RICHMOND -- This city's council meetings in recent months have devolved into maelstroms of ejections, recesses and vulgar verbal assaults, but on Tuesday the situation reached a nadir as the mayor took the radical, and perhaps unprecedented, step of ordering police to clear the chamber.
The action underscored the growing vitriol pervading Richmond's politics, manifested by a feud that has developed between outspoken Councilman Corky Boozé and progressives led by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and raised new concerns about the impact it is having on City Hall.
Tuesday's scene unfolded amid almost surreal dysfunction. Unruly protesters broke into a chorus of song. A man thundered through a bullhorn. Heated arguments teetered on the brink of physical altercations. Police officers circulated into the crowd, which was soon herded into an adjacent lobby and locked out of the chamber.
"I'm still at a loss," said Councilman Tom Butt. "It was chaos."
Residents and political leaders lamented the worsening disorder at council meetings, which routinely causes sessions to stretch into the wee hours and leaves important public business unattended.
"My obligation is to protect the democratic space for all speakers and to conduct the city's business," McLaughlin said. "But it's a real challenge right now."
The precise aims of the protesters and what precipitated Tuesday's incident remained murky Wednesday. The content of their chants and bullhorn shouts were a muddled medley of anger and grievances over the performance of city government, with some scorn focused on McLaughlin, who in recent months has resorted to calling five-minute recesses and ordering disruptive speakers escorted from the chamber. Some of McLaughlin's supporters allege that protesters were bribed to disrupt the meeting, but no proof has emerged.
Some believe the activists were encouraged by Boozé, who frequently clashes with the council majority.
Boozé denied any involvement but said McLaughlin made a mistake in clearing the room.
"They want to blame everything on Corky," Boozé said. "But the truth is that people are disgusted with the mayor and the (Richmond Progressive Alliance). They are creating a problem in this city that the police department won't be able to handle."
During Tuesday's disruption, Boozé plunged into the crowd, he said to mediate what looked like an imminent fight among some residents.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin and other council members retreated to a backroom with police.
"The police were clear that it was hard to identify who was participating in the disruption and who was not," McLaughlin said Wednesday. "It was clear I had no other choice, and I made the decision to have the chambers cleared."
The stage for conflict was set before Tuesday's meeting began. Richmond Progressive Alliance members used social media to rally supporters to the meeting to back an item authorizing city officials to inspect the Chevron refinery. In response, activists opposed to the group mobilized for the meeting.
More than a dozen anti-RPA protesters, virtually indistinguishable within a restive crowd of more than 100, ground the meeting to a halt just before 7 p.m.
After the expulsion, the meeting, which lasted until nearly midnight, was conducted with dozens of community members in the hallway watching on television, which showed elected leaders at a dais speaking toward a sea of empty chairs.
Those signed up for public speaking were escorted in five to seven at a time by police, then shown the door.
Some questioned whether McLaughlin's decision to clear the chamber violated the state's open meeting law. But Terry Francke, general counsel of the open government advocacy group Californians Aware, said she was on sound legal ground.
"The Brown Act does permit that response to a situation where the disruptive individuals can't be weeded out of the crowd or the audience is overwhelmingly disruptive," Francke said. "It's very rare. I can't remember any specific instances."
When the haze of voices and bodies cleared, many puzzled over what had happened.
"I'm kind of confused about the whole thing," Councilman Jim Rogers said Wednesday. "There's a lot of very complicated factors at work."
As to whether he agreed with McLaughlin's call, Rogers was noncommittal.
"She's like an umpire," Rogers said. "Nobody ever comes up to the umpire and says great game, and I don't want to criticize the umpire. That's up to the voters to decide."
The hostile tenor continued in the lobby. A woman yelled at Juan Reardon, a member of the Progressive Alliance, that he had no right to "put a camera in my face." Police separated the two.
Adding to the animus, recent months have seen a spate of homophobic slurs at council meetings, increasing since the city's decision to fly a rainbow flag at City Hall last month.
Before Tuesday's ill-fated meeting, Richmond's Human Rights and Human Relations Commission discussed the possibility of new rules to limit "hate speech" from public meetings, and implored the city and its leaders to tone down the combative rhetoric.
"People complained last night that we should have just thrown out the rowdy people," Butt said Wednesday. "But you can't do that this time. That would have caused a riot."