The city of Broken Arrow is declining to condemn a video presentation given during public comment at their Tuesday council meeting which linked the wearing of masks to prevent COVID-19 with the Holocaust.
Resident Lori Gracey's presentation included images of Holocaust victim Anne Frank and black-and-white photographs of the corpses of Nazi concentration camp victims, among others. Gracey equated the wearing of a face mask to the forced wearing of yellow stars by German Jews.
"[T]o deny someone their right to express an opinion or the information they chose to share on an important public matter would be inappropriate," Broken Arrow City Manager Michael Spurgeon said in a statement. "Notwithstanding, I will also note that any comments made by the public or information shared at a meeting does not represent the views or opinions of the governing body."
No member of the city council responded to Gracey's presentation, which drew applause from attendees, at the meeting. The meeting had on its agenda consideration of both a mask mandate and a non-binding resolution simply encouraging the wearing of masks. Both failed.
Vice Mayor Scott Eudey said Saturday he was "too stunned" to respond in the moment.
"I do not agree with mask mandates, but I did support the resolution encouraging and recommending the wearing of masks," Eudey said in an email. "I agree that to equate the Jewish discrimination, hatred and mass genocide that was focused on one group of people with the global wearing of masks by those who are able to do so is absurd and abhorrent."
Councilor Johnnie Parks, for months the only member of the council to support a mask mandate for Broken Arrow, also disavowed the presentation.
"The power point [sic] presentation was definitely an offensive, egregious, and inaccurate commentary aimed at people who support wearing face masks to help save lives," Parks said in an email. "Furthermore, it was a tasteless, insensitive use of the Jewish victims of Nazism that reflected a total lack of empathy by using their plight to further a personal agenda."
Mayor Craig Thurmond and Councilors Debra Wimpee and Christi Gillespie did not return multiple requests for comment. Gillespie, who has previously stated her opposition to mask mandates and that no amount of evidence would change her mind, was absent from the Tuesday meeting due to an exposure to the virus after which she developed symptoms.
Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jennifer Conway released a statement condemning the presentation.
"I, and the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, must state that it is abhorrent to compare the concerns of wearing a mask with the atrocities experienced by the Jewish people during the Holocaust," Conway wrote. "The presentation was an inappropriate comparison and is not a representation of the hearts and beliefs of the Broken Arrow community nor the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce."
Drew Diamond, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Tulsa, called the presentation "hurtful."
"Our response to that kind of trivialization that that kind of presentation has is, one, to make people aware that it's hurtful to a lot of people, not only in our community but generally in the community, and that we take an education approach," Diamond said when reached by phone Monday morning. "We just opened our newly expanded Sanditen/Kaiser Holocaust Center, so we're committed to education and to using the facts around the Holocaust in an appropriate and educational way, and, really, to use it for a political issue is over the line."
"This is a question of what's appropriate, and I'm hoping that everybody on the city council and the lady that did that presention understands that that was inappropriate and it can be hurtful," Diamond said.
The city council "certainly could have said just what the people at the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce did, rightly so, just make the same kind of statement," Diamond said. "'Yeah, we understand that they can say these things, but we also know that it's not an appropriate thing to do in terms of trying to support some other position.'"
City of Broken Arrow communications director Jennifer Swezey, reached by phone Monday, said the statement from the city manager was adequate in explaining the city's position on the matter.
"I think that anyone that's upset should direct that response to the person who spoke, who is responsible for the content," not the council or the city, Swezey said.
Swezey said she was not sure whether or not the presentation was reviewed before being projected at the meeting for Gracey's public comment.
"It's submitted to staff, which goes to the IT department to load, so the city council may or may not" have seen the presentation before it was given, she said. "It just depends how early -- if it was submitted the day before, if it was submitted ten minutes before the meeting, there's not always time for anyone to see or share that with the governing body."
Reached by phone Monday morning, Gracey defended the presentation.
"If this was 1938 in Germany, 1941 when they started forcing the badges on the Jewish community, I would have opposed that on behalf of the Jewish community then, and I oppose the similar discriminatory mandates that are happening in our cities today, because they discriminate against those who choose not to, or are unable to, wear a mask," Gracey said. "So, yes, I do stand by my presentation."
Gracey said she believes her comparison between masks and gold star badges is in line with the motto, "Never forget lest it happen again," which she said she has seen in "Holocaust museums and locations that I have visited here, in Europe and in Israel."
Tuesday's meeting was not the first instance of residents making references or comparisons to Nazi Germany during the public comment section of Broken Arrow City Council agenda items on the issue of masks. In November, a speaker who identified himself as David Good said, "There have been other countries that started saying, 'Please spy on your neighbors and let us know what's going on,' and that was in the 40s and it was called Germany."
"They're actually doing it now," Wimpee responded from her council seat.
The Tulsa World editorial board noted on Monday that Broken Arrow's "infection trends are not improving" and the city "is on the leading edge of the state's worsening pandemic."
Full statement from Broken Arrow City Manager Michael Spurgeon:
"At this meeting, nearly 45 individuals spoke on the topic of a mask mandate or resolution being considered by the City Council. Speakers on both sides of the issue addressed the Council and expressed their position on the matter.
In accordance with our Country’s First Amendment, the City properly allowed for such public comments on these issues. Pursuant to our policy, the City provides for reasonable time, place and the manner restrictions on speakers who wish to address Council. This is per the Guidelines adopted by Council on February 6, 2018. Such content-neutral limitations are allowed by the First Amendment.
