Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How Philly can 'morally secede' from Trump's America

Washington won't help Philadelphia protect working families or the rights of immigrants for the next four years. But bold policies from City Hall -- a 'moral secession' from Donald Trump's America -- might help Philly survive.

As I write this, thousands of high school kids from Maryland to Southern California to Seattle are walking out of their classrooms to protest the election of Donald Trump and the values that Trump stands for. Add their names to the honor roll of millions who are determined not only to be heard but to somehow fight back for a forward-looking and inclusive America.

But how?

The notion of resistance is at odds with hard reality. Write your local member of Congress to complain? The wheels of the U.S. Capitol have already been greased to pass all of Trump's legislative agenda, thanks to a GOP majority in the Senate and an even bigger advantage in the House.

Lean on your state's Democratic senator to thwart Trump's agenda with the exact same tool that the GOP used to deny President Obama for most of the last eight years. the filibuster? Sorry -- the cowed, feckless Dems are already looking to play nice with the short-fingered-vulgarian-in-chief in a probably fruitless bid to save their rear ends in 2018.

File a lawsuit? Maybe, but Trump and his Senate majority are sure to confirm a slew of new right-wing judges, including a Supreme Court majority that will be defending the right of corporate personhood decades from now, long after my own personhood is six feet under.

No, the voices of resistance that ring the loudest -- because they come with a set of teeth -- are echoing far away from I-495, the Capital Beltway. In California, the state's two top legislative leaders issued a statement hailing the fact that Trump overwhelmingly lost in the nation's largest state and vowing to defend what the state has accomplished in everything from its cultural diversity to landmark laws on climate change. They wrote:

While Donald Trump may have won the presidency, he hasn't changed our values. America is greater than any one man or party. We will not be dragged back into the past. We will lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (who's never before been mentioned positively at Attytood, but I digress...) also stepped up to the plate on the rise of Trumpism:

"Whether you are gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, rich or poor, black or white or brown, we respect all people in the state of New York," Cuomo (D) wrote. "It's the very core of what we believe and who we are . . . We don't allow a federal government that attacks immigrants to do so in our state."

Of course, these strong statements aren't enough for some people. The day after the election, #Calexit -- i.e., the secession of California from the Union  -- was trending on Twitter for a time. But actual secession might not be the best strategy, even for states where residents expect the very worst from the 45th president. Ask South Carolina how that strategy worked out when they tried it. But there's a broader point here. States and even municipalities do have tools to counteract parts of the Trump agenda that their own citizens rejected at the polls last week. In fact, with Republican control of all three branches of federal government, this may be the only serious way that a regressive agenda can fought for the next two, four or (gasp) eight years.

Call it "moral secession." And what better place to break away from Donald Trump's America than the Cradle of Liberty, Philadelphia.

In the coming weeks, our civic leaders ought to be working hand in hand with activists, philanthropy, and even sympathetic businessmen to find any means necessary to not only protect but expand our diversity, the social safety net and economic opportunity. This is the only serious counter to the policies Trump said he would enact as a candidate.

So far, City Hall has laid down a temporary marker on the most controversial and possibly the most immediate crisis of the Trump era: Philadelphia's status as a "Sanctuary City" that doesn't notify federal immigration officials when undocumented immigrants are in police custody for nonviolent crimes. City officials say that it promotes trust in neighborhoods with large immigrant populatiuons -- but the program has become such a bete noire to conservative talk radio and GOP politicians that Philly now has rebranded itself a "4th Amendment City."

"We respect and live up to the Fourth Amendment, which means you can't be held against your will without a warrant from the court signed by a judge," Mayor Kenney said after Trump's election last week. "So, yeah, we will continue to be a Fourth Amendment city abiding by the Constitution."

But it's not clear what is Kenney's Plan B if Trump's Washington makes good on its threat to freeze millions of dollars in federal aid as our punishment for honoring the Bill of Rights. And the mayor -- who lacked mercy in ridiculing Trump's lack of qualifications on Twitter before the election -- is otherwise, for now, going the full Obama in making nice talk about finding common ground with his administration.

There's a better path. Yesterday, I reached out to at-large City Council member Helen Gym. Not only has Gym been a leading voice for progressive causes since her election last year, but she's also vice chair of a national group of urban leaders called Local Progress. For the last couple of years, this alliance has been working on solutions to some of the problems that seem most endangered by a Trump presidency: Immigrant rights, income inequality, criminal justice reform, and workers' rights.

The freshman councilwoman pointed to cities that acted when Washington or our increasingly conservative statehouses would not: Seattle and other localities that are moving to a $15 minimum wage, or the mandatory paid sick leave that  Philadelphia enacted last year. She noted that one of Local Progress' more recent efforts -- a campaign against Islamophobia -- has a new sense of urgency with the election of Trump, who had called for a ban on new Muslim arrivals in the United States.

Gym said she and other progressives are committed to "making sure that Philadelphia remains a moral place, where there's a level of resistance to policies that are out there but also, more importantly, thinking about what progressive politics are going to look like and that includes pushing ahead on pay equity, fair (worker) scheduling, investments in our public schools and the ways in which we do that."

What are some areas where cities like Philadelphia can buck the grim national trendline?

-- Immigrant rights: In addition to the uncertain fight over saving Sanctuary City/4th Amendment programs, the city can step up its efforts to reach immigrant communities through programs offering greater access to city services. According to The Nation magazine, other innovative cities in the arena include New Haven (Municipal ID cards), New York (free legal counsel to immigrants) and Los Angeles (counseling to speed the citizenship process).

-- Policing. With Trump elected on a "law-and-order" platform with the backing of most police unions, what better time for Philadelphia and cities like it to take the lead in the kind of efforts that are actually needed to improve police-community relations. Local activists have urged that Philadelphia use this time to better fund and strengthen the city's Police Advisory Commission and push for changes in upcoming contract negotiations to make it easier to discipline officers with records of brutality or other offenses.

-- Economic justice. Although blocked by Harrisburg from raising its minimum wage across the board, Philadelphia has made progress in recent years mandating higher minimum and prevailing wages for city subcontractors, service workers and city franchise holders, and there is more work to be done to increase pay and offer more job protections.

-- Health care. The may prove to be the most endangered key service in the city under a Trump administration; a sweeping repeal of Obamacare could reverse the last couple years of progress in providing health care to the previously uninsured. Mayor Kenney's push for community schools that would provide health care and other social services looms even larger than it did before November 8. But how can Philadelphia rapidly expand social services in an era where funds may be tight?

Gym and others would love to see philanthropy -- which from my vantage point has retreated somewhat in Philadelphia in the last couple of years -- become more supportive of local organizing and advocacy to help meet the unique challenges of the new political environment. Elsewhere, activists are looking at grassroots ways to replace social services that may disappear -- sort of in the spirit of the now legendary free-breakfast programs operated by the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s.

But in the short term, Philadelphia needs one more kind of moral leadership: Strong words. Citizens here need to be reassured that while the current doings in Washington are #NotNormal, Philadelphia will continue to find new ways to offer brotherly love and sisterly affection to the 1.5 million who live here. Let's be honest, this city may never be a utopia (not until Ben Simmons gets healthy, anyway), but the current crisis is also an opportunity -- to morally secede from the kind of hate that we heard in the 2016 campaign, and work on a better world in the place where we can. Here at home.