Peoria for Palestine: The fight for a ceasefire in one Illinois town
Activists with Peoria for Palestine at a ceasefire event in March. | Photo via Peoria for Palestine

PEORIA, Ill.—Somewhere between a rock and a hard place you will find the Peoria city staff that was faced with conducting this year’s annual township meeting. Tensions were high in what was otherwise a beautiful night in the heart of Illinois. A referendum asking citizens to express their views on U.S. military funding for Israel, proposed by Peoria for Palestine, had reached the docket, and two groups mobilized on opposite sides. People’s World arrived an hour early to an already packed city hall.

Security at the front desk was scrambling to scatter sign-in sheets to the large crowd as they passed through the double doors on the evening of April 9. One by one, electors were sent through the metal detector and into an assembly line where city workers verified they were qualified to vote. To qualify, one must be a resident of Peoria Township and have been registered at least 28 days before the meeting.

Once through the line, electors were given a pink voting card and told to find a seat where they could. For those arriving late, this task was harder than expected. 160 electors packed the main chambers and two overflow rooms, leaving those who did not qualify in the halls to miss the action. This process lasted much longer than the entirety of last year’s annual township meeting, which took roughly six minutes.

This annual meeting aimed to decide what referendums would reach the ballot this November. If passed at the general election, township referendums are not legally binding, but they represent the collective opinions of the voters who participated.

The symbolic, non-binding referendum causing all the commotion read: “Shall the United States federal government and subordinate divisions stop giving military funding to Israel, which currently costs taxpayers 3.8 billion dollars a year, given Israel’s global recognition as an apartheid regime with a track record of human rights violations?”

Peoria’s neutrality

This was not the first time the main chambers of Peoria City Hall had been packed to grapple with the genocide happening in Palestine. On Feb. 13th, Peoria for Palestine organized a call to action for residents to demand a ceasefire resolution from the city council.

An officer on duty that night stated it had been years since a city council meeting had that many people in attendance. About 40 individuals spoke, with an overwhelming majority in favor of a ceasefire resolution.

A small minority of four speakers, organized by the Jewish Federation of Peoria, was in attendance to announce their disapproval. They argued city council had no business expressing opinions on international affairs.

In a pre-written statement, Mayor Rita Ali echoed these sentiments and confirmed that the council would not be taking a vote on the matter anytime soon. She claimed a ceasefire resolution would be divisive and that the city should not comment on foreign policy issues. “Peoria is not Chicago,” she said, adding that city leaders should remain neutral.

Township referendum

Frustrated by the council’s decision to stay neutral in the face of genocide, Peoria for Palestine remained diligent. If local officials were unwilling to bring a ceasefire to an official vote, they started working to put the decision in the hands of the electorate of Peoria Township.

After finding the 15 signatures needed, the referendum to stop funding Israel’s military was on its way to the November ballot. According to a statement from Peoria for Palestine, “This is an opportunity for Peorians to show that we support human rights for Palestinians…for us to be on the right side of history.”

However, before the referendum could be included on the ballot, it needed to be approved at the annual township meeting on April 9. In a simple majority vote, registered township voters who attend determine whether the entire township would see the referendum. Various Peoria groups sent out a call to action to their base of supporters to mobilize for the meeting.

With the stage set for a public debate, the gauntlet was thrown down by Lawerence Maushard, co-president of Peoria for Palestine. In his opening address, he stated, “We believe this ballot measure is necessary because, at every level of government, the voices of people crying out against U.S.-enabled human rights abuses are silenced, ignored, belittled, and mischaracterized.”

Mazar Mahmood, co-president of Peoria for Palestine, speaks to the press outside Peoria City Hall following the April 9 township meeting. | @peoriaforpalestine via Instagram

After Maushard’s address, he motioned for the referendum to be approved, and public comment was opened to those in attendance. The opposition expressed two major concerns: Gaza is not a Peoria issue, and the proposed referendum’s wording is unacceptable.

Not a Peoria issue

One Peorian, Barb Katz, adamantly proclaimed, “There is no question that this issue is not a Peoria township or state of Illinois issue. Our local and state representatives are not sanctioned with the power to debate or advise on international issues.”

