MADISON, Wisc. – Groups with diverging politics converged June 14 -18 around the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

As the mayors networked, debated and geared up for a major push for federal-to-urban housing assistance, corporate sponsors hawked their wares and enjoyed their access, and federal officials took the podium to sell the mayors on the Bush administration’s “security is the only issue” program. Outside, citizens representing a spectrum of political views held a convention or two of their own, conducted numerous rallies and protests, and stood face to face with walls of law enforcement arrayed in full riot gear.

The mayors:
shelter and security

The meeting was attended by about 350 mayors, representing about a third of all American cities with the qualifying population of 30,000 or more. Most of the mayors are Democrats, but there were enough Republicans to have their own caucus, and Mike Feinstein of Santa Monica, Calif., is a Green. Some big-city mayors were absent.

This year’s theme was “strong families, strong cities,” the central aspect of which was housing. (That focus was symbolized by mayors’ participation in a Habitat for Humanity rehabbing project during the meeting.) Theresa Estness, mayor of Wauwatosa, Wisc., said, “The mayors’ issues are the people’s issues.”

The conference unanimously adopted a 55-point “National Housing Agenda.” Half of urban residents live in rental housing or are homeless. Fourteen million families spend half their income on rent. The mayors call for billions of new federal housing dollars, preventing or undoing budget cuts, and expanding and launching programs.

Boston Mayor and Conference President Thomas Menino said, “We can’t let another election cycle go by … We need people to understand we have a crisis … We can’t do it alone; we need to engage the private sector, labor, and non-profit organizations in a big way … We’ve got the policy; now it’s time for the politics.”

Most of the resolutions that the mayors considered in their committee meetings were oriented toward human needs, calling for restricting predatory lending practices, extending welfare benefits, and fighting hunger and AIDS.

Margy Waller, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution Urban Center, said there was bipartisan support for various Senate bills that would ease the cuts to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) that the Bush administration is pushing. She noted that while welfare caseloads were declining across the country they were proportionately growing in cities.

The Bush administration:
guns yes, butter no

Headlining the speakers from the Bush administration was homeland security czar Tom Ridge, with Defense Department and Federal Emergency Management Administration officials as opening acts. Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, restricted his talk almost exclusively to bioterrorism response.

Ridge flatly rejected several mayors’ requests for funding of special urban fire and police programs. Instead, he promoted high-tech border technology and aggressive use of intelligence agencies.

Ominously, when Mayor Bob Young of Augusta, Ga., asked about using federal forces for such measures as “crowd control,” Ridge said “the National Guard could play a role in the kind of activities you’re talking about.” This resonated eerily, as just the day before protesters and riot-geared police had met in a tense standoff.

Defense Department Special Assistant for Homeland Security Peter Verga said the military was already being deployed within our national borders under “Operation Noble Eagle,” involving maritime exercises and domestic surveillance overflights. Verga divided the prospective use of military forces within the United States into three categories: temporary, emergency and “extraordinary.” The first two would involve military personnel in a support capacity, as they were used at the 2002 Winter Olympics. In the last case, the president would simply “use his Constitutional power as commander-in-chief to authorize military action.”

Some mayors privately said they felt the concentration on security was overkill. Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C., discussing the need for architecture that promotes urban life, cautioned mayors to “be aware of the mistakes that can be made because of security concerns,” and not erect windowless fortresses. Mayor Ward said he thought the conference dwelled too much on security and not enough on education, “I’m not saying security isn’t important, but other things are important, too.”

A cordon of police kept the citizens of Madison at a distance from the conference, and few mayors ventured out to see ordinary Madisonians.

Corporate sponsorship and influence

Corporate marketing of products and services to municipal governments was omnipresent, from free promotional giveaways to exhibit halls to sponsorship of social events. “I see intense connection between corporate sponsorship and influence here at the conference, and I’ve tried to talk to the other mayors about it,” said Mayor Feinstein. He said the concentration of power in a few corporate hands has devastated the earth and urban communities.

Many of the mayoral social events were closed to the working press, but about 150 people whose corporations gave at least $10,000 were admitted.

In exhibit halls and meeting rooms, invited corporate speakers gave presentations clearly intended to market their products. During the conference opening session, a massive Ram truck bearing mock police insignia drove into the plenary hall, after which a Daimler-Chrysler executive made a blatant sales pitch for cities to buy Dodge for their municipal fleets.

Phillip Morris, principal sponsor of beer and bratwurst for the mayors, was named one of Multinational Monitor’s 10 Worst Corporations in America last year for its aggressive marketing of tobacco, particularly to youth, minorities, and vulnerable overseas markets.

A protester in a cigarette costume, and another in an outsize Kraft macaroni and cheese box (another Phillip Morris product), distributed literature outside the meeting, urging a boycott of Phillip Morris. Its rejection of responsibility for tobacco deaths was echoed in Secretary Thompson’s peculiar pledge, in lieu of public funds, to go on a diet as an example of healthy living for citizens whose health problems are “self-preventable.”

A representative of the DuPont Corporation’s “Security-Through-Science Initiative” gave a presentation on “Emergency Response Planning and Preparedness,” emphasizing such topics as protective apparel and planned purchases.

