“I stand before you, asking for all of you to stand with me, and together we can move our city forward and continue to be the shining light for our country, our America.”
Mayor Ed Lee spoke those words Thursday as part of his State of the City address at the Hibernia Bank in the Mid-Market area, a day after President Donald Trump threatened to cut federal funding for sanctuary cities, build the wall along the Mexican border and take action to curtail immigration from certain countries.
Whether or not achieving those goals will be as easy as the new president hopes, seeing the edicts come down from our nation’s new leader was a chilling moment. It felt like the true christening of a new, more threatening era. And, fortunately, it is one that the leaders of our city, and many of the surrounding ones, have promised to fight every step of the way.
Lee joined a chorus of mayors — from Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, New York and Boston and hundreds more — who spoke out last week in the strongest terms denouncing Trump’s orders to close our borders and our hearts. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh even pledged to open City Hall, including his own office, to immigrants who felt threatened and needed sanctuary. He called Trump’s orders “un-American.”
Lee took care at his address to paint San Francisco in a similar vein, as a big-hearted city with the muscle and nerve to stand up to such an affront to longheld values. He described us as a united city that would mount a vigorous defense of its people against the perceived threats of the new administration. Lee said, “We are ready to fight for those who need us.”
Lee emphasized the need for unity over discord. He said he wanted “fierce debates” but warned that internal divisions would only weaken us against our common enemy.
“Constructive disagreement — and the consensus we reach — is what makes us strong,” he said. “But we need to ask ourselves if division at home makes us more vulnerable to attacks from outside… In order for us to meet these challenges, we must be united.”
It was a point well taken, and brought many in attendance Thursday to their feet, but it also carried an air of menace. Yes, let’s put our petty squabbles aside and keep our eyes on the prize, but it was a sentiment most easily spoken by those in power. It favors their position and preserves their privileged. Simultaneously, we hear the echo of similar remarks and feel their threat from the new administration, as Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, on Thursday railed against journalists, dismissing them as the “opposition” and saying the media should “keep its mouth shut.” In times of trouble, there is danger in overvaluing unity.
We must remember that kicking and screaming, even about petty matters of city policy, is the last right people should be deprived of. When everything else is stripped away, humans, as long as they breathe, still have the right to resist. To suggest otherwise is anathema to the values Lee, and others, describe as defining our city. Remembering and exercising that freedom might make us inefficient and obnoxious, but it also makes us right.
Yes, now is the time to find ways to join hands across local political aisles, if we can, and focus on the bigger job we now face. The reach from the local so-called “moderate” Democratic bench to the local so-called “progressive” Democratic bench is typically not an insurmountable (or measurable) distance, even if we like to pretend it is.
I think, and hope, Lee was saying Thursday, let’s not forget about the people, and the stakes, we are fighting for in the fun of fighting. For them — those at risk of losing health care, education, families, legal status, jobs or homes due to the repressive policies of this new era — the political fights are more than about losing face, they’re about retaining life and liberty.
Over the next few years, at least, those of us who are deeply troubled by the policies and actions of our new president and care about protecting our local communities from abuses of executive power must fight for our country, but the battles must fought strategically, aggressively and methodically. We must understand against whom and what our collective larger quarrel is with.
Lee’s speech last week — his call for collective action, summation of San Francisco values and vow to fight federal incursions — was the right message for this moment, when the new administration and the fear it has engendered are still fresh and amorphous. Soon, it will be time to move on to more specific actions and plans, some of which will surely require tough choices. As Trump’s presidency takes shape, so must our response and our resolve.
Michael Howerton is the editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.