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D.C. Mayor Says Residents Not Free


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we are going to tell you about a billion dollar settlement to end a long-standing dispute between more than 40 Native American tribes and the federal government. We'll have more on that in a moment.

But first, we want to mark an important milestone in the history of the nation's capital. Today is the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. On this day in 1862, more than 3,000 enslaved men, women, and children in Washington were freed more than eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Today, the city celebrates that event as Emancipation Day.

So we decided to call upon D.C.'s mayor Vincent Gray to talk about the importance of this day. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us.

VINCENT GRAY: I'm glad to be here, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Why do you think this is an important event 150 years after the fact?

GRAY: Well, of course, being able to celebrate the, you know, abolition of slavery and having been almost nine months ahead of the rest of the nation, it was almost as if the District of Columbia at that time was a testing ground to see how the issue would be received in a larger arena which became, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation. I think it really has important significance for us now too. And that is, in some respects, we continue to be enslaved in the District of Columbia.

So, today's celebration gives us an opportunity to talk about the fact that we truly have taxation without representation in our city, that we really are not free.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, you just did link emancipation to this contemporary issue of D.C. voting rights. And I don't know if all Americans understand this so I'll just explain it, that the district has no voting representation in Congress. Our representative who currently is Eleanor Holmes Norton can vote in House committees but not on the floor of the House and the district has no representation in the U.S. Senate. But unlike other jurisdictions where that is the case, and there are others, district residents pay all federal taxes. And you say that you think this is a kind of a modern form of slavery?

GRAY: A modern form of slavery.

MARTIN: Slavery. Tell us more about that.

GRAY: It is. And it's so hypocritical in terms of what this nation was founded upon. You think back the Revolutionary War was founded on resistance to taxation without representation. And now, that's exactly what we practice in our own nation's capital.

And it even goes beyond the voting rights issue and the Congress, because even though the citizens of our city raise our own tax dollars, when you look at our budget, two-thirds of those dollars in our budget come from the property taxes, sales taxes, and income taxes of the 618,000 people who live in this city. Yet we have to send our budget up to Congress, unlike anybody else in the nation, send our budget up to Congress to be approved. Same thing with all of our local laws.

MARTIN: You allowed yourself to be - or you put yourself in the position to be arrested last year in protest of some specific provisions in local law that had been imposed by Congress on the district. I think one was the right of the district to use its own locally generated revenue...

GRAY: Right.

MARTIN: pay for abortions for poor women.

GRAY: True.

MARTIN: Why did you feel it was important enough for you as the leader of the city to be arrested? Some people would feel that that was kind of inappropriate and beneath the dignity of your office. But you obviously differed. Why did you feel that it was important?

GRAY: I think we've got to be able to make a statement. When you think back to the Revolutionary War, you think back to the revolutionaries. They put themselves out to be able to be leaders, put themselves in harm's way in many instances.

And I think if we're ever going to get the momentum that we need in this city to be able to change these conditions, the leaders have got to step up and be leaders. And there really are not a lot of issues that are more important than this. When you can't spend your own money, you are a slave.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the mayor of the District of Columbia, Mayor Vincent Gray. We are speaking on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of emancipation for enslaved Americans living in Washington, D.C. That emancipation came more than eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, freeing enslaved people around the rest of the country.

Can I push you just a little bit more on this whole question of tying this to slavery? I think the question might be, why should people who don't live here care about that? Because the argument has been - well, there are two arguments against D.C. voting rights. One is there are those who say it's unconstitutional. There's a dispute about that. I mean, there are constitutional scholars on both sides of the question. But other people say, if you don't like it, just move.

GRAY: Well, why should I have to move? That isn't what the revolutionaries did back in the, you know, the 18th century. They decided that they were here for a specific purpose. That, you know, the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness was worth fighting and, in many instances, dying for.

You look at the state of New Hampshire and the motto is, I think, Live Free or Die. And so, those are basic principles in this nation. And, again, it goes past, you know, well beyond to me just having a right to have a vote in the Congress. What - there is no credible argument that says that the money we raise through our tax dollars shouldn't be able to be spent based on the decisions of the people of the District of Columbia.

Let me just give you an example. We had a law which we changed the term handicapped to disabled, pretty straightforward, pretty simple to me. That had to go to the Congress for approval. That's absolutely ridiculous. And, again, I think if we don't stand up for ourselves, nobody is going to do that.

