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Creating Sovereign Cities and Towns

By Shea Howell | Living for Change, Boggs Center

As much of the nation’s attention has been riveted to the devastation of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, the Michigan Legislature is quietly continuing its efforts to destroy local democracy.

This time the Republican controlled house passed two new gun bills, aimed not at guns, but local city councils. The first bill shifted the legislation around carrying concealed pistols. Instead of classifying carrying a gun after a permit has expired a felony, the bill makes the action a civil offense, subject to a fine. It seems Republicans want to “make sure a normally law-abiding citizen doesn’t lose their right to carry a concealed firearm because of an expired permit.” This action raises interesting questions about other felonies that we should consider reclassifying and for whose benefit.

But it is the second piece of legislation that is most troubling. It is intended to stop local governments from enacting any ordinances to control the use of guns. Representative Gary Howell’s proposed legislation would impose a $500 to $2,500 fine on any local government official who knowingly adopts “a gun ordinance out of line with state gun laws and does not repeal the ordinance within 90 days after a formal complaint is brought against the official over the matter.” One way to think about this effort is right wing republicans want to prosecute local officials for attempting to protect children from guns while protecting state officials or emergency managers from lawsuits for poisoning cities and destroying schools.

“Joe Louis Fist” by Kyle J. Schultz, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This effort is referred to as a “super pre-emption.”

What is pre-empted of course is the ability of local councils to respond to local constituents and local needs. The effort to destroy local decision making is part of a broader effort by right wing republicans to reduce the capacity of people in cities and towns to control our own lives.

Earlier this summer, a similar effort was launched against sanctuary cities to prohibit local communities from limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Local officials, including law enforcement officials, testified against such bills. Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton said that the bill would discourage immigrants from cooperating with police when they investigate crime.

“Most of the police service leaders recognize that fighting crime occurs with strong and trusting relationships with community members, who work as witnesses and help develop solutions to neighborhood problems,” he said. “The trust and strong relationships that I speak of is often a very fragile thing.”

These latest efforts are part of a broad pattern of actions by right wing state legislatures to undermine democracy at the local level. From gun control to protections of basic human rights, and emergency managers, state level legislators are pre-empting or overturning the judgments of local cities about the values and policies we want to define our shared lives.

These efforts diminish all of us. They are raising fundamental questions about whether or not representative level state government is compatible with developing a vibrant democracy. Each time the state legislature moves to restrict, control or overturn local decision making it attacks the basic capacities that enables us to define our civic life. Creating sovereign cities and towns is an essential part of developing a human future. State level legislation is increasingly at odds with what we need to develop our region and our people.


Shea Howell is an educator, activist, and founding member and board member of the Boggs Center, a space to nurture the development of visionary organizing rooted in place and history. She is also a co-founder of DETROIT SUMMER, a multicultural, intergenerational youth leadership program that engages the talents and energies of young people to rebuild and redefine Detroit. She is a professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan where she teaches courses on communication theory and multicultural and political communication. 

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