Trump has free rein in D.C. because of the city’s unique constitutional status. We only have “home rule,” granted by Congress, not sovereignty; we have no governor, so the D.C. National Guard answers to Trump, not to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. D.C. residents pay federal taxes, but we have only shadow senators and a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House. We have the trappings of independence but none of the benefits of control: It’s a burlesque of government when federal authorities want to toy with us.
Many governors have made clear that they don’t want Trump sending the military to encroach on their states’ sovereignty, but the only thing the District can do about it is paint “Black Lives Matter” on city streets leading up to the federal forces and send angry letters to the White House. Even though D.C. is larger than many cities where people are protesting, only the District and her residents have been singled out for this abusive show of force. Though many think Trump is waffling about whether he will use the Insurrection Act to order the military to quash protests, District residents cannot afford to make that same calculation.
The world saw Monday what federal power let loose on this city can do, when Attorney General William P. Barr okayed an attack on protesters ahead of a 7 p.m. curfew so Trump could take some awkward pictures in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. This move was in direct contradiction to the directives set by Bowser.
The District is routinely encroached upon by the federal government, so Monday’s happening was one of many. When the federal government shut down in 2013 because of a fight that had nothing to do with D.C., then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray defied the order and kept the city operating because the federal government is not the District of Columbia. Gray decided to continue providing resident services by designating all city workers essential employees. In 2016, Congress blocked the District’s ability to fund abortion services for residents — even with revenue raised from local taxes and fees. We have been fighting federal tyranny for years. In the mid-1990s, after Marion Barry’s reelection as mayor, Congress instituted a financial review board that had the power to overrule decisions made by the mayor and D.C. Council. We don’t need the military in the District to know that resistance to federal authority comes with consequences.
The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd represent the various ways that white supremacy endangers black lives. All these deaths — authorities say Arbery was killed by white vigilantes; Taylor was killed in her home by police; and Floyd killed in broad daylight by police officers — have sparked waves of global resistance. The federal government’s constant interference in the daily decisions of D.C.’s elected leaders is another expression of white supremacy, and we were lucky this time that it didn’t cost black lives.
There are other, lesser costs, though: According to the Federal Tax Counter maintained by the D.C. Council, this past year, District residents have paid an estimated $2,399,856,329 in federal taxes “without representation.” That is more taxes than some whole states pay, such as Delaware and Maine, yet we are still denied votes in Congress and statehood.
All week, Bowser has been clear in her rebuke of this encroachment on District home rule. In a letter to Trump on Thursday, she insisted that the city can manage the protests and expressed concern that the use of “unidentified federal personnel patrolling the streets of Washington, D.C., poses both safety and national security risks” that ultimately put citizens at risk. She also likened the use of helicopters that many residents have seen and/or heard around time as “a warlike tactic to frighten and disperse peaceful protesters.” This should make all Americans feel unsafe. As Bowser wrote: “I don’t think any American can feel secure if they watch the president of the United States move on American citizens with active-duty military troops.”
Given Trump’s passing familiarity with the Constitution and lack of care for democracy, the whole world needs to watch what happens in D.C. If left unchecked, Trump would have U.S. military troops bear down on American citizens. As D.C. goes, so goes the nation. Sovereignty will not save us from a man bent on “order” rather than justice.
But the standoff does seem to be easing. The Pentagon decided Friday afternoon, apparently without consulting the White House, to disarm the Guard troops patrolling the District. Friday would have been Taylor’s birthday — and in her honor and the honor of so many others, we now have Black Lives Matter Plaza NW in front of the White House. A space that once would have been named for Ronald Reagan if some Republican lawmakers had their way after his death is now a place of honor for the many lives lost to abuse and indifference.
The people have shown, once again, that this is their city. That is the real affront to Trump, not the protests. He may soon realize: You can’t mute D.C.