Linda Sarsour was the keynote speaker on March 31, 2019, in Hillsborough, NC at an event sponsored by Orange County’s Department of Human Rights & Relations and The Orange County Human Relations Commission (HRC) of NC.

Sarsour is an American-Palestinian activist who has said “nothing is creepier than Zionism” and has advised Muslims not to “humanize” Israelis.

Public records indicate that Sarsour was paid $5,000 plus expenses with total costs to Orange County taxpayers reaching $9,313. We now know, according to HRC minutes, that Annette Moore — the Senior Staff Attorney and Director of the Human Rights and Relations Department — “introduced the idea of having Ms. Linda Sarsour as a speaker” and that HRC members immediately voiced approval.

As I reported after attending the event, Sarsour used her Orange County platform to applaud the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, repeatedly attack the Jewish state, and trivialize the Holocaust. Sarsour equated capitalism with racism and said that she is near supporting the abolition of the police and prison systems. (Video of Sarsour speech here.)

Much of the reporting below is based on public records I recently received from Orange County, having waited six months for the county to provide me with results to my requests.

HRC Commissioners Reject Engaging with Citizens

Immediately after the Sarsour event was announced, Orange County officials began receiving strong letters of concern.

Four prominent local rabbis wrote the HRC, “By inviting Ms. Sarsour…the Human Relations Council is dividing rather than uniting us.” One resident wrote the HRC, “Your actions demonstrate your willingness to spread racism, sexism, hatred, bigotry, and division.” Another concerned resident wrote, “I am going to start going to meetings more often, and get people more involved. It is clear that whatever you conceive your mission to be, it most assuredly does not include working to protect Jews and their allies in Orange County.” In an email to Orange County commissioners titled “This is not a ‘free speech’ issue,” a resident explained, “Sarsour can say whatever she wants; I just don’t want to be forced to subsidize her toxic ideology.”

In response to this avalanche of public concern, HRC Chair Deborah Stroman sent several emails asking her fellow HRC members not to engage with the public. On March 19 Stroman wrote, “I strongly suggest that you do not engage with anyone about the how’s and why’s of the invitation to her [Sarsour].” In a second email dated March 24, Stroman stated, “We should avoid engagement…I personally feel there are many ways to protest someone who has a different viewpoint of my own — including not giving the person my energy or time.” Not a single HRC member protested to say, Shouldn’t we respectfully respond to concerned residents who are being forced to pay for this speaker?

The Orange County website lists that eight HRC meetings have occurred so far in 2019. Minutes are available for seven of those meetings which indicate that Stroman — the HRC Chair — was absent from five of seven HRC meetings.

Unequal Access to Tickets

Orange County planned that 75-100 people would attend the Sarsour event. About 110 people ended up attending. Tickets were free. Stroman reported “the ‘tickets’ sold out almost immediately.” Registrants were retroactively limited to registering for only two people. Those who had registered for more were sent notices explaining, “The excess ticket(s) that you registered for have been cancelled.” Public records show that a number of citizens wrote Orange County officials disappointed that the event sold out with one resident saying, “Frankly, many friends here cannot get tickets.”

On March 27, Sarah Cross wrote to Orange County on behalf of the local chapter of the euphemistically named Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), in support of the Sarsour event. JVP is an extreme anti-Israel organization. The local JVP chapter is made up of self declared anti-Zionists who recently promoted another anti-Israel speaker, Miko Peled, in North Carolina.

A few hours before Sarsour spoke, Tara May — Orange County’s Civil Rights Specialist — gave Cross and JVP 15 tickets, which was in addition to the two tickets Cross already possessed.  Thus, Cross was provided a total of 17 tickets. Why was a single resident allowed 17 tickets, violating Orange County’s own policy for this event of two tickets per registrant? This means that weeks after the event sold out, Orange County decided to provide a single member of JVP with tickets that accounted for approximately 15% of the audience. By changing the rules specifically for JVP, Orange County granted anti-Israel activists greater access to a public event than the general public.

