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Global Crises, Local Impacts: Threats to Social Cohesion and How Cities Can Respond (April 2024)

— 18 minutes reading time

On 24 April 2024, the Strong Cities Network hosted the fifth in a series of monthly webinars on Global Crises, Local Impacts: Threats to Social Cohesion and How Cities Can Respond. Successive global crises – from COVID-19 and migration to the war in Ukraine, climate change and, most immediately, the Israel-Gaza crisis – have had impacts on social cohesion in cities around the world, including in North America and Europe. Convened under the auspices of the Strong Cities Transatlantic Dialogue Initiative, representatives of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism (ECCAR) briefed webinar participants on the evolving threat picture, and officials from Berlin (Germany) and the US cities of Boise (Idaho) and Rochester (New York) shared challenges and approaches they have taken to navigate the various effects of these crises on their residents and deescalate inter-communal tensions.

Eric Rosand, Executive Director, Strong Cities Network, briefed participants on the origins of the Strong Cities Global Crises, Local Impacts Initiative, and how the monthly webinar series was launched in response to growing requests from the Network’s members and other engaged cities to provide support and peer learning as they try to navigate the local impacts of global crises.

  1. Since 7 October, the threat picture has become increasingly more hybridised (i.e., different actors coalescing around shared interests and forming unlikely alliances); there has been fragmentation within extremist groups (i.e., divided in their hate or support for various causes); and there has been an amplification of polarisation (i.e., with state actors weaponising polarisation to undermine democracy).
  2. A spike in both antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate has highlighted the broader intersectional impact on social cohesion, even with cities with only small Jewish or Muslim communities. The result is a call to action for cities of all sizes – big or small, urban or rural – to invest in prevention frameworks that address hate, extremism and polarisation before crises hit, including inter alia structured frameworks in schools and workplaces.
  3. Cities have to strike a careful, thoughtful and transparent balance between fulfilling their responsibility to allow residents to engage in peaceful and legal protests – manifestations of fundamental rights of freedom, association and speech – while securing public order and safety. It is paramount that cities have in place clear, transparent processes (including consultations with protest organisers) to establish an approach for mitigating and managing demonstrations. Cities should also have a framework in place through which to identify which communities are rendered vulnerable in the aftermath of a protest or during heightened inter-communal tensions and which will require additional protection and/or support.
  4. Investing in relationship-building with community stakeholders before a crisis occurs not only supports a comprehensive and coordinated response in times of crisis but helps build trust in government that can provide a strong foundation for prevention and resilience.
  5. When it comes to global crises, cities should consider providing spaces for meaningful dialogue and discourse with and between communities, rather than investing limited council time and resources into what may otherwise be symbolic acts. While there will be differences around how cities – and city councils – handle global crises at the local level, driven by not only the makeup of the councils but the priorities of the communities themselves, a city should consider what issues the city has power to affect and at what cost to addressing local issues.

Milo Comerford, Director of Policy and Research, Counter-Extremism, Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), noted that the ongoing Israel-Gaza crisis has created a heightened environment for hate, extremism mobilisation and polarisation across the Atlantic; trends expected to continue throughout 2024, and potentially exacerbated by a busy election year. Mr. Comerford shared three key dynamics ISD had observed post-7 October. First, he described a hybridisation of the threat environment, with different threat actors – including far-right and Islamist groups – coalescing around shared interests and forming unlikely alliances at the local level. He reported that in the UK, for example, far-right and Islamist influences have been appearing on each other’s podcasts to help spread anti-Semitic narratives. While in the United States, terrorist propaganda has been amplified on Telegram, with the response to the events of 7 October heralded and celebrated by actors across the ideological spectrum. In Switzerland, there had been an attack on a Jewish man by a youth who had allegedly declared allegiance to ISIS and been influenced by both far-right and Salafi jihadist online content. Mr. Comerford warned that this coalescence of diverse extremist ecosystems around a shared issues is a new dynamic, and one that will be much more challenging to address.

