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Mayor Vince Gray might not be as profane as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, but he’s just as pissed about this government shutdown business as she is. At a meeting of the D.C. Affairs section of the D.C. Bar yesterday, Gray kicked off his remarks with a tirade about the District’s continuing disenfranchisement.
“This is an outrage!” he shouted. “O-U-T-R-A-G-E!” Loss of services due to the shutdown, he said, was “the worst kind of hypocrisy.”
But Gray sees something of a silver lining in the closure of the National Zoo, the (almost) cancellation of the Cherry Blossom parade, the cessation of trash pickup, the inability of District residents to get business licenses and permits. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll finally push District residents over the edge.
“When will we wake up?” he asked. “It will never change until people are insulted enough to say enough is enough…I think this is a seminal moment. I think it is the opportunity for this city to stand up and say, enough is enough.”
But who is to lead this groundswell? Can Facebook actually get people on the ground? Organizations like D.C. Vote have run spirited mini-protests, but nothing big enough for Congress to really notice. The D.C. Council might rename streets—but that could just serve to remind District residents how little power their elected leaders actually have.
Gray wants somebody—anybody, really—to stand up and lead, because he says he can’t do it himself.
“Movements never come from the government. They just don’t,” he said. “Movements typically start in two places. They start in houses of worship. And they start in universities. Because students are smart enough and young enough to not give a damn.”
True enough, historically speaking (though I wonder if we might now add “social media”). But the problems in D.C., from a movement-starting standpoint, are deep and structural: You’ve got part of the population that has been here forever and seen so many attempts at statehood launch and fail that they figure trying to change it is just a waste of energy. And then you’ve got another part of the population that thinks it has no long-term stake in D.C., because they came from elsewhere for a job in the federal government, and feel like they’ll eventually leave (even if they then end up staying for 20 years). Meanwhile, to the extent that students are involved city-wide, it’s to get more representation for themselves, not District residents generally.
“They don’t think of themselves as of the District, and that’s a big problem,” says Garry Young, a professor at George Washington University’s Center for Washington Area Studies, who has looked extensively at the negative impacts of non-representation on District residents. “You have this same group of people, year after year, who complain about this treatment. And the public interest has always been kind of, meh.”
So at this point, I’m wondering: Who will foment this insurrection, if not the elected leader of D.C.? If Gray called a mass protest around the Capitol, would more people show up than the number that took buses to D.C. for any of the Tea Party’s dozens of rallies?
They might, for a popular mayor. But Vince Gray is not a popular mayor right now. In fact, he’s so not popular that his outrage over representation—where he is always at his rhetorical best—starts to look like an attempt to distract people from the steady trickle of mini-scandals that have plagued the administration.
The outrage is justified, sure. But at this point, it’s still just all talk.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery