Holding Antisemites Accountable.

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North Carolina City Council Meeting Disrupted by Antisemitic Callers

The Matthews Town Commissioners meeting became heated after what some called a “disgusting” instance of “Zoom-bombing” on Monday night.

Zoom-bombing became a trend during the pandemic when many meetings moved online, with internet trolls joining Zoom calls and in this case, spewing anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist speech. In this case, the speakers joined the Town of Matthews call through legitimate means, but then proceeded to spend their five minutes of public comment time spreading hateful messages.

“I regret the extremely unfortunate incident that interrupted the meeting last evening and I extend my apologies to anyone who was subjected to it including Town staff and meeting attendees,” Mayor John Higdon, who was traveling on business and could not attend the meeting, said in a statement. “While I support the protection of free speech under the First Amendment, I also condemn the hateful and offensive words used. They are completely at odds with the welcoming, inclusive community we wish to have in Matthews.”

For about 20 minutes during the public comment portion, as many as five speakers with presumably fake names spoke at length on everything from religion to politics. Some members of the audience got up and left the meeting.

“They started out sort of kind of tickling around some [topics] that you start thinking like ‘this is kind of weird.’ The voice was a little off. And then immediately they started going into just vitriol,’ Nicole Sidman said about the meeting.

Sidman, who is running for North Carolina House District 105, was at the meeting to meet with voters and actually spoke publicly before the online speakers began. Sidman eventually left to avoid hearing more of the hate. She described their messages as anti-LGBTQ, and antisemitic.

“If you are Jewish, which I am, it was the same old things,” she said. “My grandparents fled from in Russia, blood libel, you know, that communism is really Jews trying to take over politics and money.”

At one point someone on the board turned the volume down, leading commissioners to argue over cutting one man off.

“I refuse to sit down on this,” Commissioner Mark Tofano said. “This man, although you may not agree with him and we might find it repulsive, you have no right to turn the volume down on this man. No right.”

Commissioner Renee Garner fired back at Tofano, calling out the harmful nature of the comments.

“Whether I agree with him or not, the language he used was offensive on every level,” Garner said. “It does not matter what my political situation is, what I believe or what I don’t believe. The language he was using was offensive. It was anti-Semitic, it was homophobic, it was transphobic. But most of all, it was disgusting.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tofano retorted. “You’re not the one who gets to decides who can speak and who can’t speak. And if we turn down the volume on a speaker in this hall ever again, so help me.”

On Tuesday, Tofano and Garner spoke with WBTV about the incident. While they had some disagreements about what happened, they both agreed that these individuals had the right to make their public comments, but that they strongly disagreed with the messages presented.

“I want to make it absolutely, explicitly, crystal clear that in no way was I in agreement with anything that was being said last night,” Tofano said. “We cannot shut down speakers based on the sensitivities of speakers or other groups. I am a fervent passionate zealot for the First Amendment.”

Garner, who had left the meeting Monday after the speakers continued saying hateful things, said the messages were the worst she’d ever heard.

“The language that I heard last night … I am fortunate that I lived my entire life without hearing it,” She said. “It was transphobic, homophobic, antisemitic and it reached a point where I heard things that I cannot unhear. That is when I knew that I had to step out, not because I didn’t believe they had a right to say it, but because I have to protect my mental health and my emotional well-being.”

Following the end of public comment Monday night, Commissioner McCool requested a short recess. After a brief break, commissioners went on with the meeting.

In the last few minutes of the meeting, commissioners argued again about offensive versus free speech with a warning from the town attorney about pointing fingers and potential lawsuits.

The Board of Commissioners will hold a special meeting in the coming days to discuss methods for public participation during future meetings, according to information from the Town of Matthews.