It’s the middle of February, a day like any other at East Lansing’s city hall. A small hailstorm the night before has resulted in sloppy dreariness and cold: typical ambivalent Michigan weather. The city councilmembers are in the midst of their terms, busy at their full-time jobs, leaving the office to its regular inhabitants and their devices. People walk back and forth between cubicles and a woman lectures interns on administrative procedures. It’s a day like any other.[demo]
However, in a tiny conference room, the mayor lounges before a table, a wood and metal structure consuming most of the restricted space. A clock hangs over his head, a little anime figure looking down from behind its glass cover. Half the room is enclosed between hard, cold walls, the other is padded in a soft gray fabric in the style of a drab insane asylum. The mayor, comfortable in his warm sweater, a casual dark garment under his strictly black suit, leans back in his chair and takes a breath. He’s about to explain what Iraq could learn from his city’s democratic system.
“The history and political evolvement here is probably greater than elsewhere; it would be a good ideal for them to shoot for,” East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows said. “We have more citizen involvement: no restriction on their amount of input, except for the five minutes they have to speak at city council meetings.” He describes the positives of small-town democracy at length. “In most countries there’s no emphasis on vocal participation. It’s among our responsibilities to listen to our constituents; all of our citizens know the right to complain or praise.”
Iraq’s situation could not be more different. A nation in flux, it hasn’t been the same since American troops arrived two years ago for a long-term invasion, sparking numerous debates and protests in East Lansing, including one sit-in which shut down Grand River Avenue for a short period of time. Iraq’s recent election, from which the Shiite parties emerged with almost half the mandates in the National Assembly, is the latest step on the tall ladder toward democratic prosperity.[iraq]
After the long reign of Saddam Hussein, who unified the country under a strict campaign of discouraged citizen involvement, Iraq has become fragmented, both on the streets, where soldiers and civilians keep dying, and on the political scene, where over 100 parties tried to get members into the 275 seats in the National Assembly. The final electoral tally shows a sharp ideological divide between the dominating factions, comprised of 140 Shiites from the United Iraqi Alliance, 70 Kurds from the Kurdistan Alliance and 40 secular Sunnis and Shiites from the Iraqi List. These discrepancies suggest Iraq might not be that different from East Lansing after all, where students have long since complained about the perceived abuse of power by the city government in which students are underrepresented.
The similarities between the American and Middle Eastern political cultures are more striking than what’s initially obvious. Countries like Iran and Iraq have been stuck under authoritarian rulers defined by their religious affiliation, and America is dominated by an upper class whose members can’t progress toward prosperity without claiming an abiding faith in the Lord.
God seemingly carries the most clout among federal politicians, but he also makes appearances at local and municipal levels from time to time. Last year, for instance, the East Lansing City Council named the last week of November “Bible Week,” a move prompting detractors to cry about the violated separation of church and state. Mark Meadows, East Lansing’s mayor since 1997, rejects both this idea and that Bible Week constituted preferential treatment for Christians.
“If somebody wants Koran week, we’ll pass it,” Meadows said.
A small town of barely 50,000 elected Meadows. Comparing East Lansing and a multi-million-citizen nation without any democratic history seems ridiculous. The interim Iraqi constitution caters to the affairs of a nation; East Lansing’s charter is designed for the needs of local neighborhoods. Even so, some of small-town America’s principles have made it into Iraq’s political culture, even if they won’t remain after the new government adopts a permanent constitution.
[alcohol] For example, the city charter prohibits city employment of relatives of the current city manager and councilmembers, a notion that was lost on Saddam Hussein, but which should be applied more regularly in the new system. Other similarities are more ironic. The city’s crackdown on alcohol-related offenses and legislation against open alcohol consumption resemble Sharia law, traditional Islamic law opposed by modern liberal Muslims, especially in a city where alcohol sales were outlawed until 1968. Likewise, members of Iraq’s national assembly must be at least 30-years-old, a limit inadvertently mirrored on the city council, producing a sore point among students and widening the gap between the East Lansing and MSU communities.
Jared Rapp, who ran for city council in 2003, feels this divide as much as anyone else.
“East Lansing is a flawed city,” Rapp said. “It lacks the ambiance of a city this size; its residents don’t know what’s best for the city.” Rapp continued confidently, without effort, launching a spirited and fast-paced attack on the democratic state of the college town, concluding that the city council has let it go to waste. He highlighted the mental separation of the city councilmembers. “They don’t know what young people are into,” Rapp said, almost echoing fellow ASMSU student assembly representative Derek Wallbank.
“There’s a vast disconnect between people on this side of Grand River and people on that side,” Wallbank said, though he admits it’s getting better. Wallbank objects strongly to the zoning ordinance on rental housing passed by the council last year, calling it 1780s democracy. “I don’t think it’s constitutional,” he said. “It leaves people out of the decision-making process.”
While these complaints have been voiced by many, they’ve hardly been repeated as often as those directed toward 2003’s much talked about noise ordinance. The ordinance made it possible for police to issue a civil infraction punishable by a $1,000 fine, a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and three days in jail, seemingly unnecessarily harsh consequences for innocent offenses. It ignited antagonisms as some grumbled that the city was just as undemocratic as any totalitarian state.
