Thousands of miles from the US capital, a group of progressive protesters recently marched to the office of their senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, to demand that she support statehood for Washington DC.
The protest was notable because of its setting of Anchorage, Alaska, and similar demonstrations have recently been popping up all across America. Progressives from Arizona to New York have taken pictures with 51-star flags to show their support for making DC the first new state to join the union since Hawaii in 1959.
Previously dismissed by its critics as a regional issue, DC statehood has gained national prominence in recent years, and that increased attention has now translated into legislative action. Late last month, the House passed a DC statehood bill with a record number of co-sponsors, and Joe Biden has offered a full-throated endorsement of the proposal.
This momentum has given activists hope that now – with Democrats controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress – DC statehood may finally become a reality. However, numerous challenges remain in the evenly divided Senate, and Republicans are determined to keep just 50 stars on the American flag.
For statehood advocates, this moment feels like an opportunity to correct a 200-year-old injustice. The District’s population of 700,000 is more than that of Wyoming and Vermont, and DC residents pay more in federal taxes than their counterparts in 22 states, yet they do not have congressional representation. Perhaps even more infuriating for statehood supporters is the fact that DC laws are subject to congressional review, meaning lawmakers from around the country have an effective veto on local proposals.
The issue of race is also front and center, given that DC’s citizens are predominantly people of color and their full rights as Americans are being curtailed mostly by Republicans in the Senate, who skew heavily white.
DC residents themselves largely support statehood. In 2016, the District held a referendum on the issue, and 86% of voters backed statehood.
“This fight is the most pressing voting rights fight and the most pressing civil rights fight of our lifetime,” said Jamal Holtz, a leader of 51 for 51, which advocates for statehood. “We should not be okay with American citizens not having voter representation.”
The lack of representation for DC residents has been the subject of international condemnation. The United Nations human rights committee has repeatedly said DC’s current political status is a human rights violation that flies in the face of America’s international treaty obligations.
Arturo Carrillo, the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at George Washington University law school, said the injustice of the situation is somewhat ironic. In the capital of one of the oldest democracies in the world, citizens are not represented at the federal level.
“The paradox is so profound that you almost don’t believe it,” Carrillo said. “It can’t really be like that, can it? But it is. It is exactly as bad as it looks. And all you’ve got to do is drive around Washington DC, and look at our license plates. You’ll see they say, ‘End taxation without representation.’”
But for Republicans, the true injustice would be if DC, a city of just 68 sq miles, were granted statehood and the two US senators that come with it. Republican leaders have criticized the statehood push as a Democratic “power grab” that contradicts the founders’ wishes for the capital district to be completely under federal control.
“If DC were to become a state, Democrats would gain two reliably liberal seats in the US Senate,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “They cite various reasons for why they want DC statehood, but the truth is that these extra Senate seats would be a rubber stamp for their…