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Washington, DC: The Invisible City

by Levi Dayan

[originally posted early 2021]


Growing up, I was always somewhat baffled by people’s impressions of my hometown of Washington DC. The idea of people actually living and coming of age in the capital city seems to be alien to a lot of people. This was confusing to me as a teenager, as I always thought of my hometown as basically the default setting of an American city. It’s not as dense and manic as New York, nor as sprawling and overwhelming as Los Angeles, which were both cities that I could never imagine growing up in for the life of me. With an urban population of 700,000 people and the sixth largest metropolitan population in the country, no one could mistake it for anything other than a big city. Yet, it doesn’t feel particularly dense or sprawling, and the buildings don’t feel as tall as in even the neighboring Baltimore, a much smaller urban center. It has everything one would assume the term “city” entails: hellish traffic, sports teams, nightlife, public transportation, and the like. For a while, I could have made the mistake of telling you that the main thing distinguishing it from any other city is the fact that the government is based here, although its presence never fully impacted my life beyond the occasional motorcade siren outside my house. But this common misconception of DC as the home of big government and nothing more is also the kind of lie used to justify another unique little thing about my hometown: our ongoing lack of representation in Congress.

The issue of DC statehood is currently in the spotlight like never before. In the past year, DC has been hit with two unmitigated disasters, laying bare the powerlessness of DC’s local government over federal overreach. The first was the violent tear gas attack on peaceful protestors in order to clear the way for one of the most vividly fascistic photo-ops in recent memory, and the second was the violent white supremacist mob incited on the Capitol by that very same fascist. In the aftermath of these events, many tears were shed for the nation’s institutions that DC just so happens to cradle, whether it be the figurative degradation of the presidency or the mob literally smearing shit on the walls of the Capitol during the riots. But lost in the shock and awe of these images, depicting a nation that can’t possibly be who we are or we have been, were the DC citizens forced to shoulder the burden of American nazism showing its fangs. The DC residents cleared out of the way for the hero of American nazism certainly didn’t ask to be teargassed, and there were many videos circulating on social media of DC citizens, who, despite a growing gentrification crisis, are still predominantly Black, righteously infuriated that white supremacists always come to this city and threaten our people — even as they have all the power in the world. The difference between the Capitol rioters, the bureaucrats who incited them, and the longtime citizens who are the heart of this city could not be more striking, and at the core of that dichotomy is the fact that DC has never gotten to choose our own leaders and spokespeople.

Indeed, despite the fact that DC residents pay tens of billions in taxes to the federal government every year, we’re completely locked out of any discussion as to how that tax money can serve us, or, as these recent events show, how to keep that money from being weaponized against us. Fresh off the heels of this catastrophe, a new administration has taken control, with full control of the executive and legislative branches for the first time in twelve years. The question of whether or not DC becomes a state in the next two or four years is unclear due to the filibuster, a rule similarly rooted in anti-democratic racism, but there’s a good chance that statehood could at the very least be brought to a floor vote. However, we can’t pretend that these two events, and the subsequent push for statehood, came out of thin air; activists have been fighting for statehood since long before issues such as gay marriage were even thought of. Rather, they encapsulate the unique hardships of a uniquely American city—one that carries many of the same burdens as other urban centers, but with the added blow of near powerlessness over its own destiny.

Rhetoric against statehood is often centered around the lie that DC is “a city of bureaucrats,” one often peddled by famously non-bureaucratic politicians such as Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham. I’ve seen a clip from the 1983 film Black Wax, a documentary about the legendary musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron, make the rounds on social media a few different times now. Scott-Heron, who grew up in Tennessee and The Bronx, but made DC home for a period of time, stands outside the capitol, saying “When you’re on a tour of Washington, let me tell you those tours are always the same. They bring you around the places like this, they might even tell you who the jackass is on the horse or the guy up on top of the building but they never show you the real Washington.” Later, walking through a neighborhood in the Shaw area, he says “You see, most of the things that happen in the nation's capital happen in neighborhoods just like this,” adding that “when there are protests and demonstrations and expressions of concern by members of communities like this, people in the Midwest and other places who have been to the nation's capital, they say, ‘Why, those people living in DC, they’re living so good, they have it so great, what could they possibly be demonstrating about?!’ It’s because the tourmobile takes you to Georgetown, the tourmobile takes you to the Gold Coast. The tourmobile never comes down to 10th and V, 10th and W. The tourmobile never gets over here into the heart of the city, and therefore never has any real contact with the people who are the lifeblood of this city.” Nas Fair, a third year Oberlin student, echoed this sentiment when she spoke with me, saying “A lot of people say ‘Let’s drain the swamp,’ yadda yadda, and think DC is full of politicians, which it is, but that’s really only the wealthy parts of DC. The parts where the real culture of DC lies is where Black people live, and we don’t have any say in what happens on the Hill.”

