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Global Crises, Local Impacts: Threats to Social Cohesion and How Cities Can Respond

— 21 minutes reading time

On 23 May 2024, the Strong Cities Network hosted the sixth 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 conflict – 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 Center for the Prevention of Radicalisation Leading to Violence (CPRLV) briefed webinar participants on the evolving threat picture – with a focus on the proliferation of campus protests – and city officials from Albuquerque (New Mexico, United States), Leeds (United Kingdom) and Wrocław (Poland) shared challenges and approaches those cities have taken to navigate the various local impacts of these crises on their residents and deescalate inter-communal tensions that have arisen.

Eric Rosand, Executive Director of the Strong Cities Network, explained that this topic remains salient for city leaders and Strong Cities is increasingly convening mayors and elected officials in-person to discuss it. Cities continue to grapple with how to deal with the myriad challenges that have emerged in the context of the Israel-Gaza crisis and impacting their local communities and seek to learn from one another on how to effectively deal with those challenges and engage communities accordingly.

Key Takeaways

  1. Some communities are hurting – and some cities are divided – more than ever before, with rising incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Despite the perennial challenges stemming from the broader Israel-Palestine conflict, the events of 7 October and the ensuing fallout has led to greater trauma and divisions between local communities in the West than previous flareups during the decades-long conflict. Traditionally moderating voices are becoming increasingly vociferous and the terminology used by some activists on both sides of the conflict is triggering for traumatised communities, which hinders the search for mutual understanding.
  2. Campus protests contribute to this polarisation and social media is exacerbating the divide, with foreign actors exploiting events for their own purposes. Protests have largely remained non-violent, but violent incidents with counter-protesters and police clearing encampments have allowed foreign hostile actors to promote narratives online that democratic countries dealing with protests are hypocritical and in chaos. Compounded by unverified narratives seeking to delegitimise the protests, social media is a vector for divisiveness that permeates to local communities and exacerbates tensions.
  3. City governments and local leaders need to be proactive in response to both online and offline (real-life) tensions. As it becomes clear that global crises will have local impacts, city leaders and local governments should take proactive steps to ensure that city agencies and community organisations have the requisite tools to deal with hate and extremism. Behavioural health approaches to community safety are key, as is adapting existing structures – e.g., for radicalisation or gun violence – to meet the current context and offer services accordingly. Online, some cities are tracking threats on social media and taking appropriate legal action to shut down hate speech, while also encouraging residents to share cloud-based video with authorities to facilitate investigations.
  4. Local governments need to allow for free expression, even if controversial. However, authorities must ensure that it is done safely and without crossing the line into illegal behaviour. Strengthening peaceful protest and the expression of radical ideas through democratic and pro-social means is a key protective factor to avoid radicalisation and mobilisation to violence. Cities can minimise the risk of radicalisation by strengthening the democratic spaces where non-violent protest can take place and where social action can have a real impact. Cities often work with leaders of protests and activists to ensure that demonstrations can proceed, but in a way that does not jeopardise public safety and avoids a police response. It is only when protests engage in illegal activity – e.g., indefinitely blocking public spaces, engaging in illegal hate speech, etc. – that authorities should take more direct action.
  5. There is a particular problem of hate and extremism – alongside violence – emerging from youth and school systems need to prepare accordingly. Despite the focus on protests on university campuses, tensions related to the Israel-Gaza crisis are particularly acute at the high school level. Some cities are working with school administrators to facilitate dialogue sessions to allow high school students to process their feelings constructively. Where issues of hate and bullying are on the rise, behavioural health workers can intervene to ensure that situations do not escalate into violence.

