Racist infiltrators disrupted a virtual town hall organized by the re-election campaign of Rep. Jahana Hayes, the first Black woman to represent Connecticut in Congress, on Monday.
In a blog post on Medium, Hayes wrote that her campaign had organized a series of listening sessions with constituents via videoconferencing software Zoom. Three of the meetings on Monday went off without a hitch, but the fourth with residents of Newtown was targeted in what Hayes described as “six minutes of vile, disgusting, dare I say deplorable, hate” that began with a man stating “shut up N-word” on the call. Her communications staff quickly ejected the user, Hayes wrote, but another continued to harass the representative and her constituents.
“Only this time it’s the N-word on a loop set to music,” Hayes wrote in the blog. “This participant is also muted and removed from the meeting. This is repeated by two more people, clearly a coordinated effort. Six minutes of vile, disgusting, dare I say deplorable, hate—and I am on full display as I process, in real time, what is happening.”
The group that interrupted the meeting also flooded the Zoom’s group chat with racial slurs. Hayes posted a screenshot of a man identified as “Kenneth Rubio” writing “SHUT UP N****R GO PICK YOUR COTTON” repeatedly; other users in the chat wrote “TRUMP 2020” and “Trump is the best president the U.S. has ever had!!!!”
Zoombombing, as it’s become known, is the practice of entering public Zoom meetings specifically to disrupt them with slurs, explicit and/or disturbing imagery, spam, and other forms of harassment. Zoom has experienced a staggering surge in users during the novel coronavirus pandemic—and criticism that its default security settings, meant to encourage ease of use, were the specific cause of numerous Zoombombing incidents. Targets have included school board meetings, business conferences, churches, virtual classrooms, and even judicial hearings. In one incident, Zoombombers reportedly managed to disrupt a meeting of the House Oversight Committee.
In many cases, the harassment and hate speech was the work of organized trolls who use chat apps like Discord to share meeting codes (which Zoom’s implementation left open to easy gathering on Google) and plot “raids” on public ones. The Department of Justice said in April that Zoombombers could face criminal charges that carry prison time or fines, including disruption of public meetings, computer intrusion, hate crimes, fraud, or transmitting threats.
Zoom responded to claims it hadn’t done enough to prevent Zoombombings by updating default privacy settings to include password protection and waiting rooms earlier this year. It also added other security features like end-to-end encryption (which is unrelated to Zoom raids) after a shareholder lawsuit claimed it had misrepresented how secure Zoom calls are.
Hayes’ meeting was open to the public and required only pre-registration to join. She wrote in her blog post that the final 20 minutes of the meeting went without incident, after which she checked in with both a staffer and the only other Black individual on the call to see if they were OK.
The representative wrote in the blog post that she had decided to post the screenshot “because I realized in that moment that I am not OK…that this is not the first time this has happened in my life or that I’ve had to explain that this happens.”
She added that the incident was fundamentally rooted in widespread racism against Black people in the U.S. rather than the specifics of Zoom’s security, as well as the refusal of even many “well-intentioned” people to acknowledge that such bigotry still exists:
I am not ok, that people will still doubt that it happened or the word of the forty or so participants on the call will be a necessary to “verify” the incident happened. I am not ok, that I will have to delicately explain to people that this happens—here. I am not ok, that many will try and separate/defend these words and actions and will not see that these comments are not about policy or politics—they are about racism and hate and challenge our decency. I am not ok! I said it—I admit it, I am not ok.
… Black women are expected to press on, to ignore this behavior; to not talk explicitly about it because it is uncomfortable, divisive or does not reflect the sentiments of most people… We are left debating zoom security, yet not addressing the underlying issue—that pockets of racism and hate still exist right in our own front yard. The most painful part of it all is that no matter what you achieve in life, no matter how many degrees you earn or how good of a person you try to be—all some people will ever allow themselves to see is a N-word.
“Stop saying that this doesn’t happen here or dismissing it as anecdotal,” Hayes wrote. “Have an honest conversation about what we are all experiencing. Listen, don’t project, don’t make judgements, just listen. While understanding my pain may be a journey for some, a refusal to acknowledge it is a non starter for anyone who seeks to heal our nation. The only way we can cut the cancer of racism out of our communities is by calling it out when we see it and raising our collective voices to get rid of it.”
According to the Newtown Bee, Hayes completed two more town committee forums after the Newtown event concluded without incident. NBC Connecticut reported that Hayes identified two of the email addresses used in the attack as likely matching the identities of real people, and that her campaign had reported it to both the Capitol Police and the FBI.
In a reply to Hayes’ tweet, Zoom wrote: “We are deeply upset to hear about this and we take the privacy of Zoom Meetings very seriously,” adding a link to a guide on privacy settings.
David X. Sullivan, the Republican nominee running against Hayes to represent Connecticut’s 5th District, told the Hartford Courant he was “terribly troubled” by the “disgusting incident.”
“I share the concerns of everyone and I do truly hope this is thoroughly investigated and I hope Jahana Hayes files a complaint, and seeks to have this criminally investigated with whichever law enforcement agency would be appropriate,” Sullivan added.
Carlos Moreno, the state director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, told the Courant the incident was “another painful reminder of everyday racism that Black people and other people of color confront—and the extent to which this behavior has been normalized even more under our current political climate.”
Gizmodo has reached out to Hayes’ campaign for comment, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.