Three Palestinian flags briefly waved in front of Palo Alto City Hall during a protest, March 30, 2024. (Photo/Courtesy JCRC Bay Area)
Three Palestinian flags briefly waved in front of Palo Alto City Hall during a protest, March 30, 2024. (Photo/Courtesy JCRC Bay Area)

‘Tactical gear’ during Palestinian flag-raising at Palo Alto City Hall rattles local Jews

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Updated on Apr. 9

The mayor of Palo Alto said the city is placing locks on the flagpoles outside city hall after pro-Palestinian protesters replaced three government flags with Palestinian flags over the weekend.

The Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area called the gesture an “act of extreme disrespect” to the United States and to California. It was one of a few elements of the protest that raised concerns among Jewish groups.

The flag-raising came during a protest organized by Vigil 4 Gaza, an activist group that’s held weekly demonstrations since February in Palo Alto in support of the Palestinian cause, raising awareness about Palestinian victims of the Israel-Hamas war and challenging American support for Israel.

At prior events, demonstrators stood on a street corner near city hall, waving Palestinian flags  and holding signs calling for a “Free Palestine” and cease-fire or accusing Israel of genocide. However, at least two of the demonstrators on Saturday went a step further and wore “tactical gear” and carried nonlethal weapons, worrying passersby.

Mayor Greer Stone, a three-year member of the city council and the mayor since January, said Monday at a council meeting that while the demonstration had a permit, “it did not authorize the use of the city’s flagpoles.”

Alan Crystal, a Jewish Palo Alto resident who passed by Saturday’s demonstration with his wife as it was concluding, told J. he found it upsetting that the flags of the U.S., California and Palo Alto had been swapped out. He also took issue with some of the statements made by protesters.

“We found a lot of signs carried false messages about Israel committing genocide and Israel being an apartheid state. The same kind of messages were drawn in chalk on the ground,” he said.

“I think this is part of a pattern,” he added. “The city needs to do more to enforce the laws it has, and to send a message of what’s acceptable and not acceptable in the community.”

Also concerning to Crystal and others, including the JCRC, was the presence of demonstrators wearing uniforms reminiscent of a SWAT team. Crystal said he saw two people wearing tactical gear.

A protester dressed in tactical gear at the March 30 protest. (Photo/Alan Crystal)
A protester dressed in tactical gear at the March 30 protest. (Photo/Alan Crystal)

Photos show a protester, whose face is fully covered except for their eyes, wearing body armor and carrying a billy club, handcuffs, a flashlight and what looks like pepper spray in a front pocket. The person is wearing a kaffiyeh and a patch that says “zero tolerance.”

Some social media posts associated with the event also raised sharp concerns.

One of the groups that promoted the demonstration, San Jose-based HERO Tent, is a social justice–oriented group that also backs Palestinian militancy and Hamas, the terrorist organization that took control of Gaza in 2006 and organized the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel. HERO stands for Human Empowerment Radical Optimism.

HERO Tent, which advertised Saturday’s protest online, maintains social media accounts rife with support for Palestinian militancy. A March 20 Instagram post states, “We unconditionally support Palestinian armed resistance,” next to a black-and-white photo of Leila Khaled holding a Kalashnikov. Khaled, a Palestinian born in Haifa, gained infamy in 1969 as the first woman to help hijack a plane — a TWA flight from Rome to Tel Aviv. The same Instagram post called the Oct. 7 massacre an “act of love” on behalf of Palestinians.

HERO Tent’s Instagram account directs visitors to a Hamas document titled “Our Narrative … Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” an 18-page English-language document purporting to explain the group’s reasoning for the Oct. 7 attack. The document is rife with untruths, including that “Palestinian fighters were keen to avoid harming civilians” during the attack.

On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists murdered about 1,200 men, women and children in Israel, wounded thousands, and took an estimated 240 people hostage.

HERO Tent did not respond to a J. request for comment sent via Instagram. The organization does not have a functioning website, but actively raises money on Venmo, GoFundMe and Donor Box, social media posts show.

In an email to J., Vigil 4 Gaza defended the demonstration calling it a “peaceful rally to call for an immediate ceasefire to end the genocide underway in Gaza” and for “all hostages to return home in Palestine and Israel alike.”

“We made the decision to hire 2 professional licensed security guards, in addition to community volunteers, in an effort to best ensure the safety of those attending or in the vicinity of the rally,” the statement said. “This decision was made in light of the current climate nationwide.” Among the speakers at the event were Mohammad Subeh, an ER doctor who recently returned from a 5-week medical mission to Gaza, and Lucy Janjigian, described by Vigil 4 Gaza as a “91-year-old Palestinian Armenian Christian” who was expelled from her home in 1948.

“Our rally was a grassroots community event,” the statement said.

JCRC Bay Area, meanwhile, sharply criticized some of that tactics used by protesters.

“Anti-Israel groups are using increasingly violent and hateful rhetoric and tactics,” Karen Stiller, senior director of Jewish relations at the JCRC Bay Area, said in the statement. “Protesters hoisted three Palestinian flags on municipal flagpoles, an act of extreme disrespect to the U.S., the state of California and the city of Palo Alto. Two individuals among the protestors were wearing menacing outfits that appeared to include batons, handcuffs and pepper spray, raising security concerns for Jewish community members.”

Stone, the mayor, addressed the demonstration at Monday’s council meeting, saying the city had “received numerous emails from concerned residents” about it.

“I understand there is significant concern and public interest surrounding the recent rally held in front of Palo Alto City Hall on Saturday afternoon,” he said. “When permits are issued for legitimate First Amendment demonstrations, we expect permittees to respect city property and adhere to the rules outlined in the permit.”

He added, “The unauthorized use of the flagpoles was inappropriate and unacceptable. I extend my sincere apologies to any community member who was upset by this action.”

The mayor, who was interrupted by a heckler, said that “moving forward, we must ensure that all demonstrations conducted in our city are conducted with the utmost respect for our community and our permitting rules.”

Members of Palo Alto’s Jewish community plan to meet with Stone on Thursday evening “to talk about all this” and “see what Palo Alto can do as a city” in response, Crystal said.

This story was updated to include a response from Vigil 4 Gaza.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.