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A Guide for Mayors: Preventing and Responding to Hate, Extremism & Polarisation

Last updated:
01/02/2024
Publication Date:
13/09/2023
Content Type:

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Last updated: 12/09/2023

Acknowledgements

The Strong Cities Network Management Unit would like to thank the many mayors and other city officials who contributed to this Guide through interviews, discussions and surveys, or during Strong Cities activities. Special thanks to the Honourable Allison Silberberg, former mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, United States (2016 – 2019), who provided critical guidance and support throughout the drafting of this Guide. 

This publication was made possible by generous support from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the European Union and the US Department of State. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Strong Cities Network membership in its entirety nor of Strong Cities donors or other partners. The views expressed do not necessarily those of the Strong Cities Network’s membership in its entirety nor its donors, partners and supporters. 

Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD)

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) worked with mayors and government partners to launch Strong Cities at a meeting during the opening of the UN General Assembly in 2015. Since then, ISD has expanded and supported Strong Cities membership and has delivered its programming. ISD continues to host the Management Unit and contributes its research and expertise to meet the policy and practice needs of cities and local governments around the world.

About this guide

The Strong Cities Network has been working closely with mayors1 globally since its launch in 2015 to enhance local leadership in preventing and responding to hate, extremism and polarisation2. During this time, many local leaders have spoken about how unprepared and unsupported they felt to address these issues in their cities and respond in the event of an attack. They have also pointed to the limited opportunities to learn from other mayors who have led their cities through such incidents. 

Mayors have shared a wide range of challenges. For some, they begin by acknowledging that addressing hate and extremism are (or were) not a priority for them, either because they were not regarded as immediate threats or the mayors were not aware of the role they can play when they are. Others face technical challenges, limited mandates and a lack of knowledge, experience and resources for dealing with these challenges. 

Although the specific threats may differ from city to city, Strong Cities has heard from mayors globally that they need more guidance on the range of preventative measures that can minimise the likelihood of a hate or extremism-motivated attack or related incident from taking place and considerations for mitigating the damage (whether social, economic, or political) that it can inflict on a city. Mayors have also shared that they want more opportunities to learn from their counterparts, particularly those who have led their city through such crises. 

This Guide captures these experiences and packages them in an accessible way for mayors and other local leaders working in all contexts, whether they are entering office for the first time or working to make addressing hate and extremism a greater priority in their city. 

The purpose of this Guide is to help prepare mayors to address threats from hate, extremism and polarisation, and the misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy narratives that increasingly fuel them. It emphasises both the importance of being proactive by taking preventative measures to build socially cohesive and resilient cities and responding in a way that minimises the social, economic and other fallout that can result if and when these threats manifest in violence. This Guide does this by:

  • Addressing key questions mayors might have about dealing with these challenges, whether while preparing to take office or performing their duties.
  • Exploring key decision points for mayors in pursuit of prevention and response when these threats manifest in violence.
  • Sharing relevant good practices and lessons learned from other mayors, including those related to building resilient and cohesive cities in various contexts.

By Mayors for Mayors 

This Guide draws on the experiences and recommendations of mayors to reflect on their unique role in addressing an increasingly localised and interconnected set of threats. To develop this Guide, the Strong Cities Network Management Unit surveyed, interviewed and conducted panel and roundtable discussions with more than 75 mayors, deputy mayors and other local leaders, both current and former, from a range of contexts and geographies.

The Management Unit also drew from several years of experience working directly with mayors from around the globe on preventing and responding to hate, extremism and polarisation. 


Foreword

Allison Silberberg, Former Mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, USA (2016 — 2019) 

“It is not a matter of if something will happen, but when.”

This provocative statement certainly got my attention as I sat with 15 other new mayors at New Mayors School at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in late 2015 – only a month before my swearing-in as the 88th Mayor of Alexandria (Virginia). After each tragic incident of hate- or extremism-motivated violence, people often say: “I cannot believe this happened here in my town. I never expected this could happen here.” The unfortunate reality, however, is that this can happen anywhere at any time.  

Mayors, whether newly elected or long-serving, need to be prepared.

Allison Silberberg, Former Mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, USA (2016 – 2019)

 

The mission of this Strong Cities Network Guide for Mayors for Preventing and Responding to Hate, Extremism & Polarisation is to help you as the mayors and local leaders of cities around the world to stem the rising tide of hate, disinformation, violent extremism and authoritarianism. 

This Guide shares ways to help you shore up democratic institutions and civil society that are serving your communities. Not preparing is a plan and is a plan for failure. This Guide is proactive and practical, providing mayors with a roadmap for preparing their cities and communities: it is by mayors and for mayors.

