In 1968, Washington Post journalists Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood named police brutality as one of the factors motivating protestors in the uprising following Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder. They wrote “In 1967 and part of 1968, [DC] city police killed thirteen African-Americans, including one whose offense was as petty as stealing a bag of cookies. It was called ‘justifiable homicide.’” Then, like now, African Americans in the nation’s capital were angry. Then, like now, they had exhausted their options in a city and country that was unresponsive to their legitimate concerns. Then, like now, the protests turned violent. Property was destroyed and businesses burned, resulting in unemployment and homelessness. The city’s Black residents were disproportionally affected.
It’s still too early to determine the legacy of today’s civil disturbances. However, similarities and differences between the 1968 rebellion and our current historical moment provide insight into why the protests in Washington are different than the protests in Minneapolis, New York, and other cities across the United States. Naming and highlighting those differences could mean tangible political gains for racial justice advocates. Unlike protestors in other cities, DC residents don’t elect officials to represent them in Congress, making them politically powerless actors in the capital of the world’s most powerful democracy.
DC residents’ votes did not count in the Electoral College until 1961. Before the rebellions began in 1967, President Johnson appointed Walter Washington to be the city’s first Black mayor, and created a majority Black council to govern the city—in part because he hoped this would placate residents and discourage civil unrest. Shortly after the uprising in 1968, some progress was made: Congress passed a bill establishing an elected school board for the District, offering greater political representation to the estimated 68 percent of residents who identified as African American. By 1973, the city won Home Rule, allowing citizens of the District to vote for their own mayor and council members. Protest is an effective way to address both threats to Black life and political powerlessness; a historical precedent exists in the District for demanding greater political power in the wake of rebellion.
Moreover, DC lacks political representation in Congress because of racism and the city’s longstanding status as a majority African American or “Chocolate City.” (In the early 2010s, the city became majority white.) One senator from Alabama advocated for “burn[ing] down the barn to get rid of the rats … the rats being the Negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia” in the 1870s. Just over a century later, in 1972, Representative John Rarick (R-Louisiana) worried that self-governance would result in a Black Muslim “takeover.” Today, our racist president recalls this history when he advocates the use of “vicious dogs” against residents of the District exercising their first amendment rights.
Far from an angry mob, scholar Brandi T. Summers notes that the 1968 rebellion in DC was a strategic, carefully orchestrated event supported by such recognized leaders as Stokely Carmichael. Protestors targeted businesses that had harmed Blacks and worked to protect Black owned businesses, like Ben’s Chili Bowl. Today’s protestors are equally savvy. They are asking for an end to unnecessary Black death, linking visible violence such as police brutality to invisible and structural violence like the deadly unequal impact of the corona virus on communities of color. One way to address both the invisible and visible forces, ensuring a more lasting progress, is to demand DC statehood.
Protests across the globe demonstrate that the world is watching the response to the ongoing crisis in Washington and elsewhere. Historians have studied how the success of the civil rights movement can be attributed, in part, to how international audiences reacted to the hypocrisy of a nation that promoted democracy abroad during the Cold War but failed to provide it to African Americans domestically. An international audience can help provide greater pressure to force political change, highlighting police brutality and inequality suffered by African Americans in a city where residents are denied political representation.
Democrats and Republicans both have condemned the current administration for its use of military force against American citizens. What they fail to mention is that many of these citizens can’t even vote for representatives in congress. The injustice is two-fold: the use of the military against peaceful protestors as well as the fact that many of those who protest are denied basic democratic voting rights.
George Floyd was not killed over a bag of cookies. He was suspected of passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. Floyd’s brother described him as a man who believed in “unity.” DC cannot hope for unity until its Black residents can participate fully as democratic citizens. Statehood alone is not enough. But full political participation for Black citizens is a necessary start.