A horse seat on the National Mall's carousel, photographed for Washington City Paper's 2023 Answers Issue
The National Mall's carousel Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Another year has come and with it comes another edition of the Answers Issue. This annual attempt at explaining the D.C. ephemera that perplexes our readers had City Paper staffers poring over maps, searching for street signs, and emailing the many public information officers who act as keepers and collectors of this knowledge (we thank you for your service!). The 2023 batch of questions included a few stumpers—if you are the owner of a white van with a picture of Audrey Hepburn on the side that is frequently parked near Lanier Heights, we want to talk to you—and a few that had us questioning our own memories of D.C. from decades ago. In putting this together, we also learned about practical matters, like pensions and evacuation routes. 

We hope these answers help you understand and appreciate D.C. a bit better. Still have questions about the way things work? Well, there’s always next year. —Caroline Jones

One of the street signs marked with the D.C. flag Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Why do some street signs have little D.C. flag icons on them? Does it signify that they are major streets?

The D.C. flag you might have spotted in the right hand corner of some street signs indicates that the road is an evacuation route that extends all the way out of the city, according to a District Department of Transportation spokesperson.

There are 19 of these primary evacuation routes in total, per the city’s Homeland and Security Management Agency, and most aren’t surprising considering their size and length. Think of the major east-west thoroughfares in the District (H Street NE and NW, New York Avenue NE and NW, Benning Road NE or K Street NW) in addition to the big north-south streets (16th Street NW, Georgia Avenue NW, Wisconsin Avenue NW, or Connecticut Avenue NW). The city maintains a full map of these routes, along with information on where to shelter in place in an emergency, online.

The world can feel apocalyptic enough these days, so you can be forgiven for not wanting to browse through all these emergency preparedness websites on your own. But here’s an easy tip to remember if things really start popping off: Pennsylvania Avenue acts as a dividing line of sorts. If you’re north of it, head north; if you’re south of it, go south. “No vehicles will be permitted to cross Pennsylvania Avenue in an emergency,” HSEMA warns. —Alex Koma

A sign marking the Zoo Bus Route Credit: Darrow Montgomery

What is (was?) the Zoo Bus?

Step aside, Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro station, and make room for another confusing street sign pointing visitors toward the National Zoo. Those who travel north or south on 16th Street NW may have noticed a sign near the intersection of Military Road NW that simply states “Zoo Bus Route.” That can be taken to indicate two different things: either a route that an entity called the “Zoo Bus” takes, or a bus route larger vehicles can take to the National Zoo. In this case, it’s the latter, according to a Zoo representative. The signs, which have been there for decades, are intended to direct buses to the appropriate drop-off and parking areas. 

If you’ve lived in greater D.C. since the ’80s and have a vague memory of seeing a physical Zoo Bus, you may have encountered a vehicle that Friends of the National Zoo, the membership group that partnered with the zoo until 2021, used for educational and community events. While it was seen around town and around the zoo, it never operated on a specific “Zoo Bus” route.

These days, if you really want to take a bus to the National Zoo on your next visit, your best options are Metrobus routes L2, which stop in front of the Zoo’s main entrance on Connecticut Avenue NW, or H2, which stops at Harvard Street and Adams Mill Road NW. From there, it’s a short walk into the zoo via the Harvard Street Bridge. —Caroline Jones

Boxcar Willie Park Credit: Darrow Montgomery

How on Earth did Boxcar Willie, a country musician with no meaningful connection to D.C., get his name on a park near LEnfant Plaza?

The precise answer remains a bit of a mystery. But here’s what we know: D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation spokesperson Michael Tucker says the park does not belong to the local agency, so the D.C. government had no role in its name.

Similarly, National Parks Service spokesperson Mike Litterst says he could find no federal laws authorizing the name. “It is most likely a colloquial name that originated locally, though by whom and for what reason we may never know,” Litterst says in an email. He guesses that the name could have something to do with the property’s past use as a railway right-of-way in the late 1800s or the Metro tracks right across from the little park.

