Thursday, November 5, 2015

Democracy in Action

Last night, I was one of an audience of several hundred people who attended the monthly meeting of the Portland Human Rights Commission (HRC).  Last month, the HRC had taken the courageous and controversial step of endorsing a letter asking that the city’s Socially Responsible Investment Commission place four American companies complicit with the Israeli Occupation of Palestine on the city’s “do not buy” list and/or to divest from any of those companies currently in the city’s portfolio ( In the face of tremendous “public” outcry (mostly generated by Portland’s Jewish Federation), the HRC agreed to provide agenda time to opponents to this action.

Described in a newspaper article the previous week as “obscure,” the HRC is more used to meeting in a small conference room than in the auditorium that last night’s meeting had been moved to.  Commission chair Chabre Vickers performed the Herculean task of keeping the crowd respectful of other viewpoints and of the HRC itself, while extending the agenda to provide time for the invited speakers as well as the 45 members of the public who had signed up to speak.

To provide a bit of background:  Over the summer, religious, social justice and human rights groups working for justice for Palestine formed “Occupation Free Portland” (full disclaimer – I am a member of this group) to encourage city officials to align municipal investments with values of human rights.   In September, this coalition composed a letter to the Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC), asking that they recommend that the city divest from and/or place on the “do not buy” list four companies (Hewlett Packard, Motorola, Caterpillar and G4S) who play major roles in the ongoing Occupation. 

This letter was initially presented to the city’s HRC for their endorsement during the “public comments” period at the Commission’s September meeting.  The HRC asked for more time to review the letter and the backup materials that the coalition presented, and promised a vote at its October meeting.
At that October meeting, the HRC voted unanimously to endorse the letter, which will then be presented to the SRIC for further consideration and possible action.  The backlash was swift.

Once the action (taken in a public meeting!) was known, the Jewish Federation and its allies swung into high gear – accusing Occupation Free Portland and, by association the HRC, of everything from anti-Semitism to wanting to destroy the State of Israel.  A local, “alternative” newspaper, Willamette Week, wrote a one-sided story about the meeting; politicians were contacted and favors called in to get support for the Jewish Federation position.  Reportedly, several members of the HRC even received “death threats.”

All came to a head in last night’s emotional 3 ½ hour meeting.  Vickers began by reading a heartfelt statement as to exactly what the HRC had voted on, stating that, as a courtesy, opponents to that position had been offered the opportunity to speak to the issue addressed in the “controversial” letter – namely, did the four American companies, in fact, violate human rights?  She asked all who spoke to be respectful of each other and of the process – and, when outbursts subsequently interrupted one of the first speakers, introduced a security officer who promised to evict anyone responsible for future outbursts.

The audience was then treated to about 30 minutes from various Jewish Federation speakers who used that time not to discuss the four companies or their human rights violations, but to give wide-ranging speeches on topics ranging from the Balfour Declaration to present-day anti-Semitism in Europe. 

When it was time for the Commissioners to comment on the issue, two, Sam Sachs and Marcia Suttenberg “confessed” that they had not done their homework before the October vote, stated that they were “horrified” by what they had subsequently learned, and wished to rescind their support.

Vickers then called on the 45 members of the public who had registered to speak to the issue – allotting two minutes to each speaker (and using a timekeeper to strictly enforce this limit).  The voices ranged from clergy (rabbis, priests and ministers), to ordinary people – Palestinian-Americans, Jews, students, housewives, professionals, all of whom had an opinion on the issue – although very few addressed the issue that the HRC had actually voted on – namely were the four American companies complicit in human rights violations?

The meeting concluded with a lengthy discussion by the commissioners; Sachs and Suttenberg reiterated their dismay about what the HRC had done and wanted to “undo” it; other commissioners stated that they had done their “homework” before voting, and had heard nothing that changed their mind about the specific action that the HRC had taken.

In the end, the HRC voted NOT to take a re-vote on the issue, but to make a note in the record that Sachs and Suttenberg had recanted their original “yes” votes.  And, with that, the die-hards still left in the audience went home – content that the democratic process had once again worked the way it was supposed to!!

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