At just after 6:30 pm on Tuesday evening, almost immediately after the Davis City convened their regular agenda, a group of at least one hundred mainly Muslim students flooded community chambers in Davis, quietly and politely holding signs urging action on what has now been over a week long war in Gaza that has seen hundreds killed.
During public comment, one-by-one, the students spoke out about what they saw as atrocities of innocent women and children and civilians being killed by military action by the Israeli army.
Their message was simple--they want the violence to stop. They recognize that the city council cannot do a whole lot, but they want the council to write Senators Boxer and Feinstein, Congressman Mike Thompson, and most of all President-elect Barack Obama and ask them to do what they can to make the violence stop.
With literally dozens of students wanting to speak but a long agenda ahead of them, Mayor Ruth Asmundson tried to cut off public comment after 15 minutes. This clearly angered and frustrated the students, but also some of Asmundson's council colleagues.
Councilmember Stephen Souza explained to them that they could only listen to them this evening, they could not take action on anything by law. They would at the end of the meeting be able to discuss putting a resolution on the agenda for next week however.
When Mayor Asmundson attempted to cut off speaking however, Councilmember Sue Greenwald interrupted with a point of order. After brief discussion. Councilmember Lamar Heystek moved to allow the students to speak for an additional 15 minutes. Councilmember Greenwald seconded the motion and they were joined by Councilmember Souza in a 3-2 vote to continue public comment.
An additional 10 to 15 students spoke in that time. Many of them were in fact Palestinian. Some of them still had family and friends there. One pointed out that more Palestinians have been killed in this operation in the last week and a half than Israelis have been killed in total for the last seven years (and frankly it's probably longer than that). The Israelis have used ongoing rocket attacks to justify their operation, but the response has been disproportionate to the threat. Palestinians, many of them innocents, are now trapped in Gaza, unable to leave and unable to stop the killing.
The students pledged to return next week and to continue to return until the council passes a resolution to write a letter.
During the long range calendar discussion at the end of the council meeting, Stephen Souza moved and Councilmember Heystek seconded a motion to put a resolution on the long range calendar. It was supported unanimously. Councilmember Greenwald recommended a subcommittee work with the students to draw up an appropriate resolution.
I spoke very briefly at the very end of the meeting to recommend to the council that their message deplore all violence--violence against the Israelis and violence against the people of Gaza. It was agreed.
Last week, I expressed my views on the situation in Gaza. Frankly, it has gotten worse since then. I oppose all violence and believe in non-violent means to resolve conflict. To me, Hamas perpetrated wrong by launching rocket attacks on Israeli cities, however, Israeli response has been completely disproportionate.
Moreover, I believe in democracy, small d. I think it was wrong to try to cut off discussion last night and I applaud the three members of council who extended the length of public comment. There are times when the council needs to allow segments of the community to speak. It was telling during the discussion on wood burning stoves, that two members of the public spoke and applauded the students for their activism, regardless of whether or not they supported their exact cause. It definitely made an impression on members of the public who were there for another issue.
Finally, many have complained about the council's use of resolutions on matters that do not directly impact them. What became clear Tuesday night was that the council in many ways serves as the point of first contact for aggrieved citizens. For the students it was their outlet to express themselves, to give themselves a voice, to enfranchise themselves in a way that without that vehicle they would not be able to directly access their government. From that perspective, perhaps we need to look at the city council a bit differently. They do not have direct say over other branches of government, but they are in many ways people's points of access along with their representatives in Congress and the Senate.
It was a valuable lesson in civic activism that all could learn from and it was unfortunate that one of the lessons they learned was that some were trying to silence their voices, not out of malice but because there was a heavy agenda this evening. I applaud the three members of council who voted to give the students a voice for an additional fifteen minutes. I spoke with the students afterward and it is clearly very important to them. Their persistence and willingness to petition their local government on issues that affect them, their families and friends is impressive and gives me hope for young people who will be running our government in the future.
---David M. Greenwald reporting