Milo Comerford, Director of Policy and Research, Counter-Extremism, Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD)

The second observed dynamic that has emerged in parallel with this hybridisation is a fragmentation within extremist groups. In countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom, for example, far-right factions are divided in their hate towards Jews and Muslims, with varying support for Palestinian and Israeli causes. Likewise, divisions have emerged within social justice groups based on differing views on Hamas. The third dynamic is an amplification of polarisation, with state actors weaponsing polarisation to undermine liberal democracies in Europe and North America, and a particular focus on highlighting perceived double standards in Western foreign policies. Iran and Russia, for example, have amplified both hard left and far right voices for their own ends, and this being applied in highly localised contexts, including through the use of French and Spanish language outlets to reach specific audiences in Europe. Mr. Comerford said this has also been a key feature of specific influence campaigns around the European parliamentary elections, particularly in relation to support for Ukraine versus that for Palestinians. Beyond geopolitical dynamics, this is producing and fomenting a chaotic information environment, which is being exploited to spread hate and violence.

Danijel Cubelic, City of Heidelberg (Germany) and Vice President of the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism (ECCAR), shared work ECCAR is leading on anti-Muslim and antisemitism racism and challenges being faced by the coalition’s 150 member cities. He described a seismic increase in both antisemitic and anti-Muslim incidents, including verbal and physical assaults, attacks on synagogues and mosques, and attacks and vandalism in schools. Mr. Cubelic also underscored the broader intersectional impact of these attacks on social cohesion, even in cities with only small Jewish or Muslim communities. He stressed the importance of cities building and developing their expertise in addressing hate crimes, including by establishing offices, protocols and having spokespeople with the requisite expertise to speak to antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate on behalf of a city. ECCAR has also identified a need for more clear, structured response frameworks in schools and workplaces, as well as stronger cooperation with security organisations, and supporting members through guides, toolkits and other resources.

Danijel Cubelic, City of Heidelberg (Germany), Vice President of the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism (ECCAR)

The three cities taking part in the panel discussion – Boise (Idaho, USA), with a population of around 240,000; Berlin (Germany), with a population of close to 4 million; and Rochester (New York, USA), with a population of around 220,000 – have each faced significant protests and other local manifestations arising from global crises.

Rochester (New York) is the third biggest city in the State of New York. Mitch Gruber, Councilmember At Large, shared that his city, with deep roots in social justice, is currently struggling with a deep distrust in government and other institutions, developed – in part – as a reaction to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and manifesting in increasingly aggressive calls (around many issues) for City Hall to be more accessible and responsive to its residents. Since 7 October, the city has faced protests within and around City Hall calling for the Council to pass an Israel-Gaza ceasefire resolution.

Mitch Gruber, City Councilmember At Large, City of Rochester (New York), USA

Mr. Gruber, the only Jewish member of the City Council, shared that while he was not in favour of the Council taking up a resolution on an international issue (which he viewed as beyond the Council’s mandate), a majority of Council members wanted to take up the issue. He decided to “dig in” to support the drafting of a “narrowly tailored resolution” and led consultations with community stakeholders. The resolution faced considerable push back from community stakeholders, including the Jewish Federation, which felt the proposed language was antisemitic – a characterisation Mr. Gruber strongly rejected. The Federation encouraged residents to attend Council meetings to protest. Many residents also reached out to him directly. Ultimately, the ceasefire resolution was approved, and the protests ceased, but he underscored the serious impact of the process, which he described as difficult, divisive and, in some cases, disturbing.

Berlin (Germany), a founding member of the Strong Cities Network and a member of the Network’s International Steering Committee, has also faced challenges in navigating local protests sparked by broader global and national crises. Jörg Rock, Head of Supervision of the Berlin City Police, Berlin Senate Department of the Interior and Sport, noted that Berlin has seen many protests over the decades. For example, while protests by farmers in reaction to cuts on subsidies caused widespread travel disruption, they did not have a lasting impact on security or social cohesion. In contrast, protests around Israel-Gaza have had a noticeable impact, with many protests turning violent and requiring additional and extended protection of synagogues and other significant buildings. Prolonged protests regarding climate change have also presented considerable disruptions to public order and safety and led to vandalism and destruction.

