Riot shields are stacked at the ready as National Guard troops reinforce the security zone on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.
( AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. All eyes are on Washington DC since the insurrection of the Capitol earlier this month. With the inauguration underway today, we wanted to check in with how the DC community is doing in the aftermath of the insurrection, and what a new presidential administration could mean on everything from racial equity to the city and to possible statehood.
Here to discuss are two members of the Council of the District of Columbia. Councilmember Mary Cheh represents Ward 3, and Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie represents Ward 5. Thanks for joining me.
Councilmember Cheh: Hello, thank you for having us.
Tanzina Vega: Councilmember McDuffie, how are you and your constituents feeling today? What are you hearing from folks?
Councilmember McDuffie: Well, there's a lot of anxiety. There's a lot of excitement. They're mixed feelings because there's a historic inauguration that's about to take place with President Elect Joe Biden and Vice President elect Kamala Harris.
We're going to have the first Vice President of color and she has just been so dynamic. She spent time here in the District of Columbia as a college student. She spent time more recently getting her COVID-19 vaccine at our United Medical Center in far Southeast. There's a lot of excitement about what this administration portends for the country and healing and getting rid of the inflammatory language and rhetoric and really uniting people.
On the other hand, there's some anxiety because when we drive around downtown, we can't get very close to the Capitol, because of the really heightened military presence that exists right here in our nation's capital today.
Tanzina Vega: Councilmember Cheh, what about your constituents? Are there concerns about security, law enforcement, et cetera?
Councilmember Cheh: Well, I think it's similar to what my colleague said that it's mixed feelings. Anxiety, but at the same time, hopefulness, and really an overarching sense of relief. I don't know about others, but I know that this morning, I was transfixed watching Mr. Trump leave Washington DC.
I wanted to see him actually leave and it not be theoretical, because it's been such a nightmare for us here in the Capitol, and perhaps around the country for others.
A nightmare of a steady diet of incivility, nastiness, and even cruelty with his policies about immigrant children. It's been every day, it's been relentless and so to have this nearing its final hour, has been really something that people are just relieved about.
There is anxiety. I've been getting emails leading up to today from people who've been worried, not just because there's a presence. They're happy about the presence, I guess, to prevent harm, but some of these people who are bent on violence, sometimes spin off from their main protest and come into the neighborhoods. We've seen that. I live in upper Northwest and I see that the stores up here are boarded up because of past experiences, with rioters coming and breaking into stores.
Even last night, I'll just tell you a little story. There's something called Comet Pizza, nearby me in Forest Hills, and a couple of years ago, some nutty guy went in with a gun because of some conspiracy bizarro theory that there was pedophilia going on in the basement or something.
Anyway, he was arrested and he was sentenced, et cetera. This was a return group, but it was about, I don't know, maybe a dozen people or something, protesting outside of Comet Pizza on the same theory. Happily, I was just delighted, they were driven away by community members singing songs from Lady Gaga. [laughs]
Tanzina Vega: Councilmember McDuffie, there was a lot of focus on the police response to the Capitol insurrection. How has the council been thinking about police reform in light of recent events?
Councilmember McDuffie: Well, actually the Council of the District of Columbia has been one of the most progressive councils, I would submit, around the country when it comes to police reform. I actually chaired the council's Judiciary Committee back in 2015 and '16, when we led reforms around body worn cameras, when I held a roundtable about then President Barack Obama's 21st Century Policing Task Force.
We implemented a number of measures several years ago. One really transformative measure called the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act where we implemented a number of things around police performance. More recently, after the tragic death of George Floyd and others, we implemented even more police reform measures in the District of Columbia.
We made sure that police can't use chokeholds. We put more transparency around body worn cameras and the release of footage relating to the mayor's discretion. We did a number of things here in response to the calls for action and reform to defund the police, right here in our nation's capital. Unfortunately, some of those peaceful protests where people were calling for reform of our police department locally, we had to watch that federal law enforcement presence, and really, the attacks on the peaceful protest outside of the Capitol for President Trump to essentially engage in a photo op.
