Mike's "Capital of the Resistance" Speech

On January 31, 2017, Mike delivered a speech titled "A Capital of the Resistance" in front of Charlottesville's City Hall.  The speech was covered by many media, including The Daily Progress, Cville Weekly, Virginian-Pilot, WVTF (NPR), NBC29, and CBS19.  The full text of the speech is below.

“A Capital of the Resistance”

Mayor Mike Signer, City of Charlottesville

January 31, 2017

I want to begin by thanking all of you for taking the time for showing up here today.  What an amazing crowd.  Thank you for being here.

We’re going to hear today from a truly remarkable group of speakers. 

We will hear from Khizr Khan, the father of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died courageously fighting for our country in Iraq.  And Mr. Khan is the owner of one very famous copy of the U.S. Constitution.

We will hear from Karim Ginena, a Ph.D. candidate at the Darden School of Business, with the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, which has over 2,000 members in our community.

We will hear from Harriet Kuhr, the Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee’s office here, which has brought hundreds of political refugees fleeing strife and terror to this community.

We will hear from Ahmed Al Srya, a student and political refugee from a family of Palestinian refugees who were resettled from Iraq.  He has been in Charlottesville since 2010.  He has applied for citizenship, and he’s scheduled to take his oath in February.

We will hear from Pam Northam, who’s married to our sitting Lieutenant Governor, Ralph Northam, who has spoken proudly and strongly in support of New Americans.

We will hear from Edgar Lara, who served in the U.S. Marines and the son of an undocumented immigrant.  He works with the organization Sin Barreras.

We will hear from Rabbi Tom Gutherz, the head rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel here in Charlottesville, which is the oldest continuously utilized synagogue in Virginia.

We will hear from Pastor Hodari Hamilton, who leads Charlottesville’s oldest African-American congregation at First Baptist Church on West Main Street.

We will hear from the Reverend Elaine Ellis Thomas of St. Paul's Memorial Episcopal Church, which has been in our community for over a century.

And we will hear from Jeff Legro, Vice Provost for Global Affairs & Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Thank you all for your service, your leadership, and your dedication to our democracy.

Everyone, please take a moment to look around you.

Each of you has a different reason you’re here.  I hope you’ll take a moment this afternoon to introduce yourself to someone you don’t already know—and to learn their story.

I’m here for three reasons.

I’m here because of my visit to the mosque on Cherry Avenue last Saturday.  I sat with dozens of political refugees who fled oppression and tyranny in their home countries for the safe harbor of American democracy.  They had all gone through exhaustive vetting to come here.  Whether an Iraqi translator for American troops or a Syrian who refused to serve in Bassar al Assad’s Army, I listened to the fear, the confusion, and the anxiety in their voices as they wrestled with the cruel chaos coming out of the Beltway.  Again and again, they expressed bewilderment that they had escaped the frying pan only to fall into the fire. 

They’re hearing the message that America doesn’t want them here.  I could not disagree more strongly.  They are exactly the people we want here.

Second, I’m here for my paternal grandfather.  He was a Jewish kid raised in the Bronx, where he was the ping-pong champion of the whole borough, before he left for the European front in WWII, where he served as an Army Jeep mechanic on the European front. 

He was part of the forces that liberated the world from Nazism and fascism, that laid the groundwork for NATO and the Marshall Plan, and for a country that lived up to the promises of the Statue of Liberty.  

His service in the U.S. Army was one of the proudest periods of his life.  If he were alive right now, I don’t think I could look him in the face and say Grandpa, I didn’t fight for the values you fought for. 

And I’m here as a student of history.  I have studied demagogues for many years.  I even wrote a book about them.  (It was out of print until Donald Trump kindly brought it back to life).  Demagogues have always haunted democracy.   But I also know American democracy has always risen to their test.  Whether Joseph McCarthy or Joe Wallace, Huey Long or David Duke, we have outlasted, subsumed, or outright defeated those who would prey on us. 

The fancy word for why is “constitutionalism.”  That’s a long word for the simple beliefs that breathe life into democracy like the soul animates the body.  It’s what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, “Where is our republicanism to be found?  Not in the constitution, but merely in the spirit of the people.”

That spirit is why we have never let demagogues destroy our beautiful American democracy from within.  And they’re why I’m here today.  Demagogues test us.  They are ruthless and seductive.  They flatter us.  They tell us what we want to hear.  And they bully us if we resist them.

And make no mistake.  We are being tested.

Let’s go over recent events.  Last Friday, at 4:42 p.m. the White House issued an Executive Order titled, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.”  The order was crafted by an alt-right media executive and a 31 year-old White House aide.  Neither of whom is a lawyer.

The immediate result was chaos and confusion.  Students, visitors and green-card-holding legal permanent United States residents from seven countries were stopped at airports overseas.  The order also banned holders of special visas, like Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for U.S. troops, from entering our country.

