SAN FRANCISCO – The agenda of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting here June 19-22 ran the gamut of issues mayors must deal with every day – water, technology, climate, energy, transportation, law enforcement, jobs, education, housing – to name a few.
But one issue kept resurfacing: how to confront and deal with the virulent racism that remains a current in U.S. life, whether expressed in last week’s killing of nine African Americans engaged in bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., or killings by police that recently took the lives of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others.
Addressing the USCM conference on June 19, President Obama spoke of the shock and heartbreak that followed the events in Charleston. “The nature of this attack – in a place of worship, where congregants invite in a stranger to worship with them, only to be gunned down – adds to the pain,” he said. “The apparent motivations of the shooter remind us that racism remains a blight that we have to combat together.”
The president took the occasion to renew the administration’s call for “common sense gun safety reforms, noting that over 11,000 people were killed by gun violence in 2013.
Speaking the next day, Hillary Rodham Clinton, contending for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination next year, underscored Obama’s call for action on gun safety. She went on to say racism remains “a deep fault line in America,” backing up with statistics her observations about pervasive inequality between African Americans and whites.
“Our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen,” she said. “It’s also the cruel joke that goes unchallenged … the offhand comment about not wanting those people in the neighborhood. Let’s be honest: for a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear.”
On Sunday, fellow Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley said, “one of the sad triumphs of white racism is the degree to which it has succeeded in subconsciously convincing so many of us, black and white, that somehow black lives don’t matter.” O’Malley urged gun control legislation and called for the confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina state capitol grounds.
Similar themes ran through the mayors’ deliberations.
At the meeting of the Mayors and Police Chiefs Task Force, where “community policing” headlined the agenda, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Ind. – the state’s first African American woman mayor – spoke of the need for and the difficulties of building solid relationships between communities and police.
“The other issue I want to raise is the issue of race,” she said. “We have to really determine if we have the political will to raise those conversations.”
Resolutions to strengthen police-community relations and to combat violent extremism were high on the agenda of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee.
A series of demonstrations, including a Friday “arms are for hugging, not policing” action and a Saturday morning march of several hundred protesters, kept up a relentless drumbeat about the meeting’s heavy corporate sponsorship (read Wells Fargo, Walmart, Google and a couple dozen more). Protesters called on the mayors to end racist police brutality, demilitarize the police, and work to solve the crises of gentrification and affordable housing.
Speaking before the march, Jackie Cabasso, North American Coordinator for Mayors for Peace, called the USCM “a real mixed bag. Some good things are going on in there, and some really bad things.” Since the mayors are “more diverse, more approachable, more progressive and more subject to citizens’ pressures than members of Congress,” she said, “It’s a good thing we are out here today, telling them what we think and telling them that arms are for hugging.”
Reminding demonstrators that this year marks 70 years since the U.S. atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cabasso called the bombings “the bedrock of the military industrial complex … at the center of a process that goes onto the streets through the widespread availability of guns and translates into wars around the world and the militarization of the police.”
Founded in 1982 by the mayor of Hiroshima, Mayors for Peace has over 6,700 member cities in 160 countries, over 200 in the U.S. In the last decade, Mayors for Peace has introduced and the USCM has passed increasingly strong resolutions for worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons.
This year was no exception. This year’s resolution calls for worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons and shifting the billions spent on them to meet the needs of cities.