‘All hell broke loose’: January so far a roller coaster for D.C. statehood

Emotions run high as advocates keep pushing past Capitol attack, inauguration

A worker installs razor wire Monday on Delaware Avenue Northeast at Columbus Circle in Washington in preparation for the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A worker installs razor wire Monday on Delaware Avenue Northeast at Columbus Circle in Washington in preparation for the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 19, 2021 at 6:30pm

Advocates for District of Columbia statehood like Joshua Burch have worked through a lot this month, from the emotional whiplash of Jan. 6 to the surreal experience of seeing much of political Washington fenced off from the rest of the city ahead of the inauguration and kept under heavy military guard. 

More than anything, though, they feel a sense of urgency. 

“It’s just trying to piece the time together to do what needs to be done,” says Burch, founder of the grassroots group Neighbors United for DC Statehood.

He has a full-time day job and parenting tasks to finish before pinging lawmakers in Congress and sending emails late into the evening, trying to make sure this moment doesn’t go to waste.

The morning of Jan. 6 started out on a high note for Burch. Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were cementing their runoff wins in Georgia, delivering Democratic President-elect Joe Biden a blue Senate and giving statehood supporters a reason to hope. Maybe now they could make inroads in the chamber, which had refused to take up a House-passed statehood bill last year.

“And then all hell broke loose,” he says.

A violent pro-Trump mob overwhelmed law enforcement and forced its way into the Capitol, leaving five dead, dozens injured and lawmakers terrified. 

“There was a good bit of joy on [that] morning, followed by fear and anger and frustration and disgust,” says Burch, summing up the stomach plunge that many people felt.

For statehood advocates on the verge of claiming new momentum, it was terrifying to watch an assault on democracy, but it was also hard to accept that attention could be so quickly torn away from their cause. 

That’s when the mood shifted again. As the nation watched federal law enforcement struggle to defend the Capitol, pundits on TV and social media began to fantasize about what would change if the mayor of the District was not in fact a mayor, but rather a governor who could put forth a show of strength. 

The conversation had abruptly come back around to statehood, and while advocates weren’t complaining, they had to rush to adapt. Focusing on security, instead of civil liberties or civil rights, was new territory for some. 

“It has not diminished in one way, shape or form the fact that this is a voting rights and civil rights issue,” Burch says of the attack on the Capitol. “But it also has highlighted that this also is a national security issue as well, and it’s a public safety issue.”

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Details of what happened that day are still emerging. What’s clear is that hours elapsed between when President Donald Trump’s supporters overwhelmed Capitol Police, pummeling officers and breaching windows and doors, and when an announcement was made that the National Guard was on its way to help quell the violence. 

Unlike its neighbors Virginia and Maryland, the District has no governor. Mayor Muriel Bowser has no way to unilaterally deploy National Guard troops under her own authority. 

The chain of command goes through the Army secretary to the president, who spent at least part of the afternoon sending mixed signals to the rioters, calling them “very special.” 

Statehood advocates argue that if Bowser had been able to command troops, the mob could have been dispersed more quickly or repelled entirely. 

That argument has been taken up by 51 for 51, a coalition of organizations working for statehood. “This is what happens when D.C. is left without the authority to protect ourselves,” the group tweeted in the aftermath of the chaos.

The emphasis is a new one for the group. Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, its youth organizers traveled around the country to highlight the role of racism and voter suppression in keeping the District and its roughly 700,000 residents without meaningful representation in Congress. They described it as a civil rights crisis. Now they’re framing it as a safety issue too.

“We launched a six-figure ad buy to remind the American people that DC statehood is a racial justice issue, a democracy issue, and a safety issue,” the group tweeted on Jan. 11.

Lead organizer Jamal Holtz says it was unnerving to watch the Capitol attack unfold on his screen from afar. “What I was looking at on the news — it didn’t feel real,” he says. 

But for the lawmakers who call the Capitol home, it felt all too real, as they took shelter amid the sounds of breaking glass and screaming.

“People oftentimes will never move on an issue until they see it in their own backyards,” Holtz says. “And [Jan. 6] was a time where everybody saw the injustice of not being a state in their backyard.”

Whether advocates can use that connection to change any minds remains to be seen. Over at Indivisible, a loosely organized progressive group created after Trump’s election, they’re going to try.

“The whole country could see how the mayor of D.C.’s hands were tied in how she could respond to the chaos on Capitol Hill in a way a governor’s wouldn’t be,” says Emily Phelps, the group’s press secretary. “People get that the status quo is not OK, and it’s certainly not progressive.”

The politics are a little shaky, as left-leaning advocates test out the vocabulary of security and law and order, more commonly embraced by the right. Meanwhile, residents of the District are feeling conflicting emotions as thousands of National Guard troops remain in the city, helping law enforcement patrol the downtown core in an unprecedented spectacle amid fears that far right extremists could disrupt Wednesday’s inauguration.

A man walks by murals in the H Street Corridor depicting hopes for D.C. statehood on July 7. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Either way, it is the latest chapter in the movement for D.C. statehood, which is never as clear-cut as it seems.

Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico became an especially divisive issue on the campaign trail last year, despite statehood for the island territory being part of the GOP platform. Republicans warned voters that the moves could create new reliably Democratic seats in Congress, including four in the Senate.

While Democrats will soon have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, it wouldn’t be enough to overcome a 60-vote filibuster for legislation if another D.C. statehood bill were to make its way from the House. 

And some moderate Democrats, like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, have voiced opposition to eliminating the filibuster, which both Democratic and Republican Senate majorities have axed for executive and judicial nominations. 

He has also been lukewarm when asked whether he supports statehood for D.C. 

“Right now I am focused on healing our country,” Manchin said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that did little to clarify his position. “That starts with a commitment to bipartisanship and decency. I will review all other proposals to heal our nation when the time comes.” 

Plus, the pandemic has made everything harder, says Paul Strauss, one of the District’s two elected shadow senators. His job is to advocate D.C. statehood, but chances to do that in person have been rare, even if the recent election has “kicked us into high gear.” 

In short, the immediate future for statehood still looks relatively bleak, which is why people who have been in this fight for a while are pairing loud calls for drastic action with quieter pushes for incremental change.

While Bowser called on Capitol Hill to put a statehood bill on Biden’s desk within the first 100 days of the new Congress, she also urged lawmakers to separately rethink command of the D.C. National Guard. 

And D.C. Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has been in the House for three decades now and was able to shepherd a statehood bill through to passage in the chamber last year, has sent a flurry of announcements in the past couple of weeks with proposals she plans to revive to give the city more autonomy should statehood fail in the short term. Those bills include one requiring federal police officers to wear body cameras and another to remove the president’s authority to federalize the District’s police department. 

Public opinion remains a key arena. The statehood vote in the House last summer “informed the country about D.C. statehood,” Norton says, and this go-round may sway more lawmakers and their constituents, especially in the wake of the Capitol attack.

But in the meantime, small steps are better than none. “I don’t suggest that statehood is around the corner,” Norton says. “I am saying that the building of support in the House and the Senate is how we’re going to get this done.”