Score one for the cities.
On April 19, a federal appeals court in Chicago threw a wrench into the Trump administration’s efforts to punish sanctuary cities for their basic decency. The ruling, issued by a three-judge panel—all Republican appointees—upheld a lower court’s injunction prohibiting Attorney General Jeff Sessions from trying to use the power of the purse to force cities to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. The injunction is nationwide, meaning that, for now, the Trump administration can’t keep holding sanctuary cities’ money hostage.
“The attorney general in this case used the sword of federal funding to conscript state and local authorities to aid in federal civil immigration enforcement,” wrote Judge Ilana Rovner in a forceful 35-page opinion. So, she continued, “It falls to us, the judiciary…to act as a check on such usurpation of power.”
The appellate-court decision was a victory for sanctuary cities—but also for the urban resistance more broadly, which has spent the last 15 months pushing back against malicious Trump-administration policy and, yes, “usurpation of power.” These efforts aren’t always accompanied by a cutting legal rebuke, or a string of news articles—it’s hard to compete with Stormy Daniels and North Korea—but they’re going as strong today as they were on the bitter morning of January 20, 2017.
A challenge to the power of the gun lobby. A push for housing rights in California. A commitment to 100-percent renewable energy by a major city. A resolution to demilitarize a local police force. Those are a few of the progressive efforts that bubbled up from the asphalt this past month alone.
Here’s a closer look.
After Parkland: Florida Cities Fight for their Right… to Regulate Guns
It’s little secret that the Florida State Legislature is in thrall to the National Rifle Association; the bicameral body couldn’t even pass a ban on assault rifles this past February, just two weeks after the Parkland massacre, as young survivors chanted outside the Capitol. But few people likely realize that the bond runs so deep that the state penalizes local legislators who dare to pass laws regulating where, when, and even whether people can wield firearms.
This has been the case since as far back as the 1980s, when, taking a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook, the NRA began promoting state preemption of local gun laws. But in 2011, the state amped up the penalties on recalcitrant cities: Not only are municipalities that attempt to pass their own gun-control laws liable for potential legal damages of as much as $100,000, but mayors and City Council members can also face a personal fee of $5,000, and removal from office by the governor for supporting gun-control legislation. If cities get sued by gun groups in the process, they’re on the hook for those costs as well.
Now, however, cities are pushing back. Earlier this month, the mayors of ten South Florida cities—including Miami Beach and South Miami—filed a lawsuit against the State of Florida for preempting their gun laws across the state. The suit challenges the 2011 statute, which penalizes cities for passing gun regulation, charging that it’s unconstitutional and invalid.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum knows the effects of this statute all too well. When he was serving as city commissioner, he was personally sued by two pro-gun organizations after failing to repeal ordinances that banned the shooting of firearms in public parks. The ordinances far predated both his appointment and the state preemption law: They had been signed in 1957 and 1984. Nonetheless, the groups claimed that Mayor Gillum’s failure to repeal these rules from its city code, followed by the republication of that code, amounted to a reassertion of local authority since made illegal by the preemption law. Tallahassee won the case, but by a threateningly slim margin and at significant cost to Gillum.
“The impact of this law is to chill local governments and tilt the political and policy debate in the NRA’s direction,” Mayor Gillum says. “I got elected by people in my community to vote, and I’m not going to be bullied out of doing that.”
Given the strength of the NRA in Florida, the city leaders pushing these lawsuits hold few illusions about the uphill nature of the challenge, and they’re restraining their ambitions accordingly: The lawsuit does not attempt to repeal the preemption law, but rather to remove the penalties imposed by the law. “That would clear the way for cities to begin to discuss our options,” Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam says. “With the law in place, we can’t even have a conversation about implementing policies to prevent guns in City Hall, parks, day-care facilities. We can’t talk about whether or not we want guns allowed into our 5000-seat amphitheater.”
Since the beginning of the month, four more cities have joined as plaintiffs. And, they’re working with city legislators in some of the other 42 states that have gun-preemption laws. In a recent USA Today op-ed penned by Mayor Gillum, Mayor Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, and Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland and signed by several others, they warned of the danger of gun-preemption laws.
