Ben W. Armfield was on his job as a mild-mannered computer programmer that day in October when he heard the news on the radio: Congress would be voting on a D.C. appropriations bill, or, as Armfield saw it, "wielding power over us and then blaming everything on the local government if it doesn't work out right."
Armfield was transformed. He walked to the Capitol, got a visitor's pass to the House gallery and, as the votes were being tallied, stood up and declared, "Mr. Speaker, as a citizen of the District of Columbia, I must protest this vote."
He was arrested immediately but acquitted in a jury trial Jan. 14. Had he been convicted, he would have been subject to a $500 fine and up to six months in jail.
Why did he take the risk?
At age 51, Armfield could be called a computer nerd. His sister-in-law helped him decorate the apartment where he lives in Petworth, and her touch accounts for the colorful pictures of pears and plums on the wall near his computer.
He lives comfortably, wears cotton shirts and soft-sole shoes. He owns a set of barbells but says he hasn't lifted weights in two years.
Unless, of course, you count the weight off his shoulders the day he took a stand.
"I was very nervous, and I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it until I did it," Armfield said recently. "I had never done anything like it before. I had always been content to sit back and let others do the protesting. But one day, I looked around and didn't see anybody doing anything."
Well, hardly anybody. In July, two others, Anise Jenkins and Karen Szulgit, were accused of the same thing--"disorderly and disruptive conduct on the United States Capitol grounds"--for the same reason. Their trial in D.C. Superior Court began last week but has been postponed until Feb. 22.
Exactly what Armfield, Jenkins and Szulgit were protesting has proved to be a most difficult concept for many Americans: the lack of democracy, of all things, in the nation's capital, of all places.
"It's really frightening that this is the only situation in the United States in which such institutional injustice and the denial of democracy is not obvious," Armfield said. On Wednesday, for example, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of one of the House subcommittees that "oversee" the District, began hinting at a return to self-government for the city because District officials have jumped through all the requisite congressional hoops. They have balanced the budget three years in a row.
But by Friday, Davis had second thoughts. Congress may have to continue its intervention after all, he said, if city leaders can't make the school board work better. And, while he was thinking about it, there was also the matter of a troubled foster care system and warnings from an economist that the District's financial woes aren't over yet.
Once again, talk of restoring even limited home rule was premature.
"The true outrage is that people have accepted this condition as normal," Armfield said. "I recently heard [former D.C. mayor] Sharon Pratt Kelly describe the District's relationship with Congress as abusive, and that's right on the mark. She said that part of an abusive relationship is that the abused party starts blaming itself."
Armfield concurs. "So many times, I've heard open-minded, educated white people, and black people, too, say, 'Well, it's an injustice, but it's a good thing to have Congress in charge because Washington is just a poor black city that can't help itself.' "
In preparation for his trial, Armfield said he read up on Washington history--and learned that the founders never intended that Congress use the District as a "political whipping boy." Over the years, for instance, the House and Senate have developed a habit of holding up the District budget, and wreaking havoc on government services, to show how tough they can be on certain issues--whether it's prohibiting the use of city funds for abortions, refusing to permit AIDS-fighting needle exchange programs or shelving the city's vote to legalize marijuana for medical use.
While Congress has the right to rule, Armfield learned, it is not required to exercise that right. Moreover, the reason that congressional rule over the city was written into the Constitution in the first place--to address 18th-century concerns for the security of the federal government--no longer exists. At his trial, he admitted expressing himself from the House gallery.
"I had no other reliable channel of communication that is not subject to congressional censure," Armfield told the court. "Congress can dissolve the D.C. government at any time. My delegate [Eleanor Holmes Norton] can't vote, and her position exists at the pleasure of Congress. I believed I had a free speech right to express my opinion directly to Congress about its meddling in local affairs."
The prosecutor argued that Armfield was simply "arrogant" and had tried to "take the law into his own hands." A jury of 12 District residents disagreed, concluding that Armfield had not specifically set out to disrupt Congress, which the judge had said was essential for a verdict of guilty.
Armfield is elated by his personal victory but remains concerned about the future of home rule.
"People don't just give up power unless they are forced to," he said. "And all indications are that Congress will never give up ultimate control over the District until the people decide that they just don't want to live this way anymore."