On Monday, staffers from 10 local and national civic groups protested the colonial status of the District of Columbia. They engaged in a limited general strike for statehood by arriving at work 15 minutes late. They plan longer work stoppages - 30, 45 and 60 minutes late on Aug. 1, Sept. 10 and Oct. 1, respectively.
This pilot project seems very modest when compared with previous protests by the steady but small hard-core proponents of full democracy for the District, whose residents have no vote in Congress. These advocates have petitioned, marched, lobbied, picketed, rallied, litigated and conducted many meetings with the powers-that-be on Capitol Hill and the White House. Last year, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, a strong statehood proponent, was arrested with 41 other citizens during a protest at Congress. All, unfortunately, to no avail.
The District still has no budget autonomy, and Congress can overturn its ballot measures. Congressional committees, behaving as legislative czars, have run roughshod over the District in dozens of reported ways.
Statehood, unlike the more-limited goal of voting representation in the House and Senate, does not require a constitutional amendment with two-thirds of the Congress and three-fourths of the states voting "yea." Statehood requires only a petition for a republican form of government, a majority congressional vote and a presidential signature, as has occurred 37 previous times in the United States, albeit with a proviso retaining a small federal district.
However, following decades of striving by such civil rights stalwarts as Julius Hobson, Josephine Butler, Hilda Mason, Anise Jenkins, the statehood Green Party and DC Vote, among others, the realities of congressional attrition have driven some advocates to accept lesser arrangements. One failed example was the proposed linking of one D.C. vote in the House with an additional House representative for Utah.
This quest for self-determination appears to have stalled.
Neither Congress nor the White House can be shamed. They ignored the recent hunger strike by D.C. youth and are unmoved by charges of hypocrisy. The Bush and Obama administrations both routinely lectured other countries on their deficient democratic processes while D.C. residents endured having no voting representation in Congress.
Clearly, the valiant, pro-statehood hard core wants to tap into the silent, but largely concurring, majority in the District. These residents either do not care enough or are unwilling to participate in more demanding kinds of protest. When approached, many claim that they do not have time or wallow in cynicism about the practical value of congressional enfranchisement.
Well, if they do not have time, lower the barrier to entry by giving them some time to think about what it would mean for more than 600,000 D.C. residents to have the same rights that more than 300 million Americans possess in the 50 states.
Enter the limited general strike. If this idea spreads to other employers and employees, more people will ask what this tactic is all about, conversing about the civic self-respect inherent in statehood. Brought into wider focus will be the deprivations for people in the District that stem from this degrading colonial status. Some people may even join the statehood hard core. More veterans returning from sacrifices overseas may take umbrage at being told to shut up and remain colonized.
Perhaps this limited general strike will stimulate a second, more intense round of protest by many other, larger employers and their employees in both business and nonprofit organizations. Finally, people may start trying new ideas to engage ever more people, including the resources of a few super-rich Washingtonians who might want to be remembered in the exaltations about the creation of the 51st state.
Low barriers to entry for political movements are as important as weighty strategies, pursued by activists. It is time for a rising tide of thousands of D.C. residents streaming in many creative directions toward a New Columbia.
Nader, a former presidential candidate, is founder of the Center for Study of Responsive Law.