LEWISTON — A virtual meeting hosted by a diverse group of neighborhood leaders downtown was hijacked with racist and violent images this week, the latest “Zoombombing” incident to be directed at a local organization.
Healthy Neighborhoods, which has led the city’s transformation plan aimed at revitalizing the downtown, held two virtual meetings in the past week. It was a chance to update and solicit feedback from the public as the city prepares to submit its application for what could be a game-changing federal redevelopment grant.
As language leaders were introducing themselves in French, Portuguese and other languages, the “screen-share” function was hijacked, showing a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning, pornography and violent images. Those involved believe it’s not a coincidence that a multiracial organization was targeted.
The board of directors of Healthy Neighborhoods released a statement following the attack, saying the meeting Monday night “was derailed by a vicious ‘Zoombombing’ attack that attempted to sow hatred and division.”
Darby Ray, director of the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College and member of the board, was hosting Monday’s Zoom meeting. Based on what she saw, she believes the organization was targeted based on its diverse makeup.
Ever since the use of Zoom videoconferencing became widespread with the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of Zoombombing or Zoom hijacking have ballooned.
What initially appeared to be simple pranks has morphed into more coordinated harassment and hate speech. In late March, the FBI released a warning about teleconferencing and online classroom hijacking, along with ways to mitigate the threats.
The statement from Healthy Neighborhoods said, “Zoombomb attacks are used by hate groups to target and oppress (minority) groups. This attack was meant to intimidate and silence our community and to undermine the positive changes that are underway.”
Ray said the attack was “very coordinated,” with at least four individuals controlling the feed. As soon as she was able to identify who was responsible and remove them from the meeting, another would pop back in. At one point, one attacker chimed in the chat feature with hostile comments directed at Ray.
She said the meeting was vulnerable to Zoombombing because it was conducted in four languages, and officials wanted to make it as easy as possible for community members to participate.
Ray doesn’t believe the attackers are local. Two had British accents, she said, although those could have been faked.
Eventually, Ray ended the meeting and sent a follow-up email to participants who had registered in advance, inviting them to a separate Zoom call.
“We forged ahead,” she said. “We felt good about not letting them ruin our day or defeat us.”
Ashley Medina, president of the Healthy Neighborhoods board, sent a message to the community after the attack.
“I want to say how very sorry I am that this blatant incident of hate, racism, and ignorance occurred in our community,” she said. “It is a reminder of how important it is to continue working collectively to address and bring awareness to these very same issues that people face daily. I have never felt more honored to work with such an inspiring group of individuals and community.”
Ray said the organization knows there is not much that can be done in terms of investigating the attack, but she said the group has learned from it.
It’s not the first time Lewiston-Auburn-based entities have experienced similar attacks.
In a letter to the Sun Journal in late September, Anne Allen of Auburn recounted an incident of Zoombombing that took place during Temple Shalom’s Rosh Hashanah service on Zoom, which she said was “viciously disrupted by people intent on terrorizing.”
“We were verbally assaulted with antisemitic hate speech, screamed profanity and accosted with references to Hitler and gas chambers,” she said. “They singled out some of our members in horrific ways. The vile abuse continued in written form, as the hackers added multiple messages of hate in the chat feature.”
A week earlier, the Lewiston Finance Committee meeting was Zoombombed, with City Councilor Safiya Khalid writing on social media, “Tonight the finance committee I’m on was hacked. Extremely traumatized by the racial slurs. Still feel nauseous.”
Lewiston has held all of its municipal meetings via Zoom since March, and had so far avoided any issues.
The practice has become a phenomenon since public meetings for municipal and school officials went remote, and continues to be prevalent. Dozens of recent news stories from across the country have reported on Zoombombing attacks that appear to be targeting specific groups.
In Spokane, Washington, officials at Gonzaga University held a town hall meeting this week after a Zoom meeting of the school’s Black Student Union was targeted by people shouting racist slurs. The FBI and local police are investigating.
Color Of Change, a nonprofit that advocates for racial equality, told NPR in April that organized Zoombombing campaigns utilized various social media platforms and message boards to share links and passwords to coordinate attacks.
According to Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley, no complaints have been filed with the department regarding the Healthy Neighborhoods meeting.
Ray said she has some of Monday’s attack recorded and may send it to police officials.
O’Malley said a previous police investigation was unable to identify the individual who took over the Finance Committee meeting.
“The new security measures recommended by (Management Information Services) seems to have taken care of the issue on the city side of Zoom meetings,” he said.