We've been really progressive here in the nation's capital in terms of our local laws around police reforms, and I don't think we're done yet. Frankly, I think there's some other things that we can do. In fact, our councilmember who chairs the committee on judiciary and public safety today, is in the process of working on an omnibus bill to address even more of the concerns that residents have raised with us here as local leaders.
Tanzina Vega: Councilmember Cheh, one of the things that came up around the security at the Capitol or the lack thereof, was the fact that the National Guard, the difficulty that the mayor of Washington DC had in getting the National Guard to respond, which really put the question of DC statehood back in at the top of the conversation around the district. How is that going so far and Councilmember Cheh, what could statehood actually mean for Washington DC?
Councilmember Cheh: Well, I'm glad you brought that up, because statehood is always at the top of mind here locally, because we feel in many, many ways the fact that we are not a state, including getting less assistance from the federal government in terms of COVID related relief. In terms of police, there's an irony here. The district was created because at the time, delegates were meeting in Philadelphia. They were sort of overrun by those who fought in the Revolutionary War because they wanted their pension money.
They sent to Pennsylvania for some help, "Help us, we're being assailed here." No help came and so when the constitution was adopted, they created a district to protect the federal government. Well, what has happened is, with the 700,000 plus people who live in the District of Columbia, we've had to, with this president, resist incursions by the federal government. President Trump called forth troops to clear a street so that he could have a photo op.
We had to wait until our police were called to the Capitol to help because we couldn't go there without an invitation, and then we performed admirably. We're the ones who cleared the Capitol, and yet we don't have the kind of control over our own government that other states take for granted. Yes, this definitely puts this back on the agenda for us to discuss. We need statehood, plain and simple.
Tanzina Vega: Councilmember McDuffie, Councilmember Cheh is describing there a lot of tension between DC officials and the White House, especially under the Trump administration, which ends today. How do you see that relationship changing under the Biden-Harris administration?
Councilmember McDuffie: I think you've already heard a clear indication from the incoming administration of their support of statehood for the District of Columbia, which is clearly a change from the outgoing Trump administration.
Frankly, when you hear people like domestic policy advisor, Susan Rice, use language that I really appreciate to say that the President Elect has promised to root out systemic racism from our institutions, then that is in line with a progressive agenda right here, our nation's Capitol and the City Council, where we have implemented policies designed to do just that. To root out systemic racism from our local institutions, and we're hopeful to be able to work directly with them.
Another thing that comes to mind is the COVID-19 pandemic and how we respond to the crisis. President Trump and his top aides were derelict in their duty to really address this early on and frankly, up until today. I think that we've heard from the Biden administration, is really working to build even more momentum around his plan to end the COVID-19 crisis, and to really support the United States economy. To attract racial justice, to make sure that's a part of his top policies and to really, I think, be more progressive around our climate, which is extraordinarily important and something that the Trump administration didn't put much resources or emphasis on.
I think among so many new measures that are going to be rolled out in these first 100 days under Biden-Harris administration, something as basic, which public health officials have called for are like, "Wear masks." If President Biden is going to order that masks be worn on Federal property, then I think that is a positive step in the right direction to support what we've been doing locally through Mayor Bowser and our Council to promote mask wearing in our nation's capital.
I think there are any number of ways that we're going to be able to work with this incoming administration. The Trump administration and the Republican senate also did not provide us with the minimum amount of COVID relief to states when the first round of pandemic money was provided to jurisdictions around the country. They significantly shortchanged the District of Columbia by giving us less than half the aid provided to the other states. We only received $495 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund for 2020, when the other 50 states received at least $1.25 billion.
Treating the District of Columbia like a territory rather than a state was something that really outraged a number of local officials here. We're hopeful that we're going to have a much better relationship with the incoming Biden administration and not be shortchanged as was the case under the Trump administration, and really look at statehood as a real thing and hopefully moving the needle there as well.
Tanzina Vega: Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie represents Ward 5. Councilmember Mary Cheh represents Ward 3. Both on the Council of the District of Columbia. Thanks to you both for joining us and stay safe.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.