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East Bay DSA

June 12, 2019

Organizing for municipal power: From Barcelona to Richmond and beyond

A review of “Fearless Cities: A Guide to the Global Municipalist Movement,” compiled by Barcelona En Comú with Ada Colau and Debbie Bookchin (New Internationalist Publications, 2019)

By Steve Early

Four years ago, Barcelona voters made international news when they chose Ada Colau, a young feminist and housing rights activist, to be mayor of Spain’s second largest city. Colau was backed by Barcelona En Comú, a social movement coalition committed to greater citizen participation, resisting gentrification and stopping evictions, reversing the privatization of the city’s water service, and reducing economic inequalities between neighborhoods.

On May 26, 2019, Colau lost her re-election fight by just a few thousand votes to a candidate backed by Catalan separatists. But En Comú held onto its 10 city council seats and will remain a force in local politics. And, thanks to this new book about struggles for municipal power in 50 cities and 19 countries, the organizational model and radical platform of En Comú will continue to be a source of cross-border inspiration.

En Comú’s book, “Fearless Cities: A Guide to the Global Municipalist Movement,” features contributions from its own key activists, plus city hall leaders from elsewhere in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, England, Chile, Argentina, Serbia, Germany, Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, Canada, and the U.S. It contains a series of “organizing tool-kits,” which offer practical advice for building successful campaigns to root out local government corruption, re-municipalize public services, reduce pollution, protect the rights of tenants and immigrants, democratize the media, and create opportunities for “direct democracy” through practices like participatory budgeting.

In their contribution to the guide, researcher Manuela Zechner, Kate Shea Baird from En Comú, and Claudio Delso, a leader of Marea Atlantica in the Spanish city of A Coruna, stress the importance of using a “transparent, horizontal, and democratic process” when “building municipalist platforms.” By that, they mean develop a political program, responsive to local needs and aspirations, before recruiting candidates and doing electoral campaigning that will inevitably focus more on individual personalities.

They argue:

“The best way to engage people, particularly those with no previous interest in electoral politics, is to go and ask them what they think about their neighborhood, about how they would change it. Focusing on shared goals, rather than potentially divisive negotiations over who should stand as a candidate, is also a good way to bring people from diverse backgrounds and from different organizations together and to create a sense of common purpose.”

In Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million in Brazil, social movement activists prepared to field a first-time slate of candidates for city council in 2016 by canvassing in parks, squares, schools, and other public spaces. There, they collected “ideas from residents about city issues, from pollution to urban violence.” The resulting “Manifesto for the City We Want” became the basis for a coordinated electoral campaign by a 12-member slate that included many women, people of color, and youth, plus Belo Horizonte’s first indigenous and transsexual candidates. Their slogan: “A vote for one is a vote for all.”        

Aided by a “vital internet presence” and a volunteer army that included artists, musicians, and “biketivists” equipped with loudspeakers, who cycled around the city spreading the message of  “Muitas pela Cidade que Queremos,” two Muitas candidates won municipal council seats. One of them, Aurea Carolina, received more votes for that position than anyone in city history.

“Fearless Cities” includes similar case studies, summarizing the experience of “municipalist organizations” in all kinds of urban and rural settings. Among them are two well-known on the U.S. left — the Richmond Progressive Alliance from Richmond, California and Jackson, Mississippi-based Cooperation Jackson. Many of these like-minded formations participated in a “Fearless Cities” conference hosted by Colau two years ago. Since that gathering of 700 people, Barcelona En Comú has continued its work, not only of governing a city of 1.6 million, but also “mapping and exchanging experiences” with other activists trying “to imagine alternatives for their city or town, and to start to build them from the bottom up.”

In her epilogue to the book, Colau recalls that “we began our adventure [in Barcelona] having been inspired by struggles, following the economic crisis, against the dismantling of the education system, against the cuts to healthcare and the public sector in general.” As a result of successful electoral campaigns, people, like herself, “who had never governed a city, who had done politics from social movements, NGOs, or neighborhood associations” found themselves “inside municipal institutions.” En Comú, in particular, has tried to “build bridges between municipal politics and new forms of political action by citizens, from different walks of life to defy the established order that is profoundly unjust.”

In the U.S., “fearless cities” are on the frontlines of resistance to Trump and opposition to state government attempts to limit their ability to be public policy innovators. For example, Republicans in some states have curbed municipal efforts to improve local labor standards via minimum wage hikes or mandated paid family leave or sick days. In a corporate Democrat version of what’s called “pre-emption,” California legislators last year blocked Richmond and other cities from adopting further soda tax measures ― for the next 12 years.

In red or blue states, the task of building durable political organization at the local level involves a lot more than just running left-leaning candidates every two or four years. For progressive officials to succeed in office — and remain accountable to the constituencies that elected them — these office-holders need to be part of broader municipal reform groups or socialist organizations that are membership-based and continuously engaged in multi-issue, non-electoral organizing.

Activists interested in municipal politics and related community organizing will find this book to be a very useful guide.

Steve Early is a member of East Bay DSA and the Richmond Progressive Alliance and a longtime labor activist. His most recent book is “Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City.”