The land itself, if you’re so inclined to visit, stretches the definition of a “park.” The tiny triangle of grass has no signage or markings of any kind, including anything that would indicate it’s named for the country musician from Texas.

The land, which sits just below the L’Enfant Metro station and in front of vacant retail space, is home to four baby trees and a single sidewalk that provides pedestrians a very minor shortcut from Virginia Avenue to D Street SW. Dean Wilhelm Memorial Park—an even smaller triangle of land that has benches, a birdhouse, and some landscaping—sits across Sixth Street SW. The two spaces are so small that uneducated passersby could be forgiven for assuming the two distinct parks are one. —Mitch Ryals

D.C.’s library system is so great! How do they so quickly get books that are on hold from one library to another? Seems too fast to be mail!

That’s because it’s not mail! According to George Williams, DC Public Library’s media relations manager, you can thank delivery drivers for the fast transportation between DCPL locations. Monday through Friday, the library has five in-house drivers, and hires contract drivers for Saturday deliveries. The goal, says Williams, is to have requested items delivered within three business days, but “this time frame may vary based on demand.” What’s extra cool? Williams says that during the height of the pandemic, the library’s driving team also transported PPE. —Sarah Marloff

D.C.-maintained trash and recycling cans Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Litter cans in D.C. public parks and rec centers are serviced by DPW; blue recycling cans are [hardly ever] serviced by the Department of General Services. Why does this wasteful process continue?

The overlapping of government agencies can make for what appears to be convoluted city management. And, as evidenced by the annual performance oversight season, persistent screw-ups and scandals leave District residents wondering how anything gets done. But the Department of Public Works and the Department of General Services say they have municipal waste collection generally well-mapped out.

When City Paper reached out to DGS and DPW, their spokespeople—John A. Stokes and Nancee Lyons, respectively—responded in a joint statement:

“The collection and disposal of trash and recyclable items from public space and municipal facilities is important to both the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Department of General Services (DGS). By sharing these duties across the DC government’s open park space both agencies are able to more effectively streamline services and collective resources.”

Stokes, DGS’ associate director of external affairs, also says that no matter which agency is responsible for collection, one truck collects recyclables, and a different one collects trash. The division of labor, then, is more based on which routes would make for the most efficient collection service, rather than the number of vehicles they are sending out. —Camila Bailey

Why is Florida Avenue NW shaped so weirdly by U Street NW?

Anyone walking west along Florida has probably considered this question at some point, given the road’s sudden sharp turn north followed by a gradual curve just as it meets U Street NW and 9th Street NW. If it makes you feel any better, even the District Department of Transportation is a bit confused by the road’s design: “We could not get an actual answer, just speculation,” a spokesperson said in response to City Paper’s questions.

Thankfully, a skim through the history books offers a few clues. The answer may well date back to the city’s earliest days, as Pierre L’Enfant sketched out his grand plan for the District in 1791.

Julia Koster, secretary to the National Capital Planning Commission, points to some of the documentation submitted supporting the inclusion of the L’Enfant Plan’s architecture on the National Register of Historic Places back in 1997. Those forms note that Florida Avenue once represented the northernmost border of the city of Washington, as hard as that might be to imagine for D.C. residents these days, and it “changes direction to follow a geologically imposed natural route in the far northwest of the city before taking up an angular course across the northeast quadrant.”

So what geological features forced L’Enfant to get so creative? That part is less clear, but former D.C. Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood has some theories. He notes that if you study the L’Enfant Plan close enough, you can see how Florida Avenue NW seems to follow the “escarpment” there, or the slope at the base of the long, steep hill that starts just to the north of its intersection with U Street NW. 

If you’ve ever made the trek up 11th Street NW toward Park View and Columbia Heights, you know that particular hill is no laughing matter. So perhaps it’s no surprise that 18th-century architects had to work around it. —Alex Koma

How does jury duty avoid paying minimum wage?

