Congress, Justice and Statehood: A question of democracy

“If the ultimate goal was safety, then we would be investing in education, if it was really about safety, then we would have a health care system that everybody can access.  If the goal really was safety, we’d have livable wages throughout this country!” Washington DC Council member Janeese Lewis George declared at a Hands off DC! rally on March 8.

Sponsored by DC Jobs with Justice (DCJWJ), along with a host of other organizations including DC Vote, Family Values at Work, Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, Jews United for Justice, Statehood/Green Party, and Metro DC DSA, the rally began in front of Union Station then marched on the Capitol Building protesting the decision by Congress to block implementation of new criminal justice reforms passed unanimously by the City Council. Congressional denial of the rights of DC residents was built upon Republican demagogy around crime, images of “black criminality” implied in every speech.  

Mayor Muriel Bowser and Police Chief Conte gave cover to this attack by promoting the lie that the bill sent the “wrong message.” The Mayor’s veto of the bill was overturned by the Council; however, it was her message federal authorities choose to hear.

Republican Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, had his own message: “When the soft-on-crime local government has become this completely incompetent, when members of Congress cannot go about their daily lives without being attacked and families cannot come visit our Capitol in safety, then it’s about time our federal government provides some adult supervision,”  – the contemptuous language leftover from the days of slavery in plain view.

Though using less charged language, too many Democrats in the House and Senate surrendered to fear-mongering. Thinking about re-election rather than human need or District residents’ rights, they voted with Republicans to overturn a municipal law. Joe Biden joined in the game, the hypocrisy evident in his tweet: “I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it”  -- ignoring the fact that undoing legislation democratically decided because you “disagree” is the opposite of home rule.

None of the attacks included an honest look at the proposed reform. The revised criminal code would have abolished most mandatory minimum sentences, reinstate the right to a jury trial for people charged with a misdemeanor and end accomplice liability for felony murder (i.e. laws that impose murder sentences on individuals who participate in a crime that results in someone’s death, even if they themselves did not kill or intend to kill anyone). The measure also lowered sentences for some major crimes to be consistent with what judges currently hand out – as in the instance of carjacking. Each of these changes gives more discretion to courts in sentencing and puts some limits on tools prosecutors use by to force plea deals that effectively eliminates the right to a trial by criminal defendants – a major reason for police objection to the reforms.

The new code also introduced changes on the other side of the process – capping sentences at 45 years and including a “second look” provision enabling courts to re-evaluate sentences after an individual serves 20 years, giving those convicted a possibility for release, something virtually unobtainable today. None of these provisions would have radically altered the current criminal justice system, none strike at the heart of police or prosecutorial power. Yet even these minimal reforms met a solid wall of opposition by the forces of “law and order,” by right wing politicians who thrive on promoting fear of crime, by mainstream politicians whose words of concern during the massive George Floyd marches, vanished.

Proclamations of respect for the democratic process also went out the window, for the clear message is that DC residents shouldn’t have a right to make decisions for themselves.  Which leaves the question: why would Bowser, a proclaimed champion of statehood, act to undermine self-rule in the District?  And what does this privileging of police demands over public rights tell us about the perilous state of democratic rights nationally?

Whose Life Matters?

Numerous studies show that massive increases in police presence and incarceration rates do not, in and of themselves, reduce crime. Yet they can push crime out of view, protect property in wealthy neighborhoods, create a climate of fear amongst a segment of the population who are subject to economic deprivation, lack of resources, and discrimination.

And those are realities that explain the Mayor’s response to the criminal code reform: For her policies are all about promoting upscale development, raising property values that give a veneer of wealth that profits some but doesn’t touch the distress hidden beneath the surface. But a veneer is superficial, easily stripped off. Thus the heavy hand of force is needed to keep the pain behind the glittering image from coming into view.

Urban public policy, prioritizing profits for real estate interests, is all about protecting the “look” of overpriced property, for the selling point is image – no different than the outsized importance of “branding” in retail. And so development – even “good” development aimed at more green space, less pollution, healthier foods, walkability and biking – hinges on making urban areas “gated” cities, with the gates visible only to the unwanted who are to be rendered invisible.

That was evident in February, when the Mayor ordered police to clear a homeless encampment in McPherson Square. No doubt, those living there were “inconvenient” for people in downtown to pass on their way to work, but life in an encampment was far more “inconvenient” for those forced to live without shelter. Of course, the removal was accompanied by all the usual language about lending a helping hand, but such a helping hand was not in evidence before the police action and no doubt not in evidence today – housing, social services, health care are by no means available for all; those who cannot afford them forced to live in the streets (or in a shelter that can feel like a prison).  Resources are far more likely directed to keep out those who might sully the appearance of the overpriced property that city officials are promoting. And those who benefit from those overpriced houses, who live in those neighborhoods, are those who “count” to the Mayor and circles around her – the desired statehood apparently conceived as being as unrepresentative of the majority as is found elsewhere in our land.

Amongst those left behind, the disruption of communities undermines a sense of neighborhood, undermines a sense of stability that is needed for people – especially young people – to find their way in a society in which pathways for jobs and careers around which to build a life are ever harder to find. That fuels an alienation that lies beneath the surface amongst those who don’t “count,” fuels a rage that official violence can never quell. The irony in all this is that those who would have benefited most by substantive improvements in retail choices, a cleaner environment, more government services, are the ones forced out.

The delicate budgetary manipulations needed to keep the machinery of gentrification flowing is facilitated by keeping wages of those who do the work as low as possible. This was behind the opposition by the restaurant industry to the increase in the tipped minimum wage in DC: An opposition so persistent that in past years, the DC City Council consistently removed it from every effort made by labor and community groups to include it in legislation to increase the overall minimum wage. Advocates then turned to a city-wide referendum in 2018 which passed. Mayor Bowser rejected the results as did the City Council members then in office who repealed the measure. Another irony in that action, for the Mayor and city council had, legitimately, hailed the results of a 2016 referendum in support of Statehood as reflecting the will of the people, which Congress should respect. But then again, what is meant by the “people,” varies widely depending on where one sits.

