A “sewer socialism” for Buffalo

I read a fantastic article from Barcelona en Comú, a participatory democracy movement that arose in Barcelona in the wake of the financial crisis, that calls for the creation of “a network of rebel cities to stand up to Trump.” Describing a strategy of engaging in city-level politics to empower working class Catalonians to resist austerity, the article invoked the “sewer socialism” that governed the Rust Belt city of Milwaukee for almost 50 years.

The name “sewer socialism” immediately caught my attention since the criminally abject state of Buffalo’s sewers (if you didn’t know, due to their combined overflow architecture, every time it rains they literally spew shit into the Niagara River) and the dire necessity of their reconstruction is a favorite topic of mine.

Milwaukee’s “sewer socialism” was a pragmatic populism that derived its appeal from programs to improve residents’ quality of life. Milwaukee’s socialist governments built parks and housing, took over street lighting, sewage disposal, and water purification, and established the first public bus system in the United States.

In Buffalo, the upcoming year holds a mayoral election and we are again faced with the prospect of re-electing an establishment corporatist Democrat.

Last election, Byron Brown cruised to an easy victory against an essentially un-funded Republican candidate on a campaign based on Brown’s achievements in his first two terms. Brown claimed that his administration had made Buffalo “stronger, safer, smarter.”

But it’s not really apparent that that is the case.

For the $1.7 billion in economic development claimed in Brown’s campaign ad, much of which was subsidized with public money, the benefit has mostly accrued to real estate developers and construction firms, who were rich already and mostly white. Construction projects create temporary jobs, but big public projects have been plagued with inequity regarding hiring even for those jobs.

For Brown’s 225 new police officers, 202 surveillance cameras, and “zero tolerance” crime policy, the city’s homicide clearance rate since 2013 is less than 35%.

Despite the mayor’s summer reading program, the high school graduation rate just hit a recent high of 61% this year.

And for all the progress that Brown claimed, only 26,120 people voted for him, fewer than the number of people who voted in the Democratic primary for president this year. (For a comparison, consider that in 1917 socialist candidate Franklin P Brill received 14,695 votes in the Buffalo mayoral primary.) Brown is vexed by the same lack of enthusiasm that lost Hillary Clinton the Presidential election this year and he represents the same politics on the local level that she did on the national scale.

Even with the media and business community (which, as I pointed out in an earlier post, are essentially indistinguishable) and the Democratic party which controls city politics throwing all their support behind Brown, an organized and energetic movement from the left could very well move Brown’s policies to the left or even replace him with someone better.

Below I’ve sketched out a “sewer socialism” platform for Buffalo that is aimed at being easy to understand, articulating a plan to improve people’s material conditions, and making government responsive to the people.

The platform is arranged around six main objectives:

  1. End racist and anti-poor policing
  2. Ensure development benefits everyone
  3. Build and rebuild essential infrastructure
  4. Municipalize public services
  5. Invest in local food production and distribution
  6. End the sale of policy to the highest bidder

For each objective, I’ve highlighted some policies to achieve it.

End racist and anti-poor policing

In all of his campaigns, Byron Brown has campaigned as a law and order candidate. When he first ran in 2005, a centerpiece of Brown’s campaign was what he described as “an aggressive Zero Tolerance law enforcement plan” targeting quality of life crimes. He highlighted this effort in his re-election campaigns in 2009 and 2013.

The effect of this policy, which shares its ideological roots with the unconstitutional “stop and frisk” practice, has been to turn the police against some of the city’s most vulnerable communities. Brown’s zero tolerance policy has unfairly targeted Buffalo’s black neighborhoods with checkpoints, vertical patrols of public housing, and overzealous code enforcement in the name of controlling crime. People are unfairly stopped and questioned by police for the offense of driving in mostly poor, mostly black neighborhoods. They’re arrested for visiting friends who live in public housing. They’re saddled with fines they can’t afford for minor code violations that aren’t enforced in rich, white neighborhoods. For all this, Buffalo has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country with one of the lowest rates of solving them.

Is it any wonder that 41% of Buffalonians – and 56% of black Buffalonians – don’t feel like they can trust the police?

    • End zero tolerance for quality of life violations

Zero tolerance policing does not meaningfully reduce violent crime, but insteads saddles targeted communities – which are overwhelmingly comprised of people of color – with unfair debts and criminal records, creating an unfair playing field and inhibiting the legitimacy of the police

    • End unconstitutional checkpoints

Checkpoints centered on the East Side and Buffalo Public Housing to interrogate and search drivers without individualized suspicion are unconstitutional and their disparate impact on Buffalo’s non-white populations are a civil rights violation. They must cease.

    • Deprioritize marijuana

Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and ought to be legalized. Buffalo Police should make marijuana enforcement its lowest priority and decline to cooperate with federal authorities investigating and prosecuting marijuana crimes.

