On June 26 a historic vote took place in the House of Representative, when by a 232-180 margin it became the first house of Congress ever to vote to make the District of Columbia a state. All Democrats but one voted in favor; every Republican voted against.
Of course, a vote by one chamber of Congress does not enact a law or make a state, and the bill was sure not to be granted even a hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate. The final hurdle would have to wait until at least 2021 and a hoped-for Democratic takeover of the Senate and White House. While democracy should not hinge on partisanship, no Republican cared to create a new state that would add two Democrats to the Senate along with one more to the House.
Even though statehood would not become law in 2020, Democrats were eager to get behind it. The treatment of the city had become caught up in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day. When protests broke out in DC as they did in cities around the U.S. as well as abroad, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser first adopted a posture of cooperation as the Metropolitan Police worked with the Park Police and Secret Service to monitor the demonstrations that centered largely on Lafayette Square.
But then came the evening of June 1 when a phalanx largely consisting primarily of Park Police officers used tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets to violently drive peaceful protestors out of the square so that President Trump could erase the memory of his cowering in a White House bunker and stroll across the square to St. John’s Church to hold up a Bible.
Bowser’s attitude then switched from cooperative to defiant. She had the streets north of Lafayette Square, which had become the new epicenter of protest now that the square itself had been fenced off, dubbed “Black Lives Matter Plaza” with that name painted in giant yellow letters on the pavement. She objected to the escalation of law enforcement and Trump’s threat of military deployment in the District.
Bowser no doubt saw the BLM movement in the District as a wave she needed to ride. She was badly in need of some mojo, as two of her closest allies on the DC Council had just gone down to defeat in Democratic primaries. Jack Evans, of course, had already resigned from the Council under threat of expulsion as his shameless selling of his office for profit became too much for his colleagues to stomach. He had hoped to return by sneaking through a crowded primary field, but Ward 2 voters deserted him in droves and he finished near the bottom of the pack. Meanwhile, DSA member Janeese Lewis George knocked off Brandon Todd in Ward 4 – Todd, who was not only an incumbent and Bowser’s successor in that seat, but also the mayor’s protégé and probably her chosen heir at such time as she should relinquish the throne. So Bowser’s taking a more assertive stance against Trump was a way to fight back not only for the city but for herself as well.
The attack at Lafayette Square was only the leading edge of the federal assault on District citizens, for Trump had worse in mind. He not only threatened to call in regular U.S. Army troops to effectively militarize much of the city but also to have the federal government take control of the Metropolitan Police.
No other city in the United States would be subject to such heavy-handed federal intervention. But Trump always viewed the District – which he almost never ventured into beyond the White House gates – as something of his personal reservation. He displayed that attitude when he ordered Bowser to the White House in 2017 to brief him on snow removal plans as if she was one of his staff members; her obedience was just one example of her typical passivity vis-à-vis the White House and Congress. She seemed to think that playing nice might result in favorable treatment – a strategy that worked for no previous mayor.
If Trump’s enduring hostility to self-government for the District didn’t disturb her enough, the wake-up call might have been the $2.2 trillion Payroll Protection Program in which the District was hosed to the tune of $750 million. Each of the states got $1.25 billion to prop up their economies during the COVID-19 crisis, but the District, which is usually treated as a state in federal funding legislation, was relegated to the status of a territory and given only $500 million – the same as the Northern Mariana Islands. Pleading to Congress, where the District lacks voting representation, yielded no results.
Then came the attack on Lafayette Square. Suddenly Bowser saw the wisdom of joining the resistance. Once she showed that the District government and citizenry would not idly stand by during a federal occupation, Trump quietly backed down on threats of military intervention or taking over the local police.
The outrageous treatment of the District during both the COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter protests provides yet another argument why the District needs self-government rather than colonial governance. Despite having limited home rule for 46 years, all during that time the federal government has chosen to micromanage local affairs with one hand while stiffing the city financially with the other. From the 1997 Control Board takeover of the city government (while eliminating the federal payment), to forbidding the District from conducting a needle exchange program to combat the spread of AIDS, to banning the use of local funds to provide abortions for poor women, the District has too long been the whipping boy for right-wing members of Congress to score points at home by looking tough against a progressive, majority-minority city.
Critics say Bowser’s support for BLM is more show than substance. Her proposed budget, for instance, would increase funding for traditional policing and make cuts to alternative, community-based safety measures. The Council has pushed back, with a committee advancing a plan to cut $15 million out of the $533 million proposed for the police – a measure decried as woefully inadequate by many activists.
But Bowser’s support for DC statehood has been consistent, if sometimes not as vigorous as it might be. So it would be a change for the better if recent events converted her from a sometime champion to a full-time warrior – for racial justice as well as statehood.