Orange County held a private, taxpayer funded luncheon for Sarsour. The invitation to this private event stated, “If you plan to attend the luncheon, a ticket will be reserved for you to also attend the public speaking event.” Public records show that about 15 people were expected to attend this private lunch. Six months ago I asked Orange County for a list of those who attended this taxpayer funded lunch. Months later Orange County responded, “There are no documents responsive to your request.”

On March 15 Annette Moore sent an email to “Human Relation Commissioner Members” offering to reserve a seat for members who want to attend the Sarsour public event. On March 17, Deborah Stroman sent an email to Annette Moore that included a list of 26 people she wanted to invite to the Sarsour public event. The email stated “Here is my list so far” which suggests Stroman was planning on adding more people to the list.

In addition, it is reasonable to assume that a number of tickets to the “public” Sarsour event were reserved for Orange County Commissioners, Human Relations staff, other officials, and spouses.

Putting it all together, it seems likely that in the end, about 50% or more of the tickets for this supposedly public event were actually doled out by Orange County representatives to their political allies and friends. This helps explain why the event immediately sold out. This information suggests that Orange County treated Sarsour’s speech more like a virtue signaling, private, taxpayer funded party than a public event meant for the good of the community.

Sarsour and Law Enforcement

On March 19, Annette More contacted Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood regarding the Sarsour event, stating, “We would love to have a law enforcement presence on that day if possible for crowd control.” Blackwood responded by saying he planned on having a “large contingent” of officers present. Public records indicate that the cost of “Sheriff’s Office overtime” for the event was $1,425.

During her talk, Sarsour said she was nearing the point where she would support abolishing the police. As Sarour said these words, law enforcement officers patrolled inside and out to protect Sarsour and her right to speak.

Not a single Orange County Commissioner, HRC member, or official publicly thanked law enforcement for doing such an excellent job of managing large groups of protestors and for keeping Sarsour, the attendees, and protestors safe. Instead, Orange County representatives applauded Sarsour.

Wait for Public Records in Orange County

It took six months for me to begin receiving results from Orange County to several public records request I made back in early April. Melvyn Blackwell from Human Rights & Relations told me that it was most unusual and unprecedented to have to wait so long for public records. I finally asked to speak to the supervisor and was transferred to Annette Moore — the very person who chose Sarsour as a speaker.

I then spoke to Bonnie Hammersley — County Manager — and was told that because Orange County was doing such a poor job responding to public record requests, the new person in charge of public records is Todd McGee.

Hammersley and McGee both apologized for the delay. McGee finally sent me results on September 26  — six months after I requested them — and said my public records requests were now complete. I knew for a fact this was wrong because I am in possession of multiple documents provided to me by concerned residents that should have been included in the results given to me by Orange County. I wrote McGee back on October 1 to say, “I am stunned by the lack of internal communications I have received regarding Linda Sarsour.” I even sent McGee an example of a document I possessed that should have been included in the public record results released to me. About 24 hours later Orange County sent me hundreds of additional pages of emails related to Sarsour, but still did not include the correspondence I obtained from a concerned citizen.

After six months of waiting, Orange County has told me twice now that my public records requests are complete when clearly they are not. In addition, I am aware that at least several other residents have public records requests with Orange County related to the Sarsour event that are six months old and still not completed.

In the end, Orange County, North Carolina brought in a hateful speaker, made the taxpayers fund it, expressed contempt for residents who wanted explanations, passed out large chunks of tickets to their friends, and are now slow rolling public records requests on the topic. Taxpayers deserve much better than this. Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee was correct when he told me back in March, “This type of conduct will continue until folks rise up and put a stop to it, either through public pressure or at the polls.”

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Peter Reitzes is a speech-language pathologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who holds an MA degree in his field. Peter is known for advocacy in his field and on topics related to Israel.

 
 
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