    • Make Buffalo a sanctuary city

Buffalo is on an international border and is home to thousands of immigrants. Considering the targeting of immigrants by former US Attorney William Hochul and the new threat posed by the incoming Donald Trump administration, Buffalo needs to adopt policies to protect our vital immigrant communities: prohibiting Buffalo police from inquiring about people’s immigration status, allocating no resources to immigration enforcement, and declining to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

    • Expand residency requirement for police officers

A great success for Mayor Brown was the seven-year residency requirement secured in the 2015 contract signed with Buffalo police officers. Having officers reside in the communities that they police is important for developing mutual empathy and respect. That requirement should be expanded so police officers must reside in the City of Buffalo during their entire tenure on the force.

Ensure development benefits everyone

There’s no shortage of reports touting Buffalo’s renaissance. While local news has marveled over massive expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, coastal media has been buzzing about the return of the millennials where even with a low-paying, precarious job they “live like kings” compared to in New York or San Francisco.

While the proliferation of massive construction projects, loft conversions, and bars where you can buy a $10 cocktail is undeniable, the list of people who have realized a benefit beyond an expanded choice of prestige consumer goods is short and racially quite homogenous.

Indeed, much of the lauded “revitalization” has come at the expense of black Buffalo communities. As rents and home values have gone through the roof in the newly trendy West Side and in the Fruit Belt adjacent to the medical campus, poorer residents have been forced out of their homes, coerced by economic pressure to sell their homes to investors and real estate developers and driven out by unffordable rents.

Meanwhile, major landowners and construction firms like Ciminelli Real Estate, LPCiminelli, and Ellicott Development have made hundreds of millions of dollars on projects receiving massive taxpayer subsidies and made viable by public funded projects nearby. These developers are prolific donors to Buffalo’s political class, and benefit from the access and public appointments their campaign dollars buy.

While Buffalo needs continued public and private investment to rebuild its fractured communities, the city needs to take measures to ensure that the benefits of development are widely enjoyed and do not work perpetuate racial and economic inequity.

    • Inclusionary zoning

To counter the pressures of rising rents and rising inequality, in any new residential development, 30% of the units must be reserved as affordable housing for people whose income is less than 60% of the median income.

    • Establish community land trusts

The city must use its resources to establish community land trusts, with a priority on creating them in neighborhoods facing gentrification. Community land trusts will allow neighborhood residents to exert control over development in their communities, preventing displacement by removing land from the speculative market and further ensuring that new residential development remains affordable.

Build and rebuild essential infrastructure

As hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent shifting existing services to the medical campus and on building out facilities for private companies, the crisis of Buffalo’s infrastructure has gone essentially unaddressed. Buffalo has been under an order from the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade its sewer system since 2012. In many of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods – which are disproportionately communities of color – sidewalks are in such miserable condition that people are forced to walk in the streets. This has already led to deaths as pedestrians forced into the street have been hit by drivers.

Rebuilding this essential infrastructure – and embarking on ambitious new public works such as constructing a municipal broadband utility and continuing the Brown administration’s good work expanding bicycle infrastructure – is a solid investment in the longevity of our communities that will have the added benefit of providing living wage work for hundreds of Buffalonians.

    • Sewers

Buffalo Sewer Authority has had a $380 million long-term plan approved by the EPA to mitigate the effects of combined sewer overflows. The next administration should study and find the resources to complete a separation of the city’s storm sewers and sanitary sewers.

    • Sidewalks

Triage and repair all city sidewalks to ensure that they are useable by city residents.

    • Internet for all

Today, access to the internet is almost as important as access to electricity. The city should study the feasibility of and embark upon the construction of a municipally owned broadband utility to bring high-speed internet access to all Buffalonians.

    • Bike lanes

Continue building bike lanes, bike racks, and other bicycle infrastructure detailed in the City’s Bike Master Plan.

Municipalize services

When municipal services are operated by private companies responsible for delivering a profit to their owners there is an incentive to do as little as possible and divert as much public money as they can to shareholders.

In an investigation following the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, it was revealed that Buffalo’s water operator Veolia was gaming its lead tests by not testing the water in neighborhoods with the highest rates of lead poisoning and by testing in such a manner as to reduce the amount of lead in the sample.

Other municipal services that have been outsourced to private companies include trash and recycling collection, contracts for which have been highly politicized. Modern Corporation, which collects garbage and recycling, is consistently among the largest campaign donors to Byron Brown. Local gas and electric utilities are also large campaign donors and play significant roles in the unofficial local power structure, including the Buffalo Nigara Partnership and on local non-profit and cultural boards.

By municipalizing these services, i.e. bringing them under control of the city government, we can eliminate the profit motive from the provision of essential city services, increase their transparency and accountability to the public, and improve our carbon footprint by exerting greater control over energy sources and waste disposal.

    • De-privatize water and waste collection

Cancel contracts with Veolia and Modern Corporation and build city departments to manage the city’s water system and waste collection.

