As the world set about mourning the death of South African president Nelson Mandela on Friday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) offered his condolences and said a city with a rich African-American history felt uniquely connected to Mandela’s mission.
And then Gray went a step further: The apartheid rules that Mandela spent his life working to undo, Gray said repeatedly in interviews, were a lot like the second-class citizenship still faced by residents of the District of Columbia.
“I think there are some parallels because we have 632,000 people who continue to live under the yoke of a form of oppression,” he said. “You know, we can’t control our own money, we can’t control our own local laws. We have taxation without representation in this city. I think there are a lot of people who see a parallel between his experience and ours.”
This is not the first time Gray has seized on a high-profile moment to draw attention to D.C.’s lack of representation in Congress. He held a rally for D.C. voting rights the morning of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and he did the same when the city had the national spotlight of President Obama’s inauguration and the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial along the tidal basin.
The mayor repeated the comparison at least four times throughout the day. If anything, he seemed to grow more comfortable with it:
“There are people who have likened the experience of not having full democracy in this city as almost a form of apartheid. I’ve heard people say that,” Gray said after a morning ground breaking of a new Hyatt hotel and fire station in Southwest.
By the time he arrived at the embassy, it wasn’t just something he’d heard:
“Frankly in this city, I think people can relate to” apartheid, he said before a bank of two dozen television cameras and scores of reporters from across the globe waiting to hear about tributes planned for Mandela.
“I think the people here can relate first hand to Nelson Mandela, the leadership he provided, and the experience of South Africa because there are so many similarities to the experiences right here in this city that we will continue to endure.”