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June 2016

How Jesse Williams Praised Our Grassroots Organizers More than We Do

PHOTO: Actor and award-winning humanitarian Jesse Williams/ Courtesy 

By now, most, if not all of the African world has watched or heard about Jesse Williams’ five-minute oratorical masterpiece at the BET Awards earlier this week.

Upon accepting the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, Williams, a Black actor who rarely minces words in his analyses of domestic racial affairs, called out the United States for the litany of crimes it commits against Black people. A multi-ethnic audience of his wealthy and famous peers, and much of Black America, listened as he eloquently condemned state-sanctioned violence, cultural appropriation, capitalistic exploitation of Black people, and white disdain for Black expressions of pain.

In one speech, Williams placed a morally bankrupt media network on a road to redemption and galvanized people who had grown tired of seeing officers escape responsibility for their deadly use of force against Black men, women, and children. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media outlets lit up with commentary and memes of Williams and his fiercest quotes in what’s sure to be an historic speech. For the first time, those who followed the “woke” movement from afar gained new interest.

While I appreciated Williams’ numerous zingers, many of which I saw plastered all over my timeline, there’s an often overlooked line that truly resonated with me: the one in which he acknowledges the grassroots organizers across the country working to dismantle white supremacy. For those confused as to what I’m talking about, he said it before getting into the real juicy stuff. Still confused? I copied it into this commentary for your reading pleasure.

“Now, this award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics. The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.

Every day in this naturally hypocritical country of ours, there are countless numbers of Black people in various communities who’re organizing, raising the consciousness of the masses, feeding the poor and homeless, forging coalitions, and pressuring elected officials to support their efforts – all in the name of Black Power. Many of them do this while speaking out against the white supremacist Babylon system publicly and on social media without hesitation.

Just as Williams has done repeatedly in the last few years, our outspoken grassroots warriors examine the issues of the day with a critical eye, forming a unique conclusion and demanding America atones for its centuries-long crime against Africans. However unlike Black America’s favorite woke actor and humanitarian, these brothers and sisters are often scolded for their viewpoints, with both family members and friends labeling them as “radical,” begging that they provide an analysis that’s more inclusive, softer, and endearing to the status quo, even if it doesn’t benefit Black people.

I myself have been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment.

Since coming into my African consciousness and adding an activist flair to my journalism, I’ve had college friends, cousins, aunties, uncles, and the like mockingly refer to me as Malcolm X, suggesting that I marginalize myself by candidly expressing my Black Nationalist beliefs. Some even try to convince me to “forget about the past.” In recent months, I’ve grown more confident in standing by what I say. In the process, I’ve built relationships with African organizers, young and old, and taken my message to the next level.

As often is the case, the work never stops, in part because there’s a significant segment of the diasporic African population hasn’t taken off their white mask to confront a world that hates everything about them.

Even worse, they vilify those of us who want to break out of the Matrix and take back the humanity stolen from us during Maafa, chattel slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, all the way up to the present day via the prison industrial complex. When we question and speak out against the perpetrators of our suffering, our Black peers call us angry. When we revere our African history, our Black peers call us “Hotep” in a derogatory manner. When we demand justice without apology, we’re lampooned and labeled as militant.

In the same breath, these cocky critics praise Williams for his brave comments, even as he openly lambastes them for thinking that their money, material possessions, and social status will protect them from the wrath of institutional racism. To this day, many of them haven’t done much beyond writing “Black Lives Matter” in their status messages and fawning over the latest celebrity musing about current racial events. Whether they will step away from the sideline and tangibly contribute to the movement remains to be seen.

From what I understand, many folks in most nationalist circles write off our well-to-do, somewhat cowardly brothers and sisters, advising us to forget about them and leave them behind when Babylon falls. I tend to think differently, maintaining my faith in their eventual radicalization by remembering Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and countless others who put their reputations and revenues on the line for the greater good.

Today, Jesse Williams and his contemporaries – including Jay Z and Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, and Zendaya – carry the torch in taking the conversation about the Black struggle to the mainstream and financially assisting grassroots organizers.