According to D.C. law, fees for jury duty are set by the Board of Judges of the Superior Court. In D.C. Superior Court, the current daily rate is $57, plus a $7 travel stipend, according to the court’s website. Government employees and employees who continue to get paid by their employers during jury service are not entitled to the fee. But they’re still entitled to the $7 travel stipend. 

In federal court, the initial daily rate is $50 per day; the rate increases to $60 per day after 45 days of service. Congress only recently increased those rates in 2018 for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Although jurors are not mentioned in the exemptions to D.C.’s minimum wage law (as newspaper delivery workers are), the courts can get away with paying jurors below the legal wage floor because they are not technically considered employees of the court. The disparity is not lost on policy makers, judges, or residents, who have argued in some states that paltry juror compensation amounts to a constitutional violation. Excluding residents from jury service via hardship exemptions, basically because they can’t afford to miss work, violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, some would argue. —Mitch Ryals 

Why can’t marijuana dispensaries charge a credit card uneven numbers? If something costs $47.50, they’ll charge you $50 and give you $2.50 in cash.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, so most federally insured banks won’t do business with cannabis businesses, even legal medical dispensaries. So those businesses must come up with creative workarounds. When you’re charged more at the register for medical cannabis, that’s because employees are actually running your card through a register-side ATM, according to Collette Leonard, vice president and co-founder of Cannabliss dispensary in Ward 7. The ATM rounds to increments of five or 10, Leonard says. So for $47.50 worth of medical bud, $50 is debited from your account, and Cannabliss gives you the balance in cash. There is some movement in Congress to explicitly allow banks to work with weed businesses in states where it’s legalized, but it faces opposition in the Republican-controlled House. —Mitch Ryals 

The Kennedy Center’s River Plaza hangs over Rock Creek Parkway NW Credit: Darrow Montgomery

What’s the story behind the part of the Kennedy Center that overhangs Rock Creek Parkway. It seems complicated/dangerous/unnecessary!

The marble-covered river plaza that extends from the Kennedy Center’s Grand Foyer is one of the best non-performance parts of the nation’s cultural center. It offers visitors an expansive vista of the Potomac River, Georgetown, and Roosevelt Island, as well as fresh air before performances or during intermissions. It also extends over Rock Creek Parkway; its underside is not as attractive, but what underpass wins points for its looks?

Architect Edward Durrell Stone, who designed the center, felt strongly about connecting the property to the Potomac, according to Kennedy Center records, hence the inclusion of the terrace in his designs. Because the center is located so close to Rock Creek Parkway and was designed and built in the 1950s and 1960s, when some people considered driving a pleasure activity, Stone and his team opted for a cantilevered terrace that extends about 35 feet over the parkway as opposed to one supported by columns that might impede drivers’ view of the river. 

Using cantilevers, beams that are only supported at one end, can be complicated. They must be designed and constructed precisely, but when done right, they’re perfectly safe. The one at the Kennedy Center has been holding strong for more than 50 years. Sure, sitting under it while stuck in traffic on the parkway might not be fun, but it’s definitely not dangerous. —Caroline Jones

The clock at the Truist bank building in Adams Morgan Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Has the clock on the Truist Building at 18th & Columbia in Adams Morgan ever worked?

It seems the Truist building has seen quite a few changes of hand over the past decades. Kristen L. Barden, executive director of the Adams Morgan Partnership BID, provided City Paper with the “Intensive-Level Survey of Lanier Heights” prepared by EHT Traceries, Inc.’s Laura V. Trieschmann for the Kalorama Citizens Association and the D.C. State Historic Preservation Office. This survey provided some helpful background for this question. 

In the 1940s Isidore Gartenhaus moved Gartenhaus Furs into the building, and stayed there until 1970. The current owners of Gartenhaus recall leaving the location for Bethesda and selling the building to BB&T Bank. 

