From Seattle to St. Petersburg: Highlights of the Urban Resistance, Year 1

From Seattle to St. Petersburg: Highlights of the Urban Resistance, Year 1

From Seattle to St. Petersburg: Highlights of the Urban Resistance, Year 1

During the darkness of Trump’s first year, cities helped lead the fight for immigrants’ rights, racial justice, and fundamental equality.


Donald Trump’s first year in office will be remembered in this country as a nightmare of national debasement, a time during which the worst America has to offer was on open display: immigration roundups and white supremacist rallies, plutocratic tax policies and oil drilling in the Arctic, nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea, and a US-backed war against Yemen. The frightful headlines, the garbage hot takes, the nonstop onslaught of official lies are so consuming and absolute that they start to feel normal, which is the worst feeling of all.

But winter’s rituals—the New Year, the solstice, Star Wars—remind us that most things are redeemable, that there’s mercy in the universe, that time passes and change is possible. Institutional corruption can be snuffed out, and tyrants can be toppled. Trump won’t be in power forever, and the far right’s ascendance will meet a countervailing force. In fact, that force is already taking form.

If this past year was a fever dream of desperation and demoralization, it was also a year of insurrection and revitalization. There were so many hopeful moments, so many promising progressive victories, so many important populist movements, that a full accounting isn’t really possible. One fact, though, emerges from the churn quite clearly: Cities helped lead the way. It was in the local municipal arena where the left made its most ferocious stand.

From Salt Lake City to Seattle, from Austin to Oakland, from New Orleans to New York, a rising popular front used urban spaces to defend immigrants, fight for rent control, combat racist inequality, promote clean and renewable energy, and elect a new cohort of leftist politicians, among other achievements.

With their vibrant diversity and histories of struggle, cities large and small were the seedbeds of a more just and decent country this past year. While progressives enjoyed little power at the state and federal levels, in cities they deepened their roots and flourished, building a moral and material bulwark against Trumpism. Thanks to leaders like San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who grabbed her bullhorn and shouted boldly into it, city dwellers articulated some of the fiercest opposition to the daily cruelties propagated by madman in the White House.

Now, as we head into a new year of resistance, our urban areas will continue to be fierce places where local leaders and activists transform organizing meetings into full-scale movements, where bold ideas become law, where marches and sit-ins and struggles ultimately succeed. Despite the incessant Trump-induced anxiety, there’s something electrifying, something hopeful, happening in this country, and it is happening above all in our cities.

Renters of the World, Unite!

Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s powerful socialist city councilwoman, sees a gestating “mood of revolt” in America’s urban centers. It’s a revolt born from towering rents, grievous gentrification, and the continued scourge of eviction, which impacts hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of renters each year.

“The biggest problem that working people are facing is the lack of affordable housing,” Sawant told me in a recent interview. “And so I would highlight the beginnings of a revolt against this unaffordability.”

Signs of this growing anger—and a growing tenant-rights movement—were everywhere in 2017.

In Seattle, a series of creative new rent regulations ramped into full effect, helping to insulate tenants from the predatory pressures of a red-hot housing market. The most important of these—an ordinance sponsored by Sawant that places strict limits on the kind of nonrefundable fees and deposits that landlords can impose on tenants—passed in December 2016 after an impassioned grassroots campaign backed by unions, immigrant-rights groups and economic-justice organizers. The city also began enforcing a pair of ordinances that prohibit rent hikes at housing units with code violations and bar discrimination against tenants who receive their income from Social Security and other government subsidies and alternative forms of income.

These new laws come as a movement grows in Washington to rescind the state’s 1980s-era ban on rent control. On December 6, 2017, State Representative Nicole Macri announced that she will introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session to strike down the rent-control prohibition, raising the prospect that Seattle and its neighboring cities will see major new tenant-rights mobilizations in the year ahead.