Jörg Rock, Head of Supervision of the Berlin City Police, Berlin Senate Department of the Interior and Sport, Germany

Boise (Idaho) is a city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, set in a valley with a number of smaller cities and a combined population of about a million residents. Kate Nelson, Director of Community Partnerships in the Office of the Mayor of Boise, described the city as existing in an urban, rural divide, with the distinction of being somewhat of “a testing ground and a stronghold for white extremism”, which continues to pose a threat to local social cohesion. Ms. Nelson said that since the COVID-19 global pandemic, Boise has experienced the local impacts of what ISD described as a hybridised threat environment. Shortly after coming into office during the pandemic, Mayor Lauren McLean (the city’s first female mayor) was targeted by protesters at her home, armed with torches and pitchforks, based on her championing of pandemic restrictions. In August 2020, a large crowd of far-right residents stormed the State Capitol in protest of how the state had navigated its reopening following the pandemic. A local commissioner, and her children, were also targeted and threatened at their home.

Ms. Nelson said that the Israel-Gaza crisis has impacted Boise at a commensurate or on a smaller scale to what Rochester had experienced, with residents mobilising more through electronic communications and phone calls rather than on-the-ground demonstrations. She noted that pro-Israeli support has been largely in the form of organised outreach, for example by the Anti Defamation League, whereas those reaching out in support of Palestine have been predominantly individuals.

Kate Nelson, Director of Community Partnerships in the Office of the Mayor, Boise (Idaho), USA

Cities have to strike a careful, thoughtful and transparent balance between fulfilling their responsibility to allow residents to engage in peaceful and legal protests – manifestations of fundamental rights of freedom, association and speech – and securing public order and public safety.

Mr. Rock noted that Berlin maintains strong ties with Israel and particular focus on preventing and addressing antisemitism and hate. The city is also home to a large migrant population (40%) and has come under fire for refusing to authorise some pro-Palestinian protests, which the city has said was necessary to stop public disorder and prevent public antisemitism. He underscored that, pursuant to the city’s Freedom of Assembly law, Berlin has a duty to allow legitimate and legal protests and that, since 7 October, more than 300 protests – many highly charged, calling for an end to Israel’s military intervention in Gaza – have gone ahead. The police have recorded nearly 202,500 crimes committed during these protests, including damage to property and other violent acts, which has in turn placed immense pressure on law enforcement to protect Jewish/Israeli soft targets.

The challenge facing cities, like Berlin, is also evident in the context of protests around climate change. The Last Generation is a climate action movement founded in 2021, which aims to draw attention to what they describe as a looming climate collapse, and whose protests and demonstrations are designed to attract attention and elicit political action. Mr. Rock said that some of the protests have had a direct impact on city life, including freedom of movement and preventing ambulances from serving residents. The Last Generation has also used paint to vandalise yachts, iconic paintings and buildings, representing a significant challenge for police, which has tried to prevent protesters from further action through temporary detention and criminal proceedings. He said that the Last Generation is currently focusing more on so-called disobedient assemblies, with protestors appearing at random places. While the protests have raised awareness of the climate issue, he reported that the negative impact on residents and city life appears to have suppressed public support for the cause and has not to date delivered the political action the protests aimed to achieve.

Increasingly, cities are reporting that outside (often online) actors are seeking to leverage and/or take advantage of local impacts of global crises to foment division and/or further their own agenda. In Rochester, for example, council members received on average 1500 – 2000 emails each, either in favour or opposed to the Council’s proposed Israel-Gaza ceasefire resolution. Of those, Mr. Gruber estimated that around 90% of the emails appeared, prima facie, to be the product of “clicktivism” (i.e., pre-formulated templates that people can use to support a cause at the click of a mouse or pressing a button on a smart phone), and did not reflect the resolution’s draft language, which he the council members were trying to negotiate with the community.

Ms. Nelson also shared the experience of Twin Falls (Idaho), a rural farming community not far from Boise. Twin Falls and Boise both proactively welcome refugee settlement and are certified under the Welcoming America initiative. At the height of campaigning and following the 2016 presidential election (which featured strong anti-immigrant rhetoric), false reports circulated depicting refugees in Twin Falls has having perpetrated very violent sexual crimes. The reports, which brought a media maelstrom to Twin Falls, were later found to have originated in Russia, and picked up and exploited by outside online actors eager to push an anti-Muslim narrative and to try to influence the municipal/state governments. Boise’s mayor has responded to this incident by maintaining an active presence on social media and articulating loudly her support for targeted groups. She also advocates for a public health approach to addressing social determinants of health, developing social capital and strengthening social cohesion.

