More than 50 years after the civil rights movement, governments continue to usurp Black power, nullifying the will of the people 

OPINION: The state and federal lawmakers hijacking local governance in Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Mississippi, condescend to claim they’re doing it for the good of the residents in those communities — without so much as a single engagement with those residents.

U.S. Capitol,
The U.S. Capitol Building is seen on January 19, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

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Recent headlines about federal and state lawmakers overturning local laws in Washington, D.C. and Jackson, Mississippi, miss the larger point — that local self-governance, a fundamental principle of democracy, is at risk.

At issue is the revision to the 122-year-old D.C. criminal code, a 450-page document, 16 years in the making, unanimously approved by the city council — which was initially vetoed by Mayor Muriel Bowser for “sending the wrong message,” with specific maximum sentence reductions. The veto was then overridden 12-1 by the D.C. council. Bowser later said she agreed with 95% of what was in the revision and proposed her own modifications, but not before Congress shot the proposal down — as well as a measure allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections — with its first disapproval resolution issued in eight years.

A particular talking point emerged around reducing the maximum sentence for a specifically D.C. scourge — carjacking. However, the proposed maximum still exceeded the average sentence in D.C. and several states.

This yearslong effort by people whose self-governance is already truncated was summarily dismissed, largely on the basis of perception, but also the assumption that the 700,000 citizens of the District of Columbia — nearly half of whom are Black — are uniquely undeserving of self-governance. 

In Jackson, a city with an 82% Black population, the state proposes expanding the state-controlled Capitol Police force into local neighborhoods. The maneuver leaves affected Jackson voters with law enforcement that has virtually zero accountability to them but instead to majority white non-local legislators. This “solution” comes after years of repeatedly ignored requests from local leaders to state legislators to help fund updated technology for the city’s own police department. Similarly, state legislators dismissed Jackson’s pleas to help rebuild the city’s water infrastructure. Yet, lawmakers are suddenly interested in oversight now that Jackson’s mayor has landed $800 million in federal funds for that purpose.

The state and federal lawmakers hijacking local governance condescend to claim they’re doing it for the good of the residents in those communities — without so much as a single engagement with those residents. This appropriation of Black power is not new — recent developments in both Jackson and D.C. bear striking similarities to Jim Crow-era voter suppression tactics.

The issue in Jackson and the District of Columbia is that criminal justice reform is being miscast under the “soft-on-crime” rhetoric that no politician dares scrutinize. If they did, they’d find out that the citizens of Jackson and D.C. are trying to invest in crime prevention through various violence mitigation methods that research shows are effective. Public Welfare Foundation supports these local efforts in D.C., Jackson and six other jurisdictions to address the mass incarceration crisis. This crisis is costing taxpayers as much as $1.2 trillion and, to date, has failed to deliver superior safety over other western-developed democracies. Decades of “soft-on-crime” scare tactics coupled with unfettered access to firearms have left the United States with the highest incidence of gun violence and highest incarceration rate of all developed countries, with no end in sight.

Political fear and the media’s reliance on tropes virtually ensures that economically effective, constructive alternatives to policing will continue to be confused with being soft on crime rather than helping prevent it.

It’s not just criminal justice issues, and not just Jackson and D.C. Several state governments are already engaged in efforts to usurp local majority rule on matters that range from reproductive rights to library books. It might serve us well to remember that there is no “authoritarian light.” 

Not so long ago, there was a time in our country when countless systemic barriers were erected to block or suppress Black voters’ access to the polls. As is too often the case, these recent developments feel like current adaptations of old, now-outlawed tactics. By allowing local voters to the polls, we removed the jars of jelly beans Black voters were required to guess the number of in order to register to vote, but we have replaced it with legislative actions that render votes meaningless.

Jackson, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia are being painted as failing municipalities with out-of-control crime rates that justify the seizure of power from local elected officials. This perception completely ignores that the same big government strong-arming isn’t happening in white-led communities where crime rates are escalating. This is not about public safety. It’s not about crime. At the end of the day, it’s about usurping voter rights — and that applies to everyone.

Candice C. Jones joined the Public Welfare Foundation in Washington, DC as its President and CEO in 2017. Previously, she served as Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, where she pushed significant reforms that reduced the number of youth in state custody. Candice received her J.D. from New York University School of Law and her B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

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