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D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray Arrested Protesting Dem-GOP Budget Deal

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Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and several members of the D.C. Council were arrested Monday when they sat down in the middle of a key intersection in the nation’s capital, blocking traffic to protest the federal budget deal between Democrats and Republicans. The proposed budget reimposes a Republican-backed ban on the District spending its own money to provide abortions to low-income women, and on needle exchange programs regarded as crucial to curbing the spread of HIV in D.C.—where the disease is considered an epidemic. We speak to Mayor Gray about why he took to the streets in protest. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to our nation’s capital, to Washington, D.C., where the Mayor, Vincent Gray, and several members of the D.C. Council were arrested when they sat down in the middle of a key intersection in Washington, D.C., blocking traffic to protest riders in the federal budget deal reached Friday night between Democrats and Republicans.

The proposed budget reimposes a Republican-backed ban on the District spending its own money to provide abortions for low-income women. The District would also be prevented from spending city money on needle exchange programs, regarded as crucial to curbing the spread of HIV in Washington, D.C., where the disease is considered an epidemic. A school voucher program, which expired under the Democratic Congress, will receive funding again now.

Speaking on a Fox News affiliate, Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton expressed outrage over the provisions.

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: These Republicans are saying, “You don’t count as American citizens. Indeed, you raise some money, hey, it’s ours. We will decide how you spend your money, and we will close you down if you don’t like it.” If that doesn’t bring you out in the streets, I don’t know what will.

AMY GOODMAN: D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray heeded that call to action. He was arrested Monday for taking to the streets in an act of civil disobedience against the budget. He was released seven hours later. He joins us now in Washington, D.C. Vincent Gray was sworn in as the sixth elected mayor of the District of Columbia in January of this year. He was overwhelmingly elected in November, receiving nearly 75 percent of the vote. A native of Washington, has worked for more than three decades in public service in the city.

Mayor Gray, thank you for joining us. Explain why you sat down in the streets of Washington, D.C.

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: Well, I think you’ve done a good job of summarizing it. It really has come to a point where it’s an absolute outrage, it’s a travesty against democracy in this nation and certainly in this city, where we raised the tax money in the District of Columbia. We paid, first of all, $3.6 billion to the federal government as a part of our tax obligations to the nation, but then we raised five-and-a-half billion dollars to support our city. And then we’re told time and time again that we have no decision-making authority when it comes to how our money is used in the District of Columbia.

This was certainly never more evident when, first of all, the District was threatened with a shutdown last week as a part of the federal government, as if we were another agency of the federal government, which we’re not, and then the imposition of these riders: first of all, how we spend our money on abortions — every other state and city in the nation would be able to make its decisions about how it spends its money — and then a voucher program, that would provide money to students, money to their families, so that that student could go to a private school. This is not something that we have chosen to do and, again, I think tramples all over democracy here in the District of Columbia.

AMY GOODMAN: How was this agreement come to? Have you spoken to President Obama? Did he call you in jail, Mayor Gray?

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: No, I have not heard from the White House. We, in fact, called the White House yesterday to try to get some understanding what happened here. But we weren’t even given the courtesy of a consultation about those things affecting the District of Columbia. We did — I sent a letter to Speaker Boehner and to Majority Leader Reid on Friday, once again laying out our case, the rationale for how we stood, which we thought was quite clear. And we’ve gotten no response from either of them directly at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the situation for women and abortions in Washington, D.C., what you had before and what you have now.

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: Well, there was a long-term ban back when the Republicans controlled the House for some 13 years. But what we had before, meaning the last couple of years, was the authority to be able to determine how we spend our dollars. And we were supporting abortions, therapeutic abortions, which means that abortions — or births, pregnancies that may result from rape or incest or may involve some kind of serious illness to the child or to the mom, they have been covered and will continue to be covered by Medicaid. But elective abortions, as they’re called, are those where women may choose to make those decisions, decisions we think are between them and their doctor. We were funding them out of our dollars. And now we’ve been told that those dollars that we raised locally, “Sorry, you can’t spend that money, either.”

AMY GOODMAN: Who weighed in here? Do you know what was happening behind the scenes, Mayor Gray?

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: No, we did not. We were not consulted at all. We were not involved in any of these discussions. It appears that this was a negotiation between the Senate, the House and the White House in the late hours of, you know, Thursday and Friday, ostensibly to avert a shutdown. But frankly, those decisions that affect us, we should have been engaged in those, we should have been consulted. And then, secondly, of course, anything that involved our dollars, we should have been respected in terms of making the final decision, because those dollars are raised by the taxpayers of the District of Columbia.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Gray, I think a lot of people who are listening right now around the United States and around the world are scratching their heads. You’re the mayor of the nation’s capital. How does the system work? What is Washington, D.C.? How is it that you don’t get to make these decisions? And who do people in Washington, D.C., get to vote for? Explain the status of the District of Columbia.

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: Well, first of all, we are a city of 600,000 people. We — as a result of the Home Rule Act of 1975, the people of this city elect a mayor, and they elect 13 Council members who form our legislative body.

Now, when it comes to budgets and when it comes to making of laws, that’s a bit of a different story. First of all, the budget is formulated by the mayor and submitted to the Council. In fact, we just submitted the budget, proposed budget for next year, our next fiscal year, we submitted that on April 1st. The Council then has 56 days within which to conduct hearings, deliberate, and come to some decisions about the budget. It then goes back to the mayor for his consideration.

Now, this is where things begin to change. Any other place, in a state or in a city, that would be the end of the process. However, once our budget goes back to the mayor and is approved, it then has to go to the Congress, and it’s submitted to the Congress. The budget for this fiscal year, the current year we’re in, was submitted last June to the Congress. There were a number of committees on the Hill that looked at the budget, moved the budget forward, but it’s been sitting there now for months. And in the final analysis, it has to be a budget that’s approved by the Congress. That is unlike any other state and local jurisdiction in America and, frankly, tramples all over democracy, because it essentially says that those may be your dollars — everywhere else, these decisions are made by the people and the people who represent the people, but in the District of Columbia, it’s going to be different.

We’ve asked, you know, and what we’re told oftentimes is that it’s because of the federal presence. But I don’t think that holds water. First of all, we can figure out where the federal presence is. And so many of the things that we do, so many of the decisions in the District of Columbia, have no impact on the federal presence. Getting the trash picked up is not necessarily a federal issue for us. Fixing the potholes in the streets, what goes on out in our neighborhoods, where the 600,000 people live, those are the same kinds of decisions that are made by people all across the nation in their cities and their states.

AMY GOODMAN: Approximately three percent of the people of Washington, D.C., are currently living with HIV or AIDS, what’s considered by health officials to be an epidemic, this according to AP. Talk about the decision and how it affects the policy towards people with AIDS, with HIV, the needle exchange program, and what this means, Mayor Gray.

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: Yeah, it appears that decision may still be in abeyance. But again, we’ve had a ban on using needles in the past. One of the things that has occurred here and elsewhere is that now the transmission of the virus that leads to AIDS increasingly is being transmitted because people who are involved in intravenous drug use use dirty needles. They use the needles that have been used by somebody else, who in fact may be affected. One of the things that we did, and so many other cities — over 200 cities across the nation have done this — is to implement a needle exchange program, in which we have people out on the street who are giving intravenous drug users the opportunity to have a clean needle, which we know then means if they engage in drug use, they’re not using a dirty needle in order to accomplish that. We’ve been using our dollars in order to accomplish that.

And what potentially could happen again, because this has occurred before, and that is, the Congress comes in and says, “I’m sorry. I understand that these are your dollars, but in point of fact, you cannot use this money in order to support this program.” So, once again, we see the impact on the District of Columbia by being told that we can’t use our own money to support what is a proven health technique. Again, our HIV/AIDS rates are at epidemic levels. Nationally it’s about one percent. We are at three percent. And frankly, among African American men in the District of Columbia, it is seven percent. While we may have improved the pharmacology, which is extending life, we don’t have a cure for AIDS. And this is a technique to stop people from getting it in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Gray, would you like to see D.C. become a state?

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: Absolutely. We’ve made it very clear that we do all the things that are required of a state. We’ve had a balanced budget for 13 or 14 consecutive years. Our audits have proven that. We have outstanding bond ratings on Wall Street. Our income-tax-secured bonds are now AAA-rated by one of the rating agencies on Wall Street. So, whatever barometer you want to use, we’ve demonstrated our ability to manage ourselves. And frankly, yes, we do. We want to be able to make decisions for ourselves, in the same spirit as everyone else.

AMY GOODMAN: You said last year that you wouldn’t get arrested for statehood, that just you alone getting arrested would have no meaning. And yet, there you were — not alone — getting arrested. Talk about why you changed your mind.

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: Well, there were 41 of us that got arrested, so I certainly was not alone. There were six other Council members in our legislative body who joined me, and there were 34 other citizens of the city. Frankly, as we got out there to express our outrage at what was happening with this federal budget, there was just a lot of momentum and, I guess you call it, almost spontaneous combustion, where we simply decided — it wasn’t a predetermined decision — we just decided that enough was enough. We went out and sat down on the street. The Capitol police came along, indicated that we were blocking the street, which of course we knew. They came over individually, to each one of us, and said, “You’re blocking the street. Are you going to move? Or you’re going to be arrested.” And my answer, along with the other 40 people, was, “I’ll be arrested.” And so we were. We were handcuffed and taken away.

AMY GOODMAN: And you spent the night in jail?

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: Not quite the night. I was released, along with a few others, at 1:00 a.m. We just happened to be near the front of the line. The first 10 of us were released at 1:00 a.m., and then the others were not released until 4:30 a.m.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did these officers feel arresting the Mayor, arresting you?

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: I don’t know. They probably have all kinds of mass demonstrations, so they probably have gotten accustomed to it. But I will say, they were professional, they were gracious. We were treated well. Thought the process took a bit longer than it needed to take, but that’s OK. We were there for a purpose, and we were intending to fulfill that purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what now do you feel has been accomplished? What is your next step? And go larger in talking about the movement for statehood in D.C. What are the movement’s plans?

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: Well, first of all, what we accomplished was to get people’s attention. You know, watching the blogs, watching what was done yesterday, there were statements made by the White House, there were statements made by leaders in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

But that really is just a beginning of this particular effort. The real challenge lies in what happens next. And we’re working now on plans for the next part of this strategy to address the disenfranchisement of the people of the city. And one of the things that must be addressed is budget autonomy, which is a nice term for saying that we will be able to make the decisions on our budget, our dollars, just like every other state and local jurisdiction in America. The irony of all of this is that when you go back and look at what this country was founded upon, the resistance to taxation without representation, that is precisely what we have in this city at this stage. How ironic is that?

We are around the world, you know, helping others to achieve democracy in their jurisdictions, their countries. You know, we have touted what has occurred in Egypt, you know, what’s occurring in Libya. We’ve been fighting for democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan. We have had troops who go from all over the country, including the District of Columbia, to fight these wars. And then people come back home and have no way of enjoying that level of democracy in their own city. There are some 119 nations’ capitals in the free world, and we are the only one that doesn’t have voting representation in its national legislative body.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mayor Vincent Gray, I want to thank you for being with us. Vincent Gray is the mayor of Washington, D.C.

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