Zoombombers hack meeting with Black legislators, flash image of monkey, the N-word, days before Iowa legislature reconvenes

Trolls used the image of a monkey and the N-word to disrupt a virtual meeting convened to increase public participation in the 2022 Iowa legislative session.

Editor's note: This story contains discussion of and images with racial slurs. On one image, the thumbnail has been obscured. The N-word was used in the story and headline because it is important for readers to know exactly what is happening in Iowa and being experienced by its people.

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Trolls interrupted the Des Moines People’s Condition of the State, attended by at least three Iowa legislators, hosted by the chair of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus. The meeting, held via Zoom, was designed to stress the importance of public participation and explain how the public can become more active in legislative processes and took place ahead of the start of the 2022 Iowa legislative session on Jan. 10.

“It’s a scare tactic of cowards and mental terrorists who want to prevent us from being involved in our democracy and there's no greater sign that our vote and our voices are important than that they're trying everything they can to stop us,” said Al Womble, chair of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus.

Al Womble, chair of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus. Womble is also state political director of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Photo courtesy of Womble.

Iowa State Rep. Phyllis Thede (D-Bettendorf) was in the middle of a presentation during the meeting describing how the public can communicate with legislators and participate in political processes when a troll interrupted with noises and flashed an image of a monkey on the screen.

Thede said: “That was absolutely awful. I’m so sorry,” before continuing with her presentation.

In an interview with Black Iowa News, Thede said the racist act seemed to last forever. She said she has been called a racial epithet before but had never experienced “anything like” what occurred on Friday’s call.

“To me, it’s a hate crime. Whether you do it in person, or whether you do it over Zoom, or whether you send a letter in the mail, it's all a hate crime to me. And that's the way I'm looking at this because I believe that's what they were trying to get across . . . using the N-word and, you know, calling us names, they believe they achieved something, but they haven't.”

Iowa State Rep. Phyllis Thede (D-Bettendorf). Photo courtesy of Thede.

Thede was able to get through the points she wanted to make, but she said people didn’t get to ask as many questions as they likely would have.

Womble said he plans to turn a recording of the meeting over to the authorities. He said zoombombing is a form of violence and a public safety concern.

Iowa Democratic Chair Ross Wilburn, who was in attendance, received threats, including lynching, and was called the N-word repeatedly last year after he wrote an opinion piece for the Des Moines Register criticizing the Republican Party of Iowa and former president Donald Trump just days before a Trump rally on Oct. 9 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

Womble last February hosted an online meeting for the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus that was disrupted by racist trolls who spouted the “N-word and White Power” and another held by legislators was disrupted.

Friday’s meeting included about 30 attendees and began at 6 p.m. The disruptions included:

  • A photo of a monkey and laughing
  • A derivative of the N-word was scribbled on Womble’s screen share of the Iowa Legislature home page
  • Flash of a woman’s image and noises
  • In the chat feature, someone using the name Carmen Perez wrote: “White N-word STFU” and “N-word Shut the F**k Up”

Screenshot of Zoom meeting by Black Iowa News.

A meeting participant said, “Al, do you see that?” after the monkey image flashed. Others said to block the intruder before the troll stated he didn’t need to be blocked and would leave.

“It’s very threatening to people who are on the call,” Womble said. “These are people who are trying the best they can to disrupt the Democratic Caucus . . . They invade our platforms with obscene imagery, foul language and racial slurs and that cannot be allowed to continue."

The meeting did not require participants to pre-register, which Womble said was an oversight on his part. He said the meeting, advertised on Facebook, was open to anyone with the hopes of increasing participation. He said he doesn’t know how people are able to hack into the meetings but would look for ways to improve meeting security.

“I have concern for not only the safety of my participants, but also their mental well-being, obviously, seeing things like this and hearing things like this can be very, very disturbing to people,” Womble said.

On the call, Womble apologized to participants. He thanked Thede for continuing her presentation with “such grace.”

“It just once again shows the maturity and the mentality of the people that we’re having to deal with,” he said to participants about the trolls.

In February, the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus was zoom bombed. During the meeting, U.S Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) was speaking. Womble said information about that meeting was turned over to Capitol Police and the FBI, but he is unaware of the status of the investigation.

Screenshot from the meeting by Black Iowa News. (The image associated with the name has been obscured.)

During Friday’s meeting, Thede had placed her personal phone number in the chat, which worried Womble.

Thede said she is also concerned about putting her phone number in the chat.

“Yes, I absolutely am. I absolutely am, and I'm sorry I did that,” she said.

Zoom bombing, the act of interrupting virtual meetings, has gained popularity during the coronavirus pandemic as the nation relied more on virtual calls. Zoom is involved in a class-action lawsuit over its security protocols.

Just last month, trolls interrupted a school board meeting in Washington and where a troll played a recording of the N-Word and displayed a photo of George Floyd, the Minnesota man killed by police. Other virtual meetings held by state and city officials in Iowa have also been disrupted.

Womble said the trolls won’t win.

“It's a shame that we have to face stuff like this. But, you know, for those people out there who don't want us to vote, and don't want us to participate in the Democratic process, they're going to try everything they possibly can to stop our community,” he said. “And you know, if we hold strong, it ain't gonna stop us.”

This story has been updated.

Read: Zoom meeting hacked by racist trolls fails to deter Black Iowa legislators' push for public input as Iowa legislature reconvenes

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