WASHINGTON — A day after getting arrested with other city leaders, the District of Columbia's mayor called on residents of the nation's capital to join him in protesting likely new restrictions on the city from Congress, drawing analogies to this year's popular uprisings in Egypt and Libya.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said Tuesday that residents should work through religious groups and neighborhood and civic associations to push back against consequences for Washington in the federal budget Congress is expected to pass later this week.
D.C. has its own city government, but Congress ultimately oversees the city's affairs including its budget and laws. As a result, Gray and other city leaders said that Washington became a pawn in last week's budget negotiations. It appears that a deal members of Congress reached Friday to avert a federal government shutdown included provisions that ban the district from spending its own, city-collected tax money to pay for abortions for poor women. The deal would also re-establish a school voucher program that has divided city leaders.
Gray said he hoped that his arrest Monday with 40 others, including six members of the District of Columbia Council, would energize other residents. On Monday, the mayor and others sat down and blocked traffic on Washington's busy Constitution Avenue near the Capitol before being arrested and held until the early hours of Tuesday.
"I don't think there's any doubt that we got people's attention," Gray said in an interview in his office later Tuesday, still wearing a tag from police on his wrist. "But the reality is, too, that a single event is not going to make a lasting difference. I think the greatest value of this was to be able to be a catalyst or to be a spark for further involvement."
Gray said he didn't have any guarantees that activism by citizens would work, but he added that change comes about when people get frustrated enough to take action, making analogies to the civil rights movement, the movement to give women the right to vote and recent events in Egypt and Libya.
Gray acknowledged he has no direct influence over the federal budget process, but he said the city's 600,000 residents could be a powerful force. There was also some suggestion Tuesday that members of Congress and even the White House took notice of the protest.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a briefing with reporters that the president does not support the provisions in the budget that Gray has been critical of but that, "in a negotiation, you have to make tough choices." House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said at a news conference that it was unfortunate that the city had been used as a bargaining chip, but that the budget was a compromise.
There was some good news for the city Tuesday as more details about the final budget trickled out. City leaders had worried Congress would re-impose a ban on the city using its own money to pay for a needle exchange program, considered vital to curbing the spread of HIV in the city. It became clear Tuesday that the needle exchange had been spared in the budget wrangling. Meanwhile, the city's representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, offered amendments late Tuesday to strip the restrictions on city spending for abortions and the voucher program out of the deal.
For his part, Gray called on others to become "a part of the movement."
"This cannot be isolated events, it can't be a series of events," he said. "It's got to be an effort that says, `We're in this for the long haul, and this is how we are going to get there.'"
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Jim Abrams contributed to this report.