[students] Wallbank sounds exasperated when discussing the ordinance.
“Now the city has decided that it’s within their prerogative to jail students for annoying people,” he said.
Meadows, however, has repeatedly argued for the necessity of the ordinance, and that it isn’t especially harsh given the felonious nature of some of the indicators needed to trigger it. Furthermore, he thinks students have misconceptions about what the city is doing.
“I understand [that students feel alienated], but I don’t necessarily endorse that viewpoint,” Meadows said. “There’s a disconnect in most university communities. There’s an alienation because of those things which impact or prohibit what they see as student life. But they also haven’t taken the steps to have an impact.”
Few students have taken such steps, perhaps rendering their lack of representation in the city council self-inflicted rather than imposed. Rapp was the last one to trot that way, when he, along with Joey Marcus, ran as write-in candidates against Meadows and his fellow incumbents in the 2003 election. While he encountered no bureaucratic or institutional obstacles to his campaign, physical hurdles took a toll.
”It was a tedious endeavor,” Rapp said. “I was drained constantly.” An ASMSU representative and general business administration and pre-law senior, Rapp found it hard to balance the campaign with his schoolwork. “I was so happy that I didn’t win. At first it looked like it might be close, but then it trailed off. So we shook the mayor’s hand and went to Trippers to celebrate.”
Rapp’s and Marcus’ names were not printed alongside the three incumbents’ names on the ballots, as they didn’t partake in the August primary election – a $20,000 expense held when most students are out of the city – an extravagance which now has been removed from the electoral process. Hence, many voters were unaware of the students and their write-in information, and Rapp and Marcus each collected less than 400 votes as Meadows extended his term on the council, which began in 1995, for another four years.
“We even lost one of the on-campus stations,” Rapp recalled with a sardonic smile.
However, the composition of the ballots doesn’t account for Rapp’s entire lack of support in a constituency where voter participation typically struggles to break 10 percent. In Rapp’s own words, student voters are “pathetically apathetic.”
Wallbank put it more delicately: “Students are inherently a fluid group of people,” he explained, pointing to the constant migration in and out of MSU. “There’s also a general disconnect between students and some issues in East Lansing. Ninety percent of the students voted in the presidential election; if we could get that type of turnout for every sort of election, we’d be fine.”
The lack of interest in local politics – which when garnering interest is one of the cornerstones in the argument for the American democratic model – was made apparent a couple years ago, at a concert on campus organized by Meadows and Mayor Pro Tem Sam Singh, to promote student participation in local governmental affairs.
“Sam and I used our own money to sponsor [it],” Meadows said. “We built a stage at the rock, we had six bands; it was a beautiful, sunny weekend day.” He paused and smiled. “100 people came.”
He believes he understands why most students don’t care.
“They have one foot in their hometown, one in East Lansing; one with mom and dad, one with independence. They only stay here for four or five years, so they don’t feel like they want to be involved,” Meadows said. Still, students have many reasons to get involved, and he particularly pointed to one national statistic to prove his point. “The average living in a single spot is five years, so you should think of this as the place you live in.”
Meadows, who won’t be one of the councilmembers up for re-election this fall, welcomes student competition.
“The more, the merrier,” he said. “In the last election, I ran alone; that should never happen again.”
A lot of merriment appears to be headed toward city hall come this November’s election, as Wallbank said he knows at least eight people who are either planning to run or considering running, including himself.
“It’s very much an issue of getting someone on there whose 100 percent concerned about students,” he said. “If it’s not me, then it’s someone else who’s equally strong on student rights. It’s not going to be an unchecked election again.”
[speakers] Maybe, then, the future will bring a community more representative of student life. If so, there will be plenty of occasions to voice comments like Rapp’s message to college town inhabitants complaining about excessive noise:
“If I wanted to live in a war zone I’d move to Baghdad,” he said. “If I didn’t want to be bombed, I’d move out.”
This shows the vast disparity between the Middle East and the Midwest. Iraqi insurgents blast cars and buildings, East Lansing “rebels” blast speakers. Bereft of holy causes and opportunities to die in regular bombings or shootings, MSU students must keep people awake at night, rape each other and riot over lost basketball games. We have the freedom to be as lazy and apathetic as we want. In this environment, there’s no room for political participation.
But it should be alarming that the city government is currently less representative than Iraq’s, a fledgling democracy fresh out of the grasp of longstanding dictatorship. As it is, the system is undemocratic, unnecessarily punitive and geared against students, but it’s within our power to change that. In a country of hundreds of millions and in the wake of the presidential election, the municipal level is the only place where the common man or woman can make his or her voice heard and possibly see any change. How much sense does it make to fight abroad for other countries’ rights to democracy while giving up those rights at home? East Lansing’s built on a foundation of participation and input, stemming from a strong democratic culture. When utilized, our democracy is in better shape than Iraq’s. The question, then, is if that’s good enough.

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