Key Takeaways

Louis Audet-Gosselin is the Scientific and Strategy Director at the Center for the Prevention of Radicalisation to Violence, a non-profit founded by the City of Montreal to foster inclusiveness in society and prevent extremism, hate-motivated behaviour and armed violence. Mr. Audet-Gosselin discussed affected communities in Montreal, which are reeling in the wake of the Israel-Gaza crisis. He shared that many members of the Jewish community in Montreal (the second largest Holocaust survivor population outside of Israel) were shocked by the 7 October attack. Such shock can reactivate the trauma of past genocide, all while taking place in a local context where antisemitic incidents are still frequent. Following 7 October, there has been attempted arson and gunshots at Jewish schools and places of worship, along with incendiary antisemitic public discourse by high-profile community leaders. He said that a large portion of the Jewish community in Montreal views the underlying demand of protesters for a boycott of Israel as a fundamental attack on the Jewish state and its right to exist. He also shared that far-right antisemitic organisations are increasing their profile to exploit this crisis and global ISIS propaganda is increasingly prominent.

Conversely, he noted how the city is also home to significant Arab and Muslim populations, many of whom feel strongly about the fate of Palestinians. He said that members of this population often feel ostracised from Quebec society, stigmatised for their religious practice and unduly pressured to conform to behaviour that is “socially acceptable” to the non-Muslim majority – all while being subject to hate speech and violent attack themselves. Mr. Audet-Gosselin emphasised that it is important for all individuals involved in these ongoing debates to understand the other’s feelings and how their narratives impact the affected communities.

Nadeem Siddique, Head of Community Relations and Cohesion for the Leeds City Council (United Kingdom), highlighted how, with residents from every corner of the world, global crises have a “very demonstrable impact at the local level” in Leeds. Home to the third largest Jewish population in the UK and a significant Muslim community, Leeds has long worked to ensure social cohesion between these communities, which have traditionally had strong ties, regardless of the cycles of violence ongoing in the Middle East over the decades. However, according to Mr. Siddique, the current crisis has caused real division – not only between Muslims and Jews, but in other faith and non-faith communities. In the wake of 7 October, there have been protests, demonstrations and vigils on a near-daily basis. He said that this is the first time in Leeds that such a conflict is contributing to a divide in interfaith and community relations. According to Mr. Siddique, even moderate voices in Leeds’s communities are becoming more and more vocal, exacerbating the polarisation. Some groups are taking direct action against businesses, individuals and politicians that support Israel and the language used in the debate – ‘genocide’, ‘ceasefire’, ‘Free Palestine’, ‘from the River to the Sea’, etc. – is being politicised, with such terms interpreted very differently by communities on different sides of the issue. At the same time, a growing number of far-right extremists are violently targeting Muslim institutions (but fortunately intercepted and prosecuted before any violence was committed).

This mobilisation of hate actors outside the Jewish and Muslim communities who are exploiting this crisis to their own ends is a similar phenomenon in cities in other countries. Bartłomiej Ciążyński, Deputy Mayor of Wrocław (Poland), shared that the 7 October attack had intensified demonstrations and antisemitic events in Poland – fuelled by nationalist, right-wing parties and symbols, and sometimes extreme left parties and organisations, though all outside the political mainstream. The highest profile event took place in the Polish Parliament when an eccentric far-right, antisemitic member of parliament attacked a Chanukah menorah with a fire extinguisher during the holiday season. Though he was immediately detained, this action inspired followers in Wrocław, where soon after a group of teenagers attacked another Chanukah menorah displayed in the city centre. They too were soon apprehended.

Meanwhile, Albuquerque (New Mexico, USA) has experienced an increase in hate crime targeting immigrant and refugee communities, specifically the African and Muslim communities, according to Mariela Ruiz-Angel, the city’s Associate Chief Administrative Officer. She warned of the possibility of further violence, with the city’s large presence of antisemitic groups and, in the lead up to the November 2024 election, a likely major anti-immigration campaign. Albuquerque, she said, is one of the few “minority majority” cities in the state, constituted by a large Hispanic population, which has been targeted by strong anti-immigrant sentiment from some other New Mexico residents, including in Albuquerque, and has a very chilling effect on the community itself.

Cody Zoschak, Senior Research Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, briefed on the ongoing campus protests related to the Israel-Gaza crisis in the United States. He said that these demonstrations range from a half-dozen students in a public park holding signs to instances in Los Angeles (California), New York City (New York) and Portland (Oregon) of students storming buildings and encampments. There have been repeated acts of low-level vandalism (e.g. smashing windows, graffiti, occupying buildings, etc.), but no real incidents of serious violence by protesters. On the other hand, counter-protesters have engaged in violence, attacking an encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and another individual ramming his car against protesters in New York City in a likely ideologically-motivated attack.