Mr. Rock said that while there were actors, particularly in the online space, seeking to leverage and/or otherwise take advantage of heighted tensions/local impacts of global crises in Berlin for their own agenda, police remain more focused on “on-the-ground” actors, rather than online information, and ensuring protests remain lawful. He did, however, note that Berlin police were working closely with the city and with the offices of local elected officials to provide protection where they or their staff or families have received threats, including from online sources; a concerning trend and manifestation of anti-establishment sentiment which so many cities around the world are now facing.

The importance of building and maintaining relationships – between city departments, with law enforcement and with and between residents and community stakeholders – is frequently cited by cities as crucial for building the requisite foundation for trust, prevention, resilience and response.

Mr. Gruber emphasised the centrality of building and maintaining relationships to Rochester’s approach, including close working relationships between the City Council and the Mayor’s office. He expressed frustration that the debate over the Israel-Gaza ceasefire resolution took time and effort away from local issues that the City Council and the Mayor’s office needed to address. For example, he pointed to a recent example where the council was unable to provide a timely response to an emergency around the city’s water system because it was consumed by its consideration of the ceasefire resolution.

He acknowledged that listening to residents and engaging with them on issues that were important to the community are central roles for the Council. He added that the make-up of each city council will influence what issues receive attention. Ultimately, he said, much of the heat and polarisation around local impacts of global crises can be mitigated if cities can provide spaces for meaningful dialogue and discourse, including around symbolic actions (e.g., a city resolution) that will have little/no practical impact on the issue at hand.

Ms. Nelson noted that, given the pace at which misinformation spreads, establishing trust and leveraging relationships built over time is crucial. In Boise, “when we are not reacting to a crisis, investing energy and resources into building and sustaining those relationships with community leaders are crucial”. The city looks very intentionally at the different geographic areas to find creative ways to build and sustain relationships, “so that when there is potential or when misinformation comes about, we are able to call upon those individuals have those discussions”. She added, “and as part of our ensuring our readiness, we also try to have regular convenings with these coalitions, which we can also utilise as mechanisms to have these conversations instead of reacting in the moment”.

Ms. Nelson underscored the importance of maintaining strong community relationships prior to and through a crisis. Boise’s mayor is particularly focused on addressing social determinants of health to support and improve social cohesion, with policies aligned with city health initiatives to promote both the health and well-being of communities. She also emphasised the importance of building and maintaining community trust in government through proactive engagement, such as a regular convenings of community partners to ensure preparedness for crises and cutting through misinformation by leveraging the strong relationships and trust with communities.

Mr. Rock similarly emphasised the importance of building and maintaining strong networks and communicating effectively with all stakeholders, including early consultations with protest organisers to determine how their right to protest can proceed safely and legitimately. He also underscored the importance of “sticking with our values”, noting that global and national crises can place significant burdens on liberal societies, and for security agencies to “remain neutral and keep their cool hat on” despite, and in the face of, increasing polarisation and heightened inter-communal tensions.

“Much of the heat and polarisation around global crises can be mitigated at the local level if cities can provide spaces for meaningful dialogue and discourse, particularly in the contexts of symbolic actions [e.g., where city council resolutions will have no impact on an international issue].”

Next Steps

This webinar was the fifth in a series of monthly webinars for mayors, city representatives and research organisations for timely discussion and exchanges of approaches around Global Crises, Local Impacts. The next session, scheduled for Thursday, 23 May 2024, will feature city representatives from Albuquerque (New Mexico, USA), Leeds (United Kingdom) and Wroclow (Poland) and focus on protests on campuses.

Strong Cities Resources

Other Resources

For more information on this event, or Strong Cities’ Global Crises, Local Impacts and Transatlantic Dialogue Initiatives, please contact Allison Curtis, Deputy Executive Director at [email protected].