It’s time that the members of the Black young urban professional class, a group often known as Buppies, take notes and follow suit. They have to connect with the grassroots actors in their community and use their expertise, brain power, and resources to make our Nation more self-determined and economically independent. Very often, many of our elites take their talents to corporations, garner huge salaries, gentrify Black neighborhoods, and act violently toward their low-income counterparts. In essence, they’re perpetuating white supremacy – the very system Jesse Williams indicted.

If we are to truly see freedom across the board, ALL hands must be on deck, and not just on the computer screen. Just as Williams and others have done, those of us in positions of power must build with grassroots organizers and help keep the fight going on various fronts. We’re connected by virtue of our African heritage and common history of oppression. There’s no reason to stop at admiring what one man did. We can be the change we want to see. It’s just a matter of thinking outside of the box that America has created for us.

If you have a genuine interest in pushing the dial forward in the fight for our liberation and don’t know where to start, join us during what’s toured as the 2016 Message to the Grassroots, a part of the A Night of News & Music series at Sankofa Video, Books & Café in Washington, D.C., on the night of Friday, July 15th.

That evening, I’ll provide a critical analysis of current events, including Brexit and the closing of the Kendrick Johnson case in Atlanta, through a Pan-African millennial lens. Later, a number of neighborhood figures, each of whom is part of a grassroots movement for African liberation, will grace the stage and talk about their latest project.

Come through and build with your African brothers and sisters who’re in the trenches daily. If you can’t make that event, visit Sankofa and check out the extensive catalog of books that’s sure to make you question your “wokeness.” In anything you do, make sure you acknowledge and celebrate the work of our grassroots organizers just as Williams did in his viral speech.

I guarantee we’ll go further as a people for it.

Markus Batchelor Eyes State Board of Education Seat

PHOTO: Markus Batchelor, lifelong Ward 8 resident, community staple, and candidate for the Ward 8 seat on the D.C. State Board of Education./ Photo courtesy of Jamal Holtz 

At the age of 23, Markus Batchelor is far from a political novice. Since taking on the mantle of leadership in his adolescence, he has risen in prominence as president of the Ward 8 Democrats, ANC Commissioner for Single Member District 8C04, and most recently Ward 8 liaison in the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs (MOCA).

As he gears up to challenge Tierra Jolly for the Ward 8 representative seat on the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE), Batchelor reflects heavily on the experiences, elders and community programs that have enriched his short but fruitful life, pledging to do his part in creating a similar environment for thousands of youth if elected in November.

“Making sure children are successful is a community effort,” Batchelor, now the family and community liaison at the Far Southeast Collaborative, told AllEyesOnDC.

“My mother read to me at night and made sure to be involved at school. But she didn’t do it on her own. I had a neighbor who gave me chapter books to read. I had a deacon who took kids to vacation bible school for four weeks and that’s how he enriched the community. There was always someone on every block who looked out for me,” added Batchelor, a lifelong resident of Congress Heights in Southeast and an alumnus of the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute (MBYLI).

Earlier this year, Batchelor declared his candidacy for the Ward 8 State Board of Education seat, resigning from MOCA nearly 13 months into D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s term. Since then, it has been business as usual for the young politico who’s often found out and about at community gatherings, including ANC meetings and graduations.

During the D.C. Democratic primaries, he, along with members of his small campaign team, combed the main corridors, side streets, meeting spaces, and polling stations of Ward 8 with large blue, yellow and white signs in hand. Along the way, Batchelor cleared up any confusion about him running against D.C. Council member LaRuby May (D) and Trayon White for the Ward 8 Council seat. He also listened as parents and students vented about unresponsive administrators, culturally incompetent teachers, and unengaging school curricula.

For Batchelor, all aforementioned problems speak to what he described as the sitting Ward 8 representative’s lack of visibility and engagement with constituents.

