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Racist Zoom bomb ends Sonoma County meeting on homeless solutions

Digital intruders with racist and violent messages stormed into a virtual Friday meeting of a Sonoma County agency tasked with ending homelessness, forcing officials to call off the meeting and spawning a hate crime investigation by Santa Rosa police.

The three-hour meeting with a wide-ranging agenda was set for 1 p.m. for the leadership council of Home Sonoma County, a regional entity formed in 2018 by the county and cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma. The goal of the group is to pool financial resources and make unified decisions to better combat the local homelessness crisis.

But soon after the Friday meeting began, several unknown individuals barged into the Zoom call and let loose with a wide range of offensive comments and material.

They said the N-word and broadcast other racist messages about Black people. They played a video clip of the 9/11 attacks and displayed imagery related to decapitations carried out by ISIS, the militant terrorist group. They also played a recording of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a 1987 tune commandeered for digital pranks known as “Rickrolling.“

The faces of the intruders were not visible to those gathered for the meeting, including a handful of local elected leaders and at least four dozen other government and nonprofit officials and members of the public. The intruders took over the Zoom call by forcibly sharing their own computer activity onto the screens and into earshot of others. The disruption lasted less than five minutes before the meeting was called off.

Among the attendees watching in horror was Barbie Robinson, the county’s health services director and interim leader of its point agency on homelessness. Robinson, who is Black, was especially disturbed by what she witnessed, recalling the use of racist and profane language as well as a depiction of a Black man she said was being hanged.

"That’s the story,“ she said, sharing in a brief interview that she was so distraught that she would have nothing more to say. ”I have no comment at this point,“ she said.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, who serves on Home Sonoma County’s leadership council, said the intrusion was “offensive and disruptive.”

“Some of the things that you saw were just totally inappropriate,” Olivares said, describing his memory of the “bizarre” intrusion: “Flash, flash, flash, music, flash, 9/11 pictures, flash, the N-word, flash, pornographic comment.”

Susan Gorin, chair of the Board of Supervisors and a leadership council member, called the intrusion “extremely offensive.”

“It’s unfortunate that we have some malicious mischief-makers out there who figured out that they could do that,” Gorin said.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins also were in attendance, though Hopkins joined a few minutes in and did not witness all of the interruption.

On behalf of Robinson and others on the Zoom call, county officials referred the incident to the Santa Rosa Police Department on Friday afternoon, prompting the start of an investigation by the department’s Violent Crimes Team, according to county and city spokespeople.

“They will be following up and conducting a hate crime investigation into the incident and attempt to identify a suspect or suspects involved in the incident,” Santa Rosa Lt. Dan Marincik said in an email.

County officials declined to provide a video recording of the meeting because it is now the subject of an investigation, a county spokesperson said.

The intrusion came amid a tumultuous national reckoning on racism, policing and systemic injustice set off by the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day while in custody of Minneapolis police officers.

It also comes as governments and businesses have become even more heavily reliant on video conferencing during the coronavirus pandemic, offering more opportunities for unwanted and unauthorized intrusions into virtual meetings. Those incursions have become increasingly common as an avenue for pranksters — including youngsters who dialed into the Windsor Town Council on April Fools Day — and for hackers who see opportunity for a new type of cyber attacks.

Olivares, a retired police lieutenant and Santa Rosa’s first Latino councilman, said more needed to be done by the county staff who handled the digital meeting to prevent such actions.

“Just having an open Zoom meeting was not the way to handle that,” Olivares said. “It should have been a more structured webinar type of meeting. You have to be able to manage the meeting.”

Gorin acknowledged that the intrusion presented a new lesson in information technology for the county.

“I view this as another learning opportunity for us working in a virtual world,” she said.

Officials with Home Sonoma County were set to discuss a planned expansion of the regional decision-making body, the use of more than $4 million to cover shelter expenses incurred due to the coronavirus pandemic and the development of a new overarching strategy for ending homelessness, which affects more than 2,700 people in Sonoma County, according to the most recent count of unsheltered people.

The city-county consortium has been hobbled by the pandemic, with the last meeting having come in April, and by more longstanding communications issues, as highlighted in a May consultant report for Home Sonoma County that was on the agenda of Friday’s meeting.

“There is currently a lack of shared vision for the action steps needed to reduce homelessness most effectively in the region,” the consultants wrote.

The meeting called off on Friday had yet to be rescheduled by evening. Gorin, noting that Home Sonoma County included representatives of numerous different agencies, also lamented the logistical impact of the intrusion.

“It’s a huge waste of everybody’s time,” she said. “There were probably 50 or 60 of us there, and we have a lot of work to do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

Editor’s Note: The last meeting of Home Sonoma County’s leadership council was in April. A previous version of the story misstated the month.

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