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<nettime> BComu Global: America needs a network of rebel cities to stand up to Trump

America needs a network of rebel cities to stand up to Trump

With Trump in the White House and GOP majorities in the House and
Senate, we must look to cities to protect civil liberties and build
progressive alternatives from the bottom up.

“I want New Yorkers to know: we have a lot of tools at our disposal;
we’re going to use them. And we’re not going to take anything
lying down.” On the morning after Donald Trump was declared the
victor in the US presidential election, Mayor of New York, Bill
de Blasio, wasted no time in signaling his intention to use the
city government as a bulwark against the policy agenda of the
President-Elect. The move made one thing very clear; with the
Republican Party holding the House and Senate, and at least one
Supreme Court nomination in the pipeline, it will fall to America’s
cities and local leaders to act as the institutional frontline of
resistance against the Trump administration.

However, cities can be more than just a last line of defense against
the worst excesses of an authoritarian central government; they have
huge, positive potential as spaces from which to radicalize democracy
and build alternatives to the neoliberal economic model. The urgent
questions that progressive activists in the States are now asking
themselves are, not just how to fight back against Trump, but also
how to harness the momentum of Bernie Sanders’ primary run to fight
for the change he promised. As we consider potential strategies going
forward, a look at the global context suggests that local politics may
be the best place to start.

The election of Trump has not occurred in a vacuum. Across the West,
we are witnessing a wholesale breakdown of the existing political
order; the neoliberal project is broken, the center-left is vanishing,
and the old left is at a loss for what to do. In many countries, it is
the far right that is most successful in harnessing people’s desire
to regain a sense of control over their lives. Where progressives
have tried to beat the right at its own game by competing on the
battleground of the nation state, they have fared extremely poorly, as
recent elections and referenda across Europe have shown. Even where
a progressive force has managed to win national office, as happened
in Greece in 2015, the limits of this strategy have become abundantly
clear, with global markets and transnational institutions quickly
bullying the Syriza government into compliance.

In Spain, however, things are different. In 2014, activists in the
country were wrestling with a similar conundrum to their counterparts
in the US today: how to harness the power of new social and political
movements to transform institutional politics. For pragmatic rather
than ideological reasons, they decided to start by standing in local
elections; the so-called “municipalist wager”. The bet paid off;
while citizen platforms led by activists from social movements won
mayoralties in the largest cities across the country in May of 2015,
their national allies, Unidos Podemos, stalled in third place at the
general elections in December later that same year

In Spain, this network of ‘rebel cities’ has been putting up
some of the most effective resistance to the conservative central
government. While the state is bailing out the banks, refusing to take
in refugees and implementing deep cuts in public services, cities
like Barcelona and Madrid are investing in the cooperative economy,
declaring themselves ‘refuge cities’ and remunicipalizing public
services. US cities have a huge potential to play a similar role over
the coming years.

Rebel cities in the USA

In fact, radical municipalism has a proud history in the US. One
hundred years ago, the “sewer socialists” took over the city
government of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and ran it for almost 50 years.
They built parks, cleaned up waterways and, in contrast to the
tolerated level of corruption in neighboring Chicago, the sewer
socialists instilled into the civic culture an enduring sense that
government is supposed to work for all the people, not just the
wealthy and well-connected.

More recently, too, cities have been proving their ability to lead
the national agenda. In the last few years alone, over 200 cities
have introduced protections against employment discrimination based
on gender-identity and 38 cities and counties have introduced local
minimum wages after local “Fight for 15” campaigns.

Now we need a dual municipalist strategy that includes both supporting
and putting pressure on existing progressive city governments from
the streets, and standing new candidates with new policy platforms in
upcoming local elections so that we can change institutional politics
from within.

Why cities?

There are a number of reasons why city governments are particularly
well-placed to lead resistance to Trumpism. Most obviously, much of
the popular opposition to Trump is physically located in cities. With
their younger, more ethnically diverse demographics, urban voters
swung heavily against Trump and, in fact, played a large role in
handing Hillary Clinton the majority of the national popular vote.
Not only did Clinton win 31 of the nation’s 35 largest cities,
but she beat Trump by 59% to 35% in all cities with populations of
over 50,000. In most of urban America, then, there are progressive
majorities that can be harnessed to challenge Trump’s toxic
discourse and policy agenda.

But alternative policies will not be enough to create an effective
challenge to Trump; different ways of doing politics will also be
needed, and local politics has great potential in this regard. As the
level of government closest to the people, municipalities are uniquely
able to generate new, citizen-led and participatory models of politics
that return a sense of agency and belonging to people’s lives. This
new process must have feminism at its heart; it must recognize that
the personal and the political are intimately connected, something
that is clearer at the local level than at any other.