This week, Batchelor started collecting signatures needed to place his name on the November general election ballot, affirming his commitment to challenging the status quo and getting parents more involved in shaping school policy. Plans if elected include restoring confidence in Ward 8 D.C. public schools, spurring parental grassroots organizing, pushing for allocation of additional resources, and the transformation of schools to centers that provide wrap-around services for families.

“I want to push for more PTAs and parent involvement. We need to empower both students and parents to advocate for themselves,” Batchelor said. “The State Board of Education members have to play that role as advocates for students and parents and galvanize them. No one is engaging our community. Our school board members have to get back to the basics and be community organizers, showing people that they have power. The schools don’t belong to the system or government. They belong to the community,” he added.

With the highest concentration of people under the age of 18, improving the quality of education in Ward 8 could cause a ripple effect for other facets of life for thousands of residents. The effects of high unemployment, a dearth of full-service grocery stores and amenities, drug abuse, mental illness, spikes in violent crime often follow youth into school, impeding learning and making parents feel powerless. Even worse, punitive measures taken against students maintain the school-to-prison pipeline.

Overall, D.C. Public Schools have a graduation rate of 58 percent, with the rates of Anacostia and Ballou High Schools, the only two of their kind in Ward 8, falling below 50 percent. Such conditions have compelled Ward 8 parents to look outside of the D.C. public school system, a trend that keeps Anacostia and Ballou underenrolled. Additionally, charter schools and private institutions outnumber public schools in Ward 8, a tell-tale sign of a national school privatization movement that has gained traction in recent years.

While some education experts have extolled these changes, some Ward 8 parents said they’re getting locked out of important conversations about their children’s education. For instance, Latiya Loring, a mother of two, said administrators at the D.C. Prep Benning Elementary Campus, formerly D.C. public school, don’t take her concerns about the Common Core standards and draconian disciplinary rules seriously.

“There are folks [in these schools] who are teaching just to pay their student loans. They go into poverty-stricken neighborhoods not knowing what these kids go through,” Loring told AllEyesOnDC, citing examples of when teachers punished her daughters for absences related to her bodily changes. “The kids get suspended for small things that could’ve gotten handled differently. It’s hard enough getting them through the door and we can’t keep discouraging them.”

Loring, an MBYLI alumna, said while she has never spoken to Batchelor extensively, she feels confident that he could bring a fresh perspective in the SBOE and ensure that administrators understand the complexities of life in Ward 8. “I’ve had a chance to see [Markus] in action and be that voice that gives us insight on the conversations young people are having. He sees what’s going on out there and he has access to certain areas because of his age.”

Jamal Holtz, a student who considers Batchelor his mentor, said he can attest to the young community leader’s ability to connect with residents and put his life on the line for D.C. youngsters. Since meeting Batchelor in MBYLI, Holtz has followed him around the city, learning the tricks of the trade and growing in his love for public service.

“I think Markus would make a great representative. He has been in the community his entire life,” said Holtz, a Bellevue resident and recent graduate of Friendship Collegiate Academy Public Charter School in Northeast.

“Long before he launched this campaign, he had visibility, going to graduations and talking to parents. He goes out in front of schools after hours. I know he’ll be very connected to parents and getting them involved. My entire family knows Markus. They look at him as a son and my mother [considers him] her son,” said Holtz, who’ll attend the University of Rochester on the POSSE Scholarship.

In late April, Batchelor took his outreach a step further when he accompanied a group of D.C. students to Flint, Michigan on their mission to supply those affected by the lead crisis with fresh bottles of water and connect with community leaders. The trip, organized by Black Millennials 4 Flint, a grassroots environmental justice movement, allowed the youngsters to better understand the effects of lead poisoning – and see Batchelor’s leadership firsthand.

“We didn’t have a lot of men present and the work we did was pretty tedious, requiring a lot of brawn to get things accomplished so we were grateful to have him,” Tricey Adams, founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint, told AllEyesOnDC. “He really encouraged some of the students on trip to be an intern for his campaign. It was powerful that all of the kids on the trip were from Ward 8. He inspired one of the young ladies on the trip to apply. That’s a testament to his commitment to the community and youth.”

