Online trolls crashed a Durango City Council meeting Tuesday via Zoom, spewing antisemitic statements during a public comment period intended to discuss a development proposal near Grandview and Elmore’s Corner.
Audience members and councilors alike were offended and sickened by the hate speech, as noted by councilors and the city attorney.
The meeting was derailed several times in a row by Zoom users who used the “raise hand” feature to indicate they wanted to comment on a proposed rezoning proposal under consideration by City Council, but when given the floor made disparaging sexual and antisemitic remarks instead.
The fiasco appeared to surprise and embarrass councilors. Mayor Melissa Youssef apologized to meeting attendees after several antisemitic commenters were removed one-by-one from the Zoom call, only for another interruption to occur a little later in the meeting.
City Attorney Mark Morgan said at the meeting the people participating over Zoom had to be given a chance to speak, but as soon as they went off topic of the public hearing – in this case by making racist statements about Jewish people – they could be removed from the call.
“The public comment has to be related to the issue before the council. These people have done this in other jurisdictions around the country and it’s something you have to tolerate in respect of free speech,” he said. “As soon as the comments go away from the subject at hand, they are out of order and we can stop it. But, if we stop it at any point before that we’re going to be accused of limiting free speech.”
He said that is the unfortunate reality of a government that recognizes free speech.
“Again, it’s a limited public forum. So it’s limited to comments on the subject,” he said. “And as soon as they go away from that subject, it’s out of order and we can stop it. And that’s the best we can do tonight.”
The antisemitic comments were edited out of the city’s recorded version of the meeting, available on the city of Durango’s official YouTube channel. In place of the hate speech, the recording features several text disclaimers overlaid on black backgrounds.
The disclaimers say:
“The public comment portion of the meeting was stopped here due to antisemitic hate speech. It was ruled to be out of order by the mayor. Antisemitic comments made prior to intervention by the council have also been removed from this recording.”
After yet another interruption, Morgan suggested City Council take a 10-minute recess. It appears as if the trolls lost interest after that as no more interruptions occurred after the meeting resumed.
When City Council closed the public meeting and voted to approve the rezoning proposal in question, Councilor Jessika Buell made a motion to strike the hate speech from the meeting recording.
All councilors except for Councilor Gilda Yazzie voted to censor the meeting recording. Yazzie abstained from the vote, and she explained her reasoning.
“I’m real opposed to colorful language like that. And normally, I would agree to removing that language,” she said. “But I think we’ve got to make a record of what happens at these public forums sometimes and how they get out of control.
“It was real offensive to me to hear that stuff,” she added, saying, “it’s offensive to me when even some of our local people here who say stuff like, ‘The people that we want in our community.’ When they testify that kind of language to me, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. Should I duck?’”
Councilor Olivier Bosmans called the hate speech “sickening.” He noted it would be appropriate for Buell’s motion to be brought up under new business as opposed to during the middle of the meeting’s regular agenda.
Morgan said Bosmans had a point, but it would also be appropriate to address the matter right away given the extraordinary circumstance.
“It’s a motion to strike any antisemitic comments from the recording so they’re not rebroadcast and available for the cowards that put them on the recording to listen to and show off to their friends,” he said.