Cheered on by hundreds, D.C. mayor Vince Gray and several City Council members sat in the middle of Constitution Ave. on Capitol Hill before getting arrested and carted off to a police station on Monday.
“It is mean-spirited to tell us we can’t spend our money on what we know to be legitimate, life-saving health care,” Gray told the crowd. He was referring to a rider in the budget deal that would prevent D.C. from spending its own funds on abortion for poor women, the overwhelming majority of whom are black and Latina.
D.C. only relatively recently regained the right to spend tax revenue on abortion. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill that helped reinstate a bit of home rule for the city, which had been banned from using its own money on abortion since 1988. Yet, while agreeing on the deal, it’s been reported that Obama told Republican House Speaker John Boehner, “John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I’m not happy about that.”
The protesters in front of the Dirksen Senate Building seized on that phrase, and D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser directed a warning at Obama: “If you don’t choose us, we won’t choose you.”
Currently 17 states provide abortion funding to their residents. Still, while the D.C. ban was lifted in 2009, the city hasn’t actually paid for very many abortions. Tiffany Reed, president of the D.C. Abortion Fund, told Amanda Hess earlier this year, “nothing has changed yet for D.C. residents.” In 2010, the D.C. Abortion fund received more than 1,700 calls from women in the area seeking assistance to pay for their abortions, according to the organization’s annual report. According to a 2008 report from the Guttmacher Institute, about 4,500 women had abortions in D.C.
The mayor and the city council also protested a rider that would force the city to fund a controversial school voucher scholarship program. D.C.’s needle-exchange program, which gives drug addicts access to clean syringes, was surprisingly spared.
Prior to his arrest, Gray addressed the gathering, saying, “I am sick of being a pawn in a political game.” Congress, particularly when it’s controlled by the GOP, has a long history of interventionism in the city which has only managed its own affairs since 1973.
This Congress has gone beyond previous sessions, and it stripped non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of her sole federal power – the ability to vote on committee amendments – as soon as it came into session. Meanwhile, the city’s voiceless residents continue to pay taxes to the federal government, and bare silent complaints on the backs of their cars, where the standard license plate reads “Taxation Without Representation.”