Explainer: Understanding the difference between City-based vs State-based vs Federal actors.
Everyone has multiple targets of people who represent them who have the power to make change. While every change has one *final* decision maker (ie. state law can only be repealed by an act of that state’s legislature) there are plenty of ways that people and bodies influence each other, and it can be easier to start with people closer to you (ie. it’s a lot easier for a state legislature to pass a ban on using condoms as evidence if your major city’s police department has already internally created the policy) or who share your values (ie. the Texas state house might be useless to fund harm reduction, but can the federal Department of Health help with support of the El Paso City Council?). Knowing more actors means more leverage points, and more opportunities to find allies and co-conspirators.
Closest to home: Cities and towns.
Governance at the city/town level is the most accessible and where the input of time and energy gets the most response – a little bit of input in relationship building goes a long way. Every local jurisdiction has a local legislative body, possibly a City Council or Board of Aldermen. Depending on the size of the area, which can be a good place to start. Every body has different structure, time that they operate and resources available. City councils control the local distribution of services and how those things are paid for – including things like your city’s police department, or ordinances such as loitering. Learn City Council 101 from the National League of Cities.
The administrative bodies are going to be the Mayor, who is elected, and the administration they put together. There are different types of structures of power (this article breaks it down pretty well) but they oversee the functioning of those services including over local law enforcement. In local administrations, roles such as the District Attorney or the Sheriff may be elected in some places, which is different than other areas of governing, where they are appointed. This also makes they, technically, your representatives.
Example: No Condoms as Evidence; New York City Council.
Comparable Efforts: These cities are looking to decriminalize psilocybin ahead of the states they’re in.
All states criminalize prostitution, which means that decriminalization will have to come from state-level advocacy. Beyond state law, states can have heavy control over distribution of resources, and some areas of law enforcement policy, including a significant amount of the funding (Find out more about federal grants to states.) States may be limited when it comes to things like Federal law enforcement (immigration) of local policy, like local police department internal policy.
In every state in the country but one, there is a bicameral (two houses) legislature and administrative body. See the composition of state legislatures. The administrative head in the state is the Governor, and the head of the state’s law enforcement is the Attorney’s General, who are elected or appointed, depending on the state. You also have state legislators, who are voted by district.
Example: California’s Immunity Statute.
Have you have a state-level win you’d like to share? Contact us.
Federal policy means Congress and the President.
Federal policy can be the most removed and hardest to change, but can set the tone for broad change. Some issues can only be dealt with on the Federal level (immigration, international policy, tech policy), but it can also catalyze change on the more widespread scale all at once.
The administration is headed by the President/White House, with multiple Departments carrying out Federal action. This includes law enforcement branches like the Department of Justice (who head up things like Operation Cross Country, but are not involved in things like a local sting operation).
Interactions: Law enforcement operations.
Example: Operation Cross Country, Banning Contact with people in custody
Law enforcement operations may involve every jurisdiction (city, state and Federal), which means there are many places to put pressure. Operation Cross Country is one such example. OCC has be re-named Operation Independence Day, but the practices remain. Since 2003, the FBI has coordinated a multi-city, multi-day john sting. The Federal offices coordinate timing, and sometimes may offer training and logistical support. State and local law enforcement may offer staff (officers) to carry out the operations themselves. They may also support with local coordination of service providers.
When multiple jurisdictions coordinate, that gives more power and leeway. State law enforcement has all the ability to charge state and local laws like patronizing or prostitution – the FBI doesn’t have the power to charge someone with a state law. Federal officers have more access to resources, such as the ability and funding to request and carry out things like phone surveillance.
Because of these interactions that means change can come from different places. The FBI can change their policies, stop funding or stop coordinating efforts. Local offices can refuse to participate in Federal efforts. Either change would impact the end goal of disrupting campaigns like OCC.
Interactions: Resource distribution.
Example: LGBTQ shelter access.
Jurisdictions have multiple funding sources for services, all of which should be seen as potential places for disruption or reform. On the state level, funding comes from both private grants and state taxes, as well as federal grants which can come with a range of oversight or Federal control. Grants/contracts are frequently used to nudge behavior that the government cannot explicitly change. This can include state laws – states adopted seat-belt laws when they became a requirement to receive federal infrastructure funding that supports road upkeep.
One example of how to use Federal resources to leverage local change is with contract requirements or incentives in existing grant programs. When supporting shelter services for survivors of domestic/intimate partner violence, the Federal government doesn’t operate housing. Service providers on the ground piece together federal, state and private funding to operate. When advocates were trying to expand non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ folks, one of the targets was to have the Federal government include a non-discrimination provision which explicitly included LGBTQ protections for all federal shelter funding. This meant that while the federal government has no say in shelter policy or state regulation, accepting certain Federal grants meant that the shelter had to agree not to discriminate.