Batchelor, who said he’s eager to revive elements of the Ward 8 community-oriented culture he knew as a child, admits that demographic changes and adult adverseness to interacting with rowdy youth impede that goal. However, he remains confident that he can do his part in helping parents and students to take charge of their school and communities.

For him, that’s the first of many steps in turning around a community that receives a bad rap for circumstances out of the control of those affected.

“We need someone on the school board who’s focused on quality of education and quality of life,” Batchelor said. “If they aren’t willing to talk about how poverty affects community and trauma and how home environment affects youth’s academic success, we’re doing them a disservice. Once young people get a better education, it’ll be easier for them to stand up for themselves. They can believe they can change things in their society,” he added.

D.C.’s Independent Voters Left Out Once Again

In this photo, a voter steps into a Northwest-based polling station. Less than one-fifth of D.C. voters registered as non-party affiliates, meaning they couldn’t participate in the June 14th Democratic primary. As history has shown, candidates who win the primaries go on to win the general election by default./ Courtesy photo 

Months of campaigning, canvassing, and debating came to an end on Tuesday when District voters took to the ballot box during closed Democratic primaries. Seats up for grabs during this election included those belonging to Wards 4,7, and 8 council members as well as D.C. Council member Vincent Orange, one of four at-large representatives.

Seeing as D.C. is a major Democratic city, candidates who garnered the most votes in the primary contest will more than likely breeze through November’s general election and into their coveted position of power. That means nearly one-fifth of non-party affiliated D.C. party voters are left out of the electoral process, a reality that doesn’t sit well with a growing contingent of this constituency.

“We want to go before Congress for D.C. statehood but we disenfranchise our own citizens when we don’t have an open primary system,” Southeast resident and non-party affiliated voter Akili West told AllEyesOnDC. “How are you going to be a state when you only got one party? The Republican Party is weak and people stopped believing in the ideals of the Green Statehood Party.”

West counts among the more than 72,000 registered D.C. voters who don’t identify with the Democratic, Republican, or Statehood Green parties. Last summer, he and five colleagues formed Emancip8, a political action committee that advocates for open primaries and educates voters about what West describes as the perils of the majority party’s stranglehold on local politics.

Emancip8’s inception came, in part, out of frustration with the litany of scandals plaguing the D.C. Council in recent years, including those involving former D.C. Council members Harry Thomas, Jr. and Michael Brown, along with what residents have described as the coalescing of sitting Council members and city officials around D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) as she attempts to secure deals for developers.

For West, this kind of political maneuvering confirmed the Democratic political machine’s exploitation of residents who suffer from few quality education choices, skyrocketing utility bills, and dearth the wrap-around community resources. He went on to cite Ward 8 Council member May’s absence from a Ward 8 Democrats campaign event, saying that D.C. Democratic politicians, feeling secure in their position within the majority party infrastructure, often take their voters for granted.

“I think it would be refreshing to have this type of engagement and shake the game up a little bit, all for the sake of a healthier Ward 8,” West said. “People have become timid, complacent, and with the attitude of resignation. [To them, it’s the thing of] If you can’t beat the politicians, join them. Everyone wants to be on the side of the winner.”

However, West and members of Emancip8 want to ensure that voters understand their power. With the D.C. Democratic primaries over, plans in the works include rallying independent Council members around the idea of open primaries and hosting community events where residents could learn about the benefits of a political contest in which all voters, regardless of the party affiliation, can participate.

Making this goal come to fruition may prove to be an uphill battle.

The prevailing argument for closed primaries centers on the threat of outside forces influencing the affairs of political parties. In 2000, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 against open primaries, saying that they violated political parties’ First Amendment right of free association. In the majority opinion, then-Justice Antonin Scalia argued that allowing non-party affiliated voters to participate in party contests “could be enough to destroy the party.”

