‘Level of ugliness I’ve never seen before:’ Montgomery Co. officials react to ‘Zoombomb’ attack of council member

Montgomery County Council Member Will Jawando was the target of a “Zoombombing” that included racist, abusive language and messages.

It happened Tuesday night during a virtual meeting with members of a civic organization, Progressive Legacy. Zoombombing is an unwanted disruption into a video conference.

While Jawando was explaining some of his work on the county council related to police reform, there was a sudden interruption, with loud music, insults and racial epithets followed by a string of chat messages with the same slurs repeated over and over.

Jawando, who is Black, told WTOP that he’s been the target of hate-filled, racist attacks in the past, as have some of his colleagues. But this latest incident struck a little closer to home than he would have liked: His 3-year-old son had just been in the room with him during the Zoom meeting and was at one point waving to the people on the call.

Jawando’s chief of staff Cecily Thorne posted about the incident on her Facebook account, where she wrote, “Racism and all the other isms are damaging and hateful, and the burden it places on those already marginalized is infuriating.” She added, “I felt like I needed to say something because without saying something, it is easy for some to pretend it doesn’t happen.”

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich kicked off his weekly briefing with reporters by mentioning the incident. Elrich noted the racist nature of the attack. “I don’t get targeted that way,” he told reporters.

Elrich also pointed out that the incident happened in the second week of Black History Month.

“Another round of threats have been visited on our HBCUs. And now, we’ve had this hate-filled verbal, racist attack on Council Member Jawando. This is not where the society should be in 2022,” Elrich said.

In a statement, the eight members of the Montgomery County Council wrote a message supporting Jawando and condemning the incident.

“We denounce all forms of hate speech, harassment and racism, and condemn these racist attacks.” The council statement added: “We appreciate Councilmember Jawando’s leadership and extend our ongoing support to him, his wife and children, as we continue working together to protect and serve more than one million Montgomery County residents.”

Asked if there is an increase in the kind of incidents targeting elected officials, Earl Stoddard, the Montgomery County assistant dhief Administrative officer, told WTOP that the issue has come up in the process of hiring the next county health officer.

“Dr. Gayles faced that when he was with us,” Stoddard said, referring to Travis Gayles, who received racist and homophobic messages while serving as the county’s health officer.

Stoddard said that during interviews for a health officer, they have had to ask how candidates would respond to derogatory comments or hate-filled speech because that is a possibility, he said.

“You know, it’s not a position we should have to be in, to have to ask that question in an interview,” Stoddard said.

Jawando said he does see a ramping up of such messages directed at himself and other elected officials.

“It happens often. You don’t say anything, you just move on,” he said, but he added that he is glad that others spoke up because that kind of speech should not be “normalized.”

“It’s a sad state of affairs that the public discourse has gotten that low,” Jawando said, but he will continue to push for a more equitable and just community.

“One of the best things about who we are,” Jawando said, referring to Montgomery County, “is how diverse we are. And we’re all trying to do the same thing: Have a good life for ourselves and our families.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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