Another referendum for increasing the tipped minimum wage passed again in 2022. This time, however, a more progressive City Council let the measure stand. But passage doesn’t necessarily translate into implementation. A report from DC JWJ and Restaurant Opportunities Center of DC, found that numerous businesses still fail to comply with the law. DC’s Department of Employment Services makes no attempt to enforce violations of the law its own research discovered.

Those business lawbreakers aren’t faced with squadrons of police; stopping wage theft clearly doesn’t figure in the “get tough on crime” objectives of the police department or of Congressional critics of the DC government. Clearly, some have more rights than others, some have no rights at all. No exaggeration in that, along with the criminal code, Congress is teasing legislation to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections (which is allowed in many communities in suburban Maryland). District residents have lived through this before: in 1988 Congress prohibited DC from using Medicaid to help pay for abortions, in 1992 Congress overturned DC’s domestic partner law for gay and straight couples wanting to legalize their relationship, in 1998 needle exchange and marijuana decriminalization laws were overturned. A common theme – criminalizing non-criminal behavior, impacting those with fewest resources and denying the ability of a majority black city to fully govern itself.

Local issues, national problems

Washington DC is far from the only city experiencing development that hurts more people than it helps. When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City (2002-2013), he oversaw a process that “improved,” the city by continuing polices that have made rents and property values untenably high for small manufacturers and local retailers, let alone for working people (be their income high or low). Parks are nicer, anti-smoking laws has made the air slightly less polluted, anti-trans-fat rules have made school lunches slightly more nutritious, the High Line skyline walkway offers a beautiful public space all can enjoy, the Second Avenue subway constructed after a delay of nearly 100 years.

But the price of this was not only unaffordable rents, it was accompanied by expanding police power at the expense of civil liberties and civil rights. Bloomberg’s “stop-and-frisk” policies encouraged police to treat African American and Latino youth as criminal suspects just for walking the streets, neither probable cause nor the quaint concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” deemed relevant. The collective denial of rights of a large percentage of New Yorkers because of the color of their skin, their accent, their neighborhood, was extended to the Muslim community, as the police engaged in systemic, illegal surveillance of religious and community leaders. Emblematic of Bloomberg’s mindset was his continued defense of the police department’s handling of the “Central Park 5,” even after the young men, falsely arrested when teenagers on charge of committing a brutal rape of a jogger, had been exonerated by DNA evidence.

The contempt for New York’s residents whose views and actions were judged by authorities a threat to public order was also on display when people tried to make use of old-fashioned rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. An early example took place at the Republican National Convention held at Madison Square Garden in 2004. Many were beaten and about 1800 arrested (including bystanders), held without charge, without bond, without phone calls, without legal representation, until after the “danger” of public expression had passed. That was the forerunner of the brutal eviction of Occupy Wall Street protestors in 2011 who were attacked and dispersed by force at night, with journalists and TV reporters blocked from viewing or recording the police violence.

What makes this relevant: Mayor Bowser was a strong supporter of Bloomberg in his presidential primary campaign in 2020 based on a long prior relationship rooted in a shared vision of urban policy. This is not limited to New York or DC; from Oakland to Minneapolis, from Seattle to Los Angeles, one can see the same set of policies in place: making cities unaffordable for long-time residents, using police power to deal with the consequences.

Yet, while all this is true, these same cities are centers of liberal public policy and progressive activism, where governments defend abortion rights, defend collective bargaining rights, support Medicaid expansion, oppose book bannings, attempts to scapegoats the gay community or target transgender rights. That’s why urban centers are attacked by Republicans and Trump supporters – Bowser herself was denounced with vile racist epithets and threatened by the January 6 crowd. But in the long term it will be impossible to defend progressive advances where they have been made unless the accompanying regressive public policy measures put in place are overturned.

The need is all the greater as Republican-led state governments are similarly using control of police to attack municipal autonomy. In Mississippi, state legislators are stripping powers of self-government away from the progressive Black-led city of Jackson, notably by asserting state authority over police in downtown (i.e. middle-class white) neighborhoods, and in Missouri legislators voted to allow the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee (and take over from) a democratically elected black prosecutor. Racist stereotypes in each instance stoked fear of “black criminality, of black governmental “incompetence” to justify authoritarian overreach. That is to say, the same story we see playing out in DC.

And once whetted, further attacks on local initiatives to control policing follow. The Republican attempt to overturn DC’s 2020 police accountability reforms failed because Biden and other Democrats who waffled in this most recent fight wouldn’t go along. But it shows the danger of what happens when the door is left open even a crack for reaction – a danger that will materialize in 2024 if Republican take control of the White House and both House and Senate in 2024.

Janeese Lewis George – who is also a member of Metro DC DSA – made clear the challenge: “I am disturbed by those who welcome Congressional intervention in our affairs and those who sit idly by and watch it happen. This is a defining moment for the District. We are all called to stand up against this affront to our democracy and autonomy, which would set an incredibly dangerous precedent for our nation.”

She is amongst a group of City Council members who have proposed Green New Deal legislation for DC. That bill which calls for affordable housing and union jobs at liveable wages as key to environmental protection is the proactive side of fighting for police accountability and radical criminal justice reform. And so too, those who see the future in gentrification, who see environmental protection for the elite while lead paint remains in inner-city housing, are those who want more police, more jails, less democracy — the same place the line is drawn nationally. Wherever we are, defending democratic rights and advancing economic, social and racial justice, are inextricably linked.

Related Entries