December 1, 2023
Attendees -- who were given only 60 seconds to speak -- collectively represented a cacophony of anger, grief, fear, hope and solidarity that overwhelmingly pleaded for a shared future of peace and the sanctity of innocent lives.

RICHMOND – When officials in this city of only 115,000 people announced they would be voting on a resolution to support Palestinians living in Gaza amid the worst outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas in decades, it drew hundreds of people to Tuesday’s city council meeting.

The Richmond City Council cleared its entire Tuesday night schedule to discuss the controversial stance, which protests what the resolution characterizes as an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing, collective punishment and war crimes by the state of Israel. A vote approving the lengthy resolution wasn’t tallied until just after 1 a.m. Wednesday — establishing what appears to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Nearly five hours of public testimony was delivered by scores of community leaders and local residents on all sides of the conflict, which has already claimed the lives of more than 6,500 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis.

Richmond’s elected officials patiently listened to the hundreds of people who packed City Hall’s chambers to capacity, overflowed to the auditorium lobby next door and tuned into one of the meeting’s livestreams. At one point, the Zoom room maxed out its limit of 500 participants and more than 300 people were following along on YouTube, while at least an additional 150 written public comments were submitted virtually.

Attendees — who were given only 60 seconds to speak — collectively represented a cacophony of anger, grief, fear, hope and solidarity that overwhelmingly pleaded for a shared future of peace and the sanctity of innocent lives. More than half of the comments supported the resolution.

Numerous people described accounts of personal family members being caught in the crossfire in both Gaza and Israel. Others focused on death tolls of the most recent attacks, or recounted historic milestones of the decades-long conflict. Some Jewish speakers said the resolution made them fear for their safety living in Richmond.

But despite a handful of impassioned speeches that boiled over into divisive, accusatory attacks against city leaders, the meeting never devolved into utter chaos or more than a few minutes of delay.

“That is the beauty of Richmond,” said Councilmember Doria Robinson, “that we can hold that kind of space, and we can actually hear each other, even if we don’t agree. I think it is important — as we lean into justice, as we lean into being courageous — that we make sure not to forget any part of our humanity and remember that people are hurting.”

An amended version of the resolution was approved in a 5-1 vote. Councilmember Cesar Zepeda voted no after his short list of additional amendments and clarifications was rejected, and Councilmember Claudia Jimenez was absent on medical leave.

Last-minute amendments that were approved included condemnation of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and called for the release of Israeli hostages; they were added following an immense outcry from largely Jewish community organizations and other residents leading up to Tuesday’s meeting.

The final approved resolution proclaimed, in part, that Palestinians in Gaza “are currently facing a campaign of ethnic cleansing and collective punishment by the state of Israel; and whereas, collective punishment is considered a war crime under international law.”

Additionally, the final resolution criticized Palestinians’ lack of access to electricity, food, water, medical care and aid — calling for an immediate ceasefire and substantial humanitarian aid to Gaza, in addition to “an end to Israeli apartheid in the occupation and blockade of Palestinian land.”

Elected officials said that with the resolution, they aimed to amplify Palestinian narratives that they felt were being excluded from mainstream news.

While Robinson said that the last-minute changes were made possible through dialogue and understanding, she criticized the hateful rhetoric that targeted the city’s resolution, comparing it to a history of pushback against similar efforts during the civil rights, South African apartheid and the U.S. abolitionist movement.

“It was not popular, it was not comfortable, there were wars fought to stop those things, and it was divisive, but at some point, somebody has to say, ‘I love you, and what you’re doing is wrong,’” Robinson said. “I think we’re at that point in Richmond. I hope we’re at that point in Richmond.”

Yet, dozens of people at the meeting called for rejection or even a delay of the vote — arguing that it would only sew more division.

“It appears to me like the city councilmembers that wrote the resolution are using the tragic situation in Palestine and Israel, both of which are thousands of miles away from Richmond, to gain politically from it,” said Richmond resident Theresa Russell. “That doesn’t sit well with me.”

Others felt the resolution was antisemitic, including Beth Seidman, a 37-year Richmond resident who said it was full of “half-truths, inaccuracies and distortions.” She said it was a “resolution to create hatred toward Jews and divisiveness in our community.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Eduardo Martinez, who co-sponsored the resolution, said society has historically been slow to openly recognize issues like apartheid and war crimes. Rather than avoid controversy or divisiveness, he said he can simultaneously denounce burgeoning antisemitic rhetoric, while uplifting decades of Palestinian oppression.

“If (the resolution) sounds one-sided, it’s because it voices a narrative that has been ignored,” Martinez said, later doubling down on the notion that none of the approved language was hostile against Jewish people. “How many times when we read history have we asked, ‘Why didn’t anyone do something sooner?’ Do we say something when the bloodshed is over? This proclamation chooses human lives over politics.”