A Wounded City Gets All the Symbolism It Could Ask For
If the District needed a way to vent its frustration over being denied the right to use locally raised tax dollars how it pleases, it was satisfied this evening, as Mayor Vince Gray and a majority of the D.C. Council sat down in the middle of Constitution Avenue before being carted off in police vans to chants and cheers.
For Gray, it was a delivery on the grumblings of this last week, when D.C. was jerked back from the brink of a federal shutdown. And he hit all the high points of the budget deal's indignities in an impassioned speech to the crowd.
"Why should women in the District of Columbia be subjected to a set of conditions that nobody in the rest of this country is subjected to?" he asked. "Frankly, whether a woman has an abortion or not should be a decision between her, her family, and her physician."
And then: "We want our kids to be educated as much as anybody else," Gray said. "But frankly, if we want a voucher program, we should make that decision ourselves!"
And finally: "We know that there are are more than 200 cities and states around the country that have successful needle exchange programs. So why are we debating that? Don't we want to stop this epidemic?" he asked, rising to a roar. "It is mean spirited to tell us that we can't spend our own money on what we know to be a legitimate, life-saving health approach!"
The rest of the councilmembers present said their bit, and then clustered in the center of Constitution, before being ziptied and trucked to a Capitol Police warehouse at 67 K Street SW. A total of 41 people were arrested, according to Tom Sherwood, including Tommy Wells, Yvette Alexander, Michael A. Brown, Kwame Brown, Muriel Bowser, and Sekou Biddle. At-large Council candidate Vincent Orange stood on the sidelines, while shadow senator Michael D. Brown vroomed around in a motorcycle with a D.C. flag on the back. Councilmember Jim Graham was visiting the Center for Creative Nonviolence, and hadn't heard that people had been arrested when I ran into him at about 6:45 p.m.
Notably absent was Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton. I've asked her office where she was, and will update if they tell me. [UPDATE, Wednesday, 9:00 a.m. – She says she skipped the rally so as not to make it look like it needed her leadership.]
This isn't the first time a D.C. mayor got arrested over D.C.'s dysfunctional relationship with Congress, but it's been a while. Sharon Pratt Kelly went to jail with 36 others in a pro-forma statehood rally before a civil rights-themed March on Washington in 1993.
Will the act of civil disobedience change anything in the budget negotiations still underway in the buildings on the hill they sat on? Well, probably not. But to the extent that preventing D.C. women from getting abortions and drug addicts from getting clean needles is a symbolic act by the federal lawmakers—given that it impacts neither the federal budget bottom line, nor the constituents of any voting member of Congress—then perhaps symbolism is as good a weapon as any.
And even if Gray's protest does nothing—even if it conveniently distracts the voting public from a series of scandals that have sent his administration reeling—D.C. residents probably would have been disappointed if he hadn't spoken up. After all, District politicians have been complaining about the city's lack of representation and budget autonomy for years. At some point, the talk had to give way to action.