In January, shortly after Chair of the Council of the District of Columbia Phil Mendelson was reelected, he wrote a curious newsletter to constituents, pushing back against “progressives who say [city leaders] are not doing enough” to deal with poverty and justice issues in DC. In it, he asserted that education is “the solution to our social justice ills” and that the city is “undeniably progressive.”
“There is very little that divides us,” Mendelson wrote. “The business community wants to eradicate poverty. Developers want to provide affordable housing.… We are blessed with elected leadership that [is] committed to equality and justice for all citizens.”
It was a strangely rosy portrayal of a city that is home to the worst income inequality in the nation, where the average wealth of white households is 81 times the average wealth of black households. Fourteen percent of children in the district live in extreme poverty—a tie with Louisiana for the highest rate in the nation—and the overall child-poverty rate is nearly 26 percent; only three states are doing worse. When it comes to shelter, 27,000 low-income renters spend at least half of their income on housing and, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the city has “only funded about 3,000 new rentals for these residents since 2015.” The most recent data indicate that 75,000 households needed food assistance (SNAP) in fiscal year 2016 and 22,000 of those households had no cash income. As Business Insider recently reported, “When it comes to the overall share of homeless residents, no state can compare to Washington, DC.”
Mendelson closed his newsletter with a request to his constituents: “I ask you to hold us accountable.” So, on Valentine’s Day, which is also Frederick Douglass’s birthday, about 50 activists with the DC chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival showed up at City Hall to do that. The group included individuals whose families had lived in the city for generations, as well as residents affiliated with about a dozen local labor, faith, health, education, and other community organizations. They named a number of ways the city could address its deep inequities, and they called the continuing failure to do so “a moral crisis.”
At a brief press conference, the group laid out some of its key asks, including: moratoriums on public-housing demolition and 0n redevelopment, which the campaign views as “a giveaway to developers,” and a focus instead on rehabbing or repairing public-housing units; placing vacant properties in a trust for affordable housing rather than auctioning them off; doing more to protect undocumented immigrants from federal authorities; fully funding the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act, a comprehensive approach to reducing police violence and violent crime at its root causes through counseling, mentorship, violence interruption, bias training, and other programs; implementation of a higher minimum-wage increase for tipped workers, which DC voters resoundingly approved last June, only to have the vote overridden by the city council; greater interaction with the citizens of Wards 7 and 8 in assessing public-health needs, including a proposed new hospital; and making the same quality of education available to all public schools across the city.
The group embarked on walking the five floors of City Hall to visit every council member, with the intention of giving each a rose, a Valentine’s Day card made by a local kindergarten class, and a copy of the campaign’s local and national demands. “When we don’t have input, then people are able to put into place policies that affect us negatively and there is no accountability,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ. “We need to start calling these folks out by name.” Approaching the office of Councilman Jack Evans, he told the group, “This council member has represented every business interest, often negating the public interest. Let us remember that as we go in there, and sing extra loud.”
One of the most contentious and pressing issues the activists wanted to bring to the attention of Evans and other council members was the repeal of Ballot Initiative 77—the public’s vote to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees, who are among the city’s most vulnerable workers. Seventy percent of the district’s tipped workers are people of color; in Wards 7 and 8, where approximately 90 percent of the residents are African American, more than 60 percent voted in support of 77. For the activists, the action to overturn the vote by Mayor Muriel Bowser and an 8-5 majority in the DC council seemed to represent the denial of their political voice as much as any other.
The group filed into Evans’s office with a boisterous rendition of a song penned during a coal-ash protest in North Carolina that is now used throughout the 42 states of the Poor People’s Campaign: “Somebody’s hurting our people, and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore.” The walls in Evans’s reception area were almost entirely covered with photographs of the council member pictured alongside high-profile individuals—Obama, Trump, Mayor Bowser, Trump again, Tom Cruise. Gazing over the photos, Pastor Delonte Gholston, senior pastor of Peace Fellowship Church, said, “Jesus teaches us that we ought to love the least of these. As I look upon [these] walls, I don’t see the least of these represented.”
Evans came out of his office, smiling, and greeted the group warmly. The activists reciprocated, but the mood quickly shifted when the discussion turned to Initiative 77. Hagler told Evans that it is hypocritical for local elected leaders to constantly rail against Congress for overriding the will of DC residents but then do the very same thing on this referendum. “I agree,” Evans replied. “But on 77 I just don’t agree.”
Hagler frowned. Some in the group snickered. One resident asked, “What’s the point of us voting if you’re just going to turn it around?”
Gholston changed the subject. “As we gather on Frederick Douglass’s birthday—who taught us that power concedes nothing without demand—we demand that you give a full hearing to the list of demands we’ve given you.”
“Absolutely,” Evans promised.
Later, the group had a tense exchange in the office of Councilman David Grosso, another legislator who voted to overturn Initiative 77. Among his responsibilities, Grosso has oversight of more than $100 million in public-school funding for supplemental programming that targets poor students. Tens of millions of those monies were used to cover basic costs like teachers’ salaries instead of funding tutors, counselors, extracurricular activities, and other needed services in high-poverty schools. As the group presented a staff member with a rose and their demands, Hagler and a few others saw the council member close a door, refusing to great them. “Another thing I want you to relay,” Hagler said to the staffer, “I’m sick and tired of him not meeting with the people and just closing the door right now, and separating himself from us, okay?”
Walking the corridors afterward, Gholston echoed this sentiment. “We are the inheritors of a great civil-rights movement, yet some of our elected leaders are so bothered by our presence here. It’s tragic,” he said. At one point a security guard told the group that anyone who continued to carry signs in the building would have to leave. That was problematic, since each activist carried a sign with a message, including Systemic Poverty Is Immoral; We are a New Unsetting Force; Polluted Drinking Water Is Violence; Fight Poverty Not the Poor. A quiet conversation ensued. A supervisor came over and interceded, permitting the group to continue onward with its signs. “It’s called the First Amendment,” Gholston said quietly to himself as they walked away.
Over the course of a few hours, the group visited every other council member or a staff representative, and briefly disrupted two hearings to present their demands to the presiding council members, Mary Cheh and Brandon Todd. They thanked Ward 8 Councilman Trayon White for his leadership with anti-violence community walks. They asked him to work to increase funding for the NEAR Act, which Gholston said is currently “a pittance” compared to funding for similar violence-prevention programs in other cities. They also called White out for voting to overturn Initiative 77.
The activists closed the day at the office of Chair Mendelson, who was unavailable to see them. Hagler told a staff member that the chairman had “led” on denying people a voice when he overturned Initiative 77. The chairman also shot down a compromise bill offered by Councilwoman Elissa Silverman that would have raised wages for parking-lot attendants, hotel workers, busboys, and other low-wage workers, saying, “I don’t see the principle behind it.”
“We’re going to come back here and hold him accountable,” said Hagler.
Before the activists parted ways, Zillah Wesley, the lead organizer for the event and a tri-chair of the campaign, gathered them together. Wesley is a 36-year-old, third-generation Washingtonian who has seen many friends and family forced out of the city due to the rising cost of living. “It looks like we’re irritating them, and they need to be irritated,” she said of the council members. “We vote these people in to work for the people, and they stopped believing that. So we’re showing them. And we’re just going to grow from here.”