Mr. Zoschak said that these instances of polarisation, and the heavy police responses to the illegal encampments, have been exploited by hostile foreign actors online, such as Russia and China. Feeder channels and influencer accounts sponsored by hostile state actors amplify these stories online, pushing the narrative that the United States is hypocritical on matters of freedom of speech and the right to assembly and that the country is in chaos.

Meanwhile, US-based actors unaffiliated with any of the college campuses have been calling for escalation online, encouraging non-students to join protests and to abandon non-violent tactics. Others are promoting unfounded narratives on social media that seek to delegitimise the protests, claiming that they are centrally directed, provided with “shadowy funding”, and/or receiving direct support from foreign state actors. In fact, Mr. Zoschak noted that ISD’s analysts had found that these protests do not require much funding; the identical-looking tents are inexpensive and the top choice in search results on online marketplaces, and the highest level of “central coordination” identified is a “Google doc” passed among campus leaders on effective organising and non-violent resistance tactics.

According to Mr. Audet-Gosselin (CPRLV), the problem of social media in Montreal is that it amplifies hate acts taking place in the city (as mentioned above) and even other places around the world. This further inflames tensions beyond the acts themselves. The result of this proliferation, he said, is a constant feeling of insecurity from vulnerable communities that needs to be heard and taken seriously by local authorities. Mr. Siddique (Leeds) echoed this sentiment, saying that the narratives promoted on social media, often infused with disinformation, plays a significant role in causing disharmony between local communities. Such narratives “spread like wildfire”, and once they proliferate online, it is very difficult to draw them back.

According to Mr. Audet-Gosselin (CPRLV), as soon as it was clear that there would be significant local impact to the 7 October attack and ensuing events, the City of Montreal and CPRLV mobilised to prevent various expressions of hate and extremism, coordinating among city officials, police and community organisations. CPRLV contacted city agencies and community organisations to offer training assistance to employees on hate-motivated behaviour and good practices on dealing with hate and extremism. CPRLV practitioners also directly intervened in individual cases where anger at unfolding events indicated potential to lead to mobilisation to violence. Overall, he said that while Montreal’s experience “hasn’t been perfect”, police forces – especially the hate crimes and incidents unit – and community organisations have worked together to maintain a “relatively peaceful situation in the delicate balance between free speech, political protest and protecting the right of everyone to feel safe in their city”.

Mr. Siddique highlighted that his city embraces a “Team Leeds” approach when it comes to unfolding crises, recognising that these matters are not for local authorities alone, but that many other partners play a crucial role. For a variety of programmes (e.g. health and wellbeing), Leeds emphasises multi-actor collaboration, with public-private partnerships and cooperation with and between community, faith and other non-profit organisations. For an issue such as the Israel-Gaza crisis, Leeds tapped two specific such entities: the Strategic Faith Leaders group and the Religion or Belief Hub. Both are comprised of senior, strategic faith leaders in the city who have a crucial role to play in such times of communal tension.

Beyond engaging community leaders, Leeds authorities – city officials, along with police and other partners (e.g. universities) – conduct outreach to affected communities as a whole – in this case, Muslim and Jewish communities – to explain the city’s approach to how it is managing this conflict. Officials recognise the trauma affecting community members but point to long-established policies explaining why the city government will not fly a flag in support of either side or shut down protests or vigils. Leeds’s underlying premise is that it cannot impact the conflict directly from its perch as a local authority. However, it can make serious efforts to tackle any resulting anti-Muslim prejudice or antisemitism and that will be its focus. For example, since 7 October, Leeds has been dedicating more staff to this work, particularly to addressing hate crime, even beyond those affecting Muslims and Jews. Moreover, in times of potential high alert – faith festivals, holidays, etc. – police provide tailored assurances to synagogues and mosques that their security is being prioritised.

