D.C. Vote, the city’s foremost and best-financed voting-rights advocacy organization held its annual “Champions of Democracy” dinner Wednesday night. Pardon this reporter for expecting something less than unabashed merriment at this year’s affair. It has been, after all, a tough couple of years for the movement, which has seen the best opportunity for voting-rights expansion in a generation slip by.
The affair honored two aforementioned champions — Maudine Cooper of the Greater Washington Urban League and Walter Smith of D.C. Appleseed — but it was also a much needed pep talk for a movement that’s searching for a way forward after a yearslong push for a House or Representatives vote fell shy.
There was less talk of cooperation and building coalitions and allies and incremental change. Instead there was reflection and new calls for action, protest, bravery, arrests.
“We are going through kind of a self-cleansing process,” said Ilir Zherka, the group’s executive director, in remarks to the crowd.
He continued: “I think a lot of us had an epiphany over the past few years, when we saw 22 senators — Democrats — who voted for the D.C. Voting Rights Act also voted for the gun amendment that killed that act. A lot of us have let go of the idea ... that our allies are going to be with us and they’re going to solve their problems. Because we know they’re going to be with us until it gets inconvenient for them politically.”
Zherka touted, of course, the April arrests of Mayor Vincent C. Gray and 71 other activist in the course of a Capitol Hill protest. He claimed that the new energy played a role in defeating a House committee amendment earlier this month that would have allowed some non-city residents to carry concealed weapons on D.C.’s streets.
The protests thus far, he said, have made for good defense. But to expand city residents’ rights, “We have to step up this game. We have to expand our protest campaign. We’ve got to invite other people to reject the politics of fear and embrace courage.”
In brief remarks accepting his award, Smith also rallied the troops:
There is work to be done. There are greater risks to be taken. Much, much more bravery is now called for. The job has gotten harder. We must march more. We must speak more. We must get arrested more. We must talk to more people. We must bring more organizations to the table. We must bring more money to the movement. ... There is so much to be done. There is not a moment to lose. So let’s get on with it.