D.C. Protests as Shutdown Suffering Continues

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Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s delegate in Congress, found herself in a pickle Wednesday morning, stuck between her colleagues and a crowd of her constituents.

With the city’s mayor, Vincent Gray, she had just led an hour-long protest on the Senate lawn in front of at least 15 cameras and 9 photographers, demanding a restoration of federal funding for the city. While the House had approved a D.C.-specific funding measure a week ago, the Democratic majority in the Senate believes that any piece-meal measure to fund the government (besides the military) would weaken their ability to get Republicans to pass what they want: a short-term bill that would keep the government open at current spending levels. So D.C. has languished for the past 10 days, relying upon an emergency fund that is measured in days, not months.

The Norton-Gray rally touched upon some of the services that need federal funding by October 15, including charter schools. Unlike other cities, the budget of the District of Columbia is appropriated by Congress, and therefore affected by the shutdown.

The large crowd, 10 persons-deep in some parts, was whipped into a frenzy when they saw Senate Democrats begin to speak across the cobbled street to members of the national media. The crowd then lined up, barred by the Capitol Police, who aren’t currently paid because of the shutdown, and started chanting, “Free D.C.! Free D.C.!”

The chants could be heard from at least the other side of the Capitol. Norton decided that this form of public demonstration would not be as beneficial to the city’s cause. “If we just drown ’em out, they may simply resent us,” Norton told her constituents.

“These are the people that we have to bring around to vote for us,” continued Norton. “It could be very effective when you have this many people, to take this crowd and to go—there’s their office building—and to go there.”

D.C. public charter schools now educate 43% of public school children in the city—a higher share than any other big city except New Orleans, according to Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a non-profit in D.C. Donald Hense, the founder and chairman of Friendship Public Charter School, told TIME that his school will be able to cater to its 4,000 primarily African American low-income students with a “small” reserve fund that “will not last very long.” But the deadline looms much larger for some of the smaller charter schools. “Some schools that are very small have no reserves, and they are actually depending on the money to come that day,” said Hense. “Without that they will actually close their doors. This is outrageous.”

Norton did not shy from criticizing members of her own party. “Democrats, at this critical moment, have abandoned their own long-held principled position that D.C.’s local budget must be distinguished from federal spending bills,” Norton said at the rally. After the crowd’s applause subsided, she said, “The Senate’s current hold on the city’s budget is absurd.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray