Across the policy spectrum, cities stepped in as a viable alternative to the agenda of Donald Trump.
Cities resisted Donald Trump immediately.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio became a vocal public opponent. As protesters gathered in airports in response to Trump’s original travel ban, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto put himself front and center. And urban communities across the country started organizing themselves—reverse engineering Tea Party tactics to oppose Trump’s agenda in Washington. For many cities, the election of Trump was a signal that it was their moment to rise.
As the months rolled on, some of that local resistance solidified into policy. From symbolic statements and rallies, new local laws have sprouted up responding to actions coming from the White House, and city initiatives have filled regulatory gap left by this administration. Here are some of the more notable instances of city resistance from the past year.
Funding lawyers for their own immigrants: “We’re not going to sacrifice a half a million people who live among us”
Immigration was the central pillar of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and he started working on fulfilling his promises from the get go. Starting in January, he issued a series of executive orders that sought to crack down on immigration violations at the border and in the interior of the country. The administration claimed to target only “criminal aliens,” but for all intents and purposes, that meant everyone without papers. It also pushed for measures restricting legal immigration and announced the end of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave unauthorized immigrants who have been in the country since they were children temporary relief from deportation. But cities had been bracing themselves. “We’re not going to sacrifice a half million people who live among us,” Mayor Blasio announced back in November 2016. “We will do everything we know how to do to resist that.”
In 2017, that pushback took various forms. Foreseeing the expanded dragnet, several cities announced a legal fund for immigrants facing deportation, which has shown to dramatically increase the likelihood of a positive legal outcome. And while some local governments were chomping at the bit to join the crack down, others decided to end agreements with the feds that might require them to become a cog in the deportation machinery. Santa Ana, for example, stopped renting out their jail beds to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And San Francisco suspended its participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) with the FBI, which deputizes their police officers to do FBI work, including collecting information on immigration status.
San Francisco and Chicago also sued the government, arguing that its repeated threats to pull federal grants from the so-called “sanctuary cities” were unconstitutional. So far, they’ve been winning. "It's an assertion of our most fundamental American values, and it's an unambiguous, clear rejection of the false choice that the Trump Justice Department wanted Chicago to make between our values, our principles, and our priorities," Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago said in September.
Mayors to Trump: You don’t speak for us on climate
It was his most global anti-environmental regulation statement yet. Announcing he would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Donald Trump said: “I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.” But Pittsburgh’s mayor wouldn’t let that representation of his city stand. “Pittsburgh stands with the world and will follow the agreement,” retorted Peduto.
As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future. https://t.co/3znXGTcd8C— bill peduto (@billpeduto) June 1, 2017
Within days, hundreds of mayors committed to uphold the Paris agreement themselves. And in a follow-up announcement just last month, some 67 of them and growing signed on to a more formal commitment. They vowed to achieve the emissions reductions by the standards set out in the Paris accord and to collaborate to tackle the international agreement’s goals. “Even as Washington fails to act, cities have the power and will to take decisive action to protect our planet and the health and safety of our residents,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who hosted the North American Climate Summit.
Executing on this commitment, of course, requires much more than grandstanding. Cities are just starting to grapple with the strategies to hit tough emissions reduction benchmarks, particularly as the EPA rolls back more than 30 regulations and corporations are given a freer reign through the repeal of the Clean Power Plan. And experts have projected that while it would be a tall order for cities to reach the Climate Accord’s goals without the federal government, they could get pretty far.
When Congress wouldn’t act on guns, Columbia, South Carolina did
The loss of human life in the U.S. due to mass shootings is staggering, and accelerating. In one mass shooting in Las Vegas alone, the perpetrator wrought mass destruction, killing 58 and injuring more than 500—not only due to the city’s lax gun laws, but because the assailant had outfitted his weapon with bump stocks, effectively turning his gun into an assault weapon.
Instead of banning assault weapons, bump stocks, or tightening rules for background checks, as lawmakers urged, the Trump administration has continued to profess stalwart support for gun owners.
Absent federal action, cities and states have been aggressively implementing regulation of their own. In the wake of Las Vegas’ massacre, Massachusetts banned bump stocks at the state level. And in the final weeks of 2017, Columbia, South Carolina—of all places—became the first city to implement local regulations around bump stocks. Despite a South Carolina state law restricting cities from regulating firearms or firearm components, the city council pushed through a law to prohibit their use.
Many other mayors from red states have avoided even trying to pass their most aggressive bills for fear of state-level preemption measures, but Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was undeterred. “We just thought this was a perfect opportunity for good guys with guns to do some good policy making,” said Benjamin. Benjamin now hopes other cities will follow his lead—and maybe the federal government: "The hope is, not only does this influence the actions of those who might sell bump stocks but more so it would influence federal policymakers.”
