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Opinion Muriel Bowser: The protests show why D.C. statehood matters

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announces the creation of Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on June 5. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Muriel E. Bowser is mayor of the District of Columbia.

The moment I decided to create Black Lives Matter Plaza was when I came face to face with a line of federal police blocking a street in my legal jurisdiction. I was downtown with members of my Interfaith Council to pray for wisdom and peace. Here we were in my hometown, in the capital of the United States of America, with people all around us protesting for change, demanding reforms to the racist and broken systems that killed George Floyd and so many black Americans before him. But instead of bringing the country together, the federal government was blocking the streets. It was clear the president was doing everything he could to tear us apart.

Just a few nights before my walk downtown, federal helicopters flew dangerously low to frighten and disperse protesters in streets of the nation’s capital. Like a scene from a dystopian movie, Americans saw images of soldiers in camouflage arrayed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Units of federal law enforcement officers lacking any identifying insignia roamed downtown.

This blatant degradation of our home right before my own eyes offered another reminder — a particularly powerful one — of why we need statehood for the District. Another reminder that the fight for statehood cannot be separated from the fight for racial justice.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

It is no coincidence that Washington— affectionately known as Chocolate City — is also the only capital of a democratic nation that denies its residents a vote in the federal legislature. To think these two truths are not related is to be willfully ignorant of our nation’s history.

Most Americans know that Washington is the seat of the federal government. What many people may not realize is that we are also home to more than 705,000 taxpaying Americans. Or that we are unique in the U.S. political system. I function as a governor, county executive and mayor. For the purposes of thousands of federal laws, we act as a state, and we do it well, overseeing a $16 billion budget and paying more in federal taxes than we get back. In fact, we pay more than 22 states, and our residents pay more to the federal government per capita than any other state.

But without full voting representation in Congress, our local autonomy, which we achieved through limited Home Rule in 1973, is regularly trampled on and threatened by representatives visiting our city from states across the nation. We see this meddling in our local affairs through legislative riders that prevent us from using federal funds to pay for reproductive health care or from setting up a system to tax and regulate the sale of recreational cannabis.

For decades, racist accusations about District residents not being able to govern ourselves were used to deny us the rights that every other taxpaying American is guaranteed by the Constitution. Still today, without any senators and with no vote in Congress, we are denied full access to our nation’s democracy.

The story of Washington is a civil rights story — of an entire city that, for decades, functioned as an agency of the federal government, a federal government that imposed segregation and denied proper resources to residents they weren’t accountable to.

Not until this month, though, did we see our autonomy threatened with military force.

And when it happened, I did what I had to do as mayor, and I pushed back. I had the chance to say no to allowing the military to be misused to move nonviolent demonstrators around, and I did. I acted because I knew I would have my city, my nation and the world saying no with me.

I said no for the generations of leaders and demonstrators whose shoulders I stand on. For the residents who were stripped of their democratic rights and for those who fought tirelessly to win them back. I said no for the enslaved men and women who helped build the Capitol, the White House and this nation. I said no for every District resident who is still treated like a second-class citizen and for every American who believes in equal protection under the law.

This month, the president became the latest to trample our rights as U.S. citizens. He is not the first and, unfortunately, he will likely not be the last. But by standing together, we pushed back more forcefully than we ever have before.

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (Video: The Washington Post)

For every American who has watched in disbelief and disgust, I ask you to join us in our fight for statehood. This is a problem Congress can fix. Help us elect a Congress that believes in democracy. Help us elect a president who won’t occupy our city or any city. Help us push, more unified than ever before, for the District to become the 51st state.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this op-ed: What happened to Chocolate City? Gentrification.

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Letters to the Editor: D.C.’s mayor spells it out: Black lives matter

​​The Post’s View: Amid Trump’s incursions, D.C.’s mayor takes an impressive stand

​​Gabe Klein: To fix our cities, we must reckon with our racist urban past

​​Brian S. Lowery: To my white friends, the time for talk has passed. Now is the time for work.

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