“It’s happening in your state. And it’s happening because lobbyists and special interests know it’s easier to influence a few state lawmakers in 50 state capitols than thousands of local mayors and city councils.” But, they concluded: “Your local mayors are ready. We can pass thoughtful local firearm restrictions that reduce the threat of gun violence while respecting Constitutional rights. We can do what needs to be done on guns, if our state legislatures get out of the way. We can do this, if people contact their state lawmakers and demand an end to firearm preemption laws.” —S.K.
Renters of California Rise Up!
On April 23, hundreds of tenants and their allies rallied outside the Los Angeles and Oakland city halls as well as the State Capitol in Sacramento to support a statewide ballot initiative that would bring rent control back to California cities. The initiative specifically seeks to strike down the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which restricts rent control to units built in cities before 1995, when the law was passed, or even earlier depending on the year cities set their own restrictions on rent control. In Los Angeles, this means that any housing built in the last 30 years cannot be regulated and is, instead, subject to the whims of the market.
Costa-Hawkins also prohibits cities from regulating how much landlords can raise rents after a tenant moves out. Recent data from industry sources shows that since 2010, Oakland’s rents grew 51.1 percent and San Francisco’s jumped 48.6 percent.
Tenants and advocates have pushed back against Costa-Hawkins since its inception. But Costa-Hawkins has a fierce base of supporters who’ve managed to keep it intact: real-estate developers and landlords who argue that rent stabilization deters investors who don’t want to see a cap on their profits. According to Christina Livingston, the executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, these groups have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into pressuring legislators to uphold the law, part of the reason the repeal measure died in a state legislative committee meeting in January.
The California real-estate lobby has promised to invest another $100 million or more into keeping the bill off the ballot in November, Livingston says, but she’s hopeful that the support of California residents is stronger. “The affordability crisis is touching a wider range of people than ever before. People recognize that if we want to help pull California out of poverty, we have to ensure that everyone has a say in what the solutions are, not just people who are whiter and wealthier than the state of California is,” she says.
At the April 23 rally, organizers delivered 595,340 signatures to the Statehouse—over 200,000 more than the minimum necessary to land the repeal bill on the ballot. At the rally in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti promised he would consider expanding rent restrictions in Los Angeles if voters repeal the law.
For Gloria Cortez, the rallies brought hope not just for the passage of this particular legislation but also that people are finally listening to her and other California residents’ stories. After five years in her Pomona home, Cortez, her husband, and their six kids were evicted last July after falling behind on rent. Their apartment had become infested with mold, and they’d been forced to put their rent money toward staying in hotels while their landlord slowly, begrudgingly, had it cleaned. The family has been sleeping in parks and occasionally in hotels ever since.
“Being homeless, you feel like a stranger. People judge you without knowing your story,” Cortez says. “But at the rally, I felt kind of safe, knowing that someone cares about us. If they make more apartments rent-controlled, we’re going to be able to afford something, and we’ll be able to get back to work and stand up again.”
California, where one in five people lives in poverty once rent is factored into the cost of living, has marked itself as a pioneer in the burgeoning tenants’-rights movement, but advocates across the country are pushing vigorously against similar walls (at least 27 states currently have legislation explicitly barring city governments from establishing rent control and other forms of tenant protections). In Chicago, a coalition called Lift the Ban is organizing across the city to put an end to the state’s prohibition on rent control. In Seattle, activists packed a public hearing of a similar bill, but it failed to make it past the state committee in February.
Stay tuned for more reporting from The Nation on the rising domestic housing-rights movement. —S.K.
Demilitarizing the Police, from Durham 2 Palestine:
More than 6,000 watery miles separate the Gaza Strip from Durham, North Carolina. But on April 16, the bull statue that stands in the city’s central downtown square wore a kaffiyeh, while photographs of Palestinian children killed in the recent Israeli assaults on Gaza rested beneath it. The memorial was a reminder of what’s at stake when militarization is normalized, as well as a visible testament to the ties that connect this southern city to the far-off coastal enclave.
Those ties were reaffirmed just a few blocks away when, that same day, the City Council voted to become the first US city to ban police trainings and exchanges with the Israeli military. The move followed months of lobbying by Demilitarize From Durham2Palestine, a coalition of community organizations, and was both a prohibition against a specific collaboration between a domestic police force and a foreign military power as well as a broader rejection of the military-style policing that has been adopted in cities across the country.
