From a Weak Democracy in Islamabad, to Denial of Democracy in Washington, DC.

Image courtesy of Farhad Ahmed JarralIt has been only a week since I flew from Pakistan and landed at Dulles International Airport ready to begin my year-long Atlas Corps fellowship at Creative Science Labs in Washington, DC. It was my first time travelling outside of Pakistan and I can still remember how excited I was as I packed the last of my cheddars — traditional shawls — into my suitcase.

Shortly after arrival, my supervisor at Creative Science, Chris Fowler, invited me to watch my first ever baseball game at Nationals Park as a guest of DC Vote, an organization Chris has worked with in the past. During the game, Chris told me about the struggle for democracy in DC and about the work done by DC Vote in advocating for the rights of people living in DC.

Coming from Islamabad, I was shocked to learn that the people of the District of Columbia — the capital of the United States of America — do not have a voice in Congress, even though they pay federal taxes and fight for their country. 

Back in Islamabad, the capital of my country, residents have representation both in Pakistan’s upper (Senate) and lower house (National Assembly). They also elect a local government that deals with all the local issues of the people living in the capital, much like DC’s Council.

Surely, I surmised, failure to be represented in the national legislature constitutes a civil rights violation in the US. To my mind, “No Taxation Without Representation” is a strong enough appeal for policy-makers to give Washingtonians a right to vote for fully-empowered representatives in Congress. It’s alarming that this slogan, which originated during the 1750s and 1760s to summarize a primary grievance of the American colonists’ undemocratic experience in the Thirteen Colonies (and one of the major causes of the American Revolution), still holds true today for the residents of the District of Columbia.

As a democracy activist and student, I have observed the political system of Pakistan and worked with the President of Pakistan as media assistant from 2008 to 2011. I know firsthand what a weak democracy looks like. Pakistanis have been ruled by four dictatorships and still rely on the army to play a major role in the setup and ongoing operation of our government. Despite this, Pakistanis have elected representatives from all the cities and constituencies of Pakistan, including the capital city. Unlike residents of DC, the people of Islamabad have the right to hold their representatives accountable and advocate for their basic needs to be met.

I have lived my life in a country that strongly values democracy in part because Pakistanis know how it feels to have democracy taken away. The continuing denial of democratic rights in DC is un-American. To an outsider who works to advance democracy, this injustice in the seat of power of a leading democracy in the world is shocking. Representation in Congress for the people of DC is the only acceptable path to a better future not only for Americans in DC, but for those interested in stronger American democracy for all.


Farhad Ahmed Jarral is an Atlas Corps Fellow with Creative Science Labs. He has more than 5 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, and earned a Master’s degree in Mass Communication from National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad, Pakistan. He founded a social media and public relations consultancy firm in April, 2015 named The Social Media Consultants. Previously, Farhad has worked as Communication Manager with UNDP’s project "Strengthening Democracy through Parliamentary Development." He has also worked with the National Commission for Human Development, as well as Capital TV as Producer of a current affairs show, and Pakistan Peoples’ Party as central social media coordinator.

Atlas Corps is an international network of nonprofit leaders and organizations that promotes innovation, cooperation, and solutions to address the world's 21st century challenges.

Creative Science Labs is a Washington, DC based digital agency that creates high-impact websites and campaigns for non-profits and select private sector clients. 

Voting Rights

The Real Harm of Congressional Interference

During the 1990s, the District of Columbia was the epicenter of the U.S.  HIV/AIDS epidemic. By the middle of the decade, public health experts and District officials were pushing bold action to reverse the explosion of new HIV/AIDS infections in D.C. 

More than 25% of newly-diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases in D.C. stemmed from the use of intravenous drugs. So it made sense that the D.C. government would plan to use its resources to fund proven effective syringe access (needle exchange) programs to help curb the spread of the disease.   

A lot of us know how that worked out. Tragically, Congress spent the next EIGHT YEARS blocking DC from spending local tax dollars on these lifesaving programs. By the time DC was finally able to fund syringe exchange in 2007, HIV/AIDS cases in D.C. swelled to levels on par with Western Africa.

