Activists this week urged the St. Paul City Council to pass a symbolic measure calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, with a pro-Palestine rally Tuesday at City Hall followed by a strong showing at Wednesday's council meeting.
But council members indicated in interviews that they were unlikely to discuss a formal joint measure, preferring instead to respond individually based on what they're hearing from their constituents.
The question of whether to weigh in on the war in Gaza marks the newly elected council's first brush with controversy. Activists said it's an opportunity for council members to live up to the progressive promises they made on the campaign trail as the group drew national attention for becoming St. Paul's youngest and first all-female council.
A growing number of city halls across the United States have been host to similar debates over international affairs — mostly among Democrats, who are deeply divided over the nation's response to the war. Reuters last week estimated that more than 70 U.S. cities have passed resolutions on the conflict.
In Minnesota, city councils in Hastings and Minneapolis passed symbolic measures calling for a cease-fire, though Mayor Jacob Frey last week vetoed the Minneapolis resolution and called it "one-sided." The Minneapolis council will consider an override vote Thursday.
The Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils have historically diverged in how they respond to international matters, St. Paul Council President Mitra Jalali said during a TPT Almanac interview last month alongside Minneapolis Council President Elliott Payne.
"Our council works to lift up what our constituents are telling us to our federal delegation, through things like sign-on letters, things like public statements, supporting where the community is having press and advocacy opportunities," said Jalali, who in her recent inauguration speech thanked U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat representing St. Paul, for calling on President Joe Biden to establish a cease-fire.
Kim DeFranco, a St. Paul resident and organizer of Tuesday's rally, said that while she appreciates individual shows of support among council members, an official council resolution would place more pressure on the Biden administration.
"It's a stronger statement when it comes from the city," DeFranco said.
For more than an hour Tuesday afternoon, about 100 people lined up outside City Hall and along Kellogg Boulevard, waving signs and Palestinian flags while chanting calls for the U.S. to end military funding for Israel. Speakers expressed outrage over the increasing number of civilian deaths in Gaza, which has been hit with airstrikes from Israel in retaliation for Hamas' attacks.
The Hamas militant group, designated as terrorists by the U.S. and other countries, fired rockets and sent fighters into Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,200 people. In response, Israel launched airstrikes into Gaza, where more than 27,000 people have died as a result, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry.
People at the rally also criticized state and local officials for supporting Lockheed Martin's expansion into St. Paul last year, a move boosted by $1.3 million from the state in financial awards and rebates.
"Our taxpayer dollars — at the state level, at the national level — are actually funding this genocide," said Meredith Aby-Keirstead, a founding member of the Minnesota Anti-War Committee. "Think about what we could do with that money right here in St. Paul."
Council Member Nelsie Yang, who participated in the rally, said she would support a cease-fire resolution because of the stories she has heard from her parents — Hmong refugees who fled political persecution in Laos during the Secret War.
"I really support what the coalition here is doing," Yang said. "I think about how I would have wanted people to show up for me if I were in my parents' shoes."
Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who is Jewish, said in an interview that she has received a handful of calls from constituents about a cease-fire resolution, some for and some against.
"I think there's a sense of just helplessness and distress that people are feeling as they're watching this horrific news," Noecker said. "So I think people are looking for anything that they can do. City Hall is right down the street, and Washington is not."
Noecker said council members are listening to constituents and can leverage their personal relationships with state and federal officials to elevate messages, concerns and ideas.
"I think our role as local elected leaders, when something like this is happening elsewhere that we can't control, is to bring people together to be models of respect and understanding — and most of all, make people know that they're safe and that they belong," Noecker said. "I'm really concerned that a resolution would do just the opposite."
A spokesperson for Mayor Melvin Carter declined to comment on the issue.