This Guide is intended to be personal. Being mayor is personal. As a mayor, you know your community and care deeply about it. Residents turn to you to provide services and solve problems. Being focused on prevention and being prepared if a crisis unfolds is a crucial responsibility that we, as mayors, have. We are preparing our communities to be resilient. And we, as mayors, can help each other.

The Strong Cities Network met with current and former mayors and local leaders around the world, learning how they respond to threats. We also surveyed mayors, and this Guide reflects much of what we learned during this outreach: lessons and best practices from our fellow mayors.

I am passionate about sharing them because, on a quiet July morning in 2017, 18 months into my mayoral term, the when happened in my city. Without warning, a gunman, who had travelled to my city of Alexandria from another state hours away, opened fire on a baseball field where members of the US Congress, their aides, and others were practising for an annual  charity baseball game. 

Congressional members and others on the field were hitting and catching balls one minute and were shot the next. Two US Capitol Police officers, who were with the members of Congress, immediately engaged the gunman. Three officers from the Alexandria Police Department arrived within two minutes. Together, the five officers killed the gunman in a fierce gunfight. Five people on the field, including members of Congress and one officer, were seriously wounded by the gunman. Others suffered less severe injuries. Miraculously, all survived. All public safety teams acted swiftly and bravely. My city and our country were and are deeply grateful.

After the shooting, our Police Chief sent officers and other first responders to conduct a door-to-door welfare check in the adjoining neighbourhoods. That afternoon, the Police Chief, Fire Chief, Sheriff and I walked together in the neighbourhood closest to the shooting to assure residents they were safe. Several of our city’s religious leaders organised candlelight vigils across our city. 

That night, as a community, we marched down the main street of the neighbourhood where the shooting had occurred. Our community came together and stood strong. 

I was so proud of our city and expressed the city’s gratitude for our brave women and men who served so courageously that morning and that we, as a community, were praying for those injured. I said emphatically that this incident does not define us.

There were many heroes. The gate where the shooter had begun shooting was locked. That locked gate saved lives because it prevented the shooter from entering the field at that spot. I learned a week later that a Parks Department staffer checks each night (of his own volition well after his workday!) to ensure this gate is locked. This was a stunning reminder that the city staff needs to know that their role at any level matters and that our city is counting on them and is grateful. Our city staff’s sense of mission is crucial.

Here are my five takeaways for any mayor:

First, prepare your team. I began my term with a tabletop3 exercise, which I requested immediately upon taking office. I led a meeting of our city’s senior staff and all the public safety team leadership to ensure that key personnel knew their role in case of an emergency and that they had the current contact information for each other because, in the event of a crisis, people in these roles must know what to do and how to reach each other instantly. There is no time to go to your office and grab a binder off the shelf to figure out what to do or whom to call. Seconds matter. Regardless of level, all city staff must know that their role matters, and it is the mayor’s responsibility to ensure they do.

Second, engage with communities across the city proactively. Don’t wait until a crisis to do so. As then-Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston suggested at the seminar, I created a Clergy Council early in my term with the faith leaders of our community. Within hours of the shooting, many clergy organised candlelight vigils across the city that night to help residents gather and find the strength to deal with the shock of such violence. A council that brings together religious leaders from across communities helps build resilience.

Third, be inclusive. Early in my term, I drafted our city’s Statement on Inclusiveness, which the City Council approved. That statement was posted across the city. Inclusiveness builds resilience. The time to define who you are as a community is not after an incident.

It is important to speak out swiftly against disinformation and hate in all forms, regardless of its target. When racist flyers were posted in the middle of the night in Alexandria, I immediately condemned the act, stating that it did not reflect our city’s values, which are grounded in inclusiveness.

Fourth, be an active listener. I held monthly, open-to-all coffees in the community, where we sat in a circle, and the residents shared their concerns and ideas with me. I was accessible and here to help.

Fifth, communicate and be transparent. After the shooting, I emailed an official statement and other updates and authored a column in the local papers. As mayor, I prioritised a staunch commitment to prompt communication, transparency and civic engagement.

I recognise that every city and every incident is different. However, having shared experiences with other mayors who were thrust into crises that bear some similarity to the one I had faced, I believe that there are decision points that every local leader will confront and questions that they will need to ask to be as prepared as possible to prevent an incident from occurring and respond effectively should it unfold.

This Strong Cities’ Guide for Mayors – the first of its kind – is here to help you and your community be more prepared, more responsive and more resilient. Together, we can help each other become stronger and safer. 

This is part of our core mission as leaders and the foundation of the Strong Cities mission.