It’s for this reason that the municipalist movement need not be
limited to the largest cities. Though large cities will inevitably
be strategic targets in any ‘bottom-up’ strategy, given their
economic and cultural power, all local politics has radical
democratic potential. Indeed, some of the most innovative — and
successful — examples of municipalism around the world are found
in small towns and villages.

Bringing the political conversation back to the local level also has a
particular advantage in the current context; the city provides a frame
with which to challenge the rise of xenophobic nationalism. Cities
are spaces in which we can talk about reclaiming popular sovereignty
for a demos other than the nation, where we can reimagine identity
and belonging based on participation in civic life rather than the
passport we hold.

Why a network of rebel cities?

By working as a network, cities can turn what would have been isolated
acts of resistance into a national movement with a multiplier effect.
Networks like Local Progress, a network of progressive local elected
officials, allow local leaders to exchange policy ideas, develop joint
strategies, and speak with a united voice on the national stage.

On the issue of racial equity, an essential question given the racist
nature of Trump’s campaign and policy platform, cities across the US
have already started to mobilize to combat Islamophobia, as part of
the American Leaders Against Hate and Anti-Muslim Bigotry Campaign, a
joint project of Local Progress and the Young Elected Officials Action
Network. The campaign pushes for local policies to tackle hate crimes
against Muslims, including the monitoring of religious bullying in
schools, intercultural education programmes, and council resolutions
condemning Islamophobia and declaring support for Muslim communities.

Climate change will be another contentious issue over the coming
years. While much has been made of the policy implications of
Trump’s claim that global warming was invented by the Chinese, it
has been local administrations, rather than the federal government,
that have led on the environmental agenda over recent years. Sixty two
cities are already committed to meet or exceed the emissions targets
announced by the federal government and many of the largest cities
in the country, including New York, Chicago and Atlanta have set
emissions reductions goals of 80 percent or higher by 2050. US mayors
must continue on this path, working with international networks of
cities like ICLEI and UCLG to exchange good practices and to lobby for
direct access to global climate funds in the absence of support from
the federal government.

Even on issues that are under the jurisdiction of the federal
government, like immigration, cities have some room for maneuver.
For example, although Trump has pledged to deport all undocumented
immigrants from the US, 37 ‘sanctuary cities’ across the US are
already limiting their cooperation with Immigration and Customs
Enforcement detainer requests to reduce deportations. The mayors of
New York and Los Angeles have already pledged to continue with this
practice, and De Blasio has promised New Yorkers that the city will
protect the confidentiality of users of the city ID-card scheme and
continue to ensure that police officers and city employees won’t
inquire about residents’ immigration status, predicting that Trump
will face “a deep, deep rift with all of urban America” if he does
not re-evaluate his stance on sanctuary cities.

What next?

First we must push our allies who are already in office at local
level, including self-identified ‘Sanders Democrats’, to use all
available means to act against any attempt by the federal government
to roll back civil liberties, cut services or sow division among
communities. Such cities must work, not only to counteract the worst
excesses of the Trump administration, but also to continue to move
forward on issues like gay rights and climate change, as well as
forging new ground by standing up to corporate interests, increasing
citizen participation in decision-making, and promoting the social and
cooperative economies.

But we also need a new generation of local leaders, particularly
women and people of color, who are prepared to take the leap from
protest to electoral politics. The recent announcement by Black Lives
Matter activist, Nekima Levy-Pounds, that she will be standing for
election as mayor of Minneapolis is an inspiring example of the kind
of candidate that is needed; someone with real-world experience and
an insider’s understanding of social movement politics. But the
search for new local leaders needs to be scaled up so that there is
a pipeline of candidates to stand for school boards, zoning boards
and local councils in 2017 and beyond. This is something that the
Working Families Party is already doing successfully in many states,
as well as supporting these candidates in primary campaigns against
Establishment Democrats.

Finally, we must undertake new ways of doing politics at the local
level to prove that there is an alternative to corporate lobbying,
secret donors and career politics. There is no reason why candidates
should wait until taking office to invite people to participate
in decision-making. Local candidates should open up their policy
platforms to public participation, integrating demands from social
movements and local residents. There is also no reason why elected
officials should use only the most generous interpretation of the
law to guide their conduct; in Spain, the citizen platforms drew up
their own codes of ethics for their elected representatives, including
salary and term limits and strict transparency requirements. By
leading by example, local movements can send a very powerful message:
there is another way.

A resurgence of rebel cities in the US would tap into a long-forgotten
American tradition of radical municipalism and align with a new and
growing international network of municipalist movements. Now is the
time for us to seize this opportunity and to reclaim democracy from
the bottom up.

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