This being said, the City is not allowed and does not regulate the content of the speech presented by citizens at a public meeting. Furthermore, the City is not responsible for citizens' speech, and the City’s Guidelines make this clear, stating that “in any event, the speaker is responsible for the content of the speech.”
In closing, to deny someone their right to express an opinion or the information they chose to share on an important public matter would be inappropriate. Notwithstanding, I will also note that any comments made by the public or information shared at a meeting does not represent the views or opinions of the governing body."
Full statement from Broken Arrow Vice Mayor Scott Eudey:
"The Broken Arrow Chamber’s comments mirror my own thoughts. Frankly, I was too stunned by the presentation to respond in the moment. Plus, I would really prefer not to bring additional attention to that speaker’s comments. I do not agree with mask mandates, but I did support the resolution encouraging and recommending the wearing of masks. I agree that to equate the Jewish discrimination, hatred and mass genocide that was focused on one group of people with the global wearing of masks by those who are able to do so is absurd and abhorrent.
City policy and the law do not allow the Council to limit speech, but the speaker is solely responsible for her content. The comments do not represent the beliefs of the City or the Council and certainly not this Councilor."
Full statement from Broken Arrow City Councilor Johnnie Parks:
"As evidenced by the provision of accurate COVID data for the Council members and Broken Arrow citizens at each Council meeting since July 2020 and the proposed mask mandate and resolution at the November meeting, my goal has been to establish citywide use of masks to help deter spread of the Coronovirus.
At the November meeting, the mandate motion failed for lack of a second. The resolution failed by a 4-1 vote. The number of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in BA has continued to rise. My goal for January 19th was to try again to pass an ordinance or resolution for citywide mask use to help address the issue. David Kendrick, MD,MPH, FACP, chair of the Department of Medical Informatics at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Community Medicine and Assistant Provost for Strategic Planning at OU Health Services Center, presented data that continues to indicate a 3% lower infection rate in masked cities in OK compared to unmasked cities. Half of the citizens of OK live in cities that require masks. The CDC, The White House Coronovirus Task Force, and our OK State & Tulsa County Health Departments recommend wearing a mask. 38 of the 50 states in America have mask mandates.
During the time allotted Tuesday night for citizens’ comments on the “mask issue”, many individuals expressed personal opinions &/or presented their own data. As a proponent for masks, I did not agree with the majority of the opinions nor the anti-mask data provided. The power point presentation was definitely an offensive, egregious, and inaccurate commentary aimed at people who support wearing face masks to help save lives. Furthermore, it was a tasteless, insensitive use of the Jewish victims of Nazism that reflected a total lack of empathy by using their plight to further a personal agenda. My perception was that the tone and demeanor of the opposition group clearly indicated there was no room for meaningful dialogue.
In view of the credible data provided over the last 6 months, my goal and focus for the meeting was to establish an effective public policy that would require, or at least, strongly encourage citywide use of face masks and support of local businesses that want to require masks."
Full statement from Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jennifer Conway:
"The Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce would like to address the video that was shown by an individual, exercising their First Amendment right, at the City Council Session on Tuesday evening during the public comment session. I, and the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, must state that it is abhorrent to compare the concerns of wearing a mask with the atrocities experienced by the Jewish people during the Holocaust. The presentation was an inappropriate comparison and is not a representatin of the hearts and beliefs of the Broken Arrow community nor the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce."
Open letter to the Broken Arrow City Council from Rabbis Marc Boone Fitzerman and Daniel S. Kaiman of Tulsa's Congregation B'nai Emunah:
"Public appeals that use the imagery of the Holocaust almost always miss the mark. They appropriate the terrors of the Second World War to garner attention and elevate issues that never rise to the seriousness of Nazi extermination. The result is a rhetoric that calls attention to itself as insensitive, insulting, and deeply painful. Survivors typically feel demeaned, feeling that their sufferings have been exploited to score political victories. The community of those who have charged themselves to remember feel that that the mysterious depths of human suffering have been violated and cheapened by crass displays.
For all these reasons, we call upon our friends in Broken Arrow to distance themselves from the recent appeal at the meeting of the City Council. It is perfectly legitimate to debate a mask mandate and to bring to that debate both seriousness and passion. We may all regret that mask wearing has been politicized, but that does not mean that debate is wrong. What is not appropriate is to compare such a mandate to the deadly impact of the Holocaust on its victims. A mask is not the equivalent of a yellow star. Some would argue, in fact, that it signifies a commitment to life.
We are deeply grateful to those who have expressed regret that the meeting of the City Council was commandeered in this way. Broken Arrow Vice Mayor Scott Eudey was especially eloquent, calling the rhetoric of the errant speaker “absurd and abhorrent.” City Councilor Johnnie Parks spoke about her “lack of empathy,” and labelled the presentation “an offensive, egregious, and inaccurate commentary.” Representing the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce, President and CEO Jennifer Conway wrote, in summary, that it is “abhorrent to compare the concerns of wearing a mask with the atrocities experienced by the Jewish people during the Holocaust.” We would add, simply, that the comparison betrays all victims, including the millions of others who fell before the Nazis.
Our thanks, again, to our friends in Broken Arrow who were quick to take issue with the City Council speaker. We feel a sense of kinship and deep admiration for fellow citizens who took up this cause and deployed the language of interfaith relations with sensitivity and sophistication. The community we all serve has been strengthened in this exercise and we believe that a higher level of understanding is a benefit to us all."