‘We have a town to run’

‘We have a town to run’

Loud protest about Gaza shakes Teaneck Town Council meeting

This is the sign that was waved during the May 7 Teaneck Town Council meeting. (Keith Kaplan)
This is the sign that was waved during the May 7 Teaneck Town Council meeting. (Keith Kaplan)

Alan Sohn, a long-time Teaneck resident, has been attending Township Council meetings regularly over the past 15 years. He has seen a real change in the meetings in the last few months. “For years, I was often one of a half dozen people attending,” Mr. Sohn said. “I might have been one of the few people who would speak at Good and Welfare” — the portion of the meetings where members of the public have three minutes to let council members know their thoughts — “and that’s changed.

“Virtually every meeting, the chambers are full, and a big chunk of people are there to represent the Jewish community, and a big chunk of people are there to represent the cause of Palestine and Gaza.”

He sees the change as the aftermath of a resolution the council passed by a 7-0 vote on October 17. The resolution condemned Hamas, condemned any innocent loss of life, supported Israel, and asked for hostages to be released, he said. “It was something there was a lot of discussion about, as to what could be and should be included. I think it reflected, to a large extent, the broad communal revulsion and disgust at the acts of October 7.”

When the resolution was being discussed, the chambers were filled, and crowds outside tried to get in, he said. But he doesn’t think the resolution is the cause of all the problems in town. “There was nothing passed by Columbia University or Rutgers University,” he pointed out.

On October 30, the council passed another resolution, also with a 7-0 vote, calling for peace and unity, decrying the loss of life in both Israel and Gaza, and saying that the town’s residents must find a way to move on and to work together toward peace and unity in Teaneck.

Since then, “it just seems like everything is being viewed through the lens of what’s happening in Israel and Gaza,” Mr. Sohn said.

But while meetings have been contentious for months, and many speakers have focused on Israel and Gaza rather than on local issues during Good and Welfare, things escalated to another level at the May 7 council meeting.

From left; Karen Orgen, Heidi Fuchs, Hillary Goldberg, and Keith Kaplan

“There was an ordinance that was going to be passed regarding trees — how you could chop down trees on your own property, what you would have to do,” Mr. Sohn said. “Which seems to be the very definition of the most parochial Teaneck interest.”

But a woman was sitting in the back holding a sign that read “Every 10 minutes another child in Gaza dies”; the word “dies” was crossed out and replaced with the words “is murdered.” She set off what sounded like an electronic alarm and stood up. Mayor Michael Pagan, as the meeting’s presiding chair, asked her to turn the sound off and sit down.

Ten minutes later she sounded the alarm again and stood up again. The mayor warned her again to stop. The third time she did it, he asked her to leave. She refused to go, and other people at the meeting shouted that she should not have to leave but had a right to speak. Ultimately, the mayor asked police officers at the meeting to escort the woman out.

A police statement on May 8 identified her as Layla Graham of Teaneck.

Another woman, identified by the police report as Amanda Kearney, also of Teaneck, “accompanied Ms. Graham inside the meeting and in the hallway as she was escorted out,” and “physically interfered with officers” as they were removing Ms. Graham, according to the statement. “As a result, Ms. Kearney was instructed not to re-enter the building nor return to the meeting.” A short time later, the two women re-entered the building and were arrested. Ms. Kearney was charged with defiant trespass and obstruction. Ms. Graham was charged with disrupting a public meeting, defiant trespass, possession of a stun gun, and resisting arrest.

Mr. Sohn “more than empathizes with the loss of any human life anywhere, whether it’s in Gaza or Israel or Syria or Myanmar,” he said, and he thinks “there’s ample room for peaceful protest.” But “when you’re deliberately disrupting meetings where work is being done on behalf of every one of the residents, I think it crosses a line.

“If you’re asked to stop the first time, the second time, and you continue, I think it was 100% appropriate for the mayor, given that the person would not leave on their own volition, to have the police escort this individual out.

“In 15 years, I’ve attended several hundred meetings, and I’ve never seen anybody escorted out. I’ve never seen anybody creating that kind of disruption.”

Mr. Sohn gives the police department credit for dealing with the situation in a respectful manner and trying to deescalate. “I think if she had walked out and left, nothing would have happened. She was not arrested for playing a siren, she was arrested for trying to reenter the building.

In addition to the disruption, Mr. Sohn also is concerned about the impact Ms. Graham’s behavior might have had on other people at the meeting. “Many people in the audience got up and left,” he said. “I think they were sufficiently frightened. They didn’t feel safe.” Others told him that they wanted to speak but didn’t because they felt intimidated by the behavior of other audience members. “And that’s very disappointing to me,” he continued. “I think it’s so important that people feel comfortable to speak. Plenty of people get up and say things I disagree with, whether it’s on a matter of policy or politics, but that’s what Good and Welfare is all about.

“I understand the concerns people have, but we need to recognize that we may have different opinions but that we need to find a way to work together. The issues that face us are overwhelmingly shared issues. Whatever your background, taxes are too high, we want to maintain the quality of services, the roads need to be paved.”

