The Federal Government Is Unraveling—but the State of Our Cities Is Strong

The Federal Government Is Unraveling—but the State of Our Cities Is Strong

The Federal Government Is Unraveling—but the State of Our Cities Is Strong

Dispatches from the urban resistance, from Philadelphia to Seattle and beyond


When the federal government shut down this month, Senator Bernie Sanders took to Facebook to decry the disruption and explain its causes. He explicitly denounced the desire of GOP leaders and their wealthy donors to see Washington, DC, mired in dysfunction.

“[The government shutdown], in my view, is part of a long-term plan to have people lose faith in the ability of government to respond to their needs,” he said. “These Republican leaders want a government run by billionaires and for billionaires, not for and by the American people. This government shutdown I don’t think is an accident.”

This and other shutdowns, he explained, are the fruit of a long-term anti-government agenda backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and their ilk. And that agenda has made unfortunate progress in recent years, seeping from the confines of the capitol into the hearts and minds of people throughout the land. According to the Pew Research Center, there is a crisis of faith in America’s public institutions today. Presently, only 18 percent of Americans say they trust our federal government to do what is right all or most of the time. That’s an historically low level, and a deeply ominous sign for the future of this country.

The question is: How do we rebuild confidence in our degraded democratic system? It will be a long, hard slog, and honest national politicians like Sanders will play a crucial part. But they can’t do it alone.

One place to look for models of effective government is in the local sphere—cities, counties, school boards, and the like. With their close proximity to the populace, their intimate involvement in everyday life, cities are in an unparalleled position to prove that government can still respond to people’s needs and dreams. And many have been doing just that.

This last month alone, while the federal government was teetering on the brink of shutdown, activists and leaders in cities across the country—from New York to Seattle, Oakland to Philadelphia to Washington, DC—were busy redoubling their efforts to fight for environmental sanity, fair elections, immigrant rights and other crucial matters. These interventions will make a real difference in the lives of local residents, but just as important, they prove a point: government doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. Public institutions, though imperfect, can still help us, protect us, and earn our trust.

New York to Big Oil and Opioid Profiteers: See You in Court!

In a momentous public announcement on January 10, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed this country’s largest city to a political and financial crusade against the fossil-fuel industry. Flanked by fellow officials and climate activists, de Blasio told the world that New York will divest roughly $5 billion in pension fund money from holdings in oil, gas, coal, and other dirty-energy assets. What’s more, the city is now pursuing legal action against five of the world’s largest oil and gas companies—Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell—for their role in covering up the dangers of carbon pollution.

We are “bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil-fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits,” de Blasio said during the press conference. “As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil-fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”

Borrowing a page from the Big Tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, New York aims to prove that it is owed damages due to Big Oil’s role in deceiving the public about the detrimental health and environmental impacts of its products.

“Unfortunately there is money to be made exploiting the planet,” says New York City Council member Brad Lander. “The effort to make the case in court that cities are owed for the public health, and public welfare consequences of corporate profiteering against the public interest is a great step.”

And New York is taking that step in another arena too. On January 23, de Blasio announced that the city had sued the corporate engineers of the ongoing opioid epidemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands American lives in recent years. New York is joining other cities across the country to hold accountable the manufacturers and distributors of such drugs as OxyContin, which set off a health crisis that has cost local jurisdictions hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency response and other interventions.

“It’s time for Big Pharma to pay for what they’ve done,” de Blasio said of the lawsuit.

Indeed, it is. When the federal government refuses to protect people, whether from climate change or deadly drugs, big cities can be powerful avengers.

Saving Lives in the City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia is also taking radical steps to address the opioid epidemic plaguing its people. On January 23, officials there announced that they will allow private and nonprofit organizations to develop supervised injection sites in the city. Such facilities provide places where drug users can consume narcotics in the presence of medical personnel trained in addiction treatment, disease prevention, and overdose mitigation. Already widely used in Europe and Canada, they have been shown to greatly reduce overdose-related deaths and prevent the spread of infectious disease.

“We cannot just watch as our children, our parents, our brothers, and our sisters die of drug overdose,” says Dr. Thomas Farley, Philadelphia Health Commissioner, of the decision. “We have to use every proven tool we can to save their lives until they recover from the grip of addiction.”

The move is an experimental one—no city in the United States has yet hosted a supervised injection site within its borders, although others have expressed interest. But the severity of the opioid epidemic, the rising death toll, and the spread of disease and social disintegration are forcing local governments to act nimbly and search for new solutions to protect their residents. As the opioid crisis explodes into a full-blown overdose crisis, too many lives are at stake.