Since before Home Rule, much of D.C.’s majority African-American population joined the Democratic Party, due mainly to its support of Civil Rights legislation in prior decades. Since Walter E. Washington (D) became the District’s first mayor, winners of subsequent Democratic primaries for that office have automatically snatched victory in the general election.

With more than 75 percent of the electorate registered under the Democratic Party, this continues to be the case for many Democratic politicians. In the D.C. Council, all but two seats belong to members of the majority party, as mandated in the Home Rule Act of 1975. Those two representatives, Elissa Silverman and David Grosso identify as members of the Independent Party. In years past, Democratic politicians desperate to win office in unfavorable conditions circumvented these electoral rules, switching to the Independent Party rather than face defeat in the party primary.

In recent years, voters nationwide have increasingly shied away from the major parties for more substantive reasons, a phenomenon that has caused a ripple effect throughout several electoral contests. In April, 3 million independent voters couldn’t vote in the closed Democratic primaries to the dismay of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I- VT) who has gained support among young people disillusioned with income inequality, corporate greed, and other issues. Nearly 20 percent of Maryland voters who registered as independent faced the same dilemma that month when they couldn’t participate in closed primaries. In his Baltimore Sun op-ed, David Bittle railed against the Democratic establishment, arguing that closed primaries benefit party elites, and not common folk frustrated with their political leaders’ acquiescence to lobbyists and special interest dollars.

Kentry Kinard, public charter school educator and non-party affiliated voter, shares these sentiments, telling AllEyesOnDC that closed primaries hinder free-thinking people’s ability to hold elected officials accountable during elections.

“The election process is the biggest thing stopping a sincere political reform movement or revolution. As long as there’s dark money in politics and we have the electoral college and superdelegates, I don’t see any way that the people can get a hold on their elected officials, the people who are supposed to represent them,” Kinard, 33, said.

During his interview, the Ward 5 voter spoke candidly about city politics, saying it seems that leaders, including D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D), his representative on the D.C. Council, see their position as a stepping stone to something greater rather than as a means of helping constituents. For Kinard, the leadership style of today’s politicians differ greatly from that of the late Harry Thomas, Sr. and Marion S. Barry, Jr., both of whom he said easily related to the people.

As a non-party affiliated voter, there’s little Kindard could do to influence policy at the ballot box. However, he has found alternatives in making his voice heard, one of which include joining advocacy organizations. He said this method has been of great use, helping him voice his concerns about affordable housing, school choice, the minimum wage, and public transportation.

“The cost [of living is] getting higher and it’s not getting any easier on the residents who’ve been living here for a long time. We’ve seen rapid gentrification in all of the wards,” Kindard said. “That’s why you got to make your own decision. Electoral politics is one part of a holistic process. Get involved through organizations. You can see what’s holding us back and keeping us from having the power that we’re taught we’re supposed to have in our democratic system. We have to get the money out of politics. Right now, the dollars have more of a voice.”

Lifelong D.C. resident and non-party affiliated voter Zaccai Free said he found similar success in acting outside of electoral politics, often attending rallies and testifying at D.C. Council hearings.

Like most independent voters, Free has little faith in the two-party system, a world he said has become inundated with cronyism and pay-to-play politics that don’t benefit voters committed to the major parties. That belief, however, hasn’t stopped him from holding elected officials accountable when it comes to marijuana legalization, arts education, and criminal justice reform.

“Once the politicians get into office, it’s their job to respond to the will of the people,” Free, a Ward 7 resident, told AllEyesOnDC. “The more you push them to represent your interests, the better. People just vote and walk away, forgetting that aspect which I feel is the most important part. If you’re not in your representative’s ear, your vote is a wasted one.”

While the primary contest between D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander and former D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has sparked interest among politicos, the race has infuriated Free who said he’s frustrated with what he described as the lack of action against high illiteracy and spikes in youth violence in the area.

“It’s sad that we have to choose between an absentee incumbent and a former mayor who survived a scandal by the skin of his teeth,” said Free, who lives in Benning Heights. “There’s a lack of vision in Ward 7. We don’t have anyone who’s connected to the people. The Democrats are doing what the establishment machine often does: keep its power. It’s not about helping the people.”

