Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 04/13/11

By Tom Sherwood
|  Wednesday, Apr 13, 2011  |  Updated 8:33 AM EDT
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Sherwood: Into the Streets - Now What?

AP

A Capitol Hill police officer talks to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray before he was arrested during a protest on Capitol Hill of the restrictions placed on the district as part of the federal budget deal on Monday, April 11, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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Well, that was something on Monday.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray was sitting in the middle of Constitution Avenue in front of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He chatted a bit with at-large Council member Michael Brown on his right and Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells on his left.

Moments later, the city officials were all arrested, among 41 citizens charged with "unlawful assembly" for incommoding the roadway. It’s a $50 fine, and there's no need to show up in court.

"Sick and tired of being sick and tired," the mayor said, invoking a famous civil rights saying.

The protest was sparked by the city’s treatment in the national budget compromise between Republicans and Democrats.

President Barack Obama threw the city under the bus by agreeing to let right-leaning Republicans ban the city from using its own money for abortions. The agreement also forces a scholarship program on the city that many local leaders didn’t want.

And before another vote is taken, the city may be forced to stop spending money on what officials say is a critical needle-exchange program that helps stop the costly spread of disease among drug addicts.

So, it was a good demonstration. Hundreds of people chanted and cheered as people were arrested. Television reporters were irritated that the demonstration was held where our live cameras could not go (except Fox5, which had one of those nifty backpack cameras). Keep this in mind, please, organizers of any event.

So after the first flush of significant activism in several years, people have to ask, what's next?

Then-Mayor Sharon Pratt was arrested in 1993 during a similar demonstration on the House side of the Hill. But the protest was only a distraction from the troubles Kelly had as mayor, and she went on to lose re-election in 1994.

Mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty were never arrested. Mayor Marion Barry was arrested, but it wasn’t about statehood or voting rights or, well, you know.

Fenty did lead a strong, boisterous march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the foot of Capitol Hill during his term in office. "We’re right here, Congress," the mayor shouted. "We’re right here."

But the sad fact is that the city’s episodic bursts of enthusiasm for demonstrating are just that -- episodic. Daily life, scandal, pressures of governing and everything else have a way of whittling down interest in sustained protest.

And as we’ve often said, the local people with real power to change the city’s plight -- connected business folks and heavy-hitting national organizations -- already get what they want from Congress. They don’t need voting rights.

Council Chairman Kwame Brown was among those arrested in the street Monday. One person joked that it was just a warm-up for what would happen if there’s something illegal in his lousy campaign finance reports.

Mayor Gray appeared dignified as he was escorted to the arrest wagon, his hands handcuffed behind him with those irritating plastic bands.

But Brown and Gray’s civic activism is dimmed by their troubles with luxury sport-utility vehicles and hiring practices. Another person joked, “Where is Sulaimon Brown?” The scandal over Brown’s campaign activities and high-paying city job resonates more with many citizens than will the Capitol Hill protest.

The question for the mayor, the council chairman and other city leaders is whether they can get a handle on their daily jobs and responsibilities so that their protests won’t be diminished.

And what will they do to follow up Monday’s attention-getting event? Will this latest movement of District citizens take root?

• Census reaction.

Ward 5 Council member Harry “Tommy” Thomas wants to know what’s happening to Washington’s African-American communities, which the 2010 Census reports to be declining in population.

He’s proposing legislation to create a Commission on African-American Affairs. Eight council members have signed on as co-sponsors.

"Since the 2010 U.S. Census was released, the decline in the number of the District’s African-American population frequently has been discussed,” Thomas said in a news release. “It will be valuable to understand why this decline occurred, as well [as] how we can better address the persistent, entrenched socio-economic disparities that occur in certain segments of our communities.”

The commission would be made up of nine voting members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. An additional 10 non-voting members would be named to represent various city agencies, although it’s not clear why they’re included.

The city is dramatically changing. It would be good to have a good understanding of why.

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