May 20, 2011

On May 11, I stood up for the District’s right to full democracy by stepping out onto Constitution Avenue and engaging in civil disobedience. As I stared up at the beautiful U.S. Capitol, I was inspired by the chants of other activists: “This is what democracy looks like!”

I am not your average protester. The last protest I attended was in 1965, demanding that President Lyndon B. Johnson take action during the civil rights struggle in Selma, Ala. But I got arrested last week because I am devastated that 600,000 residents of Washington, including me, my husband, my children and my grandchildren, continue to be denied voting representation in Congress. More important, I have seen how our lack of power in Congress negatively affects life in my beloved District, such as with the congressional override of local health-care decisions on AIDS prevention and reproductive services. I have seen how the president and congressional leaders treated the city like a pawn in budget talks. Our second-class status is a blight on American democracy.

I am proud of my work over the past 40 years as a staff member, officer, founder or funder of organizations serving the District’s children and families, including the Children’s National Medical Center, D.C. Action for Children and the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation. It is in part for District children that I now take action on behalf of democracy in the District. I want children living in the nation’s capital to have the opportunity to be members of Congress one day.

In fact, about 40 children witnessed our act of passive resistance. The kids, who were probably on a class trip, stood on the sidewalk while we shut down Constitution Avenue. We became a living civics lesson for those children and others. I was encouraged that many of them started chanting “Free D.C.!” along with us.

It was truly a privilege to be arrested with my fellow Washingtonians — Annalee Ash, Tamara Copeland, Colleen Lee, Herb Tillery, Judith Sandalow, Juan Thompson and Bernadette Tolson. In jail, we sang, laughed, hugged and took care of each other. It was exhilarating to stand up for what we believe.

We are proud to join the club of 62 people who have put their bodies on the line and been arrested for D.C. democracy in the past six weeks, including Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and several other D.C. Council members. I hope others here and around the country will join us in fighting for full democracy in the District and the nation.

We are having an impact. Through our defiance, the world is learning about the recent congressional intrusions. Moreover, Congress is starting to get the message. The day after our act of civil disobedience, some congressional leaders began talking about giving the District more local control over our budget. More pressure on the streets can help turn that kind of talk into a reality.

Diane Bernstein, Washington