One of the few federal gun laws that is in place runs background checks for some purchases of guns. But several cities are now alleging that even that law suffers from lax enforcement, saying in a new lawsuit that the Department of Defense failed to flag service members in the background check database who were disqualified from gun ownership.
Baltimore takes back its own police reform from Jeff Sessions
There was no doubt, many police departments were eagerly awaiting Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions’ arrival as chief law enforcers so that the U.S. Department of Justice would stop breathing down their necks. Baltimore’s was not one of them.
Not even two months into his tenure as Attorney General, Sessions released a memo declaring that all “consent decree” agreements to implement city police reforms were subject to his review—and his likely cancellation. Baltimore was in the final throes of completing its consent decree to bring major changes to its police department after it was brought to shame by a censorious investigation under President Barack Obama’s justice department. It had one more public hearing scheduled to seal the deal, but Sessions attempted to delay that hearing so he could consider canceling the deal altogether.
Baltimore wasn’t having it. In one of the rare occasions in which the city’s mayor, city council, police chief, and state leadership were in agreement, they successfully rebuffed Sessions’ request and moved forward with finalizing the consent decree, which was signed on April 7. “Those reforms are going to take place no matter what,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in the Baltimore Sun a few days before. “We have to continue to stress the necessity of constitutional policing in Baltimore.”
There are many ways this administration tried to impose its will on local police departments in the months since, but Baltimore stood up to the feds (as it has in the past) and showed cities that they don’t have to take Sessions’ bullying.
San Francisco, Chicago, and Spokane preemptively ban Muslim registries
Throughout history, sensitive data has been collected and used to target populations deemed threatening. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Census Bureau block-level data helped round up Japanese Americans. And following the 9/11 terrorist attack, then-President George Bush created a sort of “Muslim registry” that President Trump has talked about reviving.
To ensure that locally-collected data does not aid federal moves in this direction—should they ever happen—San Francisco, Chicago, Spokane, and the state of Colorado have passed ordinances prohibiting municipal resources or personnel from being used for any registry based on race, religion, or national origin in March 2017. Some of these also allow residents to sue if they feel the city has violated the policy. “Basically we’re saying, ‘no registry,’” said San Francisco then-Mayor Ed Lee at the time.
Cities have taken other steps to limit federal data-collection, too. The San Francisco Police Department suspended its Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) agreement with the FBI, mentioned above, based on concerns that the task force’s wide berth of surveillance powers might be used to monitor Muslim residents. And Oakland passed a law based on an ACLU template to require public vetting of any new surveillance technology acquired by the police.
Confederate monuments keep on toppling
Donald Trump called confederate monuments “beautiful” and those advocating for their removal “weak, weak people.” It was after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in which Trump praised some participants as “very fine people” that cities started to take more of their monuments down.
In one of the most dramatic instances of government-led action, the city of Baltimore removed several of their monuments, unannounced, in the middle of the night. Mayor Catherine Pugh, who led the effort, defended her decision to circumvent the administrative process that had stalled other monument removals. “The city charter says, according to our city attorney, if the mayor wants to protect or feels like she needs to protect the public or keep her community safe, she has the right to keep her community safe,” she said at a press conference the next day. “I thought that there's enough grandstanding, enough speeches being made, get it done.”
Pugh made the decision the day after another grassroots effort toppled a monument in Durham, North Carolina. In that case, the city implicitly supported the protesters by announcing they wouldn’t make any arrests.
One of the most innovative approaches to getting monuments down occurred just last week when the city of Memphis sold its parks to a nonprofit organization, which promptly removed the monuments.
Cities also responded to the Charlottesville rally in another way. More than 270 organizations have signed a compact to implement a joint plan for fighting hate at the local level. “Regardless of leadership in the White House, we have the power to enact meaningful and lasting change at the local level,” wrote Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in CityLab.
Cities step in to fill the growing reproductive care gap
The war on reproductive health started just three days after President Trump was sworn in, when he expanded the Global Gag Rule limiting foreign countries’ activities on abortion. Soon after, his administration signed a bill that is expected to undermine Title X protections, cut the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program two years short, and announced a new rule that allows employers to opt out of birth control coverage in their health insurance plans.
Some cities made big strides in filling that gap. Washington D.C. introduced a bill that helps to protect health care professionals who provide or support abortion from discrimination. Pittsburgh passed a law to include abortion coverage in public insurance programs. It also repeals Pennsylvania’s ban on abortion coverage sold through private insurance plans.
King County, Washington, and Hartford, Connecticut, passed new rules requiring crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), who masquerade as full service health centers and advise women against getting abortions, to advertise that they are not acting as healthcare facilities.
“Our urban centers are the linchpin for healthcare delivery for so many people,” Andrea Miller, the president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, told CityLab earlier this year. “Every city has a budget. Every city makes decisions about how they use their budgetary power. Municipal elected officials have a really important bully pulpit. Standing up not only sends a powerful message, but it’s also the beginning of change.”