WEDNESDAY, Jan. 10 — In a contentious meeting last night that lasted for four and a half hours, the East Lansing City Council voted 4-1 against a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Councilmember Dana Watson voted yes, while Mayor George Brookover and members Erik Altmann and Mark Meadows voted against it. Mayor pro tem Kerry Ebersole Singh appeared to remain silent, but she confirmed today that she opposed the resolution.
The resolution was drafted by the East Lansing Human Rights Commission, which then passed it unanimously on Dec. 11 with a request that City Council follow suit. Part of the resolution called for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to support U.S. House Resolution 786 in calling for an “immediate de-escalation and permanent ceasefire in Gaza.”
Brookover, an attorney, questioned whether the commission or Council had the authority to approve such a resolution.
“When I look at the charter of the city and the role of Council and the role of the HRC, I see no ability in those legal documents to have us opine on a foreign policy issue,” he said.
“You all should apologize to the HRC members who told you this was happening, gave you an opportunity to weigh in, and you left them hanging until this moment,” she said. “If this is where you all were going to land, they deserve to have known, and conversations should have been had if you were serious about considering this type of resolution.”
“People came to us, and we let them down,” she added.
Altmann said he was reluctant to approve it because he saw “at least two and possibly more very different interpretations of the facts that on display here” during the public comment portion of the meeting, which lasted for two hours.
“We would have a speaker say one thing, and I would look around and people’s heads would shake,” Altmann said. “We don’t even agree on the facts of what’s going on in the Middle East. That’s not a difference we can minimize, because if we don’t know what the facts are, then we’re taking sides.
“I certainly do not have the expertise to adjudicate the fact,” he added. “I’m OK admitting that because that’s not my job. I am peddling as fast as I can to be an expert on East Lansing and decide on issues that we have some understanding of, and some control over.”
He concluded that he couldn’t support the resolution “on multiple levels.”
“I can’t vote yes. We’re not allowed to abstain. So, my only choice is to vote no,” Altmann said.
“Shame! Ignorant coward,” someone from the audience declared, while another shouted a profanity.
Meadows said he “can’t support it at this time.”
“I could probably legalistically go through the Human Rights ordinance to demonstrate that this is probably beyond their authority to recommend to City Council, and that City Council itself is limited in terms of how it can comment on matters outside the actual operation of the City of East Lansing,” Meadows said.
He chose not to, but cited concerns about how the resolution was worded, which he felt showed bias.
“That does not mean that I can’t support a resolution asking for a ceasefire or asking for our federal and state government to ask for a ceasefire in that area without pointing any fingers at either side,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that we should work on something that we can all agree on.”
Before the vote, Ebersole Singh moved to table the resolution to give the Council time to vet her concerns, but it failed due to a lack of a second. She followed that with a suggestion for “a motion to recess to work on another revised resolution,” which also failed.
In her comments, she made a point to agree with a comment Watson made — that “silence can mean acceptance.”
“With that said, I’m not a foreign policy expert. There are a number of things that I want to walk through in terms of what I would support in a resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza,” Ebersole Singh said.
Watson questioned her colleagues who said they weren’t “experts” on foreign policy.
“This has been going on since 1948. Where have we been? Not until Oct. 7 did more people take stances and have opinions. This resolution wasn’t asking us to know all of that, to be experts. This resolution was asking for us to stand for what is right,” she said.
Before the vote, dozens of residents and MSU students with ties to Israel and Palestine spoke for and against the resolution, though some speakers also commented on unrelated matters.
One of them, Ava Anderson, said there was a precedent for City Council’s involvement concerning issues of foreign affairs.
“In the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s, the East Lansing City Council passed a selective-purchasing agreement prohibiting the city from purchasing supplies and materials from companies with subsidiaries in apartheid South Africa,” Anderson said. “That’s powerful. East Lansing was a leader in the boycott movement of that time. We are at a very similar moment in history.”
Later, Brookover addressed that point.
“It is true that there was Resolution 1977-1 that was passed. But what that resolution indicated, I think, in accord with what the MSU Board of Trustees indicated, was that they simply weren’t going to do business with any corporations that were doing business in South Africa as long as apartheid was working. When South Africa changed, there was a subsequent resolution in the ‘90s that rescinded this resolution,” he said, adding that no such resolution was passed when he was growing up in the time of the Vietnam War.
Another speaker was MSU student Isaac Smith, who urged the Council to vote no.
“The Oct. 7 massacre was not just an attack on Israel, but an attack on all Jews. The bottom line is that this is the East Lansing City Council. You should not be telling Jews how we can and cannot defend ourselves,” Smith said. “This is a body so removed from the realities of war, so removed from the atrocities that Hamas perpetrated in Israel. An unconditional ceasefire, without a total surrender by Hamas, is exactly what Hamas wants.”
After the vote, most in attendance got up to leave. As they did so, some continued to speak, while Brookover tried to regain order, asking for the audience to “please give us the respect that we gave you as you presented to us.”
Brookover reiterated that he would like to see a ceasefire in Gaza, but that he felt it was beyond his authority as mayor to support the resolution. He added that he was in some ways encouraged by the fact that so many on had shown up to voice their beliefs.
“I was struck tonight by that fact that the vast majority of people who talked on all sides of this were students connected with MSU,” Brookover said. “Which I think is, in a way of thinking, amazing. I suggest that you have a lot of power that maybe can be exercised in other places.”
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