Residents, local leaders gather to rally against Senate’s reversal of D.C. criminal code

Media Credit: Grace Chinowsky | Staff Photographer

John Capozzi, a former D.C. shadow representative in the House between 1995 and 1997, said members of Congress are making a “political statement” at the expense of District residents

D.C. residents and local officials flocked to the U.S. Capitol Wednesday afternoon to protest senators’ impending overturn of the D.C. Council’s revised criminal code. 

More than 150 people gathered to rally against the Congress’ efforts to reject the city’s new criminal code by Columbus Circle at about 11 a.m., with U.S. Capitol Police officers arresting 17 demonstrators after the crowd marched to Senate offices about two hours later. Senators voted 81-14 to nullify the city’s disputed code later that night, and President Biden said he would sign the bill after voicing initial opposition last week.

The measure passed the Senate with the support of all the chamber’s Republicans, 33 Democrats and one independent after the GOP-led House voted to block the code with bipartisan support in February. Under the 1973 Home Rule Act, Congress must vote on every D.C. law prior to enactment and sends disapprovals of any local legislation to the White House for the president’s signature or veto.

Speakers from community and statehood advocacy organizations, advisory neighborhood commissioners and D.C. Council members attended the protest, voicing their opposition to Congress’ first interference in D.C. law in more than thirty years. Council chair Phil Mendelson, who withdrew the revised code Monday to prevent the Senate from blocking the bill, told The Hatchet that the Senate’s interference is “offensive” and that senators did not technically override the code because he pulled the legislation back first.

“There will always be an asterisk beside the statement that Congress overrode our bill,” Mendelson said.

After the Council unanimously passed the revised criminal code in November after spending more than a decade drafting updates that redefine and specify the District’s 122-year-old crime laws, Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the changes in January. She expressed resistance to portions of the legislation that would scrap most mandatory minimum sentences, drop mandatory maximum sentences for property crimes and expand jury trials for misdemeanors, a veto which the Council subsequently overrode about two weeks later.

President Biden and members of Congress voiced concern over reducing penalties for some property crimes in the District amid a spike in carjacking. Violent crime has decreased, according to MPD data.

Mendelson said penalties in states like Arizona or Tennessee, whose representatives oppose the crime code, have looser penalties on carjacking, while House Republicans try to “embarrass” Democrats by framing the party’s policies as “soft on crime.” He said while opposing Biden’s choice to side with Congress, he “understands” his position.

“His action underscores that this is not about the D.C. criminal code,” Mendelson said. “This is about national partisan politics.”

Reverend Wendy Hamilton, an 8D06 advisory neighborhood commissioner and board member for DCVote who spoke at the rally, said she believes the federal government overriding the criminal code revisions sets a precedent for Congress to use D.C. residents as a “political football” without regard to their laws and capacity for self-governance.

Hamilton said it’s “unfortunate” that Bowser, who was absent from the rally, vetoed the bill. She claimed the mayor “didn’t bother” to have conversations with the D.C. Council about her concerns as the criminal code revisions were being drafted, and that Biden is contradicting his previous support of D.C. sovereignty by signing Congress’ override of the criminal code revisions.

“‘D.C. statehood is important to me, D.C. statehood is a priority,’ he said over and over again,” Hamilton said. “Words mean nothing if you can’t act on them. You’re just talking, Joe.”

Hamilton said if Congress thinks residents of the District are going to back down in their efforts to protect the city’s voting abilities, they “don’t know D.C.”

“We’re going to keep fighting for D.C. statehood,” Hamilton said. “We’re going to keep marching for our autonomy because we know our cause is right, our cause is just.” 

Capitol Police officers arrested Trupti Patel, a Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, at about 1:30 p.m. Patel and 15 other protestors were arrested for crowding, obstructing and incommoding, and one other was arrested for defacement. 

Patel said she thinks Biden is a “colonizer in chief” for letting Congress override the revised criminal code. She said it’s “unacceptable” for Biden to allow the veto of the revised criminal code because about 90 percent of D.C. residents voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

After her arrest, Patel said officers detained her and the other “arrestees” in a makeshift detention center until about 2:30 or 3 p.m., and issued each of them a $50 fine to be paid in 15 days. She said she doesn’t know whether she will pay the fine or protest it in court yet.

“How can you sit here and say you support D.C. statehood and then turn around and tell a population that they can’t think and decide for themselves?” Patel said.

John Capozzi, a former D.C. shadow representative in the House between 1995 and 1997, said members of Congress are making a “political statement” at the expense of District residents, which costs representatives “nothing” back home. He said the protest for statehood was the biggest he’s seen in 20 years and that while it was “disappointing” the mayor didn’t show, he was “impressed” with the turnout especially among young people.

“If they wanted to fix our crime problem, they could have appropriated endless amounts of money, we could police every corner, we could rehabilitate everybody, and we can make sure that crime goes down,” Capozzi said. “But that’s not what the people in the Congress are interested in.”

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