An Open Letter to Cities, Mayors, Members, and Ourselves
June 5, 2020
“The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
David Harvey, “The Right to the City”
We are anguished and heartbroken at the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and before them Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and innumerable others in American cities. NewCities stands in solidarity with the Black community in the United States and the millions of protestors who have defied police violence, martial law, and a deadly pandemic to march peacefully in their own communities and to reassert the rights of their neighbors to justice, to safety, and to the city itself.
NewCities’ mission is “shaping a better urban future.” It should go without saying that this must be a better urban future for all, and yet the reason there are currently millions of people in city streets is the stark realization, once again, that the public realm has been historically denied to Black people and weaponized against them.
George Floyd and Eric Garner were killed in the street. Breonna Taylor was at home. Ahmaud Arbery was out for his daily run. Sandra Bland was arrested driving to the store. Tamir Rice was playing in a park. Trayvon Martin was walking home. These are just their own heartbreaking stories (and there are countless more).
We can easily see the urban scale of Black deaths if we choose to look. As American protestors fight for justice in American streets, it is difficult to ignore that some of these neighborhoods were revoked from Black communities through urban planning, policy, and design: gentrification, white flight, redlining, inaccessible mobility, to name a few. The legacies of racial discrimination, segregation, and “weathering” of their health means Black people are dying at a rate nearly two times higher than most Americans from COVID-19. In a tragic twist, George Floyd’s autopsy revealed he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
But the current protests — like hundreds of demonstrations over the last decade alone — were not provoked by institutional racism writ large, but by one of its primary instruments: police brutality and impunity. It should come as no surprise that Minneapolis police use force against Black residents at seven times the rate of whites.  Nor is it a surprise that 99% of police killings between 2013-2019 resulted in no charges being filed. What sparked these protests was outrage that three of the four police officers implicated in Floyd’s death were not initially charged. (On June 3, they were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.)
This pattern is not the product of a few bad actors or a broken system, but of some of the most celebrated policies of the last 30 years, whose most vocal proponents have been hailed for “saving” cities. As “broken windows” over-policing devolved into “stop and frisk” — effectively criminalizing being in public space for those profiled — whites who benefitted from these policies chose to look away even as they displaced Black residents from their neighborhoods. Urbanists should be shocked but not surprised today to hear the U.S. Secretary of Defense refer to American streets as a “battlespace.” Whose side are we on?
We are angry at ourselves and our city leaders. It is not enough to “do better” or to lay the blame at institutional racism’s feet. We must work together in our individual capacities to reform what aspects of these systems that can be saved and to dismantle those that cannot. For as long as the societies we live in will value property and shattered glass more than human lives, we will stand united with civil rights organizations and protestors alike. We see you, we hear you, and we are together.
For our part, we at NewCities pledge to prioritize these issues in our own work going forward and to not treat racist institutions and systems as regrettable legacies to be moved on from, but as intractable problems that must be relentlessly addressed. Whether the subject at hand is wellbeing, housing, mobility, or climate change, we promise to center Black and brown voices and to not elide their experiences. We will also not shy away from challenging and heated conversations as, only then, we will challenge systemic oppression and see growth within the urban community.
We also call upon mayors and other public officials at the municipal, state, and federal levels in the United States to fulfill their responsibilities to their Black constituents — beginning with using all of the fiscal- and oversight tools at their disposal to restrain the police forces assaulting peaceful protestors. Mayors seem unable, if not unwilling, to hold police accountable. As New York City Police Department vehicles drove into crowds, sprayed mace, and wielded their batons against protestors, Mayor Bill de Blasio attested they had “shown a lot of restraint” and “acted appropriately.”  If even our mayors cannot demand accountability from police, then who will? Who protects Black constituents?
There are no solutions to be had within the constrained discourse of contemporary American urbanism, which celebrates a public realm that was built on Black exclusion and fueled by wealth created from Black expropriation. It is a discourse we must reform or dismantle alongside other institutions.
This is because we strongly believe in the right to the city, which the United Nations has ratified as a human right. The right to transform and be transformed by the city is on one level the struggle that is currently being fought on America’s streets night after night. It is a right worth fighting for. “The revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of that term,” wrote David Harvey, “or nothing at all.”
The NewCities Team
John, Stéphanie, Eve, Greg, Hannah, Musarrat, Rachel, Salomé, Esther, Thea, Holly, Michael, Anthea.
We center Equity and Inclusion in all of our efforts as an organization to confront and disrupt biases, stereotypes, and discrimination, and combat systemic racism and anti-blackness. We put together a non-exhaustive list of resources including live discussions, videos, books, organizations, profiles, and articles, that we listened to, read, followed, and discussed as a team.