Mayor Vince Gray pledged while on the campaign trail to be a vociferous supporter of D.C. autonomy and to do anything it takes to stick up for the city, including get arrested.
On Monday, Gray followed through, as he and several members of the D.C. Council were among the 41 activists arrested for blocking traffic outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building in a planned demonstration of civil disobedience.
The group of local politicians and protesters objected to a provision of the proposed budget deal between President Barack Obama, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that would restrict how the city can fund abortion providers.
“I am tired of being a pawn in a political game,” Gray said, riling up the crowd of more than 100 people. “This is an absolute travesty.”
Gray, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and several other councilmembers stepped into the street shortly before 6 p.m., chanting and waving signs before sitting down and forming a human chain to obstruct traffic.
“We deserve to be free,” Brown yelled. “Stay out of our pocket. ... Stay out of our business.”
Advocates for D.C. autonomy were specifically targeting Reid, whose office is next door in Hart Senate Office Building and who they say “sold out” the District in last week’s eleventh-hour budget negotiation that avoided a government shutdown.
The group marched up and down the sidewalk, with chants calling Reid a hypocrite and saying Congress is intruding on local lawmaking in an undemocratic fashion.
“We are not a bargaining chip,” Councilmember Tommy Wells said. “We have rights that aren’t for sale, that can’t be sold down the river.”
More than 100 protesters stood on the sidewalk and yelled support as the activists who were blocking traffic in the street were one by one restrained by Capitol Police officers and escorted to waiting police vans shortly after 6 p.m.
Several citizen protesters were arrested first, before police set their sights on the politicians, arresting Gray, Brown, Wells, D.C. shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown, DC Vote founder Daniel Solomon and Executive Director Ilir Zherka, Councilmembers Yvette Alexander, Muriel Bowser and Michael A. Brown and several others.
One protester said the police had told them bail would be $50, but that many planned to pay $51, alluding to advocates' desire for the District to be the 51st state.
But statehood is a long-gone dream for many of the protesters, who are now beating back attempts by House Republicans to restrict abortion and needle-exchange programs in the city.
The deal struck between the White House, Senate Democrats and House Republicans would prohibit the District from spending taxpayer-collected money to fund abortion providers, a ban that was just lifted in 2009, when Democrats had control of both chambers.
A continuing resolution containing the abortion rider is expected to get Congressional votes Wednesday and to pass both chambers.
Protesters also object to another part of the deal that would reinstitute a school voucher program, a pet project of Boehner’s. Gray has said he supports allowing students who were already in the program to continue to receive vouchers but does not support expanding it.
Protesters said that the deal is symptomatic of disrespect for the will of District residents from lawmakers of both parties, but that they are particularly unnerved by Reid’s willingness to “throw the District under the bus,” as Zherka put it.
“The District doesn’t have power in the Congress, doesn’t have direct voting power for Reid,” Zherka said in an interview before the rally. “They thought they could bargain away the District with little consequences and cost.”
Senate Democrats, however, are seeking to deflect the negative attention by reminding residents that Obama proposed the swap, giving in to Boehner on the District policies in order to avert cuts to Planned Parenthood and national abortion programs.
“This was Obama’s decision during one of the White House meetings,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said earlier Monday. “But it’s also worth noting that it’s only good for five months.”
Democrats are also trying to appease D.C. advocates by saying they plan to oppose the restriction later, according to another Congressional aide.
“We reserve the right to continue to battle against policies we disagree with,” the aide said earlier Monday. “This is not something we support, and we’ll be looking to restore it back to the original policy after the five months expire.”
But while the protesters did call for Senate Democrats to help roll back the abortion-funding restrictions, they are not holding their breath.
“I’m not fueled by hope, I’m fueled by determination,” Zherka said.
Clarification: April 12, 2011
The article stated that D.C. Mayor Vince Gray supports a school voucher program. He supports allowing students who were already in the program to continue to receive vouchers but does not support expanding it.