“In Durham, our community is working towards a time when we are beyond policing,” the resolution reads. “Until that time comes, we want policing that is founded on earning the trust of the community.”
Though Durham’s police chief, C.J. Davis, said in a statement to the council that the city has not had any exchange with Israel during her tenure, nor does it have any plans for exchange, the suspicion of such a link is justified: Chief Davis herself helped launch an Israel exchange program (explicitly focused on counterterrorism) at the Atlanta Police Department, her previous posting. The Anti-Defamation League, the organization hosting many such exchange programs, lists Durham as one of the cities whose leaders had trained in one of their programs, perhaps in reference to former police chief Jose Lopez, who spent a week in Israel attending the ADL’s National Counter-Terrorism Seminar.
According to Jewish Voice for Peace, which launched a campaign to end these exchanges last year, thousands of police officers, ICE officers, and FBI agents have trained with both the Israeli military and police since the early 2000s. (Moreover, some of the most notorious US police-force initiatives, like the NYPD’s Muslim-surveillance program, have been modeled in part on Israeli military tactics.)
“These are exchanges of worst practices,” says Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of JVP. “What they’re talking about is racial profiling, mass surveillance, collective punishment—the tactics applied to Palestinians in both Israel and the West Bank.” Between 2011 and 2015, 60 percent of all people arrested by the Israeli police were not Jewish, despite the fact that non-Jews make up only 25 percent of Israel’s population, according to +972 magazine.
Still, the problem of policing in the United States goes beyond a single exchange between domestic police departments and a military with a history of human-rights abuses. It’s endemic, tied to the past, yes, but also to the present through programs like the one that allows police departments to purchase US military equipment—armored vehicles, grenade launchers, M16s—at a discount. And the resolution aims to target that as well.
“In Durham, we’ve had tear gassing at protests, we have disproportionately unjustified searches on African Americans,” says Ihab Mikati, an organizer with the Demilitarize From Durham2Palestine coalition. “Public safety doesn’t mean a militarized police force; it means access to health care, education, affordable housing, and freedom from state violence.” —S.K.
Minneapolis Commits to Going Clean and Green
On the morning of April 27 in Minneapolis, a gleeful room of local residents and climate organizers cheered as the City Council there passed a resolution that commits the municipality to 100-percent clean and renewable energy generation within a little more than a decade. The council’s action makes Minneapolis the 65th city in the country, and the largest in the Midwest, to embrace a complete and rapid end to fossil-fuel reliance.
The victory in the Twin Cities comes as the Sierra Club continues to ramp up its Ready for 100 campaign, a nationwide effort to fight back against federal climate inaction by convincing municipal governments to transition as quickly as possible to clean and renewable energy.
Alexis Boxer, a Sierra Club organizer based in Minnesota, said climate activists in the city worked with councilmembers for roughly a year to hammer out the details of the resolution.
“It is an aggressive resolution overall,” she says. “It makes a commitment to 100-percent clean energy for all municipality operations by 2022 and for the entire community by 2030. So every business, household, and building in Minneapolis will be powered by 100-percent clean energy” within 12 years.
In passing the resolution, Minneapolis joins other major cities across the country, including Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Portland, and San Francisco, which have committed to break away completely from fossil fuels by 2050 at the latest.
Besides the City Council and the Sierra Club, outspoken youth activists were another key force behind the clean-energy resolution.
“We, as young people, will be disproportionately impacted by climate change because we will live with its impacts the longest,” says Sophia Manolis, a high-school junior and an organizer with the youth climate group iMatter, which vigorously advocates for a clean-energy resolution in the city. “Because this is our future, we deserve to have a say in it. This resolution will create a platform for us to hold our city government accountable and push for even more proactive climate policies in the future.”
With the resolution’s passage, Minneapolis officials have until early 2019 to develop a detailed blueprint to achieve the city’s new clean-energy goals. Among other things, the blueprint is required to ensure that all consumers, especially “communities of color, low-income communities, renters and communities that have borne the brunt of past environmental racism, receive equitable benefit from this transition.” —Jimmy Tobias