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DC: The Colony in Congress’ Backyard

The colonists who founded this country fought a revolutionary war against taxation without representation. More than 200 years later, one of the greatest American ironies is that our capital city pays federal taxes, but gets no vote in Congress and is, essentially, colonized.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives, speaks at DC Vote rally on Capitol Hill, September 17, 2007. (Photo: KCIvey)

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The colonists who founded this country fought a revolutionary war against taxation without representation. More than 200 years later, one of the greatest American ironies is that our capital city pays federal taxes, but gets no vote in Congress and is, essentially, colonized.

“We have been conditioned to look at ourselves as slaves and to accept it,” said DC activist Josephine Butler in 1994. “We have to be willing to show Congress that, as much as they may try to shackle us, we still know how to break loose.”

Butler spoke those words just 20 years after DC was granted the right to vote for its own mayor and city council, and 33 years after we were permitted to begin voting for president. Between 1874 and 1975, US presidents appointed about 100 different commissioners to run our largely black city. All but one was white and all but one was male.

Today, DC has one voteless delegate in Congress – Eleanor Holmes Norton, a black woman, now that we can vote for our own representatives – and it is the only city that has to pass its new laws and budgets through Congressional review. Such review is the duty of the House Oversight Committee – the “overseers,” as one black female student noted to me during a teach-in. That committee is chaired by Republican Darrell Issa, elected in the San Diego area and, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the wealthiest member of Congress. It was Issa, who receives 94 percent of his campaign contributions from outside of his district and who successfully called for the National Park Service to forcefully evict the two Occupy DC encampments.

In the context of America’s purported dedication to spreading democracy around the world, it is a telling incongruity that we are the only so-called democracy in the world, the capital city of which goes unrepresented in its national legislature. While 99 percent of Americans are essentially disenfranchised by the influences of wealth, sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression, 100 percent of Washingtonians are literally disenfranchised from being represented in our albeit flawed political system.

The most common argument against the liberation of DC is Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power

to exercise exclusive legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.

However, constitutional scholars have noted that the “Seat of the Government” need only refer to the National Mall and the parts of Capitol Hill where the federal government buildings are located. Since the only requirement is that it be smaller than ten by ten miles, what is considered the seat of government could be shrunken down to solely encompass the federal government’s land – thereby withdrawing the blanket of disenfranchising oversight from the rest of the city.

The truth is that the vast majority of us in DC do not work for the federal government – nor are we represented by it.

That longstanding injustice and the national lack of awareness about it is what inspired several other members of Occupy DC and myself to embark on an indefinite hunger strike, demanding that Congress grant DC full representation and autonomy.

The five of us, forming Occupy the Vote DC, took only water for different periods of time, ranging from eight days to 25. Along the way, we were joined by solidarity strikers for 24 to 48 hours at a time, including Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), longtime civil rights activist Dick Gregory, and many others for 51 consecutive days, representing DC as the 51st state.

My own strike lasted 11 days. When we began the strike – after the most precious tofu-veggie stir fry of my life – I had no idea what to expect. Part of me anticipated sudden death after a few days, or at least to become loopy, hallucinatory and uncommunicative. “As our strike progresses,” I wrote urgently in a Washington Post op-ed, we will lose our ability to communicate with the outside world.”

Instead, miraculously, the opposite happened. We spent our first few days in an open-faced tent in McPherson Square, the site of Occupy K Street in DC, and braved the December chill to keep ourselves transparently hungry and in the public eye. We kept ourselves on a 24-hour live stream, perhaps the first ever for a hunger strike, in order to stay totally visible.

We began to get more and more attention from local and national press, as DC Vote, our girlfriends, and other invaluable supporters helped us get to Congress almost daily to lobby for our cause. We met with Representative Ellison, who read our declaration on the House floor, and with Eleanor Holmes Norton, who spoke about us on the House floor in the context of DC’s 200-year struggle for voting rights. We barricaded the doors of John Boehner’s office with our wheelchairs in protest of his refusal to open government to the people of DC, and blocked a street on Capitol Hill to protest Congress imposing a rider on the federal budget that would block DC’s local money from funding abortions for low-income women in the city. Such impositions are almost annual, also having blocked almost a decade of needle-exchange programs that could have saved innumerable lives from HIV/AIDS.

The demands of our bodies forced us to end our hunger strikes before any legislative change had come. But our fight continues. After the strike, we did a teach-in tour with Occupy groups up the East Coast, testified with the mayor and city council members at a New Hampshire State House hearing for DC statehood, taught kids about the issue in DC schools and started a petition to help raise national awareness (please sign and share!).

I’m now working with an accomplished producer on a documentary on DC voting rights and with the Future Project to ally with a DC public high school student and advance the cause.

With the hunger strike long over, its effects continue to resonate. As Dick Gregory told us midway through it, “You don’t do a hunger strike to make bad people do good things. You do it to bring positive forces together.”

An abridged version of this story was published on

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