It’s been a summer in the spotlight for America’s mayors. For many of them, that focus has been quite cruel.
News consumers are lamentably familiar by now with names like de Blasio, Bowser, and Garcetti. Given the importance of the major metropolitan areas they govern, that’s unsurprising. What is surprising is the amount of public attention America’s smaller urban enclaves have generated, and that’s not because their respective mayors have been especially competent.
You’re probably familiar with Seattle’s chief executive officer, Jenny Durkan. As anti-police-violence protests took on a more violent character, her instinct was to cede whole sections of her city, including a police precinct, to the mob. You also know the name Ted Wheeler. Portland’s mayor has been forced out of his residence in the city he leads by protesters following three consecutive months of near nightly rioting. Despite obsequious displays of deference toward demonstrator and vandal alike, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is better known outside his municipality for the public humiliation he suffered at those same protesters’ hands. Mayor Lyda Krewson of St. Louis, whose permissive approach to this challenging moment produced results that were repeatedly highlighted by the GOP at the Republican National Convention, has also been forced out of her home by demonstrators.
But nearly every American city was confronted by precisely the same challenges that were imposed upon Seattle, Portland, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. And yet, so many of America’s mayors evaded the notoriety with which these more acquiescent public figures now contend. The relative obscurity of these lawmakers is due to the fact that they responded early and aggressively to the threat posed by lawless mobs.
Take, for example, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. For more than 80 days, Black Lives Matter protesters and Detroit police observed a tense but durable truce, and the conditions for preserving the peace were simple. As long as the movement was moving—literally, maintaining forward motion—there would be no interference with the protests from law enforcement. That peace was shattered in the final week of August when demonstrators turned violent and attempted to “occupy” a downtown street. “I am not going to let any group set up a Seattle zone of lawlessness here in the city of Detroit,” said Detroit Police Chief James Craig during a news conference. “That is non-negotiable.” That day, riot gear-clad police swarmed the section of the city in which demonstrators had gathered, arresting at least 44 protesters, confiscating weapons and body armor, and charging many of them with a variety of misdemeanor offenses. As of this writing, Mayor Dugan continues to sleep well in his home, free from the fear of forcible ejection by a violent mob.
Even despite its history, Newark, New Jersey managed to escape the kind of violence that typified the summer of 2020. In the early going, Mayor Ras Baraka received glowing praise in the mainstream press for successfully defusing the tensions that erupted following the killing of George Floyd. His mix of empathy, compassion, and stern governance got results. But the peace that has reigned in Newark is not a result of lax policing. When potential rioters threatened municipal facilities and commercial streets, they were met with and deterred by riot police. Indeed, while reforming police practices has been a focus of Baraka’s administration long before this most recent wave of demonstrations erupted, the mayor has taken an unequivocal stand against what he calls the “knee-jerk,” “bourgeois liberal” view that law enforcement should be disbanded or defunded.
It is true that these cities didn’t face the kind of sustained, organized violence that plagued places like Portland and Seattle. But Denver, Colorado most certainly did. And yet, the city has navigated this moment without making itself into an object of scorn.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock defined in clear terms the distinction between peaceful, productive protest and intolerable violence amid the very first signs of impending civil disorder. Those terms were repeatedly violated, and clashes between rioters and law enforcement in this notoriously progressive city have become a common occurrence. The local press has focused primarily on the police use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse violent crowds, citing activists who accused law enforcement of deploying non-lethal ordnance indiscreetly. But the city was and continues to be threatened by an organized menace.
“They had guns,” said Denver’s Public Safety Director Murphy Robinson following one late August spasm of violence. “They brought explosives, axes, machetes, and had one intent purpose, and that was to harm our officers.” Mayor Hancock has been similarly unequivocal. “We will not be using the words protest or march,” he averred. “This was a riot.” To this threat, the city responded by repealing COVID-related intake caps for local prisons, deploying hundreds of police, and dispersing potentially violent demonstrations. Police were assaulted and injured. Businesses were looted and vandalized. Residents were terrorized. But at no point did the city’s elected officials project anything other than intolerance for violence and, as result, Mayor Hancock remains blissfully unsung.
These and other urban elected officials laboring with aplomb amid the most taxing of circumstances are not going to become celebrities. Their quiet competence doesn’t inspire fits of rage in their political adversaries, and it bores the political press to tears. But those mayors who, at the outset of these demonstrations, set out to cast themselves as movement leaders rather than capable executives now find themselves languishing in infamy, unable to lay claim to either title. Effete political tastemakers may not appreciate their efforts, but the residents of their cities surely do.