The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Racist trolls hijacked a Zoom town hall to hurl slurs at Connecticut’s first Black congresswoman

“The only way we can cut the cancer of racism out of our communities is by calling it out when we see it and raising our collective voices to get rid of it,” Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) said. (Michelle Mcloughlin/Reuters)

Ten minutes into a virtual town hall meeting with voters on Monday, Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) heard someone on the Zoom broadcast shout a racist slur.

The congresswoman’s team muted the offending user, and Hayes resumed telling the attendees about her legislation. Then, she was interrupted again, this time with the same slur repeated on a loop, set to music.

“Go pick your cotton,” someone repeatedly copy and pasted into the Zoom chat in all capital letters, alongside the n-word.

Whenever Hayes’s team shut out one person hijacking the town hall with hate speech, another quickly picked up the harassment. The “Zoombombing” attack lasted for six minutes, Hayes wrote in a Medium post recounting the experience on Tuesday.

Eventually, Hayes’s staff was able to block all of the offending parties and resume the meeting. But the racist disruption had already taken its toll.

“I am tired, completely and utterly tired,” Hayes wrote. “I am not ok that this happened. I am not ok, that this is not the first time this has happened in my life or that I’ve had to explain that this happens.”

Hayes is the first Black woman and the first Black Democrat, to represent Connecticut in Congress. Her district encompasses 41 cities and towns in the state’s northwest corner. A former high school teacher who was previously recognized as National Teacher of the Year, Hayes was elected in 2018 with nearly 56 percent of the vote.

She was a teen mother who became teacher of the year. Now, Jahana Hayes wants to become Connecticut’s first black Democratic member of Congress.

Although Connecticut’s 5th District has been held by a Democrat since 2007, Hayes, 47, is currently in a contested race to keep her seat in the House of Representatives. Her Republican opponent, David X. Sullivan, denounced the slurs that disrupted Hayes’s event.

“It is appalling that a bigoted coward would direct insults at Congresswoman Hayes, interfere and disrupt a legitimate campaign activity, and besmirch the reputation of the good people of the 5th District of Connecticut,” Sullivan said in a tweet Tuesday.

Monday’s disrupted town hall was just one in a series of virtual events in her reelection campaign, which has turned to using Zoom conference calls to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. It is hardly the first public Zoom meeting to be hijacked since the start of the pandemic.

Many Zoom calls have been disrupted by pornography, offensive music and videos, and even people shouting racial slurs and spamming the public chat with similarly disturbing language.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said in April that the company was not prepared for the massive influx of users who flocked to the software to meet for school, work and virtual gatherings while social distancing this year. The company committed to significantly expanding its security measures after widespread violations that exposed children and other users to offensive content. Breaches also left some sensitive Zoom videos viewable on the Internet, including private therapy sessions and elementary school classes.

Thousands of Zoom video calls left exposed on open Web

Racist interruptions have been especially common at public meetings, campaign events and even anti-racism town halls. Trolls have spewed slurs and showed Nazi imagery during events in Georgia, Florida and Michigan, among other places. Several Black public officials and candidates have been targeted by hate speech on the platform.

“Black women are expected to press on, to ignore this behavior; to not talk explicitly about it because it is uncomfortable, divisive or does not reflect the sentiments of most people,” Hayes wrote Tuesday. “We have become numb to this behavior, instinct kicks in and we just move on.”

On Monday evening, Hayes shared screen shots of the public chat from her Zoom meeting. The photos showed the n-word repeatedly pasted into the chat, while multiple people also spammed the conversation with messages supporting President Trump.

On Tuesday, Zoom responded to Hayes’s tweet, saying it would investigate the incident.

“We are deeply upset to hear about this and we take the privacy of Zoom Meetings very seriously,” the company said. “Can you please share the details of this meeting via DM? We will escalate to our trust and safety team.”

Hayes wrote in her reflection on the attack that she had personally called the only other Black person who had been on the call. She also said she instructed her campaign’s communications director to report the incident.

“The most painful part of it all is that no matter what you achieve in life, no matter how many degrees you earn or how good of a person you try to be- all some people will ever allow themselves to see is a N-word,” Hayes wrote. “The only way we can cut the cancer of racism out of our communities is by calling it out when we see it and raising our collective voices to get rid of it.”