Getting to Peace Through Local Governments

Remarks at the Democracy Convention, Minneapolis, Minn., August 5, 2017.

A school board member in Virginia once agreed to support creating a celebration of the International Day of Peace but said he would do so only as long as no one would misunderstand and get the idea that he was opposed to any wars.

When I talk about using local governments to get to peace, I do not mean peace in my heart, peace in my garden, city council meetings in which fewer projectiles are thrown at other people, or any sort of peace that is compatible with war. I mean, in fact, that much disparaged definition of peace: the mere absence of war. Not that I’m against justice and equality and prosperity. It’s just hard to create them under bombs. The mere absence of war would eliminate a top worldwide cause of death, suffering, environmental destruction, economic destruction, political repression, and material for most of the worst Hollywood productions ever produced.

Local and state governments provide major tax breaks and construction permits to weapons dealers. They invest pension funds in weapons dealers. Teachers who spend their lives trying to raise up a better world see their retirement dependent on massive violence and suffering. Local and state governments can push back against military incursions into their areas, drone flights, surveillance, the deployment of the Guard to foreign imperial missions that don’t guard them. Local and state governments can incentivize conversion or transition from war industries to peace industries. They can welcome and protect immigrants and refugees. They can form sister-city relationships. They can support global agreements on clean energy, the rights of children, and bans on various weapons. They can create nuclear free zones. They can divest from and boycott and sanction as helpful to the cause of peace. They can demilitarize their police. They can even disarm their police. They can refuse to comply with immoral or unconstitutional laws, imprisonment without charge, surveillance without warrant. They can take military tests and recruiters out of their schools. They can put peace education into their schools.

And short of and preparatory to these difficult steps, local and state governments can educate, inform, pressure, and lobby. In fact, not only CAN they do such things, but they must be expected to do such things as part of their traditional and appropriate and democratic responsibilities.

Be prepared for the argument that a national issue is not your locality’s business. The most common objection to local resolutions on national topics is that it is not a proper role for a locality. This objection is easily refuted. Passing such a resolution is a moment’s work that costs a locality no resources.

Americans are supposed to be directly represented in Congress. But their local and state governments are also supposed to represent them to Congress. A representative in Congress represents over 650,000 people — an impossible task even were one of them to actually attempt it. Most city council members in the United States take an oath of office promising to support the U.S. Constitution. Representing their constituents to higher levels of government is part of how they do that.

Cities and towns routinely and properly send petitions to Congress for all kinds of requests. This is allowed under Clause 3, Rule XII, Section 819, of the Rules of the House of Representatives. This clause is routinely used to accept petitions from cities, and memorials from states, all across America. The same is established in the Jefferson Manual, the rule book for the House originally written by Thomas Jefferson for the Senate.

In 1798, the Virginia State Legislature passed a resolution using the words of Thomas Jefferson condemning federal policies penalizing France. In 1967 a court in California ruled (Farley v. Healey , 67 Cal.2d 325) in favor of citizens’ right to place a referendum on the ballot opposing the Vietnam War, ruling: “As representatives of local communities, board of supervisors and city councils have traditionally made declarations of policy on matters of concern to the community whether or not they had power to effectuate such declarations by binding legislation. Indeed, one of the purposes of local government is to represent its citizens before the Congress, the Legislature, and administrative agencies in matters over which the local government has no power. Even in matters of foreign policy it is not uncommon for local legislative bodies to make their positions known.”

Abolitionists passed local resolutions against U.S. policies on slavery. The anti-apartheid movement did the same, as did the nuclear freeze movement, the movement against the PATRIOT Act, the movement in favor of the Kyoto Protocol (which includes at least 740 cities), etc. Our purportedly democratic republic has a rich tradition of municipal action on national and international issues.

Karen Dolan of Cities for Peace writes: “A prime example of how direct citizen participation through municipal governments has affected both U.S. and world policy is the example of the local divestment campaigns opposing both Apartheid in South Africa and, effectively, the Reagan foreign policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with South Africa. As internal and global pressure was destabilizing the Apartheid government of South Africa, the municipal divestment campaigns in the United States ramped up pressure and helped to push to victory the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. This extraordinary accomplishment was achieved despite a Reagan veto and while the Senate was in Republican hands. The pressure felt by national lawmakers from the 14 U.S. states and close to 100 U.S. cities that had divested from South Africa made the critical difference. Within three weeks of the veto override, IBM and General Motors also announced they were withdrawing from South Africa.”

And while local governments will claim they never do anything remotely like lobbying Congress, many of them do in fact routinely lobby their state governments. And you can direct their attention to numerous cities and towns and counties that do petition Congress, as do city organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which recently passed three resolutions urging Congress to move money out of the military and into human and environmental needs, the reverse of Popular-Vote-Loser Trump’s proposal. World Beyond War, Code Pink, and the U.S. Peace Council were among those advancing these resolutions, and we continue to do so.

New Haven, Connecticut, went a step beyond the rhetorical resolution, passing a requirement that the city hold public hearings with the heads of each governmental department to discuss what they would be able to do if they had the amount of funding that local residents pay in taxes for the U.S. military. They have now held those hearings. And the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution directing all of its member cities to do the same. You can take that mandate to your local government. Find it on the U.S. Conference of Mayors website or at And thank the U.S. Peace Council for having made this happen.

We passed a similar resolution in my town of Charlottesville, Virginia, and I used the Whereas clauses to make numerous educational points that are rarely heard about U.S. militarism. Slightly varied drafts were used for a national online petition, a public statement from a big list of organizations, and the resolutions passed in various other cities and by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It’s important for what you do locally to be part of a national or global trend. It’s of enormous help in winning over government officials and media. It’s also important to make clear how it impacts your local government financially.

Of course, key to passing local resolutions is having decent people in local government, and having them belong to the political party that the president does not belong to. In Charlottesville, when Bush the Lesser was in office and we had some great people on City Council, we passed quite a number of powerful resolutions. And we haven’t stopped during the Obama and Trump years. Our city has been the first to oppose certain efforts to start a war on Iran, the first to oppose the use of drones, one of the leaders in opposing high military spending, etc. We can get into the details of what those resolutions said, if you want, but no journalist ever did. The headline that Charlottesville had opposed any U.S. war on Iran made news worldwide and was essentially accurate. The headline that Charlottesville had banned drones was not accurate at all, but helped spark efforts that passed anti-drone legislation in numerous cities.

How you make things happen in a local government depends on the local details. You may or may not want to contact the most likely supporters within the government right from the start. But in general I recommend this. Learn the meetings schedule and the requirements for getting access to speak in the government meetings. Pack the speaking list, and pack the room. When you speak, ask those in support to stand. Precede this with the formation of the largest coalition possible, even an uncomfortably large coalition. Do educational and colorful newsworthy events and actions. Hold a conference. Host speakers and films. Collect signatures. Spread flyers. Place op-eds and letters and interviews. Pre-answer all likely objections. And consider proposing a weak draft resolution that will win enough support from the elected officials to get it onto the agenda for a vote at the next meeting. Then give the most supportive official a stronger draft to put on the agenda, and ramp up the organizing. Fill every possible seat at that next meeting. And if they water-down your text, push back but do not oppose. Make sure something passes and remember that it is the headline alone that matters.

Then start trying for something stronger the next month. And start efforts to reward and punish as merited in the next elections.

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