Fight Capitalism With Capitalism: Self-inflicted Political Wounds

Banita Jacks of DC killed her four children in the summer of 2007, their bodies being found during a January 2008 eviction. Six social service employees were fired by then-mayor Adrian Fenty himself for failing to adequately serve this family whose issues were known to them. Ms. Jacks was eventually convicted of murder; and, DC settled with the family for $2.6M.  Sadly, there are other stories of child neglect and abuse that don’t necessarily rise to the level of this one wherein Child and Family Services has been made aware of the familial problems should have learned the signs of exacerbation and developed a system of appropriate, timely interventions.

Fast-forward to 2011. Denise Gibson gave birth to a son on February 10th and spent the whole first month of his life homeless and unsheltered due to social service providers breaking a law that requires them to put families with children in hotel rooms when the DC General Family shelter is full. Denise had been taken from her mother when she was six in 1990, due to her mother having become homeless. She spent 15 years as a ward of the state in different foster homes and then was released into circumstances that were no better than her mother’s and which led to a third generation of homelessness. (This actually passes for work within the ranks of government.)

In early 2014 an 8-year old girl named Relisha Rudd was abducted from the DC General Shelter  by a janitor who eventually killed his wife and himself -- the girl having never been found. With the first two stories having been all but forgotten by DC residents, the plight of Relisha has stayed on people’s minds -- maybe because of her age; and, maybe because there hasn’t been any closure and she might be a sex slave in South America right now.

Mayor Muriel Bowser (2015-2019), during her 2014 campaign, used Relisha’s abduction and the public outcry about lax safety measures at the family shelter as reasons to shutter the DC General Family Shelter -- a valuable property that has been sought by developers for redevelopment since as far back as 2008. However, she has been able to use what I call “the facade of caring” once again. It’s the same ploy government uses to shutter public housing and other shelters after failing to maintain these government-run(-down) buildings while stating that they are “unfit for human habitation”. In all fairness, it should be stated that the current DC General building is over 150 years old and very difficult to repair. However, that excuse doesn’t work for the much newer public housing buildings.

It’s interesting that the local government wants to remove poor people from dilapidated buildings as a “safety precaution” while failing them in so many other ways -- even to the point of premature death. It, all of a sudden, makes sense when you factor in the value of the property -- especially after the new construction. When one juxtaposes these matters, it looks less like government cares for its poor and more like a deliberate plan to let the buildings fall into disrepair so that the powers that be can “compassionately” remove the poor inhabitants and give the property to developers who can build high-priced residences whose mere existence then raises the property values, taxes and rents of nearby buildings that weren’t even improved upon.

If the last two decades of gentrification and the contested plan for seven smaller replacement shelters are any indication, then the developers who donated to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s campaign whose pockets the DC Council wouldn’t allow her to line will now be allowed to share the spoil (for as little as $1) when DC General is closed -- though her plans to vacate the campus before the September 2018 primary have been thwarted, with the timeline having been pushed into 2020 so far.

As is the case all too often, people of conscience only come out of the woodwork to respond to an immediate crisis; and then, they retreat to their comfortable abodes once the crisis has been averted, leaving government to its own devices thereafter. We need activists and advocates to recognize and contest negative patterns like that of gentrification which run across multiple mayoral administrations; to tease out the real motivations of government; and, to fight giveaways of public land to wealthy developers -- not just to help avert an immediate crisis.

Mayor Bowser’s motivations were briefly called into question during the series of public meetings in 2016 during which the replacement shelter plan was presented in seven wards. Some members of the public were well aware of the fact that DC has had upwards of 1,200 homeless families at a time -- the former hospital only having 288 units, of which dozens are often taken off-line for repairs. Though many of the attendees were elitists who’d come to say “NIMBY” (in a longer and more sophisticated way), they raised a very valid concern as they asked why it was that the mayor’s plan only calls for the replacement of the DC General Shelter while it remains silent on the futures of the 900 families that are in hotels in both DC and Maryland on the city’s dime. In short, those hotels are not prime real estate that is being sought after by developers.

As if the aforementioned instances aren’t enough to make the case that DC Government is Hell-bent on downgrading the quality of social services until the poor just get out of town, former mayor and current Ward 7 Councilman Vince Gray who represents one of the two poorest wards in the city (and who has directed the Department of Human Services as well as Covenant House which serves homeless youth) is now promoting a plan that would hire 500 more police to fight crime instead of promoting programs of social uplift. It would seem that the increased police presence is intended to draw the well-to-do types that he, as mayor, said he wanted to draw into the city -- ostensibly so that a broader tax base could be used to support social services. (He might have conveniently forgotten about the automatic tax triggers that reduce taxes on the middle class when the city’s finances are doing well.) Add to this the fact that Mr. Gray plans to run again for mayor in the 2018 Democratic Primary (DC’s de facto election) -- a rematch against the woman who unseated him -- and what you have is a “two devils we know” scenario and a chance to choose the mayor who has “hurt them the least”. Insanity but reality.

All of this just goes to show that DC’s local politics are not geared toward comprehensively assisting the poor, dispossessed workers of the city; but rather toward making them another city’s business. It raises questions about our strategy. However, knowing the political aspirations of the current and former mayors along with the intricacies of current policies toward the city’s  impoverished communities affords us a unique opportunity to create immediate competition between these two city officials. Rather than getting the 2018 mayoral candidates to make promises to the city’s needy that they probably won’t keep, let’s get them to move now on creating ways of lifting people out of poverty rather than continuing to push them out of the city. After all, competition is a hallmark of the capitalism that is the cause of the extreme poverty which we seek to end. So, let’s use capitalism to defeat capitalism -- in DC’s local politics anyway. Then the deaths of Banita Jacks’ children, the abduction of Relisha and all of the other failures of politicians to their needy constituents will have become self-inflicted political wounds.

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