‘Welcoming city’ resolution pulled under threat from General Assembly

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About 125 gathered on the steps of Winston-Salem City Hall to support a "welcoming city" resolution. (photo by Jordan Green)

Councilman Dan Besse withdrew a proposed resolution to declare Winston-Salem a “welcoming city” on Monday night as support among his colleagues collapsed under threat of financial penalty from the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward, told supporters he wasn’t giving up and that he will be working on a resolution with modified language sufficient to earn the support of the majority of his colleagues.

“Despite Winston-Salem’s long history of compassion and integration, we have come to a place where welcoming our neighbors is radical,” Wake Forest University graduate student Jennifer St Sume observed, urging city council to reconsider.

Besse’s proposed resolution stopped short of language demanded by a group of activists to declare Winston-Salem a “sanctuary city,” which would have placed the city in direct violation of a law signed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory in 2015. The 2015 law prohibits North Carolina cities and counties from adopting “sanctuary ordinances” that limit or restrict enforcement of federal immigration law, or that bar local law enforcement from gathering information about immigration status and sharing it with federal authorities.

The proposed resolution was carefully written to avoid violating the state law, but references “a national environment of excessive fear and suspicion directed by some toward immigrants, refugees, and other newcomers” and states that the city “recognizes that our whole community is safer when victims and witnesses of domestic violence and other criminal activity feel safe in contacting our police for assistance without fear, regardless of their immigration status.”

Mayor Allen Joines said a majority of council members felt they could not support Besse’s resolution both because they did not agree with it and because they felt compelled to bend to pressure from the state General Assembly. When the city council met with members of the Forsyth County legislative delegation in late March, Republican and Democratic lawmakers — including Sen. Joyce Krawiec and Reps. Debra Conrad and Ed Hanes — urged city council to squash the “welcoming city” resolution.

“What the legislative delegation told us in a trying-to-be-helpful way was that the legislature is poised to take action that they couldn’t prevent happening,” Mayor Allen Joines said after the meeting. Joines said City Attorney Angela Carmon told him there’s pending legislation that would add the words “welcoming city” to the state law prohibiting sanctuary cities. Joines cited the Republican-controlled General Assembly’s history of stripping control of the local water system and airport from the cities of Asheville and Charlotte, respectively.

“You could get into a fight as Asheville and Charlotte did, and in the Asheville case I think they spent over $1 million defending that action, and in the meantime, what my concern is, is that the legislature could withhold I think it’s up to $13 million in state funds,” Joines said. “We could fight it; we might win and we might not, but in the meantime we don’t get the money and it would cost a tremendous amount of dollars to defend it. So I think fiduciarily I think the council decided we’re supporting 241,000 citizens and we need to be doing the right thing for the whole city. This resolution really doesn’t offer any additional protections that are not there today.”

Will Cox, a member of the Sanctuary City Coalition of Winston-Salem, expressed a sense of betrayal.

“I am asking you to actually have a backbone; I know some of you all do,” he said. “However, at a time when things are not reasonable, there’s outrageous rhetoric coming from the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and our right-wing-controlled General Assembly, it’s a time for reasonable people to not do what’s pragmatic, to not do what’s reasonable because if you do there will be unreasonable, outrageous and harmful things that will happen. We need to go much further than a ‘welcoming city’ resolution. We should be a sanctuary city. If you can’t stand by this thing that’s just a statement that actually says not much more than ‘We’re a nice place to be’ then that’s just plain sad. We know who you are and we will remember, and I think it’s time for you to step up, and it’s just a shame if you can’t.”

Besse and Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who has publicly announced support for the “welcoming city” resolution, joined a rally of about 125 people on the steps of city council before the meeting.

“Dr. [Martin Luther] King once said that in the end it’s not the words of our enemies that we will remember but the silence of our friends,” Besse said, addressing the crowd. “We are in a very difficult situation in North Carolina and many other places across the country where the forces that are candidly opposed to diverse communities, to inclusive communities, to welcoming communities are seeking to intimidate everyone who supports that. Sad to say, they’re doing it with a great deal of success.”

Besse said he was surprised to discover that his compromise resolution using the words “welcoming city” was received with the same level of hostility directed towards sanctuary city ordinances.

While people backing the “welcoming city” resolution and even stronger protections for undocumented immigrants monopolized the time set aside for public speakers and filled overflow rooms to observe the vote, at least a dozen opponents also attended the meeting.

“What’s the difference between a welcoming city and a sanctuary city?” asked Jack Fisher. “It’s like how they used to use the term ‘strippers,’ and now they call them ‘exotic dancers.’

“What do they want — Dodge City?” he added. “They’re going to force people to start taking the law into their own hands.”

Among the opponents of the “welcoming city” resolution was Beverly Lung, a local Republican party volunteer who attended a recent meeting featuring talk about a frightening vision of Islamic subversion and open talk by one participant about killing Muslims. At that meeting, Lung related the presenter’s contention that the United States is at risk of a supposed Islamic takeover to the idea of Latinos under the leadership of the civil rights organization National Council of La Raza reclaiming the American Southwest for Mexico — better known as “reconquista.”

“What you’re basically telling us is it’s like La Raza,” Lung said at the meeting in February. “You are going to take neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community. You are going to get your people in elected positions, and you take over town by town. And you are going to take back what was supposedly taken from you, like the southwestern states. But they’re taking over our whole country.”

Seated in the gallery at the city council meeting on Monday, Lung acknowledged that she had received a visit from the FBI after the Kernersville meeting. She said she gave the agents a box of chocolates and thanked them for their service to the country.

“I’m not in jail,” she announced with satisfaction.

While protesters rallied on the steps of City Hall ahead of Monday’s meeting, Besse and Montgomery strategized their next move on the sidelines.

“It could be argued that a resolution that includes other community leaders would be stronger; city council resolutions are a dime a dozen,” Besse said. “It’s not a sure thing. We’re working on it. This is not about whether one resolution passes tonight. This is about a movement to reaffirm and continue diversity, inclusivity and a welcoming community that will prevail in the end.”