Gil Scott-Heron is but one piece of DC’s greater musical legacy, one that includes Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye. But that doesn’t even cover the music that is right at the heart of the city’s cultural identity, go-go music. Go-go is a style of funk that centers around percussion and call-and-response, with street performances and tradings of live cassette tapes making up a big part of its culture. “I’ve never really heard of a go-go band outside of DC.” said Nas, adding, “When I miss home I’ll turn on like a Soundcloud of a backyard band or any go-go bands that remind me of home.” Sokka Asif, a local musician from DC, said “being Black but also being African I was exposed for a little bit to only my own culture of music. But growing up in DC and growing up in all Black neighborhoods, I was exposed to things like go-go and funk, and I got exposed to amazing music that connected myself to my own Black culture and really recognized who developed the heart of the city and who really brings the culture.”

That culture is the reason DC isn’t the miserable bureaucratic dungeon McConnell and company want the GOP base to think it is, but it’s also one that is in danger of being pushed out of the way entirely. DC is not the only city facing a gentrification crisis, but according to studies by the Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity, DC has displaced more of its residents than any other city. While its Black residents maintain a plurality of the city’s population, the percentage of Black residents has dropped from 71% in 1970 to under 50% today. The same street Gil Scott-Heron was walking through in the 80s is now home to a Whole Foods, and in that same neighborhood, a Metro PCS outlet legendary for playing go-go music was forced to turn its music off due to complaints from “local” residents. The subsequent outrage, and the massive #DontMuteDC social media campaign, received national attention, leading to the community coming together and celebrating the institution. The owner was given permission to keep the music going, and this saga was the catalyst for the city designating go-go the official music of DC by a unanimous vote almost exactly a year ago from today. But for every moment of celebration and survival, there’s many more residents, some of whom have lived through the 1968 riots, the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and have still stuck by this city, who are forced to leave the city they’ve called home for generations, making room for more tech startups and unaffordable condos.

The same forces that tried to mute the Metro PCS outlet are among the ones that have created the conditions bringing DC statehood closer than ever before. There are many factors that have brought us here, including the (long overdue) realization that the senate is deeply undemocratic, heavily favoring white rural Americans, as well as the aforementioned events that have pushed DC’s unique status into the spotlight. But it’s difficult to see celebrities and politicians championing DC statehood now without wondering what was different in the past. Had DC citizens not earned the right to be represented in Congress before 2016? Nas mentioned to me that “The part that makes me angry about the whole rhetoric around statehood is that I feel like the only reason there’s a big push for statehood is because the population is shifting, the demographic is shifting. And it's good that this conversation is happening now, but I wish that it could have benefited the people that founded this city and its culture.” Sokka described the lack of representation in Congress as “voter suppression to a degree, because I guarantee the moment that gentrification pulls over and we are a majority white city, then the option of turning us into a state might become like a real chance. DC was way more Black when we were kids, let’s be realistic. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve been seeing license plates with ‘taxation without representation’ on them since I was a small child. So this has been a fight that people have been like pushing for for so long, but all of a sudden now people are talking about it.”

Indeed, the argument that giving more representation to overwhelmingly white states with hundreds of thousands less people than DC might be racist and undemocratic is by no means a new one. The last major push for DC statehood happened during the civil rights movement, when DC was 70% Black and its residents couldn’t even vote in presidential elections. This led to the 23rd amendment, which was a compromise that gave DC the bare minimum votes allotted to a state in the electoral college. But in the electoral college, itself a deeply racist, undemocratic system, three completely uncompetitive electoral votes isn’t worth a thing, especially compared to two senators and a representative in congress. Indeed, DC’s status as a heavily taxed, unrepresented distinct is deeply intertwined with its status as a predominantly Black cultural center. Looking at statehood as anything other than correcting yet another Jim Crow era holdover is fundamentally wrong, and pushing it now without questioning where the fuck you were in the past begs the question: what comes next? Even with representation, the senate will still be undemocratic, and the courts will still be right wing. Black lives do not matter in the eyes of this country, and there’s one hell of a machine ensuring they never will. How can this machine be destroyed without coming to terms with why Black people being erased from Congress didn’t affect our lives before? Gil Scott-Heron perhaps best summed up the unique condition of this truly unique, complicated, and beautiful city on his song of the same name:

Symbols of democracy, pinned up against the coast / Outhouse of bureaucracy, surrounded by a moat / Citizens of poverty are barely out of sight / Overlords escape in the evening with people of the night / Morning brings the tourists, peering eyes and rubber necks / To catch a glimpse of the cowboy making the world a nervous wreck / It’s a mass of irony for all the world to see / It’s the nation’s capital, it’s Washington D.C.

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