened after that. The same courtesy and respect that we showed those who came to speak their minds to us was not reciprocated. The audience had its time to speak. Now we, as their elected representatives, needed our time to deliberate. But when the council initially took actions that many in the audience disapproved of, the meeting rapidly became chaotic. At that point, we should have adjourned, but we did not. I was upset with myself that I did not act more forcefully and insist that we cease deliberations. I’m also deeply disappointed in us, collectively. We could not hear each other, and yet we went on. We repeatedly violated our own rules, spoke over each other, spoke without recognition, engaged in back and forth with the audience, and I myself was guilty of all those things.

“Something similar happened in Northampton when its city council came to vote on a resolution on this same issue, but it was handled very differently. When the audience repeatedly interrupted their deliberations and refused to desist, the meeting was adjourned. They reconvened two days later on Zoom, allowed another 90 minutes of public comment, and then they were able to talk to each other. The resolution passed by a nearly unanimous vote.”

“One of the most important things we do as a body is deliberate. I often learn more from those whom I disagree on an issue, but on that night, I did not get to hear your thoughts. I could barely hear myself think. I hope if something like this ever happens again, we will have the foresight and the courage and wisdom to declare an adjournment and come back when we can hear and be heard and fulfill one of our most important and sacred duties.”

Ette was even more forceful. He said, “I am going to focus on two points. The first is the environment of that meeting; the second is about the process. I hope my voice can be considered one that provides diversity. I looked at what the lawyers had to say, and one of the things that seems to be lacking is a sense of what the environment was at that meeting. The [K-P Law memo] states, ‘The audience grew more boisterous.’ That wasn’t what I saw there. It was serious enough for me that I had to have a recording. The noise was so much, I was concerned about my safety. I wrote down my thoughts, and the word that I used was ‘melee’ and ‘pandemonium.’ And then I am reading comments by members of the community that speak about passion and described what happened as just an example of democracy. That’s concerning to me. I would like to say to the members of this town that that is not the kind of environment that we want.”

“And this now goes to process. It assaults deliberation. The environment that we had then was hostile, because it prevented us from deliberating. If we are truly representatives, then we want to express our reasoning for our votes. What happened that Monday made it hard for me to do so, and I’m pleading with our community not to downplay the corrosive nature of the dialog that disrupted the council and the deliberation.”

Steinberg expressed his opinion on the meeting in the March 19 Amherst Current.  He stated, “I was disappointed that my amendments, which were intended to broaden support for a ceasefire resolution, were approved but then rejected in such a disruptive and dysfunctional environment. Sadly, the decision of advocates of the original resolution to not consider any compromise further divided the community and was contrary to everything I believe the Council ought to embody – respect, thoughtful debate, and open dealings.”

In response, Jennifer Taub (District 3), who abstained on the ceasefire vote, said, “I just wanted to thank councilors Ette and Ryan. I appreciate your comments that were heartfelt and insightful.”

The remarks by Ryan, Ette, Steinberg, and Taub were presented at the end of the five-hour meeting, after 11 p.m. The business part of the meeting is reported in a separate article.

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