Now we also know just how misguided Congress was when it blocked D.C.’s efforts to save lives. According to a new peer-reviewed study released today, new cases of HIV dropped nearly 70 percent once D.C. was allowed to use local funds for a syringe exchange. That translates to 120 people who DIDN'T contract HIV this year who would have in the time before the program. That reduction in residents being treated for HIV also managed to save DC $45.6 million in healthcare costs. Imagine how many lives could have been saved had DC public health officials been free to implement syringe exchanges 17 years ago free from Congressional meddling.

Frequently when discussing the fight to give DC basic democratic rights we speak in broad philosophical terms about justice, equality, and fairness. But our fight isn't just about that. How many DC residents had their lives completely changed, or suffered and died because one lawmaker in Georgia - which has employed syringe exchange programs since the early 90's – wanted to force his misguided notions about public health upon the people of the District?

THIS is why DC residents need autonomy from Congress. Until that happens, the 658,893 Americans living in the District of Columbia remain at risk of being irrevocably damaged by the ignorance of one lawmaker acting upon an unfounded hunch.

Voting Rights

Rest in Peace Civil Rights and DC Equality Icon Julian Bond

The DC Voting rights community is mourning the loss of civil and human rights icon, Julian Bond. He died on Saturday at the age of 75.

Bond fought tirelessly his entire career for the eradication of injustice and inequality for African Americans and for all people living under discrimination.

In his early years Bond supported the fight for DC Home Rule and later as a DC resident and Chairman of the NAACP he used his voice and platform to call attention to the injustice of taxation without representation in our nation's capitol. He pushed hard for congressional legislation that would grant the people of DC equal access to our national legislature.

DC Vote recognized Bond's lifelong advocacy efforts to strengthen democratic equality by honoring him with the prestigious Champion of Democracy Award in 2012.

Bond's commitment to DC Voting rights continued in 2014, when he was featured in another DC Vote public service announcement, this time in the city's taxi cab monitors, educating more than 20 million visitors about DC's second class status.

While Mr. Bond's death is a great loss to the movement for social justice, we in the DC voting rights community will reflect upon and celebrate his many contributions that have positively impacted people's lives. He will be sorely missed.

Voting Rights

Taking the Fight for DC Equality to the States

By Betzaida Nolasco, 2015 Karel Fellow

DC Vote recently took on a new strategy to build support for equality across the nation. Executive Director Kimberly Perry traveled to Wisconsin and Illinois this summer where she met with the numerous state-level advocacy organizations, universities, foundations, labor and civic organizers. 

While many were familiar with the District's disenfranchised status, it was a surprise to them that the level of congressional interference in DC's laws and budget had caused so much harm and undermining of the local democracy. 

The reaction of most was outrage and then asking, "What can we do to help?"

This kind of state outreach will continue as resources allow.

DC Vote also was a sponsor and in attendance at Netroots Nation in Arizona this July. Netroots Nation is an annual gathering of 3,000+ progressive activists from around the country. DC Vote sponsored four caucuses, Women, Youth, State and Local Bloggers, and he District of Columbia caucus. Kim Perry and James Jones represented DC Vote and met, talked with and recruited many activists to join the fight for DC Equality.

It was a pleasant surprise for Perry and Jones to see so many national activists leading the country's most pressing issues mention that they happen to live in Washington, DC. So DC Vote and Netroots are now teaming up to host a follow-up happy hour on September 2nd in Washington, DC. 

Momentum for the fight continues to grow. We’re getting closer and closer to the rights we deserve.

Voting Rights

Spot Everything Wrong With This Anti-DC Article

Yesterday The Daily Signal - the "news" platform of the Heritage Foundation - ran a story titled "225 Years Ago Washington D.C. Was Founded: Here’s Why It Will Never Become the 51st State."

In case you weren't aware - despite claiming to herald limited government - the Heritage Foundation has long been an advocate for Congress' maintaining control over DC and our local laws. Especially when it suits their policy needs.

To wit: this year Heritage Action pressured Congress to overturn two local DC laws that would support LGBTQ rights and end workplace discrimination of women based on their healthcare choices. Luckily for DC residents neither of these laws were overturned, but at the Heritage Foundation's behest Congress still managed to insert language to block funding of our non-discrimination law into the Federal appropriations bill.