While the owners of Gartenhaus did not remember whether or not the clock was working while they occupied the space, longtime neighborhood resident and Answers Issue enthusiast Josh Gibson suggested an alternative method of finding an answer. 

A quick Google Maps search for 1801 Adams Mill Road NW will give you a range of 13 photos of the building going all the way back to 2007. Eleven of the photos have different times displayed on the clock, with the exception of November 2021 and October 2022, in which the time is stuck at its current position of about 8:25. But, as Gibson notes, the photo prior to November 2021 is October 2018, leaving “a long gap” during which the clock appears stuck. Additionally, the photos are not time-stamped, leaving us to wonder whether or not the displayed times were actually accurate. —Camila Bailey

The D.C. DMV offers an “organizational tag” for a group called the “Bad Boys Club.” What is the Bad Boys Club? How does one get this tag?

The short answer: It’s a cop tag. The plate itself features a cartoonish logo on the left side with an officer wearing an old-timey bucket hat (a la Keystone Cops), sporting a bushy mustache, and wielding a nightstick, with the words “Exclusively For Law Enforcement Professionals” underneath. As with any of the District’s Department of Motor Vehicles’ organizational tags, you must be a member of the organization and provide proof of membership to the DMV in order to get one. It’ll cost you an “extra member application tag fee” and you might have to pay an additional “tag replacement fee if you are replacing other tags on your vehicle,” according to the DMV’s website.

According to the Bad Boys Club’s application to the DMV, “these tags are issued exclusively for law enforcement professional; active duty law enforcement personnel, retire [sic] law enforcement personnel, and current Active Fraternal Order of Police members of DC Lodge #1.” So, sorry, dear reader, unless you work in law enforcement, it looks like you won’t qualify. —Mitch Ryals

The carousel on the National Mall Credit: Darrow Montgomery

When will the carousel on the National Mall reopen?

Bad news, it’s going to be at least another year, probably more, before the carousel goes on its merry rounds again. According to Linda St. Thomas, the chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution, sometime in the near future the carousel will be removed for a full renovation. Reconstruction will likely take at least a year, and then the newly renovated carousel will return to the Mall and reopen.

Within the past two months, the Smithsonian purchased the carousel from Paula Hyatt, daughter of Stan and Donna Hunter, who owned the historic ride since 1988, according to PBS NewsHour. Although it’s unclear when Stan died, the family continued to maintain the carousel at least through October 2020, but St. Thomas says the Smithsonian has operated it for decades. A carousel has sat on the Mall since 1967 thanks to support from former Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. But the current carousel originally belonged to Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. On the same day that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the amusement park—after years of protest—officially desegregated. Sharon Langley, not even a year old at the time, was the first Black child to ride the carousel when it lived in Baltimore. After the park closed, Gwynn Oak’s carousel was brought to the Mall in 1981 to replace the original, smaller ride. —Sarah Marloff

Why do independent/unaffiliated political mailers from third-party organizations use very old photos of much younger-looking candidates?

Independent expenditure committees, often backed by big business interests in the city, do indeed send out quite a bit of mail in the run-up to elections. And a big reason why you might notice particularly youthful photos of, say, Kenyan McDuffie or Elissa Silverman in those mailers is because these groups are barred from coordinating directly with the candidates they’re supporting.

That means those independent groups often “rely on photos in the public domain,” says Alex Zwerdling, a partner at the mail advertising firm Bergmann Zwerdling Direct, which has worked with a variety of D.C. candidates and independent organizations over the years. Every once in a while, civically minded photographers will make their pictures of candidates available for anyone to use on databases such as Wikimedia Commons. But those photos can be from many years in the past, particularly when it comes to politicians with long histories in D.C. affairs. 

Of course, candidates can try and take matters into their own hands, too, by posting their own photos on their websites and making them free to use. Ostensibly, the idea is that anyone can download them, but the target audience is an outside group that may want to send out such mailers. “If someone is going to spend $10,000 to $15,000 sending out mail on your behalf, don’t you want to look as good as possible?” asks Zach Teutsch, a veteran of several progressive campaigns including Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George’s 2020 bid.

