Police investigating ‘zoom bomb’ at township Council meeting

An unauthorized rally was held on the steps of the West Orange municipal building.

WEST ORANGE — A “zoom bomb” turned a recent council meeting ugly with racist, anti-semtic and generally hateful remarks.

“The first thing I did was I prayed,” said Council President Bill Rutherford, who is also a Baptist minister. “Silently in my head for my colleagues who were visibly shaken. I prayed for the people that offended us, that they would find peace and love and not be so evil and antagonistic. I prayed for myself as a council person. I don’t know if anyone will run against us because this job comes with a lot of baggage.”

There has been considerable controversy in the township since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and subsequent attack on Palestinians in Gaza. The town held an Israeli flag raising after Oct. 7 and then planned a Palestinian flag raising in early January but that was canceled although an unauthorized rally was held on town hall steps on Jan. 5. Students at West Orange High School also held a walk out which was initially banned but then allowed.

Most recently, West Orange for Humanity, an organization advocating for Palestinians, left 144 shoes on the steps of the municipal building. The number of shoes symbolizes the number of children murdered by the state of Israel every day, according to the organization.

At the most recent council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13, there was the possibility that a resolution supporting a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine war would be introduced though it never was. Rutherford read the resolution and suggested it could be voted on at the next meeting after council members had a chance to study it and suggest changes.

The meeting was held via Zoom because of the snowstorm that had occurred that day. Numerous people called in to the meeting with apparently fake names and used the opportunity to make racist remarks to Rutherford, suggest the Holocaust was a hoax and make anti-Islamic remarks.

The meeting got so bad that the West Orange Police Department in cooperation with federal, state and Essex County law enforcement partners are actively investigating it.

“Zoom Bombing,” is a relatively new activity where people who have not been invited enter Zoom meetings to cause disruption, according to Harvard University’s Research Technology department, which said that such disruptions can be mild, or include racist, hate, or pornographic material.

U.S. Rep. Payne Jr., who represents West Orange in the U.S. House of Representatives, issued a statement saying the calls were alleged to be part of a white supremacist “Zoom Bomb” attack to spread hate and offensive speech in community council meetings across the country.

“I want to express my condolences to the great people and elected officials in West Orange for the fact that they had to experience such vile and offensive speech during a town council meeting,” he said.

Payne went on to say he hoped the racist, non-resident attackers are apprehended quickly and brought to justice.

West Orange for Humanity posted a statement on Instagram condemning “the depraved anti-semitic and racist hate speech” at the meeting.

“We have come to understand that this attack was in all likelihood part of a coordinated effort by white supremacists to ‘Zoom Bomb’ city council meetings in cities and towns across the U.S. such as Anacortes,WA., Calabasas, Ca., Winthrop, Mass. and Iowa City.

“The media coverage of the Iowa City attack reveals that the speakers used the same alias as one of the speakers in the West Orange Town Council meeting, further convincing us that this was part of a coordinated campaign of hate from outside West Orange.”

The West Orange meeting was so bad the council decided to break with precedent and not post the meeting, as they usually do, on the township YouTube channel.
“I don’t know how to resolve this,” Mayor Susan McCartney said. “I’m puzzled. I feel like we are wedged in.”

McCartney said she doesn’t want anyone in the township to feel silenced. She said she has received thousands of emails from people calling for a ceasefire and thousands calling for the Israeli hostages held by Palestinians to be released.

“I have been speaking to people trying to find a way,” McCartney said. “It was all about respecting the residents in our community and that is what we have always done. And now we are pitting each other against each other.”

Rutherford said he was reaching out to an attorney about what can be done and seeking out a scholar on free speech who might be able to give a presentation to the council on what can and can’t be done.

“Whatever we do has to have an eye towards healing, kindness, compassion, fairness for everybody,” he said. “That is all we are trying to do anyway.”