However, other residents in the township felt this was as much of a local issue as it was an international issue. Anthony Walraven, a local AFSCME member, told People’s World, “Our tax dollars that could be spent on us at home are spent on more bombs.”

According to Not My Tax Dollars, a project of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Peoria taxpayers provide approximately $1,746,412 to Israel’s military each year. Walraven was adamant that this money would be better spent on “affordable housing, better work education programs, and the public services that we have cut over the last 30 years.”

Katz told those who support the referendum, “Contact your U.S. House of Representatives, contact your U.S. Senators, and tell them yourselves.”

Another Peoria resident, Hind Abi-Akar, argued that when Congress isn’t listening, then the people at the grassroots in towns and communities have to collectively speak out—and the referendum would be an opportunity to do just that.

“I call [Congress] on a daily basis,” she said. “They just don’t listen to us because we don’t have the bags of money that the other side has.”

Abi-Akar was referring to groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israeli lobbying organization. According to OpenSecrets, AIPAC spent $3,059,885 trying to influence elected officials in 2023 alone. Since 1990, Illinois’ current U.S. Senators have received a combined $1,900,311 from pro-Israeli organizations.

Biased wording

The most common opposition complaint made about the referendum, though, was the charge that its wording was biased. Resident David Nathan said, “It’s well known in science that the way a question is asked significantly influences the response that’s given…. this is written in a way to elicit a specific reply.”

Specifically, Nathan and other opponents took issue with the proposal claiming that Israel is globally recognized as an apartheid state with human rights violations. “According to who?” Nathan asked during the meeting.

Walraven provided an answer. “It’s all of the international organizations that the United States normally uses to make reports on that…. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the two largest Israeli human rights organizations, MachsomWatch and B’Tselem.”

All of these organizations, and more, have declared Israel an apartheid state.

The vote

Once public comment had ended, Stephanie Tarr, the city clerk, began the process of counting the votes. Once the counting was done in the main chambers, Tarr used a microphone to receive the count from each overflow room.

In the end, the referendum lost, 67 to 93. This vote included seven no votes from city council members. However, it also included one yes vote from District 1 Councilmember Denise Jackson.

District 1 represents the south side of Peoria. Due to years of redlining and racist city governance, this district has the highest concentration of people of color in the city. It also has the second poorest zip code in the state, 61605. People’s World has reached out to Jackson for further but has not yet received a response.

Press conference

The end of the vote coincided perfectly with the start of Iftar, the time of day people participating in Ramadan break their fast. Peoria for Palestine distributed dates and water to those exiting the city hall.

A press conference was arranged on steps outside, where a Peoria for Palestine spokesperson spoke. Behind him stood several people representing the membership of the organization.

Peoria’s McClugage Bridge is illuminated in the colors of the Palestinian flag. | Noah Palm / People’s World

“We are most definitely disappointed that this important question will not be put to the voting population of Peoria for review,” said Imam Mazar Mahmood, co-president of Peoria for Palestine. “As a grassroots organization, we believe that public deliberation about social justice and the use of public money is essential to any functional democracy.”

As might be expected, local media ran stories critical of Peoria for Palestine for their attempted ballot referendum. Reports repeated the same critiques used by the opposition and pressured Mahmood to have an answer to all of them.

This People’s World reporter only had one question to ask: “Would this have been possible a few years ago?” Mahmood responded, “No…to come to the township meeting, exercise such an important item to hopefully be on the November ballot, that in itself was only dreamed of…but it happened.”

Just moments before Eid al-Fitr, an important Islamic holiday, Peoria lost its opportunity to speak out against the United States funding of the genocide in Gaza. However, much like Eid, regardless of the conditions it’s faced with, Peoria for Palestine will experience a return, remaining diligent in uplifting the voices of peace.

On April 12, Peoria for Palestine celebrated the lighting of the McClugage Bridge in the colors of Palestine, signifying that the struggle continues.

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Noah Palm
Noah Palm

Noah Palm writes from Peoria, Illinois.