Housing campaigns took also shape in other municipalities in 2017, particularly in California, a state at the heart of the nascent affordable-housing revolt. At least seven cities there, including Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and San Diego, launched drives to establish or strengthen rent control in their communities. In Santa Cruz, for instance, organizers with a group called Movement for Housing Justice and its allies are collecting signatures to put rent control on the local ballot next November. A similar push is underway in San Diego, where an organization called San Diego Tenants United has gathered at least 9,500 signatures to persuade the City Council to enact rent-control legislation. In Long Beach too, community organizers are pushing to put rent control on the 2018 ballot. And all these efforts emerged on the heels of major 2016 victories, including successful campaigns to pass new rent-control laws in the Bay Area cities of Richmond and Mountain View.

Perhaps the most intriguing development, however, was a pair of renters’ assemblies that came together in California. In both the spring and fall, hundreds of tenants and organizers across the state converged for multiday gatherings to share strategies and craft plans to win “Rent Control for All” in the coming years. The conferences marked the beginning of a new spirit of collaboration between diffuse tenants groups and the birth of a muscular new force in California politics.

“What we saw in California for the first time in recent history in this country was a coming together of renters statewide,” say Tony Romano, the organizing director at Right to the City. “We know that to win rent control for all, the source of power will come from each local organization, each local tenants’ union. It has to be folks that are organized and fighting and winning on the ground.”

Rent regulation, though, isn’t the only focus of this broad new housing movement. New York City made national headlines in August when Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation that, when implemented, will dedicate $155 million a year to provide a right to legal counsel for all low-income tenants in the city. Tenants, legal-aid organizations, faith groups, unions, and more ran a years-long campaign to persuade the city to pass the legislation. In doing so, New York became the first city in the country to guarantee such counsel, which stands to drastically decrease illegal and other unjust evictions. Other cities too, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, established or expanded funds to defend tenants facing eviction last year.

For Sawant and other housing advocates, these kinds of efforts offer a taste of what awaits.

“In Seattle and Portland, in the Bay Area, in Chicago and other cities too, you are starting to see an incipient revolt,” says Sawant. “The point is, it is starting.”

Defending Immigrants on All Fronts

The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda is perhaps its most defining feature. What better captures the utter moral void inside the White House than the sight of ICE agents rounding up mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers at hospitals and courts and schools? What more perfectly illustrates Donald Trump’s ruthlessness than the revelation in late December that he may soon implement a plan to discourage unsanctioned border crossings by intentionally separating parents and children who are caught coming into the country without papers?

The human cost of these policies is mostly tallied in the dark. People are made invisible and disappeared, away from cameras and caring neighbors. But there are movements afoot that aim to make the administration’s punitive priorities—and those of its allies—impossible to ignore. And those movements have rooted deep, first and most forcefully, in Texas.

In 2017 Texans took the fight to the immigrant haters. In May, Governor Greg Abbott signed SB4, a rabid beast of a law that effectively bans sanctuary cities in the state and punishes local officials who refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The law immediately infused immigrant-rights activists with indignant energy and unleashed an enormous popular backlash.

“The defiance against Trump, and the defiance in particular in Texas against Greg Abbott, got all the different movement leaders to the table and activated people to really organize,” says Gregorio Casar, an Austin city council member who has helped lead the charge against SB4. “In Texas,” he adds, “the unifying force was the resistance to SB4, which was the most anti-immigrant law passed this year in any state.”

During and after the passage of SB4, a slew of raucous protests rocked the state, including a massive rally inside the state capitol in late May. Not long after, organizers and activists with groups like United We Dream, the Texas Organizing Project and the Workers Defense Project turned to their local officials, pressing them to take action in defense of immigrants. And they did.

From the small border town of El Cenizo to Austin to Dallas to San Antonio, local governments across Texas filed a series of federal lawsuits to block the law. In September, a federal court ruled that parts of the law could take effect, but the court challenge moves forward.

Whatever the outcome of the legal fight, the organizing against SB4 has created a coordinated multicity movement that could shape the course of Texas politics for years to come.

“The grassroots backlash against SB4 sprung up new movements,” says Casar. “It has created the conditions where [an electoral backlash] is possible” too.

