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War Is L.A. City Council's Business

Grass-roots democracy has an honored place in U.S. history.

March 02, 2003|Ralph E. Shaffer and Walter P. Coombs

When the Los Angeles City Council adopted a resolution opposing a unilateral war on Iraq, it followed in the footsteps of more than two centuries of protest by local elected representatives in American towns and cities. From the turmoil preceding the American Revolution to the sanctuary movement of the mid-1980s, local councils have asserted their right to speak out on issues that affect their residents, whether or not the ultimate authority rests with them.

Supporters of the president's desire for a "go it alone if necessary" war argued on conservative talk shows and in editorials that a city council has no business voting on foreign policy or any other topic that is outside the scope of local government. They charged that the L.A. council wasted time and money debating the issue when it should have been acting on crime, housing for homeless veterans, controlling unspayed dogs or resolving the burglar alarm mess.

But they are wrong. The antiwar champions are inheritors of a U.S. protest movement that stretches back to the 1760s and 1770s.

Town meetings, particularly in Massachusetts, adopted resolutions opposing changes in the British taxation system that placed increased financial burdens on the Colonies. New York City condemned Parliament's closure of Boston's port in 1774.

Later, city councils in Chicago and Cincinnati nullified the congressional Fugitive Slave Act and barred local officials from participating in the return of runaways. Vermont voted itself a sanctuary, and every person within its borders was declared free; by state law there were no fugitive slaves in Vermont. Yet such actions were largely symbolic.

Critics correctly argued that only Parliament, not town meetings, could deal with the taxation of Colonial trade. Slavery, they charged, was not a city matter, and the Fugitive Slave Act precluded any interference by state or local governments.

Yet had the view prevailed that municipal government should not concern itself with matters better left to Congress, fugitive slaves seeking freedom in the North would have been returned to the brutality of involuntary servitude.

During World War II, city councils in Stockton, Upland and Sunnyvale adopted resolutions urging that Japanese internees not be permitted to return to California. During the Cold War, the Berkeley City Council declared that community to be a nuclear-free zone. Forty-six city councils, led by Northampton, Mass., have denounced the Patriot Act. The Los Angeles City Council endorsed the first Gulf War.

The critics who raised objections to the antiwar resolution on grounds that the council had no authority in the matter are somewhat suspect themselves. Right-wing militias, border-crossing vigilantes and the "put God back in the schoolhouse" crowd never hesitate to seek adoption of resolutions by local government when it promotes their agenda, even if their resolutions have no binding force. Twenty years ago, for instance, similar groups tried to make English the official language in Monterey Park.

If members of the council who voted for the antiwar resolution are hypocrites, as some of their critics suggested, then the answer is to challenge the council to follow through on providing homes for the homeless and food for the hungry.

If the council's critics are, as expected, silent on these matters in the next few weeks, perhaps the term "hypocrite" should be applied elsewhere.

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Ralph E. Shaffer and Walter P. Coombs are professors emeriti at Cal Poly Pomona. E-mail: reshaffer@csupomona.edu.

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