Youth Activism Rises in D.C.

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With black bands wrapped around their mouths and sporting T-shirts that read, “No Taxation Without Representation,” nearly 80 students stood in front of the Senate building last Friday to fight for Washington, D.C.’s autonomy, even though some participants were not D.C. residents.

“D.C. was silenced in the Senate and that’s why we wore the gags,” said Corryn Freeman, 21, the organizer of the protest and intern for activist group DC Vote. “Initially, we were there for Emancipation Day, but then it kind of morphed into a fight the riders in the budget deal.”

The incident, activist groups and organizations said, is one sign of a burgeoning youth activism in the District. Young adults and students in the D.C. area have swollen their membership rolls in the past two years, they said. Most fight for D.C. autonomy or simply lobby D.C. officials for more student rights, as they refuse to be called temporary citizens.

Leah Ramsay, spokeswoman for activist group DC Vote, said more young people have reached out to this organization this year. “We have seen a marked increase this year in the number of young people, local college students and recent graduates, who have approached our organization asking to intern and volunteer,” she said.

Ramsay said after the 112th Congress was sworn in and some representatives threatened D.C.’s advancements toward home rule, more young people wanted to get involved.

“There was a significant increase in the number of unsolicited internship resumes this year,” she said. Threats to the District’s self-determination on local marriage equality laws, AIDS prevention programs, Medicaid coverage of reproductive health care and other issues have motivated young people to get involved.

The student-led protest on April 15 followed a similar protest April 11, in which 41 people were arrested, including Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and D.C. Council Chair Kwame Brown. In a scramble to prevent a government shutdown, Republicans and Democrats agreed on a budget April 9, which included the imposition of a schools voucher program on the District and a ban on federally-funded abortions for low-income women in D.C. Protestors were also upset that a needle exchange-program—used to stop the spread of AIDS—would be banned, but the final 2011 Continuing Resolution (CR) budget on April 14 did not include the rider.

“Congress knew we didn’t want this and pretty much threw us under the bus so we could pass the budget,” Freeman, a Howard University student from Columbia, Md., said. “As much as I love Barack Obama, I’m very, very, very disappointed in our president.” Freeman added that residents of D.C. should be able to govern their own affairs, even though the city does not have statehood.

Norton commended students who participated in the student-led rally, in which three people were arrested by U.S. Capitol Police.

The city is elected one representative in U.S. Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who still cannot vote on legislation, which angers some residents as they continue to pay taxes. The representative, who was a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), commended students for their activism.

“With their daring spirit and their freedom from the past, students can lead in ushering change,” Norton said in a statement. “I applaud students for giving meaning to Emancipation Day by acting to emancipate the District from continuing congressional violation of our rights.”

D.C. has seen its share of political protests. In 1988, students at Gallaudet University, a school housing predominantly deaf students, shut down their campus and demanded a deaf president. In 1965, organizer Marion Barry and members of SNCC boycotted D.C. transit when told fares would be raised. SNCC said that 130,000 to 150,000 fares were lost that day.

“You don’t necessarily have to live in the District to be specifically impacted by the things that happen here,” said Ben Marcus, 27, a senior at the University of District Columbia and chair of D.C. Student Alliance.

Marcus said his organization has existed for 15 years “on and off,” but in 2009, students from George Washington, American and Howard universities decided to restart the organization or “bring it back from the dead,” as Marcus said.

“There was no single voice for students,” he said. “Our central focus is the District and how the District’s policies will affect how people live in the area.” Currently, the organization is fighting a noise ordinance the organization calls “unreasonable” and has delivered a letter to Gray, Chief of Police Cathy Lanier and other officials.