Go fight City Hall

“Go fight City Hall” is a phrase expressing the futility of trying to battle government bureaucracy. The phrase sounds like a call to action but in fact, it is the opposite. An equivalent would be “you can’t fight City Hall.” 

In the past, “go fight City Hall” may have had a more optimistic ring, judging by at least one old newspaper article. In 1928, a short item appeared in the Brooklyn Citizen announcing an upcoming tax cut which, the newspaper said, was a direct result of fighting City Hall: 

“The “Go Fight City Hall” spirit may mean a savings of $8,000,000 to the taxpayers of Queens. With the Board of Assessors in executive session concerning its recommendations for a decrease in the assessment levied on Queens property owners for the construction of the $16,300,000 Jamaica “sewer scandal,” the only question seems to involve the amount of the relief.”

Countless books, movies, and television shows have dealt with the question of whether it’s possible to “go fight City Hall.” The phrase itself may have been popularized by a 1945 book, “Go Fight City Hall” by Ethel Rosenberg. (Note that the author is not the convicted spy of the same name.)

The 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is probably one of the best-known takes on the issue of fighting city hall. Of course, in that case, Mr. Smith is not literally fighting “city hall” but is taking on entrenched interests in Congress. Still the idea — an ordinary citizen trying to prevail against the establishment — is the same. 

It’s also worth noting that the “fight against City Hall” isn’t always portrayed as a noble one. A 1962 episode of the old TV show “Naked City” was titled “Go Fight City Hall.” That episode wasn’t about a heroic struggle against a faceless bureaucracy; rather, it’s about a couple of thieves who try to make fools out of good detectives.

Most of the time, though, the fight against City Hall is seen as a sort of David and Goliath struggle, with the heroes being either the ordinary citizen, or perhaps a stalwart activist. In New York City, for example, Jane Jacobs’ struggles against Robert Moses’ developments is often remembered as a heroic win against “City Hall.”

Among journalists, taking on City Hall is usually a badge of honor. In 1976 the National Freedom of Information Coalition, an organization dedicated to increasing transparency at all levels of government, published a study titled “Go Fight City Hall: Informal Methods of Combatting Secrecy in Local Government.” The study noted that fighting the government can be ruinously expensive and risky:

…court action is not an easy decision for an editor. Only the wealthier papers can sue without weeping at the cost, and cost is just one problem. A lawsuit can turn a difference of opinion between a newspaper and a public official into overt hostility, making a rational solution difficult. And the news media must pick suits with care. If they don’t win, they can be in worse trouble than before. Further, the law is slow. No suit can get a public meeting open in time for the last deadline.