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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council stands down on standing ban

Around a dozen protesters turn their backs March 4 as Spokane City Councilwoman Lili Navarette calls for reconciliation. The council voted Monday to end a ban on standing during council meetings enacted in January but never enforced after protesters threatened legal action.  (Emry Dinman/The Spokesman-Review)

A month after protesters threatened legal action, the Spokane City Council has voted to end a ban on standing as a sign of support or dissent during council meetings.

Councilman Michael Cathcart was the only vote in opposition to the rule changes.

Ending the ban didn’t end the protest, however, with several speakers taking aim at rows of seating at the front of council chambers that had previously been filled primarily by activists but had been reserved in recent weeks for city staff and those presenting during the day.

“There are 30 empty seats, which is illegal,” said activist Sam Lee.

Lee alleged that the city was leaving the seats open “in response to activists.”

Though the front two rows on one side of the council chambers were marked with signs saying they were reserved, activists filled those seats Monday.

Shortly before the meeting, Councilman Zack Zappone expressed exasperation with activists, many of whom are members of Spokane Community Against Racism.

“I question some of the organizers, is this the issue that your groups want you to be focused on?” Zappone said. “Is this the best way to combat racism in Spokane, focusing on which two rows you can stand in? I don’t think so.”

On Jan. 22, the council voted to make significant changes to its rules for public testimony, including a ban on members of the public standing in solidarity or turning their backs on speakers, including council members or other members of the public.

The tactic has been used for months almost exclusively by pro-Palestinian activists protesting the Spokane City Council’s Oct. 9 resolution in support of Israel and affirming its right to “exist and defend itself” in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas.

A compromise resolution passed on Jan. 22 that voiced support not only for the victims of Hamas but the Palestinian civilians now under siege by Israel’s military.

Protesters have recently begun calling for a resolution in favor of an outright ceasefire, saying the prior compromise language was insufficient.

Council members in favor of the standing ban called the behavior intimidating, while activists said it was a silent and peaceful way to protest within the council’s existing rules.

When the ban passed, Zappone argued it was within the city’s rights to enforce.

“Standing is not a right,” he said on Jan. 22. “If it is a right, you can sue the city of Spokane.”

On Jan. 29, Spokane Community Against Racism, which has been a major participant in the protests against the Oct. 9 resolution, threatened to do just that, refusing to abide by the standing ban.

A letter warning about possible legal action was written on SCAR’s behalf by Spokane attorney Natasha Hill, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, in 2022, and is the interim editor of the Black Lens newspaper. The Black Lens receives some production assistance from current and former members of The Spokesman-Review staff who have volunteered, but the publication is independent from The Spokesman-Review.

Hill announced Monday she is running for a state House seat being vacated by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane.

The Spokane City Council immediately folded, voting to temporarily suspend the ban. Another suspension was subsequently approved indefinitely until Monday’s meeting, when the ban was to be ended permanently.

On Feb. 9, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington wrote a letter to the Spokane City Council

It’s the third time since the Oct. 9 resolution that the City Council has backed off from a rule change or interpretation that pro-Palestinian protesters perceived as an attempt to limit their ability to express dissent.

In the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 9 resolution, then-City Council President Lori Kinnear began to interpret a council rule to forbid the public from naming council members, which raised eyebrows among constitutional scholars and further fueled protest.

On Nov. 6, speakers flouted the disputed rule interpretation. Justice Forral, an activist with Spokane Community Against Racism who helped lead protests, attempted to read a verbatim transcript of a speaker having their comments curtailed by Kinnear at an earlier meeting.

After repeated requests for Forral to not name Bingle and Cathcart as part of their transcript, Kinnear attempted to cut them off. Forral continued speaking, at which point council members walked away from the dais. Around 30 minutes later, Kinnear appeared via video conferencing software and declared the meeting was adjourned.

By the end of the week, following public outcry that the rule interpretation was on shaky constitutional grounds, Kinnear conceded and allowed the public to name council members during their comments.

Protesters prevailed again in January over a proposal sponsored by Wilkerson that would have limited open forum to once a month, rather than once per week.

Wilkerson had expected the changes to be approved, but by Jan. 8 noted that the public’s response had “not been favorable,” and that the once-per-month proposal would likely fail.

Ka’din Rahman-Adamson, who has been a frequent speaker in recent months, demanded a number of modifications to public testimony at council meetings, including shifting open forum back to the beginning of meetings.

“And I was hoping you all remember that when people have all the nonviolent options stripped away from them, they’re left with one thing,” Rahman-Adamson said.

On Monday, Councilwoman Lili Navarrete noted that she had not long ago been among those protesters in council chambers, but asked for understanding from those activists now.

“I’ve seen people shaking when you (share) your testimony,” Navarrete said. “We want to change that, we want to work with you, and I am personally ready to move on and sign resolutions, work for the community for the best. But it’s going to take both sides to do it.”

Around a dozen people had their backs turned as Navarrete finished speaking.