Tonight is the first post-election city council meeting, and the agenda is a long one. It will be the first time that I’ve really ventured out of the house and interacted with people at any length since the election, and I’m nervous. The city council is about to experience some turnover with Councilmembers Hammerstrom and Dietz leaving, at a time when the city is poised before a very uncertain future, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I’m very nervous.
I was nervous even before I knew the outcome of the election because Fort Bragg is in a state of flux at the moment and the people on the council are going to radically shape the future of the city, potentially determining whether it is really a place I want to live at all. Now, I’m even more nervous, because while the California State Assembly has pledged to hold ground against Trump, there’s only so much the state can do. And the policy decisions of individual cities can have a huge impact on safety and quality of life for residents. Are we going to be the kind of town that protects civil rights and values all residents, or not?
Last night I went on a bit of a tear on Twitter about this, because I see many progressives in positions of relative privilege wringing their hands about what to do and engaging in performative acts that don’t really do anything, but clearly make them feel better. This is not a time for performativity. It is a time for work on the ground and that work is hard, often invisible, and often thankless. It can happen, I remarked the other day, without pics.
I started going to city council meetings because of a community issue that concerned me, and it made me stubborn. I started showing up to every meeting (I’ve missed a few for travel or illness) because I wanted to make a point. I am here. I am paying attention. I matter. I started commenting because I live outside of city limits and that is my only chance to have an impact on how the city sets policy, since I can’t actually vote anyone in or out of city council. And I pushed others to do the same.
Progressives flailing around right now don’t have to take my advice about what to do, but if you want to, here is my advice: Go to your city website (or the website for the nearest incorporated city, or your county/parish). Look up the city council/board of supervisors meetings and committee meetings. Pick one council, board, or committee that interests you, and commit to going to every single meeting for the next year. If you want to go to more, great. But be realistic about how you commit your time and treat this as a commitment. Be prepared to go when it’s rainy and crappy out, when you’re having a bad day, when the thought of sitting through a two hour presentation on street sweepers makes you want to scream. Commit to going.
Show up to every meeting. Get to know your elected officials and the staff who support them. Make comments during the public comment period or email/mail them in if you’re shy, that’s okay. Get present. Your face needs to be there if it possibly can, because people who show up are taken more seriously (we can talk about why that is shitty, and it is, another time). If meetings are at a bad time, lobby to have the meeting time changed. If you don’t like the order of the agenda, agitate to change it. If you want to add an issue to an agenda, talk to an official or staff member about how to do that.
And you should want to add issues to the agenda. Do you live in a sanctuary city? If you don’t, why not? Ask the council or board of supervisors to explore that issue. How tough are your antidiscrimination ordinances? Does your police force have a clear use of force policy? Do city staffers, including law enforcement and agencies like public works, receive cultural competency training from people of colour, disability self-advocates, trans people, queer people? Does your city have a policy affirming the right to access public restrooms as well as school bathrooms and locker rooms? Does your city have environmental protection measures in place? Does it promote and encourage walking and cycling and work to make these activities safer? Has your city passed a resolution expressing solidarity with the Muslim community?
What do you care about? Does your city care about it? If not, why not? The highly distributed nature of power in the United States means that your council or board of supervisors may have much more weight and latitude than you realise — while they cannot go against federal and state law, they can fill gaps. If the Trump administration succeeds in dismantling laws designed to protect civil rights, your city could step in to protect its residents. If you live in a conservative area where you know that advocating for progressive steps could be dangerous, work for little victories.
This is a concrete action you can do today to make a difference for people who are living in your community. You can do it right now. We should absolutely be paying attention to what is going on at a national level, who is setting policy and how. We should absolutely be defending civil rights and protecting national interests. But when it comes to triage, you can have a tremendous impact by being present at city affairs and refusing to shut up.