Cities for Democratic Action by Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Cities for Democratic Action

by Shea Howell

Feb. 21,-March3, 2012

Cities foster democratic action. They bring together strangers who must craft a sense of common purpose to simply carry on daily life. Often, where there are tremendous differences in cultures, historical experiences, and future aspirations, cities create a more open, creative and progressive public life. For more than a century, Detroit has been one of the most innovative and forward thinking cities in the US.

That is why we are under such attack by right wing ideologues wielding power in the state legislature.

Detroit has been in the forefront of progressive social change. In this past century, we gave birth to the automobile and to the UAW, promoting the idea that there is dignity in work. We helped define Black Power as a force for change, challenging long held policies and practices that denied the humanity of African Americans.

We have responded to the deindustrialization of our city with imagination and vision, creating the largest urban agricultural movement in the nation, encouraging new technologies and means of communication. Movements for sustainable development, food justice and digital justice, all raise critical questions about the principles that will shape our future.

Detroit has also had a progressive understanding of the role of the U.S. in international affairs. We have been a vocal and consistent critic of U.S. foreign policies and advocated for international principles of mutual respect and economic justice.

We were leaders in the struggles for disinvest from Apartheid South Africa. Members of our city council were among the first arrested in demonstrations against Apartheid. We challenged the U.S. involvement in Central and South America with sister cities in El Salvador and Nicaragua. We declared Detroit a Sanctuary City and refused to cooperate with immigration authorities. We have passed resolutions for peace, to stop nuclear arms, and to promote person-to-person friendships across borders.

We have also formed coalitions to expand public discussion of city policies. The Save our Spirit coalition challenged budgets that fostered downtown development over neighborhoods. Countless groups and organizations emerged to raise questions and offer solutions to problems of public safety, resource allocation, economic development, and housing.

All of this activity emerges through a political life in the city marked by countless meetings, petition drives, demonstrations and sometimes confrontations. All are signs of a robust democracy where people learn from one another and make real choices about our common life.

It is no accident that the challenges to the Emergency Financial Manger Legislation emerged in Detroit. Whatever the limitations of our Mayor and City Council, people in the city recognize that this legislation is a direct assault on our ability to participate in the decisions about our own future.

Over the last two decades, cities across the country have challenged U.S. military policy, passing resolutions against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, demanding peace and new priorities. Cities have been the place where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have struggled for protection of their relationships through human rights ordinances, civil unions and marriages.

Today, the potential for democratic action in cities is under attack. Right wing ideologues are attempting to subvert our capacity to organize, advocate and create a progressive, compassionate, just and sustainable future.

At the beginning of this month, Representative Tim McMillin, launched another effort to limit democratic action. He introduced House Bill 5039 legislature. This bill prohibits municipalities from adopting nondiscrimination ordinances that include gay and transgender residents. It would take away local control and set 15 Michigan cities back to an era when it was fine to discriminate against someone because they’re gay.

In every way possible, the right wing state legislature is attempting to destroy the possibility of political action by people in cities.

We need to draw upon our deepest resources and most creative thinking to overcome these efforts.


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