On the day California lawmakers returned to Sacramento for the new year, hundreds of protesters convened at the state Capitol on Wednesday and shut down the Assembly with calls for Israel to stop its war against Hamas.
Legislators filed out of the Assembly chamber as at least 250 demonstrators chanted, “Cease fire now.” Filling the Capitol rotunda, protesters unfurled a banner stating “No U.S. Funding for Israel’s Genocide in Palestine” and made paper flowers representing more than 22,000 Palestinians killed in the war that began after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking 240 others hostage.
“We hear them, we support them, however we have to make sure that the legislative business is done for the entire state of California,” Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) said as the demonstrators’ chants echoed throughout the halls.
“This just stopped what we needed to do,” he said.
On the other end of the state Capitol, the Senate continued with business as usual above the din of shouting protesters outside the chamber. Gov. Gavin Newsom was in Los Angeles for the day to promote his ballot measure to fund mental health care and a new research center at UCLA.
Wednesday’s protests thrust the complicated politics of the war into the California Capitol, which has been quiet while the Legislature was on recess for the fall. The U.S. response to the war has triggered a generational divide in the California electorate and a schism among Democrats, while polling shows California Republicans largely want the U.S. to support Israel.
Also on Wednesday, Assembly Republicans introduced a resolution condemning Hamas and the Legislature’s Jewish Caucus sent a seven-page letter to lawmakers describing a searing sense of fear among Jewish Californians amid an “explosion of hate directed at our community.”
The letter asked legislative leaders to form a special committee on antisemitism in California. It also called on lawmakers to address “the toxic anti-Jewish environment” on some public university campuses, proposed legislation enshrining Holocaust education in public schools and proposed expanding a grant program that helps institutions at risk of hate crimes pay for security upgrades.
“I think there’s a lot of people in our community that feel trapped between the far right and the far left,” said Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino), a co-chair of the caucus.
“Though the far right and the far left in America view each other as existential threats to everything that they hold dear and holy, the one thing that they seem to agree on is that Jews are uniquely evil, and that Jews are responsible for the world’s problems,” Gabriel said.
While Gabriel and Jewish caucus co-chair Sen. Scott Wiener addressed reporters in a Capitol hallway, protesters in the rotunda chanted, “Scott Wiener, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”
“That’s disgusting and false,” Wiener said. “Apparently supporting Israel’s existence is enough for them to say that we’re supporting genocide, and that is really problematic.”
The protest was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Organizers said the demonstration included about 400 to 500 people, about half of whom are Jewish.
Jennifer Esteen, a nurse who is running for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, took part in the protest, calling on state lawmakers to issue a resolution to demand a cease-fire.
“These decisions that we can make here in California will absolutely change federal policy,” Esteen said as organizers chanted, “Free Palestine.”
“California leads the way … when the Legislature of the fourth-largest economy of the world pays attention and makes a statement, it will lead this country.”
The demonstration ended peacefully after about two hours. Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher (Yuba City), released a statement criticizing “pro-Hamas radicals” for “shouting down government proceedings and bullying people into silence.”
“We must stand up to this extremism,” Gallagher said. “People have a right to protest, but they don’t have the right to prevent elected representatives from doing the people’s business.”