During last year’s mayoral campaign, Vince Gray spoke passionately about the city’s lack of voting rights, but he also threw cold water on any suggestions that only he should get arrested for the cause. What point would it make if he alone were arrested, Gray would ask, noting that only a massive uprising of District residents would cause people to stand up and take notice.
And that’s what happened yesterday.
In conversations with activists, council staff and organizers after Gray and 40 others were arrested for blocking traffic during a protest for voting rights and self-determination, it became clear that while the arrests were always considered a possibility, it was the size and passion of the crowd that ultimately swayed Gray to take a step that hadn’t been taken since Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly got herself arrested on the Hill during an August 1993 pro-statehood rally.
Plans for the protest were hatched quickly over the weekend, after a government shutdown was averted and it became clear that a ban on local funds for abortions became the bargaining chip used between President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner to reach a final budget deal late Friday. The move, which Gray only heard of via the media, deeply infuriated residents, activists and elected officials already battered by an aggressive Republican House and the hours of preparation that went into readying for a shutdown of the city’s government.
The arrests are largely symbolic and aren’t likely to cause Obama and Boehner to reconsider their deal, but the point seemed to be less about them and more about us. (The City Paper’s Lydia DePillis has a take worth reading.) Residents of Washington have heard big talk on voting rights for years, and for any number of reasons the movement in support of it has been stuck in neutral -- if not rolled backward -- during the same time. Many residents and advocates needed something to remind them that a fire remained, and yesterday’s actions were it.
If the last week of events proved anything, it’s that many residents are deeply offended by the low regard in which the District’s local affairs are held by the federal government. Even though the city’s local government would be shuttered by a federal shutdown, Congress did nothing to exempt the District from the possibility, even though D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton repeatedly asked for it. The possible shutdown wasn’t an academic exercise -- basic functions like trash pickup would be suspended, all because Congress couldn’t come to an agreement on a budget or at least have the decency to exempt a city government that had passed its own budget almost a year prior. The sellout over abortion may not have been new -- a ban on the use of local funds for abortions has been on the books in one form or another since 1988 -- but rather, that after all the screaming and fighting over spending cuts, it all came down to a local program paid for by local funds and that costs less than firing a few Tomahawk missiles into Libya on any given day.
Ultimately, over the last week, we’ve all been shown in very real terms what the cost of being second-class citizens is. How the city moves forward, though, is the next big question.
The District absolutely needs legislative and budgetary autonomy, and these are issues on which progress can be made. There’s simply no rational reason that Congress should have to review every law the D.C. Council passes, much less collect our local funds and re-appropriate them to us as if the District were simply a federal agency. It’s not only an awesomely inefficient way to run a city government, but it ends up being the main tool through which any semblance of home rule can be routinely chipped away at. As Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) made clear yesterday, people screw with the District simply because they can -- not because there’s some greater good they’re exacting in the process.
Gray, the D.C. Council, voting rights advocates and residents have to take advantage of the momentum to push for basic legislative and budgetary autonomy as a first step toward broader basic democratic equality. Yesterday’s arrests were an inspiring start, but they’re by no means the end of the process.