Courage and persistence
In a democracy, and yes, in a democratic republic, real victories small and large are only won when we, the people, stand up for our rights. Elected officials do not hand us such victories; we must claim them ourselves, over and over again. Participation in a democracy can be difficult, messy, inconvenient, frustrating and even boring. Often, we take three steps forward and two steps back (and sometimes, unfortunately, vice versa). But without our active involvement, there can be no democracy at all.
In the past several weeks we have seen dramatic examples of democratic action in response to crises, as high school students in Parkland, Fla., and public school teachers throughout West Virginia have stood up to authority and demanded action.
In both of these cases, people were reacting to events that touched them personally and deeply, but in neither instance was the response simply self-serving. The teachers, striking after years of no pay raises and sharply increasing health insurance costs, were concerned about the many students who rely on school meals and extra bags of food to get through the weekend. So they pitched in, sometimes alongside school board members, preparing and delivering care packages to ensure that none of their students would go hungry during the strike.
In Florida, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who had lost siblings and classmates to a crazed gunman dedicated themselves to ongoing political action, resolving to save other communities from a similar fate.
By walking out of their classrooms, teachers in all 55 counties gave the greatest civics lesson any of them will ever teach. Out of unspeakable tragedy, the Florida students became teachers themselves, and resolved to school their elected representatives about what unregulated gun ownership means to our communities.
Most of us, thankfully, are not put to such tests. But closer to home, we can cite a small example of how individual actions can result in a more democratically run local government. A few years ago, some of your Cleveland Heights and University Heights neighbors found themselves “fighting City Hall,” when CH City Council and the city manager presented a plan to privatize the CH Water Department. (About 800 UH residents were served by CH Water.)
To stay informed about city hall activity on the issue, some of those neighbors began making regular public records requests (PRRs), to obtain electronic copies of “the packet”—a collection of memos, written reports, legislative drafts and other information that the city manager sends to city council members a few days before each weekly Committee of the Whole meeting. Upon receiving the first PRR, the city law department pushed back and attempted to deny the request; however, the individual who had submitted it happened to be a federal government attorney. The city’s resistance did not last long. These are public records.
For the better part of a year, every Monday morning, someone e-mailed a PRR to the law department. In the afternoon, the requester received the packet, and shared it with others in the group. Finally, someone at city hall decided to simplify matters and post the packet on the city’s website each Monday, along with the agenda for that night’s meeting. Now, that information is available to every citizen, every week, at the same time—a small but significant victory for transparency.
Citizens who challenge public officials persistently may at some point be accused of rudeness, incivility, or a lack of decorum. Should that happen, we like to keep in mind the words of “It Isn’t Nice” by Malvina Reynolds, a song from the Civil-Rights era:
"It isn’t nice to block the doorway, it isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail,
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, you told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is freedom’s price, we don’t mind."
Speaking of democracy: the city of Cleveland Heights is in the midst of a charter review process, and citizen input is needed regarding its form of government. On April 19, 7–9:30 p.m., the Charter Review Commission will hold a community meeting at the CH Community Center to solicit such input. Please plan to participate. For regular updates, go to www.clevelandheights.com and scroll down to the Charter Review tab.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is a writer, activist and lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.