Dozens of community members filled in seats at Tuesday’s city council meeting and urged city leaders to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza — an action the city council members sidestepped.
About 40 to 50 Harrisonburg residents — including those from both the Muslim and Jewish communities — took up most of the seats in the council chambers, and many of them spoke during the public comment period that lasted nearly 45 minutes. One by one, people approached the podium voicing their heartache over the conflict and outrage over perceived inaction from U.S. elected officials after months of killings.
They requested that the city council adopt a formal resolution calling for the ceasefire in addition to humanitarian aid and a release of hostages. Some carried signs reading “Grieving for Gaza” and “Ceasefire Now!”
Local activist Muawia Dames told the council why support for Palestine is needed at the local level.
“None of this is possible without the unconditional support of our government, but today in Harrisonburg, I have a community who rises to speak for justice and ask for your support,” Dames said.
Many community members who spoke during the public comment period were Palestinian Americans living in Harrisonburg and have friends and relatives enduring the violence in the West Bank. Hasan Hamdam, who grew up in Palestine before relocating to Harrisonburg in 2000, told council about what he has heard from acquaintances and followed from Palestinian outlets on the ground in Gaza.
“A friend of mine was a visiting faculty member at JMU in 2005, he worked so hard to build a house for his family, and it was wiped out,” Hamdam said. “You don’t see what we see, and that’s why we have this motion and a lot of people out here today.”
Ron Ornstein, a trustee of the Beth El Synagogue in Harrisonburg, said a declaration from the city council regarding the conflict would be a significant gesture for the international community in Harrisonburg.
“By and large, what we do in our city isn’t going to change international relations, the outcome might not make that big a difference” Ornstein said. “I would say the community relations and peace within Harrisonburg is crucial to this.”
City council members ultimately declined to adopt a formal resolution calling for a ceasefire. Each member responded individually with sympathy for the situation in Gaza, while also acknowledging that there is little they could do at the city level.
Council member Chris Jones’ emotions flared as he related their pain from watching the conflict in Gaza unfold to his own experience witnessing racial injustice in the United States.
“There are some ways that I can help you, I’d love to, but I know damn sure that a resolution ain’t gonna help you,” Jones said. “You know why? Because black folks have been getting resolutions and laws and shit like that for decades, centuries.”
He said it would take more than what the city council has at their disposal to achieve their goal.
“There’s a way to fight, and I want you to fight right,” Jones said. “Just know that this is a limited resource.”
Mayor Deanna Reed has convened community conversations with members of both the Muslim and Jewish communities in Harrisonburg to explore feelings around the conflict. She said those conversations would yield more impact than a symbolic gesture.
“The resolution that came before me, I was not supportive of that, because I thought it was divisive, and I’m not trying to divide our community,” Reed said. “I’m not supportive of resolutions because it’s just a symbolic piece of paper, I’m more supportive of action.”
Council begins conversations over collective bargaining
Members of the Harrisonburg Police Department are petitioning for collective bargaining ordinance which, if approved by city council, would allow the department to form a union.
In an October 2023 email to city police staff acquired by The Citizen, officer Stephen Burrows said that 65 officers had signed the petition. Those signatures were sent with a letter to City Manager Ande Banks in December from a law firm representing Harrisonburg officers belonging to the Southern States Police Benevolent Association.*
An amendment to the Virginia state code in 2020 extended collective bargaining rights to municipal employees in the Commonwealth. However, it is up to the city council to allow collective bargaining by vote, with advice from city staff.
If the council votes to pass the proposed ordinance, a member of the police department would have to be appointed as the department’s bargaining agent. The draft ordinance presented to council defines a potential bargaining unit that would consist of sworn officers under the rank of lieutenant, as well as civilian employees working the police department, such as record clerks and administrative assistants.
According to a memorandum in the agenda for Tuesday night’s council meeting, city staff members are advising the council members to vote against a collective bargaining ordinance for the police. It cites that passing the ordinance could yield a significant financial impact to the city, in addition to apprehension over civilian employees being included in the bargaining unit.
In an interview with The Citizen following Tuesday night’s meeting, city communications director Michael Parks said that city staff opposes the resolution because it doesn’t align with their approach for supporting the city’s police officers and employees.
“It would eliminate our ability to have those one-on-one conversations with people when they have needs and come up with equitable ways to address those,” Parks said. “With collective bargaining, you’re having a conversation with a representative of the bargaining unit. So, you’re not able to address those individual needs you’re finding a one size fits all solution instead of equitable solutions for everyone”
Parks the city manager’s office is not concerned about any potential financial impact posed by collective bargaining, but they’re working on gathering more data on what that could look like.
“We know, for instance, that it would likely require us to increase our staff members and human resources department, and city attorney’s office to deal just with the contract but as for firm numbers, we’re not certain yet,” Parks said.
City council will discuss the issue in the coming months as more information becomes available. They are required to vote on the ordinance by April 20. Publisher Bridget Manley contributed to this report.
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