So, it comes as no surprise that an organization that takes pride in hypocrisy and bullying DC residents and claims to be "committed to truth and unmatched in knowledge" would publish a factually innaccurate rant against DC Statehood - starting with the fact that the District of Columbia wasn't "founded" on July 13, 1790

Here are my two favorite gems in the Signal piece:

"seven of the ten wealthiest counties in America surround Washington D.C."

How the wealth of people who don't live in the District of Columbia and actually have Congressional representation proves DC doesn't deserve Statehood is unclear to me. More from Signal:

"Furthermore, D.C. residents are represented by a second body, the Council of the District of Columbia.

With the passage of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973, Congress ceded a portion of its authority to govern local affairs to a city council.

The council is made up of 13 members and a mayor—each of which is an elected position."

If having a local government means you don't need statehood why are there even states? 

Obviously this is just the tip of the ice berg, so leave your take-downs of the Heritage Foundations absurd anti-DC rhetoric in the comments. Prizes for the best responses to this ignorant misleading tripe!

Voting Rights

How Are Lawmakers Attacking DC Now?

It’s June in DC, which can mean only one thing: House Appropriators have launched the annual assault on DC Home Rule better known as the FY 2016 Appropriations Bill.

As it currently stands here are the anti-DC riders and what exactly they mean:

Sec. 809 (b) 

None of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or  otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession,  use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the  Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any  tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.

This language was first introduced in the FY 2015 CRomnibus bill and was an attempt to block the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana. While that attempt failed, this rider DOES keep the DC government from creating any sort of tax and regulate system to allow the legal sale of marijuana in the District. Because of Congress’ refusal to allow the District to govern itself we’re stuck in a wild west of sorts where it is legal to cultivate, possess and smoke marijuana, but illegal to purchase. 

SEC. 810. None of the funds appropriated under this Act shall be expended for any abortion except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were  carried to term or where the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.

This mainstay of the appropriations process – despite an uncharacteristic respect for DC Home Rule in 2010 – is so ingrained in DC's consciousness that  it registers as nothing more than an afterthought in the limited media coverage of Congress’ attacks on our democracy. The language is pretty straightforward, DC is FORBIDDEN to provide any local funding for abortion services, a decision Congress leaves to every other State’s legislature.

Both of these provisions are an unacceptable attack on democracy and on the very idea of local government.

It’s a depressing state of events when only two riders dictating how the District can spend its own locally raised tax dollars is cause for mild celebration, but judging by veiled threats made by certain members of Congress we can expect quite a few more riders to come when the full appropriations committee considers the bill and when the bill hits the House floor.

Budget Autonomy · Voting Rights

Standing Up for DC Equality!

Yesterday, 20 members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee proudly declared that the will of major donors and interest groups trump basic democracy. Despite claiming to support the rights of local government, these members of Congress voted in favor of a resolution of disapproval to block local DC legislation that would prevent employers from discriminating against female employees based on their personal reproductive health choices.

Fed up with these constant attacks on our local democracy, DC residents took a stand during the hearing and were immediately silenced, with committee staff even going so far as to threaten supports who were sitting quietly and in no way protesting. The U.S. Capitol Police even arrested one DC resident for asserting his right to watch his rights being undermined by people he did not elect.   

Supporters of DC Equality speaking out during the House Oversight Hearing as they attempt to block local DC legislation

Posted by DC Vote on Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Despite this travesty of justice and disregard for open government committed during the hearing, it was heartening to hear some members of Congress speak out in support of the rights of DC residents. Thank you to:

  • Rep. Elijah Cummings
  • Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman
  • Rep. Brenda Lawrence
  • Rep. Gerald Connolly
  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney
  • Rep. Stephen Lynch
  • Rep. Tammy Duckworth
  • Rep. William Lacy Clay
  • Rep. Robin Kelly
  • Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Along with the speeches at the hearing, a number of members put out statements voicing their support for DC Equality.

We are not finished fighting this attempt to undermine the autonomy of our local government. This anti-DC legislation is expected to go to the House floor next week (attacks on local democracy take higher priority than pressing national issues), and we hope the voices in opposition will continue to swell and defend the District of Columbia.