Introduction

Hate and extremism, particularly when they manifest in violence, have typically been viewed as national security issues. National leaders and central governments have driven conversations about how best to prevent and respond to these threats, often emphasising leveraging law enforcement, intelligence and military tools to address violent manifestations. Not surprisingly, mayors have rarely been seen as relevant to and thus included in these discussions. It is often only in the aftermath of an attack that local leaders have become actively involved, including advocating for the needs and priorities of their communities affected by the violence.  

Yet, lessons learned point to the growing relevance of mayors in addressing these threats, extending well beyond the consoler of survivors and their families. These threats are becoming increasingly localised: extremist groups are using local political, social and economic grievances to recruit and mobilise others, and the line between online threats and offline harm is becoming more blurred than ever. The evolution of the threat necessitates a more decentralised approach to address it. This should include the direct involvement of local leaders who understand and can represent their cities on a level that national policy makers cannot. 

A mayor’s proximity to the people in their city enables them to understand residents’ concerns. At the same time, their access and accountability as a locally-elected official gives them unique influence and insight – and perhaps even an implicit mandate – to create an inclusive city identity through which all residents can feel connected. As such, mayors have a unique opportunity to not only contribute in the aftermath of an attack but to drive efforts to build a resilient and socially cohesive city in which it is more difficult for hate and extremism to take root and limit the fallout should they become prescient concerns.

Guide Overview

A mayor’s role in addressing hate, extremism and polarisation can extend from proactively pursuing prevention efforts. This can involve, for example, engaging with communities or individual residents that make it more difficult for these threats to emerge in their city and heighten their city’s resilience, ensuring the city is ready to respond if an incident occurs, and/or leading the response in the aftermath
if violence does occur. Although the scope of a mayor’s mandate and authority will likely vary depending on the local context, in general terms, the mayor’s role can involve, inter alia:

  • Leveraging their communication skills and their office’s platform to reach all parts of the city.
  • Overseeing and coordinating different local government departments and services.
  • Tapping into relationships with constituents and local organisations around the city.
  • Driving city-level priorities, policies, programmes and resource allocation. 

There are several ingredients required for a mayor to fulfil this role effectively. 

  • This starts with a commitment to prioritise prevention alongside (or as part of) their more traditional mayoral priorities, for example, whether related to public safety, social well-being, urban planning and education.  
  • To deliver on this priority, a mayor will typically need to oversee a tailored mix of policies and strategic frameworks; a coordination or other mechanism for aligning the activities of different local government agencies, community-based partners and, where necessary, the central government; and a sustained commitment to building the capacities of local government actors and a range of community-based stakeholders who can act as partners in making their city safer, more peaceful and more resilient to hate, extremism and polarisation. 

It is a multidimensional and often difficult role, but one that a growing number of local leaders around the world are assuming every day. This Guide aims to support mayors in this effort and enable more to join them. It gathers the experiences of more than 75 local leaders from different contexts and geographies to present good practices, lessons learned, examples and recommendations to help guide and inspire mayors to prepare for and face a variety of challenges. 

The Guide is divided into three sections to support mayors at different stages of their term:

  • Preparation: considerations for prevention and response when entering office
  • Prevention: building resilient communities
  • Response: coordinating a response in the immediate aftermath of a violent extremist incident and managing fallout in the medium- and long-term.

The Guide is intended to aid mayors as they examine the pressing challenges to peace and inclusion in their cities and inspire them to explore new solutions in response to evolving trends and the priorities of their residents. The following examples and recommendations should be considered in light of the unique context in which a mayor leads and adapted to meet their city’s priorities, needs, opportunities and limitations.

The quotes, guidance and recommendations throughout this Guide have all been provided by mayors and other local officials, reflecting on the role of a mayor in addressing hate, extremism and polarisation. Many have asked that their contribution be attributed to their city rather than themselves, a request Strong Cities has respected. 

What do we mean by hate, extremism and polarisation?

There is no universal definition for each of these concepts and each city’s approach needs to be tailored to the local legal context and grounded in human rights and the rule of law. Hate, extremism and polarisation are – at their most basic – social challenges that undermine social cohesion, which can lead to violence and have long-term impacts on a city’s socio-economic fabric. Whether it is inter-community intolerance and ‘othering’, feelings of non-belonging, an overall growing divide between a city’s different communities or – at its most explicit – hate- or extremism-motivated violence, these threats have multiple manifestations and multiple causes. 

Strong Cities refers to these issues together in recognition that all three are both drivers and consequences of social, economic and political disparities and marginalisation, instability and violence, and that all three necessarily require a localised response that addresses the contextual grievances that may fuel them. 

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Last updated: 12/09/2023

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