As I previewed in the blog I posted Friday, this past weekend in New York City I attended a meeting of the nation’s largest collection of self-declared progressive elected representatives from cities and counties. The meeting was the third annual convening of Local Progress, a national municipal policy network. I currently chair the group’s board of directors and kicked things off by chairing the board meeting and welcoming members the day before the convening.
When I hosted the first exploratory meeting for starting this national network in March of 2012 in Washington DC, about thirty people showed up. This weekend over 120 people attended – over half were public officials and the rest were leaders of national community organizing groups and unions. Local Progress now has over 400 members.
Coming from cities in over forty states, our members have taken the lead by working with community and labor groups to narrow the wealth gap by passing minimum wage and paid sick day legislation. They have also passed laws addressing issues such as the environment, immigration, affordable housing and police reform.
Arriving in New York City shortly after the grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, the delegates delayed their kick-off reception to allow their members to attend the public demonstrations being held outside the federal courthouse. Many of them signed individual statements that read in part:
I stand with Eric Garner. I stand with Michael Brown. I stand with Tamir Rice. I stand with Tanesha Anderson. I stand with Akai Gurley. I stand with the multitudes who are mobilizing and saying “enough is enough.” I stand against the excessive use of force with impunity. I stand for equal justice under the law.
Mayor Bill de Blasio welcomed Local Progress at City Hall, saying, “What we have been able to do here has largely been informed and energized by actions taken in other cities. And I hope we’re doing that and helping some of that to occur elsewhere as well. There’s an incredible sort of implicit collegiality and an implicit movement that has been created among progressives all over the country through actions at the local level.”
Speaking at the opening reception, John Powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a fair and inclusive society, said there is much work to do to redeem the American promise of inclusive democracy. He cited a recent study of federally collected data showing that young black males are at 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts. He said this statistic reflects a deep racial anxiety in this country, stoked by a fear of rapidly changing demographics and a rapidly changing world. The next day, Diana Falchuk, from Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights, explained to the organization how Seattle’s unique Race and Social Justice Initiative works to address institutional racism.
City Council Member Brian Cummins told how Cleveland was wrestling with this very issue. The same day that Local Progress was opening its meeting, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that after the Justice Department had examined nearly 600 cases over a three year period, it had reason to believe Cleveland’s police had been using excessive force. The Justice Department would monitor the Cleveland police department under a “consent decree.”
Cummins, having heard how other cities were facing similar problems, said this gathering provided him the opportunity to learn “a lot about how others cities are reforming discriminating policing practices and empowering residents to help us build a more just and equitable society.”
Building one isn’t easy when partisan politics comes into play, according to Khalif Rainey, a Supervisor on the Milwaukee County Board. He described how the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County have the highest concentration of black residents and Democrats in the state. The Republican Governor Scott Walker, after winning re-election, succeeded in having the Republican controlled state legislature cut the budget and powers of the Milwaukee County Board. A subsequent Referendum was mandated on cutting the supervisor’s salary in half to $24,000 a year.
The most attended break out panel was on Winning Real Police and Criminal Justice Reform. Lisa Daugaard, who supervises Seattle’s Racial Disparity Project and co-chairs the city’s Community Police Commission, was one of the panelists. Afterward she said the discussion was a chance for about 20 jurisdictions to trade ideas about community control of the police reform process and about diversion alternatives to the justice system.
Equally important, we were able to flag ideas that have had unintended consequences in cities having tried them so others can avoid the same mistakes some of us have made. For example, we discussed the need to ensure the use of body cameras, which can enhance police accountability, doesn’t inadvertently harm the very people whose rights we are seeking to protect.
Overall the theme of the Local Progress gathering was that, while our country is the richest it has ever been, more people are becoming poorer while our physical infrastructure of roads, railways, airports, and water drainage and waste systems are slowly eroding in front of our eyes. Five trillion dollars are needed to bring them up to the operating standards seen in other economically developed countries.
The solution is to make our democracy more responsive by removing artificial hurdles that hinder voting for too many people. Encouraging people to vote is the only way to assure local progress among our troubled cities.
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