As the dust settles from the grueling months of Democratic Party infighting and party members unify once again, West said he has his sights set on helping independent voters have their voices heard by the next election. In doing so, he wants to challenge the narrative of Black people giving one group all of their voting power.

“There’s an unfair assumption by African Americans that they have to be Democrats. I’ve always missed out on the primaries and for years, it didn’t matter that much. I felt that there weren’t many political choices. Now things are changing as far as people running outside of the ticket. There are some real independents in this city but you still have to vote for a Democrat, or a Democrat disguised as an Independent.”

Forum Centers on Jobs, Development

(L-R) G. Lee Aiken, Robert White, and David Garber addressed residents’ questions about job preparedness, unemployment and underemployment among east-of-the-river residents, high levels of lead in the water, community-police relationships, and small business ownership during the Equitable Economic Development Forum on May 31st./ Photo courtesy of Kymone Freeman

During the evening hours last week, Southeast resident Jennifer Blocker left her home and walked up the street in search of answers at what was anticipated to be the largest community forum to take place during this election season.

Not long after entering THEARC on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast, Blocker, a community member of more than a decade, told a panel of Ward 8 D.C. Council candidates about her precarious living situation and the constant threats of eviction coming her way amid impending development and rent hikes.

Each person on stage that night addressed Blocker’s concerns. Bonita Goode stressed the importance of proactively engaging developers years before their plans come to fruition. Aaron Holmes briefly explained the difference between development and gentrification, stating the former could benefit the community if done correctly. Trayon “WardEight” White decried regulations that shut out low-income residents based on fluctuating measurements of “median income.”

None of those answers, however, appeased Blocker.

“There’s so much development going on and I haven’t gotten an answer about what [developers and elected officials] are doing. I want them to let us know,” Blocker told AllEyesOnDC at the end of the Equitable Economic Development Forum, a three-hour gathering that attracted more than 100 community members, activists, and grassroots organizers on May 31st, the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Riots.

“If developers are coming through, people should be able to keep their home at the price they currently got on the books. Some of the laws they said they have in place aren’t really there. Folks aren’t equipped [for this] so we have to be educated,” Blocker added.

Guests who attended the forum have long shared similar apprehension to the changes coming to economically struggling communities of Wards 7 and 8. For nearly a decade, much of the District has undergone an urban renaissance at the expense of Black residents whose history in the city spans generations. As upper and middle-class whites flocked to D.C.’s gentrified neighborhoods, more than 40,000 residents got pushed out to the suburbs, succumbing to the burden of rising rent and property taxes.

In 2011, D.C. lost its Black majority for the first time since Home Rule, an event some described as a sign of the changing tide in “Chocolate City.” Until recently, areas east of the Anacostia River remained virtually untouched but construction projects underway, including the Wizards’ practice facility and Mystics’ arena on the campus of the former St. Elizabeths hospital, have raised eyebrows among residents who fear that they too will be displaced.

That Tuesday evening, Kymone Freeman, co-owner of We Act Radio, and WPFW 89.3’s Jennifer Bryant moderated forums and Q&A sessions between residents and candidates for the At-Large and Ward 8 D.C. Council seats. Community member-submitted questions touched on job preparedness, unemployment and underemployment among east-of-the-river residents, high levels of lead in the water, community-police relationships, and small business ownership.

“This event is our effort to bring the goals outlined in the 2015 City First Foundation Community Development Conference to fruition by including the very people who are affected by policy,” Freeman told AllEyesOnDC.

During the event, he lectured audience members, imploring them to gain more of an understanding of how politicians and developers often collude to displace them. “These solutions presented work toward a collective vision for the development of housing, small business and employment in D.C.’s most vulnerable communities,” Freeman added.