Further, Leeds makes a determined effort to raise its profile with regard to tackling anti-Muslim prejudice and antisemitism – through trainings and through high-profile campaigns linked to the calendar: e.g., Holocaust Memorial Day, Islamophobia Awareness Month, etc. In 2023, even before 7 October, Leeds scheduled an Anti-Muslim Prejudice and Antisemitism conference to take place in December, to try to mitigate the increase in hate crimes towards those communities. The event still took place, although it was an especially fraught period for some of those communities to come together for the first time to talk about such issues – all the more reason to convene. Leeds looks to emphasise and lift up the voices of those who champion solutions to dealing with the rising level of hate rather than those whose rhetoric compels residents to choose a particular side of the divide.

The City of Albuquerque has long had government offices dedicated to special populations. However, Ms. Ruiz-Angel said that, in 2017, Mayor Tim Keller reimagined what such engagement should look like, creating an Office of Equity and Inclusion, with particular emphasis on a policy role to create processes for the city to fight against hate and work better with community groups on public safety issues. The new office helped the City Council pass anti-hate resolutions (e.g. supporting AAPI communities during COVID-19), identifying liaisons to communities early so that they work together to tackle hate issues when they do arise, and building relationships with places of worship in advance of any hate incident. Following anti-racism protests in 2020, the city invested heavily to create an entire cabinet department (Albuquerque Community Safety) consisting of behavioural health workers charged with taking emergency service calls themselves, rather than police. She said this has helped “ensure a more trauma-informed … response rather than a paramilitary one when dealing with acute non-violent crises”. She added that this department also assists in the wake of hate crimes, so that the city’s response is not limited to a law enforcement-centric, investigative one, but now includes a social work component to assist victims with their immediate physical and emotional needs.

Ms. Ruiz-Angel shared how, during the ongoing Israel-Gaza crisis, Albuquerque is receiving 911 calls from and/or about residents experiencing behavioural health issues from anxiety over family members overseas in distress. Residents, especially young people, feel helpless seeing their families hurt and dying without anything they can do to help. This has led to an increase in anger, and even suicidal ideation, and Mayor Keller is proud that there is now a mechanism in place for a civilian response unrelated to police but still very much responsible for keeping people safe.

Mr. Rosand (Strong Cities Network) noted that this variety of city-led responses to the ongoing Israel-Gaza crisis shows the dynamism necessary in prevention work. In Albuquerque, an existing city structure was in place to build a foundation for the city’s response and easily adapted to ensure public safety with regard to hate and potential extremism. Conversely, in Montreal, a mechanism established to tackle radicalisation to violence was not being leveraged for broader purposes of dealing with hate incidents and communal polarisation.

In the online space, the City of Wrocław aggressively goes after local media outlets’ social media postings whenever they engage in hate speech (e.g. antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Ukrainian). Though only the police can investigate alleged criminal acts, the law affords city officials a few tools at their disposal. Deputy Mayor Ciążyński himself often reaches out to publishers directly, asking them to take down offensive content. In one instance, the Wrocław government sued individuals engaging in social media hate crimes in civil court after the owner of the biggest daily newspaper in Wrocław refused to take down the hate speech posted by individuals on articles published by the outlet online. Deputy Mayor Ciążyński recognises that these actions are more reactive than proactive in nature and Wrocław is looking for guidance on establishing proactive policies rather than relying on ad-hoc responses.  

Other cities also discussed their cyber-based efforts. In Leeds, Mr. Siddique said that authorities can easily track online hate and threats, as community members report these instances to authorities on a daily basis. When such instances are referred, the city takes direct action via the police and its antisocial behaviour team and can often lead to arrest. In Albuquerque, Ms. Ruiz-Angel said that residents are increasingly embracing connecting their cloud-based home security cameras to law enforcement monitoring mechanisms that allow for policy video access. The city informs residents that signing on to such efforts “makes us all safer if [authorities] can go the situation faster”. In fact, it was a private video footage that enabled police to find the perpetrator of an anti-Muslim shooting spree in Albuquerque in August 2022.

