Frustrated With Biden, Cease-Fire Advocates Make Case to City Hall
Kirsten Noyes contributed research. Campbell Robertson, Jenna Russell, Mitch Smith and Rick Rojas contributed reporting. By SHAWN HUBLER and HEATHER KNIGHT
SACRAMENTO — In Seattle, the debate consumed much of two City Council meetings. In San Francisco, the line to speak stretched long all night under the City Hall dome. The Oakland City Council spent four hours just on public comment.
For weeks, Americans in a host of Democratic-led cities have packed their government chambers for marathon sessions, all to demand immediate action from local leaders on a matter nowhere near home: the Israel-Hamas war.
More than a dozen U.S. city councils have now passed resolutions urging Israel to stop shelling Gaza, including several in Michigan, which has a sizable Muslim population, and several in California. Among the biggest cities to do so are Atlanta and Detroit.
As the death toll in the Israel-Hamas war has mounted and bombing has killed more than 15,500 people according to Gaza health officials, disagreements have roiled communities large and small. Early support for Israel following the Oct. 7 slaughter of some 1,200 Israelis by Hamas has been met with calls to help Palestinians.
Local resolutions on international affairs largely amount to symbolic gestures that play no direct role in foreign policymaking. But they can send a signal to allies abroad over the domestic political temperature and provide a vehicle for some of the most opinionated voters to say their piece.
Those calling for cease-fire resolutions believe that this time, a critical mass of local gestures may ultimately convey to the White House that it has lost support for backing Israel’s military campaign. Especially if the resolutions come from Democratic strongholds that serve as President Biden’s base.
“You can see the momentum,” said Eduardo Martinez, the mayor of Richmond, Calif., which was the first city to pass a cease-fire resolution, deploying some of the strongest criticism of Israel and accusing it of “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing.”
“As a mayor, my voice alone may be meaningless, but when I sing in a chorus, we make music that people have to listen to.”
The local resolutions have ranged from broad denunciations of violence against all civilians to pointed pro-Palestinian pronouncements. Many have demanded that Hamas release all hostages and denounced antisemitism as well as Islamophobia.
The Seattle City Council said in its November cease-fire resolution that the Israeli military had dropped “72 bombs for every square mile of Gaza, whose entire area is smaller than the size of Seattle.” In President Biden’s home state, Delaware, the biggest city, Wilmington, endorsed a House resolution that calls on Mr. Biden to “facilitate de-escalation and a cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”
The push has been especially intense in heavily Democratic states like California, where pro-Palestinian activists and progressives have expressed frustration with the Biden administration and pressured Democratic-led cities with organized campaigns. Jewish organizations have been alarmed by the effort, which they say has involved antisemitic language and minimized the kidnappings and killings by Hamas.
Debate over proposed calls for a cease-fire drew overflow crowds long into the night this week in Santa Ana, Calif., and San Francisco, where more than 1,000 antiwar demonstrators massed on the Golden Gate Bridge on Wednesday at sunrise. One protester scaled the large flagpole at the south end of the bridge to fly a Palestinian flag under an American one before the police ordered its removal and made an arrest.
A carefully worded resolution in Oakland last week triggered a raucous, hourslong debate and spawned a widely condemned video of assorted commenters who defended Hamas and questioned news accounts of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack.
Even small suburbs have been drawn into the fray: Last month in Los Angeles County, officials in Cudahy, a mostly Latino community of 22,000, passed a resolution condemning the Israeli government for “engaging in collective punishment of Palestinians,” which they deemed a war crime.
Pro-Israel groups note with concern that even before Oct. 7, hate crimes were soaring. Now, with the Hamas-Israel war on local government agendas, city halls have formally opened the door to potential hate speech and the public spread of disinformation, said Tyler Gregory, chief executive of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco.
“I was in the room in Oakland, and the antisemitism was horrific,” he said.
The recent measures mark a distinct contrast with the response of local governments in October, when public officials widely condemned the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks and expressed solidarity with Israel. Leaders representing some of the largest jurisdictions passed pro-Israel resolutions, including Los Angeles County and Dallas, as did cities with large Jewish populations like Beverly Hills, Calif., and those with conservative voters like Huntington Beach, Calif.