Karen Orgen is a member of the council and has similar concerns about what happened at the meeting. “There’s a lot of work to do in the township for the residents, and we’re really trying to get back to that,” Ms. Orgen said. The council has been considering such issues as how many trees residents should be allowed to take off their property, whether to allow backyard chickens, which roads should be repaved, and whether to develop certain properties. The town recently had a re-evaluation, the council is working on passing a budget and setting tax rates, the town manager is retiring, and the council is looking for a new manager.

“Having disruptions like this, and grandstanding and staged events, doesn’t help anybody. It takes time away from residents who want to speak at Good and Welfare and tell us how they feel in the structured forum allowed.”

Ms. Orgen stressed that people do have an opportunity to speak at meetings. “The meeting has an agenda, and it’s structured,” she said. “When there are ordinances, we have hearings on them before we pass them. We listen to the public. Then we open up to Good and Welfare, which has to be an hour long, and everyone gets three minutes to speak, and then the council responds at the end. This is order. This is how you run a town.” She understands that people have concerns, and may consider those concerns to be emergencies, but except in the case of an immediate emergency — like a fire in the building — they have to speak about them within the structure of the meeting. “The mayor is the presiding officer, and it’s his call to have people removed, and that’s what he did,” she said.

“I hope the message is received that this type of disruption is not going to get you anywhere. But look all over the world, look in the colleges now. People like the chaos, people are trying to disrupt. We don’t have time for it. There’s too much else going on here.”

Ms. Orgen does not want people ever to be afraid to come to meetings. “I want them to know officers will always be there to protect people who come in,” she said. “People should feel free to come and share their thoughts with us at the appropriate time during the meeting.”

Hillary Goldberg, another member of the council, also is worried about its ability to get work done. “We do have township business to get through,” she said. “We respect everyone’s First Amendment right, and it’s something that we love in America, and we should hear people — but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing township business.”

Ms. Goldberg understands that the problem is not confined to Teaneck. “Town council meetings across the country have become a forum to talk about the war and to demand ceasefire resolutions or to demand divestment, and it’s happening all over the country, whether or not there was a resolution passed,” she said. She pointed out that Bogota, one of Teaneck’s neighbors, did not pass a single resolution on Gaza but has had protesters at meetings.  And she sees the disruptions escalating. “This behavior was happening in California a couple of months ago, and arrests were happening at council meetings. But this was the first time that we really had to stop a meeting like this.

“And we do have a town to run.”

During the public hearing part of the meeting, a speaker argued that “we shouldn’t be focusing on any of the ordinances being discussed until we address Gaza. And the answer is — we have a town to run; it’s our job to run the town, and to make sure that potholes get filled, and to make sure that we are in compliance with the state laws on trees, which is what we were doing.

“It really seems to be escalating as a tactic across the country to disrupt everything and change public opinion, and it’s pretty scary.”

She’s seen toolkits online designed to help people put this tactic into practice and has sent the information to the police department so it knows what it’s dealing with.

She hopes this meeting serves as a wakeup call that “we have business to do,” Ms. Goldberg said. “If people want to say something to the president, they should go protest at the White House. But the Teaneck Township Council can’t get a ceasefire or bring the hostages home, and making Jews in Teaneck feel unsafe through a lot of what’s going on doesn’t do anything but create tension and division in town.”

Heidi Fuchs was also at the meeting. Ms. Fuchs been involved in the township for more than 30 years; she’s served on the township ethics committee, on a township manager search committee and on the civilian review complaint board. She’s seen the tone at meetings escalating and is hoping to see decorum restored at meetings. She hopes the Council will enforce the three-minute time limit for speaking during Good and Welfare and will not allow people to “call out or otherwise disrespect the rules of the chamber.”

“I want to go back to the town that I moved to when I was a little girl, and the town I chose to come back to raise my children in,” she said. “We had a diverse town and there were great relationships among different ethnicities.”

Keith Kaplan, a Teaneck resident who served on the council from 2016 to 2022, was also at the meeting. “I have no legal issues with someone standing up and screaming things that make my blood boil,” Mr. Kaplan said. “But there comes a time when things are not protected by the First Amendment, and radical interruptions that prevent government from actually functioning is not something that’s even remotely protected.” And he was concerned about the stun gun Ms. Graham brought into the meeting. “I’m all for people having personal weapons, but not in a municipal building because there is a law against it.

“We’ve always at least agreed on what the principles were that guided the arguments, but now we seem to be at a point where we can’t agree on principles. A lot of people seem to feel that whatever ends they decide on are appropriate. But you can’t stand up and say, I feel this, therefore your opinion is not allowed to be said like mine is said. We need to rediscover our shared civics or we’re not going to be able to solve any problems.

“Government’s not an easy thing. It makes it all the more difficult if people feel scared to come out to voice their opinions. Just the specter that anyone would bring a weapon to a government building where people are already worried about coming and voicing their opinion and being known and being targets of others is disturbing.

“Doing that, and bringing actual fear to people, is one of the worst sins you can commit against civic engagement.”

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