Health Care · Jobs · Voting Rights

The District is not a Political Pawn

Two top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination have decided that winning accolades from narrow interest groups, while denying local democracy to 660,000 Americans living in DC is a fair trade. We can’t let them off so easy. 

Last week, Senatos Ted Cruz (R-TX), along with Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) filed resolutions of disapproval in an attempt to overturn two locally-passed DC bills that would protect the LGBT community from discrimination and safeguard women from workplace discrimination based on the employees’ personal reproductive health care decisions. 

Next up, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH)  jumped on the bandwagon by introducing legislation that would not only completely overturn DC’s locally passed gun laws, but also block the DC Council from passing future legislation, instead handing over full control of DC’s gun laws to Congress.

The hypocrisy of these actions is stunning. Politicians who continue to speak about the tyranny of the federal interference in local matters are more than willing to drop those beliefs to score a few political points.

The residents of the District of Columbia are not pawns in somebody’s political game; we are taxpaying American citizens with a locally elected  government and deserve the basic democratic rights and respect granted to all other citizens.

Although we cannot hold Senators Cruz, Lankford, Rubio or Rep. Jordan accountable with our votes, we can still let them know we have a voice. On Wednesday, April 1, tell these opportunists you are #NotaPoliticalPawn by sharing an image of yourself holding one of the signs below and share it on Facebook and Twitter. You can also contact the offices of Senators Rubio, Lankford and Cruz and Rep. Jordan and let them know you will not stand aside as they attack the rights of DC residents.

Budget Autonomy · Gun Control · Voting Rights

Senator Cruz, Don't Tread on DC

Last week, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and James Lankford (R-OK) filed resolutions of disapproval in a wrongheaded attempt to overturn two locally-passed DC bills. These resolutions represent political hypocrisy at its highest level, coming from a Presidential hopeful who views himself as the leading defender against federal interference in local matters. 

The irony is not lost on us that a month after wrapping up our 30 Days of Disapproval campaign we are staring at two disapproval resolutions. Likewise, Senators Cruz and Lankford should recognize the absurdity of preaching against unnecessary federal overreach while attempting to use the naked power of the federal government to block DC’s local laws.

The disapproval process is a vestigial remainder from a time when Congress believed that DC was incapable of properly managing itself. Still, Congress only used it three times – most recently in 1991 – to actually block a DC law. Now it has become a tool for political grandstanding where members of Congress can suck up to their campaign donors without having to face repercussions from actual voters. 

The residents of the District of Columbia are not just a hypothetical in a stump speech or a checkmark on a voter guide; we are American citizens who should not be made victim to a politician’s personal aspirations. Although we cannot hold Senators Cruz and Lankford accountable with our votes, we can still let them know we have a voice. 53 national organizations already joined together to urge Congress to reject these disapproval resolutions. Now you can be heard as well. Sign our petition or call Ted Cruz (202.224.5922) and James Lankford (202.224.5754). Tell them to put an end to the grandstanding and respect the principles of local control they claim to support!

Budget Autonomy · Voting Rights

Americans Now Given the Chance to "Disapprove" of Congress

During the new digital challenge: 30 Days of Disapproval, Americans get the chance to "disapprove" of members of Congress from both major political parties who voted in favor of the 2015 spending bill including a provision to overturn a November 4th ballot initiative voted on by the people of the District of Columbia.

Some of those members have, in the past, voiced strong support for local control in the District of Columbia. Some were even cosponsors of DC statehood bills in the House or the Senate. We appreciate those expressions of support for our struggle. 

But any member of Congress who knowingly votes to overturn a legitimate local election that expresses the will of the people must be held accountable. 

The attempt to void democracy in the District of Columbia through the appropriations process is a serious attack on American democratic principles. For more than two centuries, the people of the District of Columbia have lived with the indignity of being treated as second-class citizens. We are not. Instead, we are proud Americans who fight and die in wars, pay federal income taxes, yet have no say in our national legislature – and this reality must come to an end. 

We need champions in the Congress who will stand up for us no matter the circumstance, regardless of party affiliation.  The principles of democracy should be valued at all times, not just when it’s convenient for the member. 

Budget Autonomy · Voting Rights

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