Advocates for cease-fire resolutions say that they have few other options to get the attention of Washington, where Congress and the White House still support Israel’s military effort. They are coordinating efforts to convince elected leaders in various regions of the need to take action, offering stock language and urging constituents to lobby.
In Southern California, the nonprofit Latinos and Muslims United pushed the Cudahy resolution and has urged Santa Ana, Long Beach and other cities near an Anaheim business district known as “Little Arabia” to pass cease-fire proclamations.
The group’s executive director, Rida Hamida, said she spent nearly a decade working in federal and state government, which taught her the importance of being directly heard by elected officials.
“At this point, the only place where we can enter the conversation is at city council meetings,” Ms. Hamida said. “This is why these resolutions are happening. Because members of Congress aren’t even answering their phones anymore.”
In Richmond, a refinery town with a pro-labor electorate and a history of taking liberal positions on international issues like apartheid, officials said their resolution arose from a desire to elevate the Palestinian view of the conflict as Israel responded militarily to the Oct. 7 attack. Authored by Mayor Martinez, the Oct. 25 measure passed, 4-1, after a chaotic, fivehour debate. The crowd celebrated with chants of “Free Palestine!”
Mr. Martinez, 74, a longtime leader in the left-leaning Richmond Progressive Alliance, said that members of the city’s large Muslim community thanked him profusely, but national and international hate mail followed. “Stick to picking lettuce,” one angry critic wrote to Mr. Martinez. “I hope the terrorists cut your babies [h]eads off,” another wrote in an email.
Since then, local Democratic Socialists of America activists working with pro-Palestinian organizations and D.S.A.-endorsed elected officials have helped pass more than a half-dozen other cease-fire resolutions in California, including in Oakland, on the Berkeley Rent Board, and with at least three union locals.
Polls show that most Americans still support Israel but Democrats are divided and patience is ebbing amid the ongoing bombardment of Gaza. A survey released Thursday by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago found that nearly half of American adults and nearly two-thirds of Democrats felt negotiating a permanent cease-fire should be a U.S. priority.
That could complicate the nation’s longstanding support for Israel and Democratic support for Mr. Biden’s re-election effort next year. A group of anonymous White House interns sent a letter this week to Mr. Biden calling for a permanent cease-fire, and the United Auto Workers called last week for an immediate end to the conflict.
“If it’s Donald Trump, we can kiss our democracy goodbye,” said Michael Rouppet, 55, a Democrat who stopped to check out the protests outside San Francisco City Hall as hundreds of residents weighed in on a proposed ceasefire resolution on Tuesday. “But I can’t support someone who supports genocide.”
Still, some liberal cities have found it difficult to pass cease-fire resolutions. In San Francisco, several board members said they didn’t want to bring the war in Gaza into City Hall, and it’s far from certain that a resolution will pass there.
In nearby Berkeley, a cornerstone of the antiwar movement during the 1960s, the City Council can’t reach consensus. Meetings have become so unruly that the council hasn’t been able to convene in person for two weeks.
“People heckle and disrupt and try to stop us from conducting business,” said Jesse Arreguín, the mayor of Berkeley. “Pro-Israel residents don’t feel safe. The last in-person meeting we had, we had to adjourn to a different room because the crowd was shouting hateful things, condoning Hamas, attacking the council.”
In Southern California on Tuesday, some members of the Santa Ana City Council opposed any mention of a cease-fire, while others opposed any resolution without it. By the end of the night, after hours of impassioned debate, council members couldn’t agree on a motion merely to ask staff to draft a proclamation on Gaza.
“We have no control, none whatsoever, over international issues,” the mayor, Valerie Amezcua, declared. “We just don’t.”
In San Francisco, Dean Preston, a member of the board of supervisors, said he had decided a couple of weeks ago to introduce a resolution, seeking input from a host of advocacy groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace and the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.
Mr. Preston, who is Jewish, said he had heard a lot of pushback about the resolution not being central to what local supervisors should be focusing on — and he said that had been true when the board has weighed in on other international topics. But he said this time was different.
He said he heard from a Palestinian woman in San Francisco who has lost 100 family members in Gaza since the attacks began — including another seven in one recent day.
“It’s not like the folks who are upset about the ongoing bombardment and killing in Gaza and the displacement of people can go to Congress for public comment,” Mr. Preston said. “But they can come to their city council, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Hoping to get the ear of Washington and the world.
New York Times