Zwerdling cautions that independent groups will “generally not use those out of caution,” since “there are concerns that republishing images on a candidate’s website amounts to coordination.” But not everyone in D.C. shows such trepidation—a variety of groups backing Eric Goulet’s Ward 3 Council campaign weren’t shy about using the photos he helpfully made available on his website. —Alex Koma

Google Maps has a neighborhood called Civic Betterment, located just south of Marshall Heights. Is that name accurate? Does anyone use it? How did it come about?

Civic Betterment is a tiny, triangle-shaped neighborhood on the far southeastern edge of D.C. in Ward 7. The name appears to be accurate, insofar as it exists on Google Maps, has occasionally appeared in local news stories, is cited as an example of a lesser known neighborhood in City Paper’s style guide, and is known to the neighborhood’s most recent Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. A 2015 analysis of D.C. neighborhoods found that Civic Betterment was the “most liberal” neighborhood surveyed in greater D.C. (Rosslyn was the most conservative.)

The D.C. Office of Planning has no information on Civic Betterment, a spokesperson for the agency says, and the fine folks at the D.C. History Center were not able to dig up any historical info. But Michele C. at the People’s Archive in the DC Public Library came through.

She says via email that she could find no references to “Civic Betterment” as a place name in the library’s neighborhood history resources. But she found a few references to the “Civic Betterment Civic Association” in Evening Star newspaper clippings from the 1950s and ’60s, including one article (which is riddled with passive voice) about “roving dogs” that “were said to roam through the area in packs, especially in the evening.” The group often met at Nalle Elementary School, according to the clips, which is technically in Marshall Heights, but is very close to the Civic Betterment boundaries on Google Maps. Michele asks: “Is ‘Civic Betterment’ referring to the area or to the mission of the group?” Good question. 

The area is mostly residential and contains 10 houses built as part of President Jimmy Carter’s work with Habitat for Humanity along Benning Road SE, right across from Hanna Place SE. Residents there can also enjoy a recently modernized Woody Ward Recreation Center, with a boxing gym and an outdoor pool.

The ANC seat for the area, 7E03, is currently vacant, but its most recent occupant, Ebbon Allen, says the name probably originated in the 1950s or ’60s, though he’s not sure exactly why. Allen grew up in the neighborhood, and though he was aware of the name, he says most folks these days just lump it in with surrounding neighborhoods Benning Park and Marshall Heights.

The 45-year-old recalls the Civic Betterment of his youth that featured several Black-owned businesses, including a record store, dry cleaners, and Mr. Robinson’s Barber Shop. A farmers market used to be set up on Benning Road SE, where the KIPP DC LEAP Academy now sits, technically outside Civic Betterment’s boundaries. “To see it evolving, I’m blown away,” Allen says

His grandparents moved to the area in the 1950s, Allen’s mother says, when she was about 5 years old. She still has the property. Allen also still lives in the area with his wife and three sons.

“I took a lot of pride in my community,” he says. “My mom was raised on Hanna Place with six brothers and three sisters. When you become a commissioner, you want to know the history, you want to know the people, so you want to know what you’re advocating for.” —Mitch Ryals

One of the National Zoo’s male lions Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Why don’t the lions at the National Zoo roar like Luke (who died in the fall of 2022) did? 

The loss of Luke’s mighty roar is felt not only by his visitors at the Zoo, but by his human neighbors who live closeby.

In our 2022 People Issue, Craig Saffoe, the curator of Great Cats, Andean bears, and the Kids’ Farm areas at the National Zoo, said residents have talked about how they can hear the lions roaring from their homes. Other D.C. residents will use the Zoo as a jogging route—thank you, Zoo Loop!—giving them regular contact with the animals. So it goes without saying that when one animal passes away, the community will take note of the empty space they leave behind. 

