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Perseverance in Ferndale’s fight for a ceasefire

A report from the front

Tempest member Hank Kennedy reports on a nearly three-month successful campaign led by Palestine activists in Ferndale, MI to pass a ceasefire resolution.

For almost three months, the Detroit suburb of Ferndale was the site of a concerted effort to pass a resolution calling for a permanent and durable ceasefire in Gaza and the West Bank. Ferndale has a progressive reputation owing to its status as Detroit’s “Gayborhood,” yet it had not joined the other Michigan cities of Detroit, Ypsilanti, Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Ann Arbor in passing resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Ferndale City Hall was lit up with the colors of the Ukrainian flag and then-mayor Melanie Piana released a statement that read “I’ve seen and am heartened by the incredible support our community has shown for the people of Ukraine.” Palestine didn’t receive as quick a response from city officials.

Cities around the United States have passed resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Palestine, most recently Chicago, currently the largest city to pass such a resolution after Mayor Brandon Johnson cast the tie-breaking vote. Some other city councils have passed similar resolutions, but then been met with opposition from their Mayor’s office. Mayor London Breed of San Francisco refused to sign a ceasefire resolution and Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis vetoed one. Toledo’s city council tabled a ceasefire resolution rather than vote on it. In supposedly progressive Burlington, Vermont, the city council not only rejected a ceasefire resolution, but also prevented a pro-Palestine ballot issue from being put to voters. Ferndale, population of approximately 19,000, is much smaller than most of these places yet the tactic of pressing the city council is the same.

Passing city council resolutions on foreign policy issues is, of course, a symbolic gesture. Think back to the nuclear freeze movement when city councils declared their cities “nuclear-free zones” in protest of the nuclear arms race. Obviously, city councils do not set foreign policy. But, these resolutions are a way to put pressure on a Congress and a President who are in lockstep in support of Israel even as the body count in Gaza rises. This is especially true in Ferndale, located in a swing state that’s essential for Biden to win if he’s to be re-elected in November.

The night of the first council meeting, December 18, was cold and snowy. Owing to daylight savings time, it was already dark when pro-Palestine activists assembled in front of Ferndale City Hall. The bad weather did not dampen anyone’s spirits, as dozens of people chanted and marched, accompanied by drums, as they circled City Hall carrying signs and flags. Present were Jews, Arabs, and members of the city’s queer community. It was clear that despite media attempts to paint these groups as unalterably opposed, on the issue of peace in Gaza there was unity. Chants of “Ceasefire Now!” and “From the River to the Sea/Palestine Will Be Free!” could be heard through the walls inside council chambers.

Activists packed the public comment portion of the city council meeting. Although only thirty minutes were officially allotted on the council’s agenda for public comment, so many rose to speak that the comment time went on for fifty minutes. Not a single speaker opposed a ceasefire resolution. The city council meeting was a lame-duck session. A new council would be sworn-in the following month, so for several council members and outgoing mayor Melanie Piana, there would be no political cost to supporting a ceasefire resolution. One city councilor, Katherine Bruner James, spoke up in favor of a ceasefire resolution and promised to send a letter to Ferndale’s representatives in Congress calling for peace.

Yet, when the rest of the city council responded, it was as if the public had been speaking to a brick wall. While two-thirds of voters in the Detroit-area support a ceasefire, council members acted as though a ceasefire resolution is a fringe position. They have claimed that taking a stance on a foreign policy issue is beyond their ability and that passing such a resolution would be too “divisive.” Melanie Piana, after hearing from numerous speakers about Israel’s crimes against humanity, said that the best thing to happen would be for Hamas to surrender. How this would stop Israel from bombing schools, churches, hospitals, and universities with genocidal intent or arming ultranationalist settlers in the West Bank (where, recall, Hamas has no governing presence) was unclear.

I was unpleasantly reminded of the behavior of the Ferndale Library Board when library employees organized a union with the News Guild. Despite a supermajority of employees signing union cards and overwhelming public comment in favor of voluntarily recognizing the union, the board still proceeded with hiring an anti-union law firm and forcing a vote on the union. Happily, the union won 18-2 but this was another opportunity to peer beyond the facade of Ferndale’s progressive reputation.

After Palestine solidarity activists began attending city council meetings, Ferndale mayor Raylon Leaks-May said to Oakland County Times “Adopting a ceasefire resolution by way of the Ferndale Council will have a polarizing impact on this community and that is something that I am unable to support. I care about this community and am more than willing to help coordinate community efforts to reach out to our legislators and the White House regarding a plea for peace in the Middle East.” Despite the mayor’s comments about a ceasefire resolution being polarizing, not one person spoke out against a ceasefire resolution during public comment at four city council meetings. If anything, the fight for a ceasefire resolution was a unifying force, not a divisive one.

Finally, after months of consistent pressure, Ferndale’s city council agreed to pass a ceasefire proclamation on February 12. Although many activists were disappointed that the language was not stronger, Prasad Venugopal spoke for many of us when he said “We are still pleased with the call for a ceasefire.” Since the passage of a proclamation in Ferndale, many of us have worked to pass resolutions in other Metro-Detroit communities like Hazel Park, Sterling Heights, and others. Others have been involved in the “Uncommitted” campaign that led to over 100,000 voters casting a protest vote to show disgust with President Biden’s Gaza policy. We will continue to fight for peace until Israel’s war is ended and the Palestinians have the human dignity they deserve.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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Hank Kennedy View All

Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area socialist, educator, and longtime comic book fan.