That evening, a cadre of At-Large D.C. Council candidates, including David Garber (D), Robert White (D), and G. Lee Aiken (D.C. Statehood Green Party), sat on stage on a long table alongside Belluve resident “Ms. TJ” as they weighed in on issues of the minimum wage, the D.C. public school system, and rising housing costs. When an audience member asked candidates if they would work to get rid of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson if elected, all except Garber answered “yes.”

In spite of some of her well-articulated points, audience members often reacted negatively to Aiken, an elderly white woman, with loud coughs, particularly after she referred to them as “you people,” in her pleas for them to get involved in the political process.

Garber also became the center of slight controversy when an audience member took to the mic and recounted a negative experience he had renting living space from the D.C. Council candidate. As the night went on, focus shifted more to policy issues, with candidates giving wonky solutions to residents’ most pressing problems.

In response to inquiries about the possibility of the minimum wage rising to $15 per hour, White, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, said it would be a good start, adding that a viable jobs program would give residents the tools needed to advance professionally and earn more. On stage, he pledged to improve programs he said suffered under Orange’s control.

“Vincent Orange has been [on the Council] for a decade and we haven’t been a decade better. $15 an hour is good but you’re still living in poverty,” White told audience members. Throughout the evening, he showed strong support for D.C. statehood, reflecting on his work with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to further that cause and pointing out that the District loses out on millions of dollars because commuters can’t be taxed.

“If we pay federal taxes like every jurisdiction, we should have the same voice and a say in the direction of this nation. We [also] have to train our people up. We have a failed jobs program under Orange. We’re not even spending the millions of the federal money [given to D.C.]. We need someone who can pick up the ball Vincent Orange dropped and run with it.”

The Ward 8 candidates faced similar pressure to answer questions about lead water, public safety, jobs, schools, and economic development.

Throughout that portion, Holmes and Trayon White reiterated talking points about their community experience and knowledge of the political process. The former suggested bringing schools together to share best practices and providing long-term tax relief to residents most likely to be affected by gentrification. In his responses, White recounted bringing attention to lead water in D.C. schools early on and drew a connection between the public health debacle and the school-to-prison pipeline.

In a performance comparable to that of Walter Mondale during the 1984 presidential election, Goode often challenged residents to take their communities into their hands, positioning herself as a conduit between them and D.C. Council, rather than a “savior.”

“We need to start educating and changing ourselves,” Goode told the audience in an effort to dispel the notion that Ward 8 doesn’t have community institutions that can address violence, employment, and other issues. “This thing has mostly been a popularity contest and money campaign. It’s important for us not to lose interest. I want people to read and get that knowledge. We need to change our mindset, support ourselves, and strengthen our own communities.”

To Freeman’s chagrin, not all contestants for the June 14th Democratic primaries showed up.

Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander and her challenger, former D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray declined to attend; their absences automatically cancelled that segment. Others missing that night included D.C. Council members Vincent Orange (D- At-Large) and LaRuby May (D- Ward 8). May and Gray sent letters expressing their commitment to equal development and stopping resident displacement.

Sirraya Grant, Ward 7 resident and Gray supporter, seemed unmoved by the Ward 7 candidates’ absence. She told AllEyesOnDC that the time for debating has passed.

“I can see why they didn’t show up. At this point, forums should be over,” Grant said. “It’s about getting early voting and getting the candidates out there. Candidates should be able to galvanize their voters. We need new leadership. Yvette Alexander hasn’t really addressed a lot and you don’t really see her engaging residents and getting stuff done until campaigning time. It shouldn’t take an election to get the streets fixed,” she added.

A lifelong Ward 8 resident who went by the pseudonym Malcolm X had different thoughts, saying he cherished any opportunity for those hoping to be elected officials to address the people.

“I’m very happy that we’re having conversation about economic development. It’s appropriate for Ward 8,” Malcolm, a baby boomer, told AllEyesOnDC. “If the agenda is political, let the candidates have their say and show that they’re doing their best. Too often, we’re quick to criticize, but we don’t take the time to listen. It’s great that the floor was open for residents to ask questions.”

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