Saffoe weighed in once again on the question of the lost lion’s roar:

“The lions at the Zoo do still roar, just like Luke used to. But your question is a good and reasonable one. The difference you are hearing (or not hearing) really boils down to a smaller number of lions talking back and forth to each other. Roaring is a means of communication from lion to lion. Last fall the National Zoo family lost two of our adult lions (female Naba and male Luke). That is two fewer voices and essentially less ‘conversations’ happening. But I can assure you that when our current four lions (females Shera and Amahle and males Jumbe and Shaka) talk to each other, their roars are just as loud and shake the building just as much as Luke did when he belted out roars.” —Camila Bailey

Are retired D.C. councilmembers eligible for D.C. government pensions? If so, at what annual rate?

Good news: If you’re lucky enough to serve at least one year on the D.C. Council, then you qualify for all the same retirement benefits as other employees in D.C.’s legislative branch. (Sorry, Sekou Biddle.)

Evan Cash, who’s worked on the issue in his capacity as committee and legislative director for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, explains that councilmembers qualify for two different retirement plans, “like all Council employees.” The first is a 401(a) plan, a pension plan seeded entirely by contributions from the D.C. government itself. Those are currently capped at 5 percent of an employee’s salary ($154,000 for most councilmembers and $210,000 for the chairman, in case you’ve forgotten) and “vesting occurs according to a gradual scale with full vesting after five years,” Cash says.

The other is a 457 plan, more akin to a traditional 401(k), to which councilmembers can choose to contribute pre-tax money; the District will match it up to 3 percent of their annual salary. That’s not a benefit the executive branch enjoys, Cash notes.

“I put in 12 years on the Council and that counted for something,” Kathy Patterson, the former Ward 3 councilmember turned D.C. auditor recalls. “My recollection, though, is that it counted for so little that I cashed it out and rolled into a 401(k).”

Maybe this is why Jack Evans took on so many extracurricular pursuits. —Alex Koma

A ginkgo tree shedding its leaves Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Where did the ginkgoes go this year?

Anyone who lives near ginkgo trees in D.C., as I do, knows exactly what this question asker wants to know. Every year in October or November, the trees’ leaves turn from green to a stunning shade of yellow and create a gold carpet on streets and sidewalks. But female ginkgos also drop seeds about the size of a date that give off a gag-inducing odor. Some say it smells like puke, others compare it to dog shit. The smell actually comes from the butyric acid that the seeds produce as they decay, which is the same compound that gives rancid butter its off-putting smell. It’s awful, and it gets even worse when your dog walks across a pile of these smashed seeds and tracks the putrid smell into the house.

To the reader’s question, for years, the District Department of Transportation has tried to ameliorate the stench by spraying the mature female ginkgo trees (there are 762 throughout D.C.) with a chemical known as Shield or chlorpropham. The chemical is typically used to prevent potatoes from sprouting after they’ve been harvested. DDOT has special permission from the EPA to use Shield on ginkgos. A DDOT spokesperson says via email that the agency sent teams out in late May of last year to treat the trees overnight, when fewer people are out and about. “This exercise is a challenge every year, as we need several factors to align: fruit production, acceptable temperature range, no rain and light winds,” the spokesperson says. “We were pleased with the control we obtained this past year.” —Mitch Ryals

Keith McDuffie, Kenyan McDuffie’s cousin, received a piece of the no-bid sports gambling contract. What’s Keith doing now, and how many other contracts has he won?

The alleged involvement of the McDuffie family in the city’s controversial sports betting program was quite the scandal back in 2019. The Washington Post broke the news that Keith McDuffie was listed as the chief executive of one of the subcontractors working on the contract: Potomac Supply Co. 

The actual head of that firm, Okera Stewart, and Keith McDuffie himself, swore up and down that this was a mistake of some kind, likely because McDuffie had sent an email endorsing Potomac Supply and Stewart. (Intralot, the Greek company that won the $215 million contract, never commented on the issue.)