You may be right, there may be apathy. In some cases, there may be people who outright resist it, but that doesn't mean that shouldn't stand up and fight for ourselves. We have 618,000 people who live in this city. And I think when the district was formed there really wasn't the view that it would be this large of a jurisdiction, that we would have neighborhoods in the way we do.

A lot of the federal presence, of course, is right in the downtown area, you know, where you have Capitol Hill, the White House, some of the national monuments. But there are so many areas outside of that. The city has expanded. You know, we've got people who live in neighborhoods just like everywhere else. Why shouldn't we enjoy the same freedoms as every other American?

MARTIN: Speaking of who lives in the city, Washington, D.C. was once called Chocolate City because of its large African-American population. You know, you recently attended a signal event in the life of the community when the historic theater, the Howard Theater, was reopened after having been closed for decades and in disrepair.

This is historically significant because this was the first kind of major, quote/unquote, "legitimate theater," where African-Americans had full access, could perform and attend as patrons. So this is a terribly important cultural event in the life of the country and established D.C. as a cultural capital, but particularly for this particular group.

But the city's a lot more diverse in recent years. Now, African-Americans make up just over half of the city's population, and I just wonder if you think that that's changing the character of the city and, you know, what you make of it.

GRAY: Well, we are an increasingly diverse city. There's no question about that. But that doesn't change the hopes and aspirations of anyone. I have used the mantra of one city and it doesn't mean that we all get along and we sit around and sing "Kumbaya." But what it means is that there ought to be equal opportunities for everybody. Every family and every child ought to have the opportunity to have a good education.

People should have the same opportunity to be trained for and get a job in the District of Columbia. Everybody should be entitled to the same opportunity to feel safe in their own homes. So, those are the things that I believe are important, irrespective of how diverse the population may be. And it's true; in fact, I'm not even sure we have a majority population anymore.

We added - in the last 15 months, we've added 17,000 people to the city. A lot of young professionals are moving into the city. But at the end of the day, it doesn't change the goals. If you talk to people no matter, you know, what racial or ethnic group they may represent, how much education they have, where they may live, they still feel basically the same about what they want from their city.

MARTIN: What message do you think the celebration of Emancipation Day in the district can send the rest of the country, given that this is a very diverse city now?

GRAY: Well, it certainly reminds us that, you know, we fought for freedom for some people and, on the other hand, there are some people who still are not free. We probably are less free, in this city, than anybody in the nation.

You know, it's interesting, also, that this comes at the same time that we're dealing with the Trayvon Martin situation, which was a travesty. When it looked like we were going to have a real injustice, and finally, you know, it looks like justice is moving in the right direction.

But these opportunities are reminders of what we have endured in this country, and the battles that we still have to fight.

MARTIN: We want to dig a little deeper into your analogy about kind of the modern day slavery piece, because you can understand how some people will hear that and think, you know, how can you say that? You know, slavery involves, you know, the ownership of your body, mind and spirit by other people, no sort of personal agency, no ability to control the destiny of your children.

And some people would argue that's way over the top. So I'd like to ask, for those who have that perspective, why do you say that? It's an analogy you've made before. This is not new today.

GRAY: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: You feel, obviously, strongly about it. Tell us why.

GRAY: Well, again, I think when you cannot make decisions for yourself, fully, in what purports to be a democracy, then you are, to some extent, enslaved. I think one of the most basic rights that people have in this nation, is the ability to decide what they do with their own resources - money.

This is an instance, for example, where even though we raise money, the money comes out of our pocket. We have people who say, I recognize that's your money, but you have to ask me - can you spend it? And you have to ask me what you can spend it on.

When you have people who make decisions for the people of the District of Columbia, to me, that is a form of slavery. Why, for example, you know, whether one is pro-choice or pro-life, why should we have imposed upon us, decisions, by others, as to how we spend our money, irrespective of whether one is pro-choice or pro-life? Those decisions are to be made by the people in this city who raised those dollars in the first place.

MARTIN: Vincent Gray is the mayor of Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia, the nation's capital. He was here with us to talk about Emancipation Day. That was the day in 1862 when more than 3,000 enslaved people in Washington, D.C. were freed, more than eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation. And Mayor Gray was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRAY: Thank you so much for having me, Michel, and Happy Emancipation Day.


MARTIN: Coming up, after years of complicated negotiations, the Justice Department and 41 Native American tribes have agreed to a roughly $1 billion settlement.

ROB CAPRICCIOSO: Past administrations have not wanted to go here. They were willing to fight it out in court. Even some in the Obama Administration said, doing this, what does it gain us?

MARTIN: We'll find out more in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.