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Congress’ midsummer overthrow of home rule in the District has spawned a relatively small but pesky backlash. At last week’s Free D.C. rally, a boisterous crowd nearing 1,000 chanted about home rule and waved signs about those who took it away. Speakers on the steps of the Capitol from Jesse Jackson to Rock Newman railed against Congress in the name of democracy, and when the protesters took the rally to the Hart Senate Office Building, the line of marchers stretched more than three blocks down Constitution Avenue. To hear home rule activists tell it, the revolution is just around the corner. “It’s really the start of something,”
says Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss, the elected lobbyist for
Strauss has his reasons for optimism. The rally at the Capitol comes just two weeks after activists piled 400 marchers into a bus caravan to the North Carolina farm of Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who inserted provisions into the D.C. rescue package transferring most of Mayor Marion Barry’s authority to the appointed financial control board.
After years of talk about ratcheting up the pressure, D.C. crusaders think they finally may be onto something. They’re not. Home rule agitation will never spread beyond a tightknit cadre of true believers into the mainstream D.C. populace. District residents can’t find a way to care about a city that could clearly care less about them.
Barry is a massive liability, an anchor around the neck of any nascent effort to resurrect D.C.’s right to self-governance. He has been busy co-opting the movement, denouncing Faircloth and encouraging the protesters to take to the ramparts. Long after Jackson goes back where he came from, the statehood movement will find that its wagon is ineluctably tied to the city’s most toxic politician. Barry erases any potential appeal to non-Washingtonians, and his inept regime saps energy from would-be protesters on the home front.
Political analyst Julius Hobson Jr. says that, apart from the obstacles created by Barry, in D.C. there is no interest in political issues, only practical ones.
“Things have deteriorated to a point where most residents just want a government that works,” explains Hobson.
The statehood forces face a practical problem of their own: The only thing more feckless than a band of protesters is a band of protesters who don’t have a vote. People aren’t dying to get involved with a movement whose target audiencelawmakers who represent distant constituenciesisn’t even listening. “In a democracy, protests work very well,” says activist John Capozzi. “The problem is that we don’t have a democracy.”
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Still, home rule activists wouldn’t have gotten into the game if they thought either of these obstacles were insurmountable. Barry has been around for nearly two decades, and D.C.’s status as a political orphan goes back to its founding in 1800. But beyond those fundamental challenges, the movement is stylistically doomed. Home rule advocates cloak their protests in the only vernacular they know: that of the civil rights movement, a cause that hasn’t had much success lately.
In the ’90s, far more prominent leaders crusading for far more popular causes have also fallen flat on their duffs. Jackson’s return march to Selma was a flop. Ditto his attempted boycott of the Oscars. Erratic California protests against Proposition 209 may actually have hastened affirmative action’s demise in that state. In fact, picket-waving democracy isn’t doing well anywhere these days. The cliché that the ’60s are over doesn’t quite explain it. All through the Reagan-Bush years, middle-class liberal causes like abortion rights drew hundreds of thousands into the streets. But the Clinton era has featured a remarkable decline in dissent, even as traditional progressive positions like affirmative action, welfare, and (in D.C.) home rule have come under attack. With fewer and fewer protesters to cover, the media can devote even more attention to the bystanders who are inconvenienced, incensed, or simply amused by them.
In the current media age, protesters of any sort tend to be portrayed as whiners who can’t pull their load. That was just the image conjured up by TV coverage of the sorry march on the home of Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, which included clips of a tiny gaggle of D.C. boosters marching through tract-home suburbia past bemused Patagonia-clad onlookers.
Besides just stifling dissent, the mind-set of the ’90s throws up other significant obstacles. Governments everywhere are less and less important to people’s lives. Even statehood’s most dewy-eyed defenders have to admit that Congress’ D.C. putsch won’t affect relations between rich and poor in Washington. How excited can you get about what amounts to a shuffle in governmental jurisdictions? At a recent Fugazi show and statehood rally at Fort Reno Park, the pro-D.C. speakers got a pretty good response from one of the few local scenes where young people respond to politics. But the statehood activists’ information tables did a lousy business. A few nights later, when the band played a benefit at the Latin American Youth Center, grass-roots organizations were offering a version of activism that didn’t include the government. The tables were buzzing.
In order to gain some sort of foothold in the consciousness of D.C. residents, home rule activists had best start at home. While they rail against Congress for federalizing the District, local activists do the same thing. Again and again, their rhetoric focuses on Washington as “the nation’s capital,” on the injustice of nondemocratic rule amid the symbols of America’s national virtues. Lost in the mix is talk of Washington as hometowna city of neighborhoods and friends and corner stores. It’s fine to tell Lauch Faircloth that this is our home, but how about evoking that home in protest?
The Free D.C. protest, for example, looked pretty small from the steps of the Capitol, just 100 yards away. If the demonstrators were trying to look imposing, they picked a bad spot. Even the biggest demonstrations look small against the sweeping vista of Capitol Hill’s west face. From the distance, the crowd looked like just another bunch of nutjobs come to petition their Congress, certainly far smaller than most of the national protests that usually occupy the spot. If they really want to win people’s hearts and minds, organizers might think about having the next rally not on Congress’ front porch but on some Washingtonian’s. Front porches are one of the nicest things about Washington architecture and, by extension, Washington life. They might remind peoplemany of whom are dog-tired from trying to get by in this broken citythat the home rule fight isn’t about some abstract municipal prerogative, but rather, about home. And the crowd would look a lot bigger, too.CP