What started out as a press conference to announce a small-scale protest against Washington, D.C.’s “colonial status” gradually evolved into a larger discussion of grass-roots tactics to achieve broader rights for the District of Columbia.
And with one-time Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader at the helm of the proceedings, the event was a departure from the typical press avails typically hosted by more measured and mainstream local players.
Before a small group of activists and news reporters this morning, Nader laid out a plan for a “limited general strike” in support of D.C. statehood. More specifically, members of roughly a half-dozen participating organizations have pledged to postpone their arrival at work by 15 minutes on July 9, by 30 minutes on Aug. 1, by 45 minutes on Sept. 10 and by one hour on Oct. 1.
“[We will] use that time and other time to expand our circle of solidarity on statehood for the District of Columbia among our friends, relatives and co-workers,” Nader explained.
He acknowledged that the strike might seem “excessively modest,” but argued that it would start conversations within participating groups that don’t normally focus on D.C. rights issues, such as the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, US PIRG and FairVote.
Nader also described the tactic as useful because it is achievable, and suggested it could inspire similar actions in other sectors.
“Low barriers to entry for civic and political movements are as important as weighty strategies pursued by fuller-time activists who deserve to look behind them and see a rising tide streaming in many creative directions and touch points,” he said.
Representatives from more narrowly focused organizations such as DC Vote, DC Statehood Green Party and the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition also spoke about the strike plans and the strides that still need to be made within the larger movement.
A question-and-answer session presented an opportunity for Nader and others to flex more radical muscles and engage in broader discussions about how to leverage support for expanded rights for D.C. citizens — and what self-proclaimed allies need to do differently.
The conversation at one point turned to President Barack Obama.
Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) tend to be careful not to criticize Obama in public statements for not doing enough, ultimately calling him an ally for their cause.
But Nader, Lino Stracuzzi of the D.C. Statehood Green Party and Anise Jenkins of Stand Up! were not reluctant to challenge Obama.
“I asked him, face to face, did he support statehood, and he gave me his assurances he did,” Jenkins said of a conversation she had with the future president at American University during the 2008 campaign. “We shouldn’t have to beg or plead.”
Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, agreed that Obama has not done all he could, citing as an example when the president “threw D.C. under the bus” by including a ban on local funding for abortion as a bargaining chip to pass a spending bill in 2011.
But Zherka suggested that what he perceived as Obama’s willingness to give in to pressure could be an asset at some point, and using tactics that include civil disobedience, tongue-in-cheek protests and phone drives could bring results.
“Washingtonians need to understand that things happen in politics when there’s pressure for things to happen in politics,” he said.
The question-and-answer session also included some back-and-forth on how D.C. activists should be directing their energies: toward achieving a vote in Congress or the realization of “New Columbia” as the 51st state.
Some activists argued that fighting for anything short of statehood is a cop-out, and that Norton and others should not be discouraging an ambitious goal even as more achievable objectives, such as a vote in Congress or budget autonomy, might be more saleable to constituents and national supporters.
Nader signaled his disappointment with Gray’s decision to opt out of the general strike. Aside from those providing emergency services, he said, there was no reason why government employees could not be late for work to support a policy platform the Gray administration endorses.
He also offered a rare public rebuke of Norton — who many consider to be the District’s biggest champion and most powerful advocate — for supposedly cloistering herself on Capitol Hill and not engaging or collaborating with the grass roots.
“She’s got to stop being proprietary in her approach here,” Nader said. “There’s potential for her to have leadership here.”
Zherka, whose group is perhaps the most prominent among D.C. autonomy organizations and has been known to work closely with local officials to meet shared objectives, did not contribute to the criticisms of Gray and Norton.