District of Columbia: Emancipated but not Free

[symple_column size="two-third" position="first"]By Malik Burnett MD, MBA

Emancipation Day was this past Saturday in the District of Columbia. While the parades and celebration are all excellent ways to celebrate this fateful day; it is important to take a moment to reflect on the notion that citizens of the District of Columbia while emancipated, are not free.

Emancipate, by definition, is to free from restraint, control, or the power of another; and it is almost exclusively used in modern parlance in the context of slavery.  

Freedom, on the other hand, by definition is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without the hindrance or restraint; it is the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.

Looking at these two definitions, hopefully it is starting to become clear why the District of Columbia is emancipated, but not free.

To expand on this idea further, consider the following in the context of drug policy: the citizens of the District of Columbia have rights which are like a convicted felon out on parole and the United States Congress is the District’s Corrections Officer.

On parole, an individual is able to participate in society, so long as they

1) Check in with their corrections officer and

2) Don’t violate the terms of their parole.

This defines the legal situation for the District of Columbia which passes laws that are checked by the United States Congress and is subject to Congressional appropriations riders which define the terms under which the District can govern itself. In the case of both the felon and the District’s elected officials freedom hangs in the balance should the terms be violated.

Another, more pernicious, example of how the District has rights like a convