With fake blood and screams, Gaza cease-fire protests are disrupting tiny Ojai

Ojai Police Chief Trina Newman speaks with activists who shut down an Ojai City Council meeting on Feb. 13.
Ojai Police Chief Trina Newman speaks with activists who shut down an Ojai City Council meeting on Feb. 13. Cyrus Mayer, 29, on the ground, wore fake blood and a keffiyeh head scarf as he screamed for a cease-fire. Authorities dragged him from the room.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

The Ojai City Council was listening to public comments on a mundane short-term rental ordinance when a scream pierced the air.

Cyrus Mayer burst into the room, wearing a kaffiyeh headscarf and a white shawl soaked with faux blood.

“Hellllp!” shouted Mayer, a pro-Palestinian activist, punctuating his words with agonized screams. “Cease-fire! Cease-fire!”


Mayer collapsed onto the floor. He writhed. Then he went quiet, pretending to be dead.

“Why doesn’t anybody care? Why won’t people help?” yelled a fellow protester in the crowd.

“Oh, Jesus,” muttered resident Larry Steingold, annoyed as he stepped away from the lectern where he had been asking for a crackdown on vacation rentals.

City Council members shuffled out of the room — their meeting, once again, halted by protest.

Ojai, population 7,500, is half a world away from the Gaza Strip. But the eclectic tourist town — which has declared itself an “international city of peace” and a “nuclear-free zone” — has been rocked in recent weeks by increasingly brazen protests over the brutal war between Israel and Hamas.

This month, pro-Palestinian activists have targeted the historic Ojai Valley Inn because it is owned by the billionaire Crown family of Chicago, who are major shareholders of the military contractor General Dynamics. Protesters said they oppose U.S.-made weapons being used by Israel.


On Feb. 11, someone covered a sign for the famed resort — a celebrity haunt once frequented by Clark Gable, Walt Disney, Ronald and Nancy Reagan — with blood-red paint. An investigation is ongoing, said Ojai Police Chief Trina Newman.

The previous two days, police got several calls about protesters trying to break onto the property and into a private event. When officers showed up Feb. 10, they saw 15 to 20 protesters outside the grounds “and kept the peace,” making no arrests, Newman said.

A spokesperson for the inn could not be reached for comment.

Shutting down the Feb. 13 City Council meeting with the “die-in” protest is the kind of disruption that, Mayer told The Times, he and other activists plan to continue until council members pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Mayer, an Ojai resident who works as a landscaper, said he was overwhelmed by grief over Palestinians’ suffering and that his screams were “not just a theater piece.”

“What other place do we have to turn in this so-called democracy, where our state and federal representatives have failed us, but our most local institutions?” asked Mayer, who said he also attended one of the protests outside the Ojai Valley Inn.

Emotionally charged demonstrations over the war in Gaza have taken over public meetings across California — from the state Capitol in Sacramento, where cease-fire activists shut down the Assembly last month; to the Central Valley city of Madera, which passed a cease-fire resolution on Valentine’s Day; to Berkeley, where the rent stabilization board passed a cease-fire resolution and the City Council has been meeting in a private conference room to avoid shouting protesters.


In tiny Ojai, biweekly City Council meetings regularly lasted more than five hours even before scores of people began showing up to plead for a cease-fire.

“We have a lot on our plate and only a certain number of hours in the day, and so my feeling is that we need to focus on issues in our jurisdiction,” Mayor Betsy Stix said in an interview.

She noted that a discussion about updating the city’s general plan was delayed after the die-in just after 9 p.m. halted the council meeting for half an hour.

In December, the City Council dedicated an entire special meeting to a cease-fire resolution. The council agreed to give a young woman who said she was the daughter of Palestinian refugees more than her allotted speaking time — a decision met by angry shouts from the audience and attendees getting out of their seats to argue with one another.

Demonstrator Cyrus Mayer is dragged from an Ojai City Council meeting on Feb. 13.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

The meeting was shut down. The resolution was dropped. It has not been brought back for discussion.


Stix opened the Feb. 13 meeting by leading the crowd in taking a deep breath, saying she hoped everyone “practices self-control” — and warning that the police chief would escort disruptors from the room.

“Please limit your comments to items that are the city’s business,” Stix said, adding that the council and city staff should focus on local issues such as streets, sidewalks, public safety and land use, despite the perils facing the world.

Speaker after speaker decried the war and pleaded for a cease-fire resolution.

Health authorities in Gaza say that more than 27,000 people — mostly women and children — have been killed there since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants, in a surprise attack, killed at least 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped around 250 hostages, according to the Israeli government.

In the Ojai City Council chambers, one speaker held her cellphone up to the microphone, playing the recorded screams of a frightened child pleading for help as gunfire blasted nearby.

“You sit here and do nothing, caring more about your image than human life. Are you human beings? If you have any humanity in you, you would stand on the right side of history and do the bare minimum by passing a cease-fire resolution in Ojai, city of peace,” a young woman who said she attended a local high school told the council.

Steingold, 72, said he would have preferred to talk about roads, budgets and other city issues and that he was frustrated with the pro-Palestinian activists.


“There’s nobody here crying for Somalia or whining for the Uyghurs or beating their chest for Mali or Nigeria or any of the other conflicts in the world,” Steingold said from the lectern.

When Steingold returned an hour later to talk about short-term rentals, Mayer burst in.

Nuri Ronaghy, 83, her voice cracking, read dozens of names and ages of dead Palestinian children while weeping activists placed flowers by Mayer’s prone body.

“You have crossed the line! This is a public meeting!” said one frustrated woman standing in the room’s entryway. A protester tried, unsuccessfully, to shut the door and keep her out.

Paramedics tend to Cyrus Mayer, who was dragged out of an Ojai City Council meeting after a "die-in" protest.
Paramedics tend to Cyrus Mayer, who was dragged out of an Ojai City Council meeting after a “die-in” protest of the war in Gaza.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

After several minutes, Newman stopped Ronaghy from reading the names and told the protesters they could not keep interrupting the meeting.

“Do you have a child?” Ronaghy repeatedly asked the chief.

Newman then stood over Mayer and — because this is a tiny town where everyone knows just about everyone — addressed him by first name.


“Cyrus, what do you want to do?” she asked after he had been on the ground for about half an hour. “Do we need to drag you out of here?”

He remained motionless. Two officers hauled him outside. As paramedics checked on him, he screamed: “Cease-fire! Cease-fire! Cease-fire!”