Meanwhile, at its table, DuPont brochures hawked the same products. A DuPont vice president co-presented $500,000 in grants under the “Lead-Safe … For Kids’ Sake” program.

But DuPont manufactures chemical toxins, developed the tetraethyl lead gasoline additive, and manufactured lead paint. Elevated lead levels in blood are a widespread problem among low-income urban residents, with more than one fifth of all African-American children having elevated blood lead levels. DuPont is currently being sued by Rhode Island for poisoning of children.

The alternatives

As an alternative to the Mayor’s Conference, Cities for People, a coalition of about thirty mainstream-to-left organizations, organized a “People’s Conference on Cities,” a daylong series of workshops at the Madison Labor Temple.

Bert Zipperer of the Progressive Dane Housing Taskforce, and also a candidate for mayor, gave a presentation on fair housing, while other workshops covered human rights, education, civil rights and racial profiling, fully funding public services and creating sustainable cities and government for the people and not the corporations. An evening program included interaction with Santa Monica Mayor Feinstein, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and former Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey.

The evening ended with a concert by singer David Rovics, whose lyrics criticized the administration’s promotion of security paranoia.

Rybak told the Madison Capitol Times, “I came to hear new ideas; I heard a number on the inside, and I heard a number on the outside.”

People’s responses

Several demonstrations took place over the three days of the conference.

Two protest marches occurred on Sunday, June 16. Cities for People held a Community Parade for Cities, with parents, children and seniors. It began on the steps of the State Capitol with a song by Rovics and speeches on urban needs.

Madison Alderperson Brenda Konkel of the Affordable Housing Action Alliance called for more affordable, mixed-use housing, and restoration of cut services. “I sit on the parking and transit commission and we just cut $700,000 in [bus] services because of budget concerns over police overtime for the mayors’ conference – meanwhile there is $7 in the affordable housing trust fund … people have to get involved.”

Bill Franks, of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, drew wild cheers with his call for economic justice, fully funded services, an end to privatization, and education as a basic right.

“As long as there is competition of ideas, then democracy is still alive. And some of the mayors would tell you, if they were being honest, that to keep people honest they have to be accountable,” Franks said. “When workers fight back, good things happen. Workers need to have enough sense as hogs. They don’t go silently. You farmers out there know what I’m talking about. They squeal. Workers have to have the same sense – make noise!”

“Segregation was all about labor and divisions – it substituted skin color for wages as an organizing principal and kept us divided. Today there is a witchhunt for immigrant workers…All of our struggles are connected … We need to shame the capitalists into better behavior and move the union movement into forming a global union and challenge the sweatshop issue … If we don’t take action it ain’t going to be alright. Organize and vote!”

This parade was joined by a second march to bring the numbers to some 500. The parade ended at Library Mall with a few brief speeches and another band. Food Not Bombs provided free refreshments.

Police had cordoned off about three city blocks with temporary fences, in preparation for a mayors’ entertainment event at the Memorial Union. Some marchers took their floats and costumes directly across from the Union, where a couple of dozen police stood waiting, with two vans and three city buses, apparently to house protesters in the event of mass arrests.

Protests and police

The face-off was initially peaceful. Then some protesters began to pull back the fence. Finally, a protester was pulled out into the street by police, an air raid siren sounded, a downpour of cold rain began, and about 50 additional police trooped into position in helmets with face shields, vests and body armor. The standoff between about 200 protesters and 200 police continued for 90 minutes, with several arrests. Although police brought out a heavy-duty tear gas container, it was never used. Throughout the encounter, some protesters and police maintained polite discussions.

On June 14, about 80 cyclists gathered for a Critical Mass bike rally that began at Brittingham Park and toured with police escort to a mayors’ event at Olbrich Gardens, closed to the public. One rider said that when they reached the event site they were greeted by rows of police. “We all raised our bicycles over our heads and yelled for five minutes,” he said. “It was the best critical mass bike ride I’ve ever been on.”

Creative People’s Resistance (CPR) held a late night Flag Day Rally that was attended by about 70 mostly young people who carried flags of black, red, and green, or the Stars and Stripes and its variations, and eventually began to drum and dance.

On June 15, CPR held a protest march from Library Mall to the Public Forum Stage. About 250 marchers, some on bicycles, carried banners and signs and wore T-shirts condemning excessive corporate power in America. Many shirts identified labor unions or the Green Party. One marcher dressed as an enormous octopus, its purple head labeled “USCM” (United States Conference of Mayors) visible above the other displays.

An elaborate float constructed around two bicycles resembled a model city, with church, school, co-op, community center, café, and bicycle repair shop. Throughout, a motorized vehicle dubbed the “stinkweed pirate barge,” attended by two demonstrators in gas masks and white overalls marked with a nuclear symbol, pumped out amplified sound, from reggae resistance songs to a speech by George Bush. It was stopped and searched by the police.

Before the Sunday night encounter, a smiling Madison Police Sergeant Charles Weiss said he was glad there had been no injuries or arrests, but not surprised. “For the most part these are all nice people,” he said.

But David Couper, an Episcopalian priest who was Madison’s Chief of Police in the 1960s wrote in the Madison Isthmus that the show of force by police “reverted to a very old and primitive approach that…challenges some of our basic democratic assumptions regarding the role of police.”

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Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries