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‘The hissing cannot happen’: Mayor urges civility amid tensions over Gaza

The room was packed at Thursday afternoon’s City Council work session: a masked woman held a sign reading “Gaza must live” in green letters, a man wore a cape-like flag draped over his back that depicted the American and Israeli flags merging into one another, another woman sported a chain necklace with a dog tag that read “peace,” followed by Hebrew letters. 

About 30 minutes into the meeting, the session reached item 46: a “Resolution Supporting an End to the Violence between Israel and Palestine.”

This wasn’t the first time the council was hearing from Durhamites on the issue. Last Monday, a group of protestors entered the City Council meeting to demand a ceasefire in the region. The scene was belligerent — one woman stole an Israeli flag from another woman and “dragged her across the floor,” according to WRAL News

The resolution, proposed by new City Council member Chelsea Cook, calls for the Biden administration to “facilitate de-escalation and a sustained, bilateral ceasefire” between Israel and Palestine. It also calls for the release of the hostages still held in Gaza, and Palestinian hostages in Israel, alike. 

It concludes by specifying that Durham “supports all of its Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, and Jewish residents and condemns antisemitic, anti-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, and Islamophobic rhetoric and attacks.”

The council members talked quietly amongst themselves, occasionally covering their microphones with their hands, about how to proceed with the sheer number of citizens who had signed up to speak. More than 50 attendees murmured and whispered amongst themselves. 

Mayor Leonardo Williams cracked a joke about the council discussing their vacations during the break, alleviating the tension for a moment. 

One by one, Williams announced the name of the eight people there to speak via Zoom. Then he called on those 29 who were there in person, bringing them up to the mic in groups of five at a time.

Each Durhamite had 90 seconds to speak, and Williams would abide strictly by his timer. 

Layla Champion, speaking over Zoom, wanted an even stronger resolution that specified a “permanent ceasefire.” 

“They are not perfect victims,” said Champion about Gazan citizens, “nor should we expect them to be in the face of countless acts of violence and genocide.” In response, an audience member exclaimed, “Yes!”

Others thought it was not Durham’s job to take a stance on a global issue, or that the more pressing matter was the antisemitism facing Durham residents. 

Amy Rosenthal said that Hamas is not only a terrorist organization, but it is known for breaking ceasefires. She also spoke about the local scene.

“Durham is known as a hotbed of anti-semitism,” she said.

Rosenthal received an uproar of negative shouts and hisses from the audience, and Williams banged his gavel multiple times. 

“I have no idea what the hissing is,” said Williams, sounding a bit like a disappointed parent, authoritative but caring. 

“We are not going to be rude and disrespectful. We just cannot.” There was resounding applause from the audience. 

“Now, if we’re going to do this the Durham way, then we’re going to do it the Durham way,” Williams added. “But we will have respect for one another.”

Williams continued, his brows furrowed, his voice sounding stern and passionate. 

“I see humans in here, I don’t see any snakes or anything. The hissing cannot happen. The interruption cannot happen.”

He allocated Rosenthal an additional 30 seconds, and the audience was silent thereafter. 

More speakers followed. Eli DeWitt, a student rabbi who approached the podium wearing a white yarmulke, called for a ceasefire. “I am actually here to speak from a place of moral clarity that needs no religious justification.”

After all 37 community speakers finished, Mayor Williams summarized the delicacy of these conversations and their importance in Durham. 

“The bigger picture from where I’m sitting is when I look out in the audience I see people who have very different perspectives sitting amongst one another,” said Williams.

The resolution will be on the agenda at Monday’s City Council meeting.

Above: Locals packed a City Council meeting Thursday to urge the city to take a position on the war in Gaza. Photo by Jacqueline Cole — The 9th Street Journal 

Jacqueline Cole