Meanwhile, in Texas and beyond, cities massively expanded efforts to provide direct aid to immigrants who face deportation and detention. In April, the Seattle City Council voted to create a $1 million pot of grant money that will fund local legal organizations that defend undocumented immigrants. That same month, advocates in Baltimore announced the creation of a similar $500,000 fund. On November 9, eleven communities across the country, including Atlanta, Austin, San Antonio and Chicago, launched the SAFE Cities Network, which will use public and private money to finance immigrant legal defense. And on November 7, the Denver city council announced that it too would set aside $200,000 to bolster a legal defense project of its own.

Rebecca Kaplan, a city council member in Oakland, California, which funds immigrant defense work as well, says these initiatives are meant above all to resist the Trump administration’s blatant racism.

“They are targeting people based on their ethnicity,” she says. “They are using ICE as a tool of white supremacy.” Cities like Oakland and others, she says, want to stand in their way.

Knocking White Supremacy Off its Pedestal

In the tumultuous aftermath of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia this summer, activists and officials from coast to coast doubled down on their drive to erase racist iconography from the public realm. Following the bold example of people like Bree Newsome, who climbed a flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol in 2015 to tear down a Confederate flag, dissenting students toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier on August 14 in Durham, North Carolina in an act of spontaneous civil disobedience. That same month, officials at the University of Texas, Austin, removed a slew of Confederate statues from public grounds; Helena, Montana tore down the state’s only monument to Confederate soldiers; and officials in St. Petersburg, Florida and Baltimore, Maryland removed their Confederate icons too. And in Charlottesville, black tarps were thrown over statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as the city fights an ongoing court battle with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, among others, to rid itself of them. This hearty list of Confederate erasure goes on and on, including in Memphis, where local officials chose to sell two municipal parks with Confederate memorials to nonprofits rather than comply with a state law that barred the city from removing them.

“Because of the unfortunate events that transpired in Charlottesville, there are a lot of people who have decided to get on board and recognize that these symbols are very divisive, that they are not inclusive to people of color, and especially black folks,” says Dr. Wes Bellamy, the 30-year-old Vice Mayor of Charlottesville and a leader in the push to remove Confederate monuments there. “If we want our public spaces to be equitable, we can’t have these monuments to Confederate generals in our parks.”

“The tide is changing and people are waking up,” he adds. “The awakening has been a beautiful thing to see.”

But tearing down symbols is only a beginning. Bellamy says that if white supremacy is to be rooted out, government policy must address the reality of racialized poverty. To that end, he championed groundbreaking racial equity legislation in his city this year that drew recognition and praise from local officials around the country. The equity package, as it is known, passed in January and sets aside $4.5 million to fund public housing redevelopment, to help finance the city’s African American Heritage Center, to expand GED training in the city, and to hire an “opportunity coordinator” who will help support the career and employment aspirations of young black men and women.

This “reparations” fund, as it has been called, is already inspiring others. Bellamy says legislators and officials from places as far-flung as Florida, New York and Oklahoma have reached out to him to learn more about the legislation.

“I think that it is a model,” he says. “Not just removing symbols, but also implementing policy, is going to create equity.”

Fresh Urbs: The Clean Energy Revolution, from Paris to Pueblo

The Trump administration’s craven withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and its policy of pursuing American “energy dominance” by throwing open federal lands and waters to frackers, miners and more, is only half of this country’s climate story in 2017. The other half, the happier half, is this: Cities around the country refuse to follow Trump’s regressive path. They don’t care about his atavistic focus on fossil fuels. They are preparing, instead, for a future powered by 100 percent clean and renewable energy, one in which wind and sunshine heat our homes and electrify our communities.

2017 was a defining year for the municipal clean energy revolution. After Trump ditched the Paris agreement, 388 mayors across the country came together and committed to fulfilling the obligations of the agreement anyway. And in June, the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution effectively calling on American urban officials to adopt 100 percent clean and renewable energy sources within their communities. Many cities are already well on the way.