The Sanctuary Movement Hunkers Down for the Fight

First, the really good news. On January 29, the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, which provides legal and other support to undocumented immigrants, announced that its outspoken leader Ravi Ragbir had been released from federal detention. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operatives had summarily arrested Ragbir on January 11, when he went in for his regular check-in with the agency in downtown Manhattan. He was swiftly transferred to a detention facility in Florida, awaiting what appeared to be immediate deportation. His arrest and removal from New York sparked protests and denunciations from his many supporters, who believe he was targeted by ICE for his bold activism.

Those same supporters, though, did not give up the fight. Throughout the ordeal, they held regular rallies and prayer vigils for Ragbir and went to court to secure his release. First, they managed to get him sent back from Florida to a detention facility in New York State. And now, thanks to a ruling this week from US District Judge Katherine B. Forrest, he is free.

“There is, and ought to be in this country, the freedom to say goodbye. That is, freedom to hug one’s spouse and children, the freedom to organize the myriad of human affairs that collect over time,” wrote the judge in her order releasing Ragbir. “It ought not to be—and it has never before been—that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken away without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away. We are not that country; and woe be the day that we become that country under a fiction that laws allow it.”

Nevertheless, undocumented immigrants and their defenders continue to face aggressive harassment and punitive action from a racist and xenophobic Trump administration.

On January 24, Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to subpoena 23 sanctuary cities and other governmental bodies across the country for information about their policies protecting immigrants. The threat raised the prospect that Sessions may try to fine, arrest, or otherwise legally punish local officials in places like Seattle, New York, and the Bay Area if they fail to comply. But sanctuary cities refuse to be intimidated.

“The letter that the county got, and the city was copied on, was a shot over the bow to demand that we provide the Trump administration with certain information by a particular date,” says Seattle City Council member and immigrant-rights advocate Lorena González. “If we don’t do so, they have threatened to serve us with a formal subpoena.”

González says Seattle—which has established numerous sanctuary-city policies in recent months, including public funding to give immigrants legal support—has no intention of complying with the request.

“We are the type of city who, in face of these threats, will double down, triple down, quadruple down on our efforts to protect our neighbors,” she says. “I think Attorney General Sessions will be unpleasantly surprised by our willingness to put it all on line to stay true to our values as a welcoming city.”

Other local officials have pushed back against Sessions’s demands as well. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu skipped a planned meeting with the White House in response to the attorney general’s threats, calling them an “attack.” Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, described the Justice Department’s actions as a “racist assault on our immigrant communities.”

“Right-wing tyrants throughout history have targeted immigrants,” says Oakland Cty Council member Rebecca Kaplan. “We will not back down in the face of these threats.”

In fact, her city has redoubled its efforts to protect immigrants in recent weeks. On January 16, the Oakland city council voted to prohibit any cooperation between city agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement during immigration raids.

“When we say don’t participate in an ICE raid,” says Kaplan, who sponsored the bill, “we have now made it explicitly clear that that means no traffic support, no assistance in any way.”

The bill’s passage comes not a moment to soon. In mid-January, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Trump administration is planning to conduct massive immigration raids across Northern California in the weeks and months ahead. As many as 1,500 people may be targeted for arrest.

Campaign Finance Reform Comes to the Capitol

Finally, let’s talk campaign finance. In a post–Citizens United world, where the billionaire Koch brothers plan to spend upward of $400 million to influence the 2018 federal elections, this topic rarely produces happy news. But progressive politicians in the District of Columbia offered up a bit of hope in January when the City Council unanimously passed a bill to establish a public campaign-finance system for municipal elections. The bill will soon head to the mayor’s desk for approval.

Under the city’s Fair Elections Act, DC will offer qualified candidates base grants that will run as high as $160,000 in mayoral races. The city will also provide a 5-to-1 financial match on small-dollar donations from DC residents. Those participating in the program will be barred from taking corporate money and will have to accept a cap on the size of the donations they accept. The purpose of the voluntary system, says council member Charles Allen, who introduced the bill, is to amplify the impact of small-dollar donors, limit the influence of corporate money, and encourage candidates to connect with their constituents.

“Candidates have to spend way too much time sitting in a room on a phone dialing for dollars from people with a lot of money who can write big checks. That is not the way our campaigns or our elections should work,” he says. “This bill will add power to the voices of residents. It will make candidates behave differently. It is a big progressive win.”

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