To live in the District of Columbia is to experience a civic schizophrenia. Like all cities, we have a unique local identity, but we are inhabited by federal government which brings with it a focus on national politics. Many of our most important cultural icons go unseen by visitors, whether it is food or music or history. Government has always felt imposed here, especially since residents of the capital do not enjoy the full rights and privileges of American citizenship. DC is notorious for being the only city in America where the revolutionary slogan, “taxation without representation” still has real meaning for citizens, where the struggle for full democracy continues to unfold.
Something profound has happened here now though. The pandemic’s impact began by driving people off our city streets, but now it has been overcome by recent events and a greater calling – an urgent yearning for equality and the realization of full democracy. Suddenly, our streets are alive with people engaged like I’ve never seen before. We are marching. We are demonstrating. We are exercising our rights to freedom of assembly and expression in many creative forms. There are parts of our city covered in new murals and banners, thousands of posters and even some performance art – all in the cause of equality and democracy.
Our city has some of the greatest public spaces for protest in the history of the world, including The National Mall, Freedom Plaza, the Ellipse and Pennsylvania Avenue. However, in recent months we have witnessed the birth of a new, profoundly beautiful space for public expression that is emblazoned with an anthem that can be seen from space: BLACK LIVES MATTER Plaza! This plaza has become the epicenter for democratic expression during the pandemic. We may be masked and socially distant, but we are not silent. Our city is visibly, demonstrably alive with democracy. It has transformed into an epicenter of civic action during the pandemic.
In July, following the deaths of two of our nation’s greatest civil rights champions, I decided to visit the Lincoln Memorial to watch the sunrise and reflect on all that is changing. It is an incredible feeling to climb those sacred steps and stand in the very spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his immortal speech and look out over our National Mall – and realize that the sun still rises on ‘The Dream’ for us as long as we participate in making it a reality.
Image: Black Lives Matter Plaza, 2020. Source: Author’s own