The pandemic has fundamentally changed how we interact with one another, our work and our elected officials. Many public bodies are now holding council meetings virtually via platforms like Zoom.
The move to digital meetings keeps the business of government running while it’s still unsafe to congregate indoors. However, there are considerable drawbacks to digitized council meetings, including the concern that “digital democracy” could be used to silence activists. That’s the case in Dearborn, where the city council recently declared that civil rights activists are no longer welcome to offer spoken commentary on non-agenda items during council meetings.
Listen: Is “digital democracy” silencing activists?
Brian Stone is an editor of the Yemeni American News. He recently wrote a piece titled “Dearborn City Council Kicks Off Black History Month By Silencing Civil Rights Activists.” He says the Dearborn City Council moved to limit discussion to exclusively agenda items after persistent activists had consistently brought up issues with policing during council meetings. The digital nature of these meetings imbues moderators with substantial power to silence activists and meeting participants, something that would be much harder to achieve in a physical meeting space. “When we’re talking about a Zoom meeting, an activist group, if they’re not called upon, they don’t exist,” says Stone. He adds that the digital platform also calls into question the participation of city council members. “In the case of Dearborn, what we’re seeing is several council members don’t even put their cameras on. They don’t even make it clear that they’re listening to people… People don’t even know if they’re there,” says Stone.
In response to Stone’s reporting, Dearborn City Councilmember Leslie Herrick says that she stands in opposition to limiting meeting participation. “I am strongly of the opinion that we should give people a voice in any matter regarding city business or of life in Dearborn,” says Herrick.