EL CERRITO, Calif. - Hate speech is spreading and hijacking government meetings in the Bay Area, forcing some local officials to restrict virtual public comments.
During an El Cerrito City Council meeting Tuesday, several people spewed racist and antisemitic rhetoric during the public comment period that was so vile, the meeting abruptly ended.
"It got so bad we actually had to stop the meeting early," Mayor Lisa Motoyama said. "We do not condone hate in our city."
El Cerrito is just the latest community falling victim to an attack by far-right extremists and hate groups aiming to harass officials and amplify their messages, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
At least one Jewish city official was personally attacked just days before the Yom Kippur holiday.
The rhetoric used was strikingly similar to Walnut Creek Councilmember Kevin Wilk who was repeatedly targeted in June.
"It was shocking at first…I was angry," said Wilk. "I’m not going to be intimidated and I’m certainly not going to step down from rebuking publicly vile comments, whether it’s antisemitic or other hateful comments."
Wilk said Walnut Creek was the first in the Bay Area attacked by outside groups. Other cities including South San Francisco, Sacramento and Monterey have also had their meetings taken over.
"They are looking to make people numb with this hate speech, to normalize the hate speech," he said. "This is not normal."
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is tracking an overwhelming increase in hijacked meetings and is working on a report that will provide data.
"These are not random attacks of bigots who happen to be in the community," said ADL Regional Director Marc Levine. "These are orchestrated attacks on these public meetings. They’re coordinated."
Stream KTVU on your TV by downloading Fox Local on your Roku, Amazon Fire, AndroidTV or AppleTV device for free. More details here.
Those joining the meetings virtually don’t show their faces but push white supremacist, antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ narratives.
Levine said those spewing the hateful messages are oftentimes not local and do not even live in California. He said they seek to disrupt the meetings.
"To attract attention to themselves, to recruit and raise money and unfortunately stop government from serving the public," said Levine.
A similar problem occurred at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, but then declined in the next couple of years. It has since picked back up.
"It’s terrible. It’s really personalized, and it’s really, really wrong," Motoyama said.
Motoyama said on Tuesday it quickly became difficult to balance the right to free speech, while stopping hateful comments.
Some El Cerrito residents told KTVU not enough was done to silence the inappropriate attacks and language.
"Council should have shut down this speech the moment it became abusive," one resident said. "First and foremost, it is hate speech and we do not tolerate it. Second, it is off-topic, so not relevant."
But Mayor Motoyama warned that the city has to follow the law and cutting off comments could be costly to taxpayers.
"That is exactly the kind of gut reaction that these hate speakers are looking for," she said. "They want to bring a lawsuit against us for breaching their first amendment rights."
City and county leaders have met to discuss legal ways to restrict hate speech including limiting the total time for public comment period or reducing the time a person is allowed to speak.
Another strategy is to save public comments for the end of the meeting and encourage positive ones.
The ADL is also looking into potential legislation to better deal with potential First Amendment concerns and liabilities.
In Sonoma County, supervisors restricted public comment to in-person only this week to prevent hate speech.
El Cerrito is considering implementing that strategy while also making sure city council sends a unified message that they’re standing against hate.
Officials held signs denouncing hate in anticipation of inappropriate comments Tuesday. They’re also now displayed in nearly every corner of City Hall.
"They’re trying to make us afraid and angry and hurt. We need to turn that around," said Motoyama. "You can come to our community, but you cannot bring your hate here."