Building Cities for Peace
Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, concurs. "The cities getting organized has given a real boost to the broad antiwar movement that I think caused the Administration to slow down at least for a time, and that's something we should all be paying attention to," says Edgar. "When local officials, who usually are the officials that most people know best, start to address national issues, and when they make the connections between national debates and what is happening at home, that sends a powerful signal."
In fact, it is nothing new for City Councils to pass resolutions that address issues that are seemingly outside their legislative purview. As far back as 1774, New York officials condemned the closing of Boston's port by the British, and in the 1850s the Chicago City Council challenged the federal Fugitive Slave Act. Before World War I, referendums in Midwestern towns expressed opposition to joining Europe's fight. Similar votes were held in communities across the country during the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, cities across the country declared themselves to be nuclear-free zones, and antiapartheid resolutions were common. But, says veteran political strategist Steve Cobble, "With the antiapartheid movement, and even with the nuclear freeze, it was a slower process. Now, with the Internet and e-mail, it's easier to get people on the same page quickly, to get things rolling and then to build on our victories. Peace is a pretty good issue, but there's no reason to stop there."
Already, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee has launched a Civil Liberties Safe Zone campaign, which so far has been endorsed by sixty-four towns, cities and counties across the country. In March, before Federal Communications commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein came to Seattle to hold a hearing on media consolidation, media reform activists convinced the City Council in Seattle--one of the first big cities to pass an antiwar resolution--to pass one urging the FCC "to protect content diversity and press freedom by retaining and strengthening existing media ownership regulations, including regulations that limit the number of stations one owner may hold." Within hours of its passage, media reform activists were talking about launching a campaign to have other cities do the same.
IPS's Cavanagh says local elected officials who have seen the power of the Cities for Peace initiative are already talking about working together on broader initiatives that could make cities--including those from Republican-leaning states--a force to challenge the Bush Administration on a variety of fronts. Adds Edgar: "Many of the people who run cities came up as activists, either on national issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War or on neighborhood issues. But they are activists, and they are smart. They know that resolutions like this would only have a limited effect if one or two cities passed them. But, as part of a national movement that is getting a good deal of attention, they know this makes them part of the debate."
It is that movement-building potential that excites Green Party activists like Ben Manski, co-chair of the party's national steering committee. At least twenty peace resolutions passed around the country were sponsored by Green elected officials, Manski says. "We've always believed that you cannot talk about problems in one city without looking at what is going on nationally and internationally." He adds, "What's happened with Cities for Peace shows how having Green elected officials, who communicate with one another regularly, makes it easier for movements like this to get started."
Democrats, too, are excited. "There is so much disappointment among grassroots Democrats with how the party leadership in Congress has responded to the question of war. I think some of these coalitions that we are seeing come together around the country will, ultimately, try to address that," says Edgar, who served six terms in the House as a Democratic representative from Pennsylvania. "It may not change Congress overnight, but I think it could, eventually, lead to a transformation of the Democratic Party in Congress." Schakowsky says she expects that Democratic members of Congress who did not challenge the Bush Administration on the war will be asked why local officials were willing to take a stand and they were not. "Cities for Peace votes at the local level drive home the fact that this is a political issue. That's going to make it hard for some members of Congress to explain why they were so silent," she says. "This could shake the party up, and it could be a factor in the presidential primaries."
Lisl Standen, an 87-year-old refugee from pre-World War II Germany who spearheaded the campaign to pass the antiwar resolution in rural Kent, Connecticut, hopes the shake-up will go well beyond party politics and cause Americans--including some powerful Americans in Washington--to re-engage with democracy. "One of the duties of living in a democracy is to join the great debates, to make ourselves heard by the powerful. So Kent's Town Meeting has made itself heard," she says. "President Bush would do well to listen to the little towns of America. We, in these small towns and the great cities of America--we uphold democracy better sometimes than does our Congress."