In arguably the most outrageous act of an outrageous presidency, Donald Trump has just used Washington, D.C., as the backdrop for a political stunt that looked like a campaign ad for his 2020 reelection campaign. Stung by reports that he had been hiding in an underground bunker in the White House as the streets of the nation’s capital city filled with mass protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Trump tried to present himself as a strongman on Monday by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and deploy the US military to states where protests over police brutality have grown in size and fervor. As he made the early evening announcement, federal law enforcement officers rushed peaceful demonstrators and used tear gas in order to clear the way for the president to stroll to a nearby Episcopal church and pose for campaign-style pictures with a Bible.
It was a grotesque abuse of power on the president’s part, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser responded appropriately. “We were very shocked and quite frankly outraged that people who were not violating the curfew, and who did not seem to have provoked attack, were attacked in a move out by the federal law enforcement officials who were directed to clear the way for the President,” she declared. The mayor termed the attack “shameful” and tweeted that “I imposed a curfew at 7pm. A full 25 minutes before the curfew & w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult.”
Trump’s actions were shameful and dangerous. Democratic governors, such as Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, immediately objected, and experts on constitutional law raised all the appropriate and necessary concerns about the use of the military for domestic law enforcement.
However, Trump was already sending the military into the District of Columbia, a multiracial, multiethnic community that has a bigger population than several states but that has no voting members of the US House or Senate. “We’re going to clamp down very, very strong,” the president said in a phone call with the nation’s governors on Monday. “The word is dominate. If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re gonna walk away with you. And we’re doing it in Washington, in DC, we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before. But we’re going to have total domination.”
Because D.C. is not a state, it lacks many of the protections against presidential threats, and abuses of power, that states enjoy.
That’s just one of the many reasons D.C. should be a state.
There has always been a good argument for D.C. statehood. Frederick Douglass wrote in the 19th century that the District of Columbia is “the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people and by the people. Its citizens submit to rulers whom they have no choice in selecting. They obey laws which they had no voice in making.”
Earlier this year, when the House Oversight and Reform Committee approved the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, as a step toward statehood, Bowser said,
“DC statehood is constitutional, we have a plan in place to make it happen, and it is the only way to fix the injustice of denying more than 700,000 Washingtonians a vote in Congress. Furthermore, the relentless and forced attacks on our DC values serve as an important reminder that statehood is not only about representation in Congress, it is also about self-government, autonomy, and defending the very principles our nation’s democracy was founded on. By focusing their attacks on our values, opponents of statehood have proven once again that they have no other case to make—constitutional or otherwise.”
Trump, who like most Republicans is a virulent opponent of statehood, raised the stakes this week.
Democrats should respond.
As the party’s presumptive nominee, Joe Biden should make it clear that D.C. statehood will be a top priority for his administration. And the party platform, which was clarified in 2016 to express clear support for statehood, should be updated to include an explicit plan for achieving that goal. Support for D.C. statehood should become a central theme of the 2020 campaign—as should support for greater self-determination for all of the US commonwealths, territories, and possessions that currently lack full representation rights in Congress and sufficient authority over their own affairs. If Democrats win the presidency and control of the House and Senate in 2020, they should move immediately to end the injustice that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted when she said in 2016, “Washingtonians serve in the military, serve on juries and pay taxes just like everyone else. And yet they don’t even have a vote in Congress.”
“Hard as it is to believe,” Clinton added, “America is the only democracy on the planet that treats the residents of its capital this way.”
In the same 2016 election where D.C. residents overwhelmingly backed Clinton over Trump, they gave 86 percent support to a referendum advising Washington’s city council to petition Congress to admit the District of Columbia as the 51st state and to approve a constitution and boundaries. Some progress has been made toward this long-deferred vision. In March, the House voted 234-193 in favor of statehood—as part of the broader HR 1 package of proposed voter rights and political reforms. In addition, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act has 35 cosponsors in the Senate—including Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. Senator majority leader Chuck Schumer indicated that statehood would be a priority for a Democratic Senate.
Biden said he is “absolutely” in favor of D.C. statehood. That’s important, because even with Democratic control of the House and Senate, the fight for statehood will face plenty of hurdles—including a disputed Republican claim that the Constitution would have to be amended to make the change possible. No matter the challenges, this is the time to step up. Trump’s actions highlight a deeper injustice that cannot be denied any longer. It must be addressed.
“Yes, it is true that we are brown and liberal, but denying statehood would be unfair no matter who was affected—it would be unfair if we were conservatives from a rural district built around agriculture or an industrial city in the heartland,” Bowser told Congress in 2019. “This is America, and Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law, and that’s why you should support statehood.”