By Saturday night, four federal judges in New York, Massachusetts, Washington—and Virginia—temporarily blocked the order.  It was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense and State Departments weren’t even consulted on the order. 

The order was clearly the first chapter in the “Muslim ban” the president promised during his campaign.  At first, he backpedaled, saying it wasn’t in fact a Muslim ban, even though it applied only to Muslim countries, and even though it exempted Christians.  But then his close advisor Rudy Giuliani told the truth, revealing that the President had asked him precisely how to implement a Muslim ban.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the ban violated international human rights law and said that 20,000 refugees would be affected immediately.

Intolerance in government tends to breed incompetence.  By Sunday morning, the president’s own chief of staff could not say how the order applied to green card holders.  Over 100 diplomats at the State Department signed a memo opposing the order.  Then, just yesterday, the Acting Attorney General stated that she would not defend the order in court, because it was unlawful.  And she was fired.

There’s a technical term for this kind of mess in government.  We call it a “clown show.”  But this isn’t funny.  It’s serious business.  These folks couldn’t run a two-car parade, much less policies affecting the rights of millions of people. 

And that’s why I’m here today to declare that Charlottesville, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, is a Capital of the Resistance.

Let me state clearly.  This is not about politics or about party or even a president. 

This is about America.  This is about American values. 

Look around you.  If you want to divide us, if you want to frighten our community, if you want to extinguish the torch of our magnificent American democracy—then you’re going to have to come through us first.

This is personal for me.  As a white man in America, I’m aware every day of the blessings this country readily gives me and my two boys, but denies to so many others.  And as a Jew, I’ve had the experience of being a religious minority my entire life. 

I love that our history of Constitutional values in Virginia goes back to James Madison’s fight, as a young college graduate and activist, to protect a sect of Baptists who had been imprisoned in Culpeper for preaching without a license.

I love that our values go back to Madison’s successful fight in the Virginia legislature to defeat a proposal for a tax to fund only Christian churches.  That battle led Madison to deliver his famed and brilliant “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.”

And I love that our values go back to Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, and his specific belief that Muslims should be protected from oppression.

My apologies for the history lesson.  But that’s the Virginia I know and love.  A Virginia of open minds and open hearts for all people and all creeds.

The word “resist” has a special meaning.  It comes from the Latin word “to stand.” That’s what all of you are doing here today.  Standing up for American values.  These are the values emblazoned on our Statue of Liberty—the words of the poet Emma Lazarus, that we are a place that embraces “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

For anyone feeling confused about what we can do right now—about what the idea of “Resistance” really means—I want to tell you about four actions I am taking, as an individual member of City Council—not on behalf of Council as a whole. 

#1.  Our refugees need federal resources.  This weekend, I spoke with Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and I’m proud to say they both leaped at the chance to direct their staff to provide specific casework assistance to local refugees who urgently need their help.

#2.  Our refugees also need legal help.  In recent days, I’ve gathered with attorneys and law students to create a special effort to provide legal counsel to refugees.  That effort will begin this week.  And there are lawyers here who can begin helping today.

#3.  I will ask Charlottesville’s Human Rights Commission to discuss and address any complaints of xenophobia and religious and ethnic intolerance and harassment in our city.  Bigotry in any form should not be welcome here.

#4.  Finally, I have spoken with our Commonwealth’s Attorney about the challenges we might confront legally in the months and years to come on immigration.  All cities work with their prosecutors and their police to find the approach on immigration that best fits their local needs.  I plan on asking Charlottesville’s City Manager to advise City Council on all our legal options to protect immigrants and refugees—particularly if the administration’s approach becomes even more draconian.

But those are just the actions of one individual.

Everyone here can act.  In the weeks to come, resist however and wherever you can.  Take your message to your Congressman, Tom Garrett.  Take it to your neighbors and colleagues and family members.  Take it to President Trump!  Support organizations that need your help, with your labor and your words and your dollars. 

Most important of all, take a stand on America’s path forward.  We’re facing waves of change in our country—economic, demographic, technological, cultural.  We can respond by grasping for a past that’s already behind us.  We can see people through old and tired stereotypes. 

Or we can embrace these changes.  We can see diversity, and innovation, and the world itself, as a bold and bracing horizon for progress. 

Here in Charlottesville we are casting our lot with that second path.  We believe in the creativity and the vision that diversity unleashes.  And it’s working. 

We’re home to hundreds of employers who see pluralism, tolerance, competition, and productivity as part of the same whole.  A new organization of over 40 biotechnology companies just launched here.  At 3.9%, we have the lowest unemployment rate of any city in Virginia.  We’re home to the country’s number-one public university, which brings students and faculty and staff representing dozens of nationalities to Charlottesville every year.  We appear in many top 10 lists as one of the nation’s healthiest and most livable cities.

And we proudly have an office of the International Rescue Committee here.

These things are not contradictions.  They are, in fact, the key to our success.  They are our values.  They are American values. 

And they are what already make Charlottesville, and Virginia, and America, great.

Thank you.