    • Introduce municipal composting

Divert waste from landfills by mandating that homes and businesses in the city compost their organic waste.

    • Municipalize energy utilities

Exlpore the creation of municipally owned gas and electric utilities to provide these essential services to Buffalonians transparently and without profit motive.

Invest in local food production and distribution

Facing the depression of 1893, Mayor Hazen Pingree of Detroit initiated an urban agriculture program to allot land to the city’s unemployed to supplement their food supply and income and to promote self-respect and independence. A similar program was undertaken by Edgar Jewett of Buffalo the same year and later in Omaha, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.

Now, in the face of widespread land vacancy as well as devastating unemployment and unequal access to fresh food, Buffalo should invest in an urban agriculture program to train and employ people growing food and selling in it Buffalo.

Urban agriculture can not only employ and feed people, it can also divert stormwater from the city’s overtaxed sewer system and food waste from the landfill, fix atmospheric carbon in the soil, and create attractive green spaces that increase the quality of life in areas of the city most affected by disinvestment.

    • Build community gardens & markets in city parks

To increase access to healthy and locally grown food, the City should dedicate space in its parks to community gardens and public markets. Parks are centrally located in Buffalo neighborhoods – including so-called “food deserts” which are underserved by stores that sell wholesome foods – and are natural gathering places, ideally positioning them for participation in gardening and shopping at markets.

    • Urban agriculture jobs program

The City should embark upon a major jobs program in urban agriculture, paying people to grow and distribute food within the city, akin to those in Buffalo and other cities in the late nineteenth century.

End the sale of policy to highest bidder

It is no secret that the elite donor class enjoys outsized influence on policymakers at every political level. In Buffalo, city politics is often noncompetitive as representatives that enjoy the backing of the business community and the Democratic party are all but assured electoral wins at the polls. Such a system strips ordinary citizens of power to influence policy and discourages political participation as revealed by the abysmal voter turnout in local elections.

For decades, Buffalo’s economic policy has been driven by the desires of a coalition of business elites today represented by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the 43×79 Group. The backers of these organizations – which include banks and real estate developers as well as the Buffalo News and the University at Buffalo – pour money into local races rendering them uncompetitive and thus ensuring a narrow scope of local policy discussion.

By enacting a public campaign finance system similar to that in place in New York City, establishing a directory of businesses and people doing business with the city to avoid conflicts of interest, and dramatically expanding the participatory budgeting program being piloted in the Masten District, Buffalo can empower its residents to take a greater role in how their tax dollars are spent and encourage a more diverse range of candidates for public office.

    • Introduce public campaign finance system

In 2014, the Common Council formed a committee to come up with a plan to implement public campaign financing in Buffalo. Such a system of contribution-matching is key to empowering small donors and driving political participation. Public financing will facilitate challengers to incumbents from outside the political establishment, injecting new ideas into the political discussion through increased competition.

    • Establish a public directory of people doing business with the city

Keeping a directory of people and companies that do business with the city is an important complement to a public campaign finance system in order to restrict the influence of businesses that stand to benefit from city deals over politics. A “doing business” directory is also a crucial transparency measure to provide public accountability to city vendors.

    • City-wide expansion of participatory budgeting

The introduction of participatory budgeting of $150,000 in the Masten district was an inspiring pilot project in increasing democratic control over the allocation of community resources. This program should be expanded to every council district as well as to a pot of money city-wide.

The proposals outlined above are just some that I was able to think of that would do this, but the list is by no means exhaustive. For example, it does not explicitly address the horrific state of education in the city, though the mayor has little control over the public schools and further, I believe that the provision of economic security, security in food, and freedom from police harassment for Buffalo families would do a lot to improve educational outcomes.

One hundred years ago, a socialist candidate named Franklin P Brill came close to winning the mayoral election in Buffalo, running on a platform of “adding initiative, recall, and proportional representation to charter, municipal markets and food terminals selling necessities at cost, more and better paid teachers, free meals for students, free health facilities and municipal nurseries, increase in playgrounds and adult recreation facilities, municipal ownership of utilities and asphalt plant, and increased public works during periods of high unemployment.”

There’s a lot of work to do. There isn’t a ton of indication that the people of Buffalo are hungry for progressive politics. Hillary Clinton won the city handily in the primary with 20,921 votes to Bernie Sanders’s 15,773. Further, the majority of Bernie’s votes came from Buffalo’s rich white neighborhoods in the Elmwood Village and North Buffalo.

However, by engaging people with policies that speak to their concerns about racism, gentrification, lack of jobs, and political corruption, Buffalo residents can be energized and enthused to participate in an election to demand that 2017’s candidates take steps to meaningfully improve their material conditions.

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One thought on “A “sewer socialism” for Buffalo

  1. The Greens are the only political party would support this platform. Bring your ideas to the Greens they are presently discussing the up coming mayoral race.

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