Can Mayor Gray’s arrest spark sustained agitation for D.C. rights?

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 14, 2011

What do District residents Don Glenn, who is a paroled former heroin distributor, and Steven De Salvo, a U.S. Justice Department attorney, have in common?

They both thought it was great that Mayor Vince Gray got arrested to protest Congress’s meddling in the city’s internal affairs.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

“That thing was beautiful. We all need to go down and get arrested,” said Glenn, who works at a Georgia Avenue barbershop. “I’d have to tell my parole officer, ‘Yes, I got arrested, and here’s why.’ ”

Antitrust lawyer De Salvo, who lives on Capitol Hill, said it was “fantastic” that Gray “was willing to take a stand for D.C.” He added: “For too long the District has been pushed around by Congress.”

The shared reaction from such different individuals illustrates the breadth of resentment in the District over its second-class status. It’s one issue on which Washington truly is “One City,” as Gray’s campaign slogan proclaimed.

The mayor’s sit-down on Constitution Avenue was supported 2 to 1 by respondents in 25 interviews conducted Tuesday in Petworth and outside Eastern Market. Somewhat to my surprise, only a handful of people saw Gray’s action as a bid to distract attention from the hiring and spending scandals swirling around his administration.

Now the question is whether that widespread resentment can be channeled into sustained, intensified political agitation to right the civic wrongs that history has done to D.C. residents.

That’s certainly the mayor’s intent. He and his allies in the District voting rights movement say they want to use regular public demonstrations, including civil disobedience, to call attention to how poorly the city is treated by the federal government.

“Hopefully, this will be a spark,” Gray said after he, six D.C. Council members and 34 others were released from jail.

The goal is a campaign that “pushes the edges of what’s legal and customary, and by doing that to draw more attention to this fight,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote.

I’m rooting for the protesters, providing they commit no violence and let the police know ahead of time what’s planned. (Zherka said they did so before Monday’s demonstration.)

The risk, of course, is that Gray and the D.C. Council will lead but few will follow — or not for long. That would be disappointing, because it’s sure to take years of public clamor to sufficiently shame the rest of the nation into granting the District the same rights enjoyed by residents of the 50 states.

The campaign will benefit from three developments that could fuel a new, more assertive phase in the decades-long campaign for full home rule and equal voting rights.

First, Gray is more committed to the issue than his predecessor, Adrian Fenty. Gray promised during the campaign to get arrested for D.C. rights, and now he’s delivered. Fenty was involved in his first year in office but did little in the remaining three years.

In addition, the District is likely to feel more provoked than in the past because the new Republican majority in the House enjoys interfering in the city’s liberal social policies.

Gray’s action was triggered primarily by the Republicans’ success in blocking the city from using its own funds to pay for abortions for low-income women. Similar battles are possible over needle-exchange programs, same-sex marriage and medical marijuana.

Finally, on this issue, the city’s leaders are almost as angry with their fellow Democrats in Congress as they are with Republicans. In the previous Congress, when the Democrats controlled both chambers, they failed to prevent a gun-control provision from poisoning the best effort in a generation to win the District a full voting seat in the House.

It doesn’t help that President Obama’s list of priorities puts D.C. civic rights somewhere around dead last.

“What we really see is the need to hold not just our opponents accountable but also our friends,” Zherka said.

So, how many D.C. residents are willing to get arrested for the cause? Based on my interviews, there’s potential. Almost a third — eight of 25 — said they’d be willing to commit civil disobedience.

One was Eddie, who didn’t want his surname published because he works for a public agency.

“I’d do it because our ancestors came a long way. Martin Luther King got arrested and look what he accomplished,” he said.

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