The District’s civil rights problem

April 14, 2011

Two venerable moral causes met last week in the Oval Office.

In one corner: The antiabortion movement, the struggle birthed in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade to equate abortion with murder and criminalize it as such. In the other: District of Columbia autonomy, the principle that the 601,723 residents of the nation’s capital best know how to govern their own affairs and that Congress, though granted plenary power over the city by the Constitution, ought best butt out.

The two principles clashed in negotiations over a deal to keep the federal government funded. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was under pressure from his caucus to make major cuts to women’s health providers who also perform abortions.

The conflict was resolved like this: “John, I will give you D.C. abortion,” said President Obama, an avowed supporter of District home rule, according to a Washington Post account. “I am not happy about it.”

Happy or not, Obama appears to have rather casually betrayed a principle — “He is a firm supporter of D.C. home rule,” his press secretary insisted this week — because he could, thus illustrating the ongoing failure of city autonomists to build any kind of social movement behind their cause.

They’re still trying, though. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), six members of the D.C. Council and 34 private citizens on Monday protested the deal by sitting down in the middle of Constitution Avenue NE, leading to their arrest.

Gray, in comments after his release, called the arrests a “spark” that he hoped would ignite a firestorm of protest. He called for a public uprising to rival the autocrat-toppling street protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) has not been shy in alluding to the civil rights protests of the 1960s, or even the abolition of slavery.

But so far, the protesters only highlighted their fecklessness. When it comes to social protest, District activists are rank amateurs.

So I called up a professional — Randall Terry, the firebrand antiabortion activist who has been on an unceasing, in-your-face crusade for more than 20 years. He’s the mastermind behind last year’s TV ads for a little-known challenger to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) — the one featuring graphic images of aborted fetuses. That’s how the guy rolls.

Terry is very much at odds with the home-rule crowd, given that one of the things they’d like to do with home rule is pay for abortions. But Terry, who makes his home these days in the Virginia suburbs, is also a student of social protest movements and a prominent figure in his own movement (if far from universally beloved inside it). So I asked: Could the arrests indeed spark a legitimate protest movement?

“It’s like trying to use a match against a water cannon,” he said. “It’s not gonna happen.”

Terry, of course, will not stipulate that D.C. autonomy is a moral cause on par with his crusade to end “legalized child-killing” (he rarely uses the word “abortion”). But in the cause of D.C. “self-determination” (to use the favored term of District activists), Terry diagnoses other problems in creating the “crisis of conscience” necessary to hasten change.

“You have to have incendiary images. You have to have gripping rhetoric. You have to have sustained actions. And,” he said, “you have to have martyrs, whether they’re living or dead.”

Gripping rhetoric we have — hard to get elected in this town without delivering a stem-winder or seven on the District’s plight.

But incendiary images? A mayor in handcuffs threatens to conjure up unintended reactions. Sustained action? More than 17 years passed between mayoral protest arrests. And martyrs, the kind sympathetic to the average American? It’s not women who will have to pay for their own abortions. It’s not the poor kids who through federally funded vouchers get a chance to go to a better school. It’s not the sick folks who won’t get medical marijuana or the drug addicts who won’t get clean needles.

While city leaders have treated District autonomy and voting rights as a moral struggle on par with the movements for civil rights, women’s suffrage or abolition, it has been difficult for the average American to relate to the city’s sacrifices.

That’s not to say there is no value in protest. But here’s some perspective: Terry estimates that he’s been arrested either 49 or 51 times since the mid-1980s. (“They’re starting to blur,” he said.) For those keeping count, that’s at least eight more collars he’s personally experienced than Monday’s 41 aggregate arrests. And despite all those arrests, plus a deeply committed nationwide base of supporters and the near-unanimous support of a major political party, abortion remains legal 34 years after Roe.

But all that incarceration has given Terry some appreciation for Gray’s gesture.

“I wish that John Boehner displayed the courage of the mayor of D.C. on behalf of the babies,” he said. “He gives a wonderful illustration in form, if not in substance.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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