Flight From the Activist Cities

Partisan polarization has gotten considerable press, but there’s another kind of emerging division flying under the radar: cities and suburbs pulling apart as an urban flight to the burbs picked up steam in the wake of Covid-19. This is happening for many reasons, but looming large among them are skyrocketing crime and disorder, as well as increasingly extreme politics in urban centers that degrades the rule of law.

Covid-19 restrictions meant most white-collar workers who used to commute to downtowns have instead worked from home for over a year. They may not be in a hurry to return due to reports of soaring violence in cities. According to the New York Times, murders were up 30% on average among major cities last year, and are up 24% so far this year. While some cities like New York remain well below their early 90s murder peak, many others reached all-time record high murder levels last year, including Louisville and Milwaukee. There’s also been a stunning surge in crimes like carjacking, with rates up by 300% in Minneapolis and more than doubling in Chicago and Washington, DC. In some places, this isn’t just affecting select neighborhoods, but places in the heart of the city where crime had been seen as vanquished. Multiple people have been shot in Times Square recently, and Chicago has seen killings and carjackings in its downtown.

Crime itself is kryptonite to cities, but what’s also disturbing is the civic response to it. The leadership class in most American cities has embraced the rhetoric and sometimes even the substance of de-policing. As activists issued calls to “defund the police,” twenty major cities, including Austin, Seattle, and Minneapolis, answered those demands by cutting their police budgets even as crime soared. Though often these moves were limited in scope, they show that rising progressive movements in these cities, often with extreme objectives, are now setting the political agenda.

Their power is also evident in the election of far-left district attorneys who see their job as limiting prosecutions more than enforcing the law. Some of these DAs, like Los Angeles’ George Gascón, San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin and Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner are upending the entire idea that prosecutors are crime fighters and impartial enforcers of the law. They are stating categorically that they will not prosecute certain crimes they don’t like, softening prosecution of other crimes (including illegal gun possession), and arguing against cash bail. This trend is even making it downstream to more politically moderate cities like Indianapolis, where county prosecutor Ryan Mears stated that he will not enforce the state’s law against marijuana possession, declined to prosecute rioters that smashed up downtown last June, and just announced another round of offenses he won’t ever prosecute. Yes, some of these prosecutors are backed by major out-of-town donors like George Soros, but they appear to be legitimately popular. Philadelphia’s Krasner was just reelected with 75% of the vote in his primary even as crime soared in the city.  

The capture of the city by leftist politics has left urban leaders unable to respond to crime and other challenges like metastasizing homelessness.

In essence, local prosecutors have asserted the authority to unilaterally repeal laws they don’t like simply by refusing to enforce them. They’ve also politicized prosecutions in some cases. Leftist rioters who smash up stores or set buildings on fire see charges dropped or are moved into prosecutorial diversion programs while those who dare push back or defend against rioters, such as the St. Louis couple who held guns after protestors broke into their private development, get indicted. The rule of law has thus been badly degraded in our cities in just a short period of time.

What’s especially notable about these trends is how little opposition they’ve faced. While conservative political groups and some neighborhood organizations have spoken out, very few major institutions or civic leaders of any stripe in these cities have provided much pushback. While privately many leaders are concerned, they are unwilling to speak up publicly, perhaps out of fear of being canceled. How many local business, philanthropic, religious, or other civic leaders have clearly rejected even something as radical as “defund the police?” Very few. Instead, you are more likely to see them running interference for the movement, explaining that “defund the police” doesn’t actually mean defunding the police but instead investing in social services or some such. Never mind that some activists very much do want to completely abolish the police and have even written about it in the New York Times. How many of these leaders are demanding real action on crime? Not many, with most talking about how complex and mysterious the spike in violence is, and even bringing back old canards about the “root causes of crime.”

This capture of the city by leftist politics has left urban leaders unable to respond to crime, and to other similar challenges like metastasizing homelessness. It’s not just that they face these problems, which would be challenging in any case, but that they seem unable to muster a coherent or even honest response to them. No surprise that the pandemic caused many to head for the exits. While the flight to Texas from California captured the headlines, most moves were a more prosaic relocation from city to suburb or exurb, a move dubbed the “Great Reshuffling.”

These urban trends hit directly at an area where suburban residents are most allergic: public safety. Many older suburbanites left the city on account of crime in the first place. They won’t want this spilling over into their communities. The newcomers leaving on account of today’s urban crime feel the same way. This prefigures a potential return to the skeptical or even adversarial relationship that used to exist between cities and suburbs.

Relationships between cities and suburbs had grown closer as cities were revitalized in the 90s and early 2000s, and both sides began to see themselves as part of a single economic region in competition with others around the world. But can this closeness be sustained in a world where cities don’t just have problems, but are places caught in the throes of far-left politics where the rule of law itself is under assault? When urban leaders are too terrified to stand up to radical activists who want, in effect, to dismantle law enforcement in the city, how can they expect anyone else to be invested in their future? Suburbs would be smart to do whatever they can to firewall themselves off from this craziness. They cannot allow de-policing and the destruction of the rule of law by activist prosecutors to destroy what makes people move to their towns in the first place.