Photo by Lost in Transit [Keep St… on Flickr.
Councilmember David Grosso has called for Mayor Gray to pay DC employees during the federal government shutdown and to implement DC laws without submitting them to Congress for approval. His actions show us that the path to statehood isn’t through protest, but by simply living as free citizens of a state.
Until this point, DC residents relegated to second-rate status have had two options. First, we could meekly submit to the humiliating rituals imposed upon us by federal law. Remember when a US Senator put a hold on our budget because they didn’t like our taxi fares?
Second, we could protest as we have for decades. Mayor Gray was arrested for sitting down in traffic to protest our status. Grosso offers a third way, and the best part is that we cannot lose.
Unlike every other jurisdiction in America, during a federal government shutdown the District of Columbia cannot spend its own locally-raised tax money. That’s because Congress treats DC’s budget as part of the federal budget.
Mayor Gray has responded to this obvious injustice by going back and forth between our two traditional options, protest and obedience. Last week, Gray confronted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a press conference, and has staged protests on a nearly daily basis.
But ultimately Gray says that he is prepared to obey this unjust law if protests prove unsuccessful. Mayor Gray said in a speech last week that paying DC employees during the shutdown would undermine our “moral authority.”
Gray’s speech shows a lack of understanding of the moral logic of nonviolent disobedience in the face of unjust laws. Nonviolent disobedience isn’t simply protesting by breaking the law. It’s avoiding protest altogether and instead living one’s life as a free citizen, even if innocent activities of daily life are illegal.
The central appeal of disobedience is that it cannot lose. Protests only work when those in power concede some of their power. Disobedience always works, because you deny to anyone authority over your freedom to live as a full human being.
That’s why disobedience always works. It immediately undoes the most harmful effect of unjust laws: when a community internalizes its second-rate status.
Statehood isn’t about budgeting, though that is one important benefit. It’s true that DC residents bear a heavy fiscal burden, to the tune of about $1 billion a year, because of a structural deficit that Congress would likely fix if DC was a state.
But statehood isn’t about the budget. It’s about dignity and ridding much of our community of decades of internalized disenfranchisement. So many of our social and economic challenges in DC stem from a deep lack of agency, what many call a spiritual disenfranchisement. In his landmark book Development as Freedom, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen calls this internalized disempowerment the true source of poverty.
When our mayor claims the dignity of self-governance and simply governs as any other freely-elected mayor would, we can expect a larger percentage of our city’s remarkable talent will stand up to govern too, as Kojo Nnamdi so eloquently explains. In fact, disobeying laws denying our self-governance engenders far more civic dignity than the civic pride of a thousand professional sports franchises.
So, breaking unjust laws doesn’t undermine moral authority. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke unjust laws. Jesus broke unjust laws. And, of course, so did Mahatma Gandhi.
Czech dissident Vaclav Havel called this “living in truth.” Under communism, Czech dissidents split between activists planning petitions and artists who simply wanted to do their art. Havel unified them by explaining to activists that attending a banned music concert was more effective than any protest.
Mayor Gray faces a huge decision whether or not to disobey federal laws. But the right choice is clear, and if he doesn’t make it, another mayor ultimately will.