Still, the close ties between Stewart and McDuffie certainly raised eyebrows around the city—Potomac Supply shares a business address with Keith McDuffie’s company, J.L. Terrell Construction. It didn’t help matters that the whole sports betting affair gave off the distinct smell of a wired procurement process, considering that the well-connected businessman Emmanuel Bailey won the chance to operate the contract for Intralot despite his firm having no employees, in what looked to be an end-run around D.C.’s local business contracting requirements.

While it remains a matter of some dispute whether Keith McDuffie is actually involved in the sports betting deal, it’s clear his construction firm is still winning city business. D.C.’s contracting database doesn’t show any deals directly with the company, but its database tracking payments from city agencies shows a total of 31 purchase orders invoiced to J.L. Terrell between May 2020 and Jan. 20 of this year for a total of just over $4.86 million. This suggests that the company is acting as a subcontractor for a different firm that won some sort of city contract, a common arrangement in the building industry, in particular.

The Department of General Services accounts for the vast majority of those payments, which makes sense, considering the agency generally manages the upkeep of city-owned facilities. J.L. Terrell lists one such DGS project on its website (the renovation of Triangle Park), in addition to work repairing public housing units on behalf of the D.C. Housing Authority. 

Keith McDuffie has been an active political donor as well. He, his employees, and some immediate family members made a series of contributions to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s re-election bid, as well as to Faith Gibson Hubbard’s Ward 5 campaign. —Alex Koma

Given the liberalism of D.C. and its politicians, as well as the dire outcomes for pregnant women in D.C., why does the D.C. Government refuse to prosecute doctors for birth rape, obstetric violence, and maternal mortality? Has D.C. ever prosecuted a doctor for abuse or negligence of pregnant women in the city?

Let’s start with a quick definition of “obstetric violence” (also referred to as “birth rape”): It takes place at the hands of obstetric health workers during any encounter in the prenatal, intranatal, and postnatal period. It can include “physical, verbal, sexual, structural, and epistemological forms of violence, such as nonconsensual procedures, neglect, gaslighting, surrogate decision-making, shaming, and discrimination,” according to an August 2022 article in the journal Feminist Anthropology. The term originated in Latin America, where at least two countries now have rules directly addressing such violence.   

When asked if the Metropolitan Police Department has ever arrested and/or charged someone with such crimes, MPD’s office of communications said the department does “not track this level of detailed information for arrests. We have arrested individuals for abuse, but there is no specific ‘box’ to check if the victim was pregnant or not.” MPD also notes that in searching through the city’s criminal code, there appears to be no specific language to address whether a victim was pregnant. Within the code’s sexual abuse laws, however, there are two specific statutes that address sexual assault perpetrated by medical professionals, which would cover the majority of obstetric violence. The code also expressly states that “consent is not a defense to a prosecution” when the perpetrator is a medical professional.

If such violence was ruled as nonsexual in nature, it would fall under simple assault.

Jinwoo Park, with the city’s Criminal Code Reform Commission, echoed MPD’s response, noting via email that, “generally, acts of violence and sexual assault are covered by the current D.C. Code’s assault and sexual assault statutes.” Due to limited resources, CCRC was unable to address the question in greater depth.

Prosecution of these crimes in D.C. would fall to the United States Attorney’s Office. But without a specific law forbidding obstetric violence (i.e., one that specifically protects pregnant people), finding any such cases is like looking for a needle in a haystack because there’s no way to filter a search by a defendant’s occupation and the plaintiff’s pregnancy status. In an emailed statement, the USAO says says it “takes all allegations of sexual assault extremely seriously, and has specialized units that investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases referred by law enforcement. The Office encourages anyone who believes they are a victim of sexual abuse, or any other crime, to call 911.” In theory, there are tools in D.C. law to prosecute those who commit obstetric violence, even if we can’t track down a case. —Sarah Marloff