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Sovereign cities

Week 37 of the Occupation

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Cities hold a special place in the development of human beings. Their emergence is linked to the shift from hunting and gathering societies to the development of agriculture. As humans succeeded in agriculture, we were able to develop more permanent settlements and begin the process of specialization and the exchange of goods, services and ideas that gave rise to city life.

Cities hold tales of our history. From a time almost beyond memory, the names of the first cities echo in our imagination: Eridu, Uruk and Ur of ancient Mesopotamia, Troy, Carthage, Athens, Pataliputra, Chang’an, Constantinople and Tikal. They hold the sacred places for many of the world’s religions: Puri, Cairo, Jerusalem, Mecca and Rome.

The very word is linked with civilization, civility, civic life and citizenship. Thus it is cities that hold the most human form of political life. The city is the polis, the place of politics. For Western cultures, public life became imbedded with the emergence of philosophy, giving rise to critical concerns of consciousness and reflective action.

Cities have given their name to empires and have been the site of resistance to them. Our own history is dominated by the political action of cities. Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Savannah gave us a revolutionary generation. The battles of Baltimore and New Orleans shaped an emerging national identity.

Cities carry the story of the long struggle for civil rights. The lunch counter in Greensboro. The church and jail of Birmingham. The streets of Selma. The steps of Little Rock. The mall in Washington. The fires of Los Angeles and Detroit. The killings in Dallas, Memphis, New York and Chicago.

Beginning in 2010, more than half the people on the globe live in cities. Just 20 years earlier, in 1990, less than 40 percent of us lived in a city, but by 2050 the World Health Organization predicts 7 of every 10 people will become urban dwellers. Most will live in cities smaller than Detroit, holding between 100,000 and 500,000 people.

It has been the political organization of cities that have pushed the U.S. toward more progressive, human and ecologically aware directions. Cities have taken the lead in social, political, artistic and intellectual innovation. They are proving to be especially adaptive to technological and ecological concerns. Our own city of Detroit has been in the forefront of human rights legislation and in challenging U.S. economic and military policies around the globe. Today, we are widely recognized as a global leader in urban agriculture, a center for cooperative economic development, and new forms of community-based production.

The long evolution of city life, politics and innovation has been disrupted by the efforts of our Governor and the right-wing legislature to strip cities of political power. This effort is bound to fail. It is counter to the very core of our historical trajectory. It is an effort to separate political power from daily life. It is designed to remove the decisions that define public, civic life from people and put it into the hands of single individual whose frame for decision making is protecting the power and wealth of a few. The experiences of our sister cities of Highland Park, Pontiac, and our own school system amply demonstrated that emergency management does not deal with the financing of cities, nor do they provide the necessary structural changes for economic health. Rather, they simply loot the cities of their public wealth under the fiction of legality.

The political arrangement that defines cities as the creation of state governments does not make sense. It is time for us to reverse this idea and establish new forms of governing that place the power for decision making into the hands of those most directly affected by the choices in front of us. Sovereignty rests in the city and her people.

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