Already, more than 50 cities in the United States have committed to totally powering themselves with clean and renewable energy in the coming decades, according to a recent report by the Sierra Club. These cities are diverse in terms of size and geography and even political orientation. The little town of Abita Springs, Louisiana, for instance, which is run by a garrulous Republican mayor named Greg Lemons, has committed to running on 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2030. Halfway across the country, in high, dry, Salt Lake City, the progressive mayor Jackie Biskupski has promised to pursue a clean energy revolution and run entirely on renewables by 2032. Atlanta, Georgia and Pueblo, Colorado have committed to the same by 2035. And Hanover, New Hampshire, will be fossil-fuel-free by 2050. More cities, meanwhile, join the movement every month.

“We definitely need strong leadership on these issues in Washington,” says Jackie Biskupski, the mayor of Salt Lake City, “but mayors and governors have made it clear that we will pick up where the federal government has dropped the ball—and frankly, we will be better off because we have united like never before.”

Finally and most momentous of all: New York. On January 10, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the biggest city in America would make legal and financial war on the fossil-fuel industry. With city officials and climate activists beside him a press conference in Tribeca, the mayor declared that New York City would divest its pension funds of $5.5 billion in oil and gas company holdings. He also revealed that his administration would pursue a lawsuit against five of the world’s largest oil companies for their role in both causing the climate crisis and deceiving the public about the peril it poses. “After being outgunned by the power and wealth of this industry for so many years,” wrote Naomi Klein of the announcement, which she attended, “the balance of power seemed to physically tilt.”

Think Globally, Vote Locally

The left had an astonishing year of electoral victories, the sort of victories that just 12 months ago were mostly unimaginable. On-the-ground organizing from groups like Our Revolution, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, Indivisible, and countless local organizations and activists helped sweep socialists, populists, progressives, social democrats, and more into office. It began in earnest in June, when voters in Jackson, Mississippi, elected Chokwe Antar Lumumba to be their next mayor. Lumumba, who has vowed to become the “most radical mayor on the planet,” ran on a “people’s platform” that included proposals to create a citizen-led police-oversight board and funnel city contracts to local minority-owned businesses. He is the son of Chokwe Lumumba, a well-known radical black activist and a mayor of Jackson whose term was ended by his untimely death in 2014.

In October, progressives enjoyed another notable municipal victory, when the young black progressive lawyer Randall Woodfin won the election to become the next mayor of Birmingham, Alabama. With the backing of Our Revolution and a strong grassroots ground-game, voters chose Woodfin’s vision for the city, which includes a call for tuition-free community college and major new investment in transportation infrastructure.

Then, of course, there were the sweeping, swoon-worthy wins in November, when leftists and progressives carried the day in cities across the country. In Philadelphia, the crusading civil-rights attorney Larry Krasner was elected to be the next district attorney after running on a platform to abolish the death penalty and end mass incarceration. In Somerville, Massachusetts, a slate of socialists and social democrats with the backing of Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America swept the election for the city’s board of aldermen. Voters in Helena, Montana, elected a progressive ticket that included Wilmot Collins, a former refugee from Liberia who will be the city’s next mayor. And Minneapolis saw the election of a slew of exciting City Council candidates, including Andrea Jenkins, the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the country’s history. Jenkins ran on a platform that supported the $15 minimum wage, called for more affordable housing development in the city, and promoted the decriminalization of marijuana, among other issues.

“The people who are coming forward at the local level are more diverse, they are women, they are people of color, they are representing the breadth of the United States,” says Helen Gym, a Philadelphia city councilmember and the vice chair of Local Progress. “They will drive policies that are going to reshape the way we think about politics and about how we relate to one another. It is really exciting.”

Organizers, activists, everyday Americans in cities large and small are building a bigger, more radical bench. And as Trump blusters into his second year in power, The Nation will continue to cover the urban renaissance and resistance, reporting on the radical campaigns and leaders and ideas that give this country hope.

There’s a lot more work to do, but that ought to make you feel better.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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