Q&A with Arrested D.C. Councilmember

Sekou Biddle tells Governing what the experience was like and why he says the federal budget compromise is bad for D.C.
by | April 12, 2011
 

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and six members of the city council were arrested Monday evening while protesting the bipartisan budget deal in which Republicans were able to add controversial "riders" that affected the city's local government.

As part of the compromise between President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Republicans won a ban they sought preventing the city from using its own money to provide low-income women with abortions. The deal also revived a private-school voucher program in D.C. supported by Republicans and opposed by local leaders.

As Governing reported last week, Congress has the right to tinker with the city due to its unique legal standing as a non-state. Because the city's budget must be approved by Congress, a potential federal government shutdown last week would have caused a local shutdown too -- a subject that drew the ire of local officials.

Monday's protest was designed to express D.C. residents' and leaders' opposition to the deal cut with Republicans. Governing spoke today with At-Large D.C. Councilmember Sekou Biddle who was among those arrested Monday. Biddle, a former outreach director of D.C.'s KIPP charter schools, was named to the council in January to fill a vacant slot, and he is running for election April 26 to retain his seat.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Governing: Why did you join the protest?

Biddle: It was really in response to the final negotiations around the federal budget. A number of elected officials, including the mayor and six D.C. councilmembers, joined by several voting rights activists in the District, gathered on Constitution Avenue yesterday to protest one, the fact that we didn't particularly like the way the federal government's budget was resolved, and two, to help bring awareness to the lack of voting rights and statehood that District residents deal with.

Governing: What was your reaction to the arrest?

Biddle: My mother grew up in Mississippi and was very active in the civil rights movement. She had experienced working for voting rights. I had grown up with stories of her and other members of her family and her friends being engaged in non-violent protests. I have some background understanding of this, and this is how a lot of social movements in this country have been driven.

I came to show support. This is an issue that residents care a lot about. We gathered the group in the middle of Constitution Avenue which effectively stopped traffic. We were given the option by Capitol Police that we could either leave or be arrested.

We are being oppressed. Our authority as legislators of city council is, quite frankly, routinely being usurped by Congress. It was important enough to stand there on principal.

Governing: What happened next after you were arrested?

Biddle: They obviously used the plastic handcuffs to cuff 41 of us who were arrested yesterday. They took us to a temporary facility the Capitol Police operates to process us. They bussed us there. We stayed for hours. I think I didn't exit the facility until some time well after 2:30 a.m.

After whatever processing they were doing, they transported us in groups to the headquarters of Capitol Police, which ironically happened to be around the corner from where we were arrested.

I was probably released at about 4:30 a.m. They did claim they were working very hard to get everyone out very quickly.

Governing: What were the conditions?

We were in what looked like a maintenance facility for vehicles. It was a big garage. They had set up rows of folding chairs for us. The men were on one side, and the women were on the other. It was somewhat similar to something you'd in school at some age -- they separate the boys and the girls.

They did interviews and finger printing. They did pictures (mug shots) as well as copies of driver's licenses and signing of Miranda waivers. They told us a little bit about what was going to happen the rest of the evening, although they were unable to provide us with a timeline of how long it was going to take.

Governing: What was your interaction with the Capitol Police like?

Biddle: I think an interesting component of this is, because we spent so much time there, we did have an opportunity to actually talk to many of the officers who were working there and help educate them about the issue.

Many Americans just don't realize the unfortunate special status District residents have. We live in essentially a colonial state. We don't have legislative and budget autonomy. (The officers) obviously asked us why we were there, what the protest was about. We had the opportunity to engage them and educate them on the issue, which clearly many of them had little awareness of. Most of them live in Virginia and Maryland.

Governing: Were you fed while you were detained?

Biddle: They did not feed us. They were able to provide some bottled water late in the evening. My wife came and picked me up, and I returned home, had a quick bite to eat, and went to bed. It was obviously a very long day.

Governing: The arrests have brought national attention to the issue of D.C. voting rights. What's the next step?

Biddle: I think we have to continue to do the kinds of things that will educate and inform Americans about, quite frankly, what I see as oppression that we live under. What we just saw take place in this recent budget negotiation was reproductive rights that District residents had that were taken away.

Perhaps even more importantly, the decision was made that, as District residents, we don't have the right to determine how we use local funds, which is something no American should stand for in their community or in any other community in this country.

Governing: There have been many different proposals for how voting rights could be implemented in D.C. What approach do you support?

Biddle: There's differences of opinion among many residents. I personally, as a native Washington, feel that in order to be a fully franchised American, the District of Columbia needs to be a state. It needs to be a jurisdiction that has full representation and voting rights like every other jurisdiction in the country.

We obviously contribute a lot to the country. We pay our federal income taxes like other Americans do. Statehood would give us the thing that our friends and neighbors have -- budget and legislative autonomy and the type of sovereignty that states enjoy.

Governing: D.C. residents are frustrated that the they overwhelmingly support President Obama, but he agreed to let Republicans put their restrictions on the city. Are there any opportunities to work with this White House?

Biddle: I think there are opportunities to work with this White House. Obviously, residents of the District of Columbia have been extremely supportive of President Obama. I think that on some level, the White House made the decision from the vantage point that they thought it was going to support the greater good. I just think that, unfortunately, the decision for the greater good infringed on the rights of Washingtonians.

I think we all look forward to working with the White House to make sure they are more aware of how we see this negotiation having adversely impacted our community, and working with them to get them to step up and support what we think is right and just for residents of the District of Columbia.

I think, in general, it's important for our colleagues in other elected bodies and in other jurisdictions to recognize the degree to which they enjoy freedoms the residents of the District of Columbia do not. Residents of the District of Columbia have fought and served in numerous wars and continue to defend democracy here and promote it abroad. Yet they're not given the basic dignity of having the kind of democracy we espouse as a nation.

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