OGDEN (ABC4 News) – The Ogden City Diversity Commission‘s virtual meeting came to an abrupt halt Wednesday afternoon after dozens of unwanted guests jumped into the Zoom call and bombarded members with a slew of racial slurs and pornographic images.
“This is happening literally all over the world. As we have moved to electronic communications, particular meetings, this has become a source of a great deal of pranking where people will interject themselves into public meetings for the purpose of either putting forth a message or making a nuisance of themselves,” said Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt.
Commission members said the intruders joined the meeting around 2:13 p.m. and began shouting racial slurs, making offensive gestures, writing hateful messages in the chat, and showing pornographic images.
“I was in shock. The way these instances occur are pervasive and they hit you in a place that you don’t expect. Following the meeting, I spoke with one of our black commissioners that said it wasn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, it’s almost normal and something to be expected for people of color in America,” said Taylor Knuth, Chair of the Ogden City Diversity Commission.
Betty Sawyer, who is currently serves on the commission as well as Ogden’s chapter of the NAACP said it takes a lot to catch her off-guard. But Wednesday’s digital attacks did just that.
“I’m a child of the 60s, so I grew up in a time and period when racism was definitely in your face,” she said. “But I was still in disbelief. I’m not numb to it. I still have feelings. I’ve heard this happening in other forms. But to sit in that forum talking about issues of diversity and inclusion and then being confronted with intolerance and racism right there on the spot was very surreal.”
The commission was formed in 2016 as a charter of the Ogden City Mayor’s office, with the objective of promoting inclusivity and diversity in the city. According to the Ogden-Weber Chamber of Commerce, 20 percent of the population belong to a minority-ethnic group.
“We must remind our communities of color that they are valued, respected, and deserving of existing in our city without fear of discrimination or oppression based on the color of their skin. We stand with our communities of color in explicitly condemning racial slurs and gestures.” said Knuth.
During a Thursday afternoon press conference, city leaders condemned the intruders’ actions as the Ogden Police Department announced a formal investigation had been launched into the incident.
“Ogden has been recognized as one of the most charitable cities in the U.S. This type of thuggery and bullying does not play well in Ogden City and if found, [these individuals] will be prosecuted to the largest extent possible,” said Mayor Caldwell. “We want everyone to know the work you (the commission) all do, how much we appreciate you. The community will not accept that type of behavior and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure it stops.”
Ogden City Council Chair Angela Choberka pointed out during the press conference that a joint anti-xenophobia proclamation with the Mayor Mike Caldwell was just passed on Tuesday. Mayor Caldwell said moving forward, all online public meetings will be password-protected.
“Sadly, these are lessons learned. It’s unfortunate because it takes the voice of the public away and makes it a little bit more difficult. Some people are tech-challenged and they have important things to offer, so we’re trying to give tutorials and make it as easy as possible to log in and still participate,” he said.
Knuth and Sawyer said incidents like this remind them about why the commission’s work is so important.
“When we’re in a meeting in 2020 experiencing racism on this level, it makes me wonder how far have we really gone in this fight for freedom and equality?” said Sawyer. “We can’t sit by and allow this to be part of a new normal. We’re not just trying to uncover intent, but impact. We need to continue working on education and awareness. The struggle does continue but when we fight, we win. Hate isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something that’s taught. So if it’s been taught, then it can be untaught.”
Chief Watt said their investigation is currently in a fact-finding stage. They will eventually determine whether the actions that took place in Wednesday’s meeting meets a legal standard. He said they’ve asked for help from the FBI in classifying what constitutes as hate speech versus hate crime and whether any federal crimes have occurred.
In the meantime, they’ve submitted an investigative warrant to Zoom for IP addresses that could help determine where the sources are.
“Keep in mind that in these electronic events, those persons could be anywhere in the world when they inject themselves in these meetings,” said Chief Watt.
Chief Watt said a screenshot of one of the intruders shared by a commission member led him to believe that they are not local. The post has been shared hundreds of times and he believes someone would have identified them by now if they were from the area.
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