One of my earliest memories is of walking along a burned-out 14th Street in my hometown Washington, D.C., in 1968, holding one parent’s hand as the other pushed my brother in a stroller; I was 4 years old. They took us to witness the destruction that arose from rage following the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and later to the Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice encamped on a muddy National Mall.
My parents wanted to teach us that the America they loved harbored injustices and systemic racism, yet it was a union we had a duty to try to perfect.
Fifty-two years later, not nearly enough has changed. Entrenched bigotry and senseless violence against African-Americans persist. We still have much to do to make this a truly equal and just America — from eradicating police brutality and reforming the criminal justice system to ensuring access to affordable housing, quality health care and education, and decent jobs for all regardless of the color of their skin.
An often overlooked piece of the justice agenda was cast into stark relief last week, when President Trump ordered heavily armed federal forces into the District of Columbia against the will of Mayor Muriel Bowser. Largely because Washington lacks statehood, Mr. Trump had the authority to line city streets with military Humvees, to fly Black Hawk helicopters dangerously low to terrorize protesters, to fill the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with military personnel and to deploy thousands of federal forces, many unidentifiable with no discernible chain of command, like Russian “Little Green Men,” to intimidate residents.
Most shockingly, after threatening to federalize the Metropolitan Police, Attorney General William Barr unleashed federal forces who violently dispersed journalists and peaceful protesters using tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, horses, shields and batons. All for a presidential photo-op.
For one long week, Mr. Trump transformed my hometown into a war zone to burnish his “law and order” credentials. Without statehood, Washington was virtually powerless to prevent Mr. Trump from using the capital as a petri dish to intimidate protesters, divide Americans and goad activists into ugly street battles to galvanize elements of his base.
America, beware. Washington was the testing ground, but Mr. Trump could yet find a pretext to invoke the Insurrection Act and send active-duty U.S. military forces into any state over the objections of its governor. He reportedly came close, only to be deterred by Pentagon officials.
Fortunately, when taunted by Mr. Trump’s abuse of power, the people of Washington refused to take the bait. The protests proceeded mostly peacefully, following some early, condemnable looting. Facing down federal forces, my hometown refused to give Mr. Trump any racially charged urban war scenes. So he gave up and ordered troops home.
But not before his actions underscored the imperative that Washington must finally attain statehood.
Washington is the only national capital in the democratic world whose citizens lack equal voting rights. Its population exceeds 700,000, more than Wyoming’s and Vermont’s, and comparable to Delaware’s and Alaska’s. Washington’s citizens pay more per capita in federal income taxes than any state in the country and more in total federal income tax than 22 states. Our men and women in uniform fight and die for America.
Yet, we lack any senators or voting representative in the House of Representatives. Congress controls the city’s budget and can override our laws and withhold funds. As our license plate proclaims, we suffer “taxation without representation,” which violates our democratic rights and relegates residents to second-class citizenship.
Why does this injustice persist in the 21st century? Opponents of Washington statehood make specious legal arguments, claiming that the Constitution mandates complete federal authority over the district and thus precludes statehood. But the Constitution merely states that the federal enclave cannot exceed 10 square miles; it does not prohibit carving out a limited area for government buildings that remains under federal control, while making the rest of the district into a state.
The real reasons for opposition are more sinister: racism and political interest. Washington was long predominantly black, and efforts to deny its citizens their civil rights date back to Reconstruction. The black population is now just below 50 percent, and the city remains overwhelmingly Democratic.
Last month, Mr. Trump said the quiet part out loud. “D.C. will never be a state,” he told The New York Post: “They want to do that so they pick up two automatic Democrat — you know it’s 100 percent Democrat, basically — so why would the Republicans ever do that?”
Washington has fulfilled the prerequisites for statehood under the “Tennessee Plan,” the same formula that admitted seven states to the union. District residents have approved a statehood referendum (86 percent in favor), ratified a state constitution and delineated new state boundaries to preserve a federal enclave, among other steps. Now the 51st state can be established simply by both houses of Congress passing a bill that is signed by the president.
The House could approve a statehood bill, H.R. 51, as soon as this summer. It will certainly die in the Republican-controlled Senate. So over 700,000 American citizens are doomed to remain abused and disenfranchised until Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress. That goal is within reach this November.
As masses of Americans call to fundamentally reform our criminal justice system, redress entrenched racism and fulfill the promise of equality for all people, let’s not forget the enduring oppression of the citizens of the District of Columbia.
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