Just weeks after the Hamas invasion of Israel and amid that nation’s attacks on Gaza, a few hundred Bay Area residents packed a Richmond City Council meeting to passionately debate the merits of a resolution calling for a cease-fire.
Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 killed roughly 1,200 people and led to the kidnapping of more than 200. Since that day, Israel is believed to be responsible for at least 15,800 Palestinian deaths.
By the end of the Richmond council meeting — after six hours of raging debate — members passed a proclamation that said Richmond’s 114,000 inhabitants stood “in solidarity with the Palestinian people of Gaza.” It also accused the state of Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and the war crime of “collective punishment.”
Richmond is not alone as other local governmental entities in California — including, this week, the Santa Ana City Council and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — consider taking a stand on a war that has spurred violent, dueling protests in the state as well as schisms in schools and divisions within communities.
Some who commented in person at Richmond’s Oct. 27 meeting applauded City Council members for taking action and helping the “caged people of Gaza” with a “brave and necessary act” against the “apartheid state of Israel.”
Others fiercely railed against the same body, saying that claims of apartheid, genocide and ethnic cleansing were not just “fundamentally untrue and inaccurate” but also “inflammatory and biased” and would “deeply exacerbate the trauma and vulnerability of the local Jewish community.”
A question that has emerged in recent debates is whether city councils are overstepping their role.
Are they representing their constituents — or are they grandstanding? Should local government offer an official position on matters of foreign affairs? Do such statements have any real impact?
Like Richmond, the cities of Cudahy and Oakland recently passed resolutions.
Cudahy’s said Palestinians had “lived under violent and dehumanizing conditions” and that the council was “grieving all lives lost as a result of this genocide.” It passed with three votes for, one abstention and one absence. Oakland was unanimous in its passage of a resolution that included input from Jewish and Muslim leaders and called for a cease-fire in language that mirrored House Resolution 786, authored by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.).
The Berkeley City Council, however, objected to making any statements, despite calls to do so from protesters at meetings, believing they “fan the flames of hatred here at home.” Santa Ana council members and the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, had resolutions on their meeting agendas.
Santa Ana’s draft references Human Rights Watch’s definition of Gaza as “the world’s largest open-air prison” while quoting Israeli American scholar Omer Bartov, a Holocaust expert, who said Israel’s action marked “a clear intention of ethnic cleansing.”
San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston was expected to present a resolution at Tuesday’s meeting but did not provide a draft of the text. Groups, such as the Arab Resource & Organizing Center, called for “a mass mobilization for Gaza” in the form of supporters flooding the meeting.
A few Sundays after the Richmond City Council made its stand, the Rev. Kamal Hassan, Presbyterian pastor of Sojourner Truth Church, spoke before his congregation of about 100 of his desire for “Palestine to be free.”
The 66-year-old Richmond pastor called the council’s action “a correct and in some ways a courageous stand.”
“There is certainly a great deal of opposition,” he said, “to speaking on behalf of Palestinians and the people of Gaza and naming Israel as complicit in the harms.”
Deacon Asha Weber said she had seen members of the mostly Black congregation and the community identify with Palestinian suffering.
“Some folks are calling out because their people are being marginalized or they identified with the marginalization,” said Weber, who is in her mid-30s. “And they see the consequences of structural entities having a certain amount of power, the right access and allies, while others have none.”
Weber was referencing Israel’s alliance with the United States. America contributed $3.3 billion in foreign assistance to Israel in 2022, the latest year for which information was available, according to USAFacts.org. Almost all that money went to military assistance, according to the fiscal government watchdog.
Weber said she was concerned, however, with “acts of violence” against the Jewish community and said their “real fear is something that we should listen to.”
Like a number of other locals, though, she didn’t feel the council had overstepped its role.
William Hall, an adjunct professor of business and political science at Webster University in St. Louis, said there was “a long-standing precedent” nationwide of city councils passing resolutions on international matters.
Berkeley’s council, though not currently in favor of making a resolution, was one of the first to call out South African apartheid in 1972. In Los Angeles, council members passed a resolution in 2003 opposing the Iraq War, and many cities passed resolutions showing solidarity with Ukraine shortly after the Russian invasion.
Hall said, however, that whereas previous resolutions often had a “direct or significant impact,” he did not believe such resolutions currently being passed on the Israel-Hamas war would have any effect on U.S. foreign policy.
And he noted that the reasons cities pursue such proclamations aren’t always noble.
He said municipalities could be making these statements “to distract or take away attention from areas that they’re failing.” Or, he added, city councils could be “supporting one political interest over another” as a way to quell political pressure or to pick the side they “think will enhance their political capital.”
Jane Kemp, a board of directors member with Richmond’s Temple Beth Hillel, said in her public comments before the City Council that the resolution was a “vanity project” meant to boost “progressive politics.”
Kevin Wilk, a member of the City Council in the Bay Area city of Walnut Creek, implored the Richmond City Council in a letter to avoid picking a side due to “pressure from the community,” which he described as “intense.”
“Whichever way you vote, you will upset many Richmond residents who you have the responsibility of representing,” Wilk wrote.
Regardless of the reason behind the decision, careful wording in resolutions is paramount to avoid additional strife, Hall said. The former U.S. Department of Justice mediator helped communities deal with conflicts due to race, religion and other matters for more than a decade.
“The problem … is that you can fan the flames of hatred,” Hall said. “When a community makes a decision to recommend a resolution, much thought should go into the impact and the consequences.”
For 58-year-old Orinda resident Diana Honig, Richmond’s resolution presented a “false dichotomy between being ‘pro-Palestinian’ or ‘standing with Israel.’”
The former disability rights attorney, Reform Jew and lifelong progressive said she does not support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She is also against “the occupation of Palestinian territories, the illegal settlements in the West Bank, and the failure of the Israeli military to minimize civilian casualties.”
She said the Richmond City Council is driving a wedge through the community with “triggering language.”
“Community leaders,” she said, “have a responsibility to ensure that they acknowledge differing perspectives, engage in rigorous fact-checking, exert caution in making assumptions, and reflect deeply about the best way to craft messages they are using to influence community thought.”
Like in Richmond, debate over Oakland’s resolution lasted for hours, with hundreds of speakers and more than a thousand messages posted online.
The discussion and the resolution left Christian Hernandez feeling “split.” Hernandez worked for four years at Oakland’s Community Education Partnerships, an organization dedicated to enhancing educational opportunities for homeless and housing-unstable children.
“I can really sympathize with everything happening overseas, and it’s important to be aware of the situation,” said Hernandez, 27, a Spanish-language interpreter. “However, you don’t need to look halfway around the world for problems.”
Hernandez said it was jarring to see hundreds of people attending Oakland’s meeting, in person and virtually, while “not showing interest” on important local issues.
Months earlier, only eight people spoke about the city’s endorsement of the Ebony Alert Bill, which establishes an alert system to help find lost Black youth throughout the state.
“It bothers me that we’re not as engaged in other important issues as a community,” Hernandez said.
Cudahy community activist Tevina Quintana has spent much of her life battling social and environmental issues that have plagued the small and heavily Latino enclave, where about 29% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Although city issues should be “spoken about,” she said she applauded the Cudahy City Council for passing its resolution seeking a cease-fire.
Quintana said communities should be able to call out injustices near and far.
“Every big problem starts at the local level,” said Quintana, vice president of the Cudahy Youth Foundation. “So, we should allow our people to speak because it’s not just a government problem, but a societal issue.”