“Our lack of statehood is in real-time killing people.”
D.C. is closer to statehood than it has ever been before — the House in June voted 232–180 to make the city the nation’s 51st state. This legislative milestone marks the first time in history that either chamber in Congress approved legislation that would give more than 700,000 residents — the majority of whom are people of color — full representation in Congress.
Though it’s unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate, the push for statehood has gained momentum in recent months amid ongoing protests over police brutality and racial inequality. There’s also a good chance that Democrats could dominate November’s election and retake the Senate.
But even if the Democratic Party regains control of both chambers of Congress, they would still face a number of obstacles, including the fact that D.C. statehood remains a highly partisan issue. Every Democrat except one — Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson — voted in favor of the House proposal, while every Republican opposed it. That’s why a group of young activists working with 51 for 51, an organization pushing for D.C. statehood, is hoping to make the fight for equal representation part of a broader struggle. Despite the fact that D.C. has a larger population than Wyoming and Vermont, it has just one non-voting delegate in Congress.
“It is really just getting people to understand that the issue is greater than Republicans versus Democrats, it’s an issue of civil rights,” 22-year-old Jamal Holtz, who was born and raised in D.C., told Wake-Up Call.
Fellow 51 for 51 activist Tye Hobson-Powell argued that giving the city statehood would not only make the United States more democratic — but also safer, saying the “lack of statehood is in real-time killing people.” The 25-year D.C. native pointed to the city’s long-standing struggle with gun violence as a reason why residents can’t afford to wait any longer for voting representation.
Once known as the nation’s “Murder Capital,” D.C. has been able to tamp down on violence, but the city has recently seen an uptick in homicides, which have increased by roughly 18 percent so far this year.
“We don’t often equate the fight for D.C. statehood with the fight for safer streets. But it’s an equivalency that is proper to make, because when you look at the fact that most of the guns that are in Washington, D.C., are present because of lax gun laws in other states that allow them to flow here,” he said.
D.C.’s inability to represent itself in Congress has also become particularly painful during the coronavirus pandemic. Local officials said they were short-changed millions in the initial relief package, known as the CARES Act. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at the time said it was “unconscionable” that the city only stood to receive about $500 million, while other states received at least $1.25 billion.
“We’re not a territory. We pay more taxes — unlike the territories — than 22 states. We have a larger population than several states and we are treated as a state by thousands of federal laws and programs,” Bowser said during a March press conference.
Twenty-one-year-old Demi Stramon said the president’s crackdown on D.C. protests following the police killing of George Floyd in May and controversial photo-op in front of St. John’s Church were stark reminders of just how much the city lacks control over its own affairs. Under the current system, the district isn’t able to set its own laws or budgets without congressional approval.
“The National Guard was sent to D.C. and we could not do anything. We cannot protect ourselves like other states,” Stramon said. “When you just look at how we’ve been treated during this pandemic — if you need an example, something to trigger what’s going on in the nation now, that is one example.”
While granting D.C. statehood would give it more autonomy, critics view such a move as a violation of the Constitution. They believe that the Founding Fathers always intended for the nation’s capital to remain under federal control due to concerns about an outsize influence, given its close proximity to the halls of power. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has even gone so far as to compare it to “full-bore socialism.”
Others argue that many of D.C.’s issues could be fixed if a bulk of the nation could be absorbed into neighboring Maryland or Virginia, allowing residents to have congressional representation. But 51 for 51 Campaign Manager Stasha Rhodes emphasized that “this is a movement for justice, for democracy and for representation.”
“Residents of Washington should not have to ask to join another state — they should have representation and access to Democracy where they live, work and play,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes acknowledged that the biggest obstacle to D.C. statehood is overcoming the legislative filibuster — and that’s why 51 for 51 has made calling for a broad structural change their mission. Under the current filibuster, legislation needs 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles and ultimately pass.
“Even if Democrats take back the Senate in November, Republicans can and will use the filibuster to block statehood legislation, which is why people often say things like the House vote was only symbolic,” Rhodes said. “For us, we’re working to ensure that the House vote isn’t merely symbolic. That statehood actually has a real path to become law.”
Filibuster reform would be no easy task. Following a vote on Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017, which required a procedure change for confirming Supreme Court justices, a bipartisan group of 61 senators signed to Senate leadership, calling on them to maintain the 60-vote threshold for filibusters. This included more than two dozen Democrats— and Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican Susan Collins also helped lead the charge.
Still, nixing the threshold has started to gain steam within the Democratic caucus. As Democrats appear within striking distance of the Senate majority, former Vice President Joe Biden, and leading 2020 candidate, has indicated that he would be open to such a move, saying that his decision would depend on whether Republicans would be willing to work across the aisle or would try to block Democratic efforts. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, who previously led a 2017 letter on preserving the filibuster, said last month that he wouldn’t rule out scrapping the filibuster.
“I will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn,” Coons said.
Even though the future of the filibuster remains up in the air, 51 for 51 knows they have a long fight ahead and are remaining optimistic.
“We’re very aware that this is an uphill battle but we won’t give up and we’re pretty confident that we’re going to win,” Rhodes said.
This originally appeared on Medium.