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Repeated Gaza protests prompt Surrey to cancel public access to meetings

Public can watch proceeds electronically but will not be allowed inside council chambers

Protesters calling on city councillors in Surrey, British Columbia, to ask for a ceasefire in Gaza have instead triggered a series of security changes that include the temporary end of all in-person attendance at council meetings by members of the public.

Mayor Brenda Locke told Monday’s council meeting that the decision to restrict public access had been made because of security concerns about protests that have been disrupting meetings since December, by demonstrators she said had “occupied” council chambers.

“Reluctantly, we have had to take this step to move the public outside of the gallery in order to ensure the business of the city continues,” she said.

Council passed a motion on Monday to allow members of the public to attend and participate in meetings electronically, starting at the next meeting on April 8.

Locke told the meeting that registered members of the public could speak on items on the agenda, and additional safety measures had been put in place, including a police presence.

She said all council members respect the right to protest, but that does not extend to “blockading lawful activities.”

Coun. Linda Annis said the protests began late last year. She said the mayor later read a statement saying there was no room for Islamophobia and antisemitism anywhere in the world.

“That was not well received by protesters. They were looking for her to make a statement to ask for a ceasefire,” Annis said in an interview Tuesday.

“At a couple of meetings we had to move from the council chambers into another room because the protesters had actually taken over the council chambers.”

On a livestream of a Jan. 15 meeting, protesters could be heard chanting inside council chambers. A recess was quickly taken and the meeting was moved to another room.

Annis said this type of disruption had become commonplace.

“Typically a speaker would come up and speak to the issue in Gaza and then they would start to chant,” she said.

She said city hall had been “under lockdown” during meetings and the public would be brought in one by one to speak on issues. Several protesters would sign up to speak to a specific bylaw, but would then pivot to Gaza, she said.

The decision to allow people to attend virtually was made because council noticed a decrease in members of the public weighing in on agenda matters, Annis said.

“It’s to encourage people that maybe weren’t comfortable to come to city hall under those circumstances, which is very unfortunate, the opportunity to be able to speak to the various bylaws.”

She said she didn’t know how long in-person attendance would be halted.

READ ALSO: Pro-Palestine protesters disrupt Surrey council for 4th month in a row