In Montreal, CPRLV’s action regarding the Israel-Gaza crisis has largely centred on calling for responsible public speech from activists and institutions and ensuring that all sides understand the potential harm that can result from irresponsible rhetoric and lexicon. However, according to Mr. Audet-Gosselin, CPRLV also emphasises to city leaders and educators that unduly restricting the expression of anger and distress can strengthen the voices of extremists in the community and fuel violence. Though it may sound counter-intuitive, strengthening peaceful protest and the expression of radical ideas through democratic and pro-social means is a key protective factor to avoid radicalisation and mobilisation to violence. Accordingly, CPRLV is working with university officials, city officials and those in higher echelons of government to minimise the risk of radicalisation by strengthening the democratic spaces where non-violent protest can take place and where social action can have a real impact. Mr. Audet-Gosselin advises that governments should apply the same standards for public expression – both its own and that of the community, as a perception of double standards in a government’s response to global crises can “cause significant harm to social cohesion and drive many towards extremism”.

In Leeds, Mr. Siddique has found that many residents are being prevented from speaking about the conflict – particularly in schools – which is proving counter-productive. Though officials implement such restrictions for understandable purposes – e.g. fear, an attempt to keep the peace, etc. – what there really seems to be is a void in skills, ability and even willingness to facilitate difficult conversations among residents about these global crises. This vacuum allows “bad actors and extremist groups” to exploit the crisis “for their own purposes and agendas”.

Albuquerque makes a deliberate effort to work with protest leaders and other activists to ensure that protests are allowed to continue, but in a way that does not jeopardise public safety and thus require a police response, as was the case with a protest outside a local US military base. With its new Community Safety department, Albuquerque has been able to deploy its behavioural health workers to negotiate with activists occupying public streets to allow for the flow of traffic while protests are ongoing. According to Ms. Ruiz-Angel, the presence of those workers “really helped find that middle ground to allow protest and freedom of navigation” simultaneously. Accordingly, while there have been protests related to the Israel-Gaza crisis in Albuquerque over the past six months, they have stayed peaceful and have not been in any way unusual from other forms of advocacy.

In 2019, Wrocław began shutting down demonstrations and protests that engaged in illegal hate speech, applying a law available to local authorities and upheld by the justice system. However, Deputy Mayor Ciążyński was clear that, despite some requests to the contrary, the city will always allow extremist groups to exercise their right to publicly gather and assemble in the presumption that they will obey the law. As a result of the new policy, and the city’s strict enforcement of it, authorities have reached a de facto understanding with extremist actors that they will be allowed to gather and demonstrate publicly as long as they do not engage in hate crimes.

While attention has been focused largely on university campuses, panellists agreed that it was actually with younger students where the crisis is becoming more acute. According to Mr. Audet-Gosselin, while there were protests in Montreal universities – most prominently at McGill University – it is in high schools where “tensions are the most serious and unheard”. Accordingly, CPRLV is now working with school administrators and educators to address this issue. As discussed above, schools need to provide healthy outlets to students to process and discuss these issues, rather than prohibit or discourage such discussion in the name of trying to “keep the peace”. Accordingly, in Leeds, Mr. Siddique and his team are working with school officials to provide them with resources to facilitate those difficult conversations around global crises such as Israel-Gaza.

In Albuquerque, youth-driven hate incidents have increased significantly, according to both police data and resident complaints. Ms. Ruiz-Angel said there is now more bullying based on race and ethnicity in schools than ever before and the city is now integrating a school-based violence intervention and interruption programme in high schools to work with students who are anxious and undergoing trauma before any situation escalates. As the city sees it, young people are struggling to communicate and this phenomenon can often translate into gun violence as an early resort – de-escalation and processing interventions can assist to prevent such instances of youth violence. Ms. Ruiz-Angel said that the Albuquerque Community Safety department’s behavioural health staff is particularly suited to this mission. Authorities are able to capture social media chat platforms used by students to discern where violence or conflict might break out and take preventative action accordingly.

The next session of this monthly webinar series, featuring experts and city representatives from both Europe and North America, is scheduled for 26 June 2024. It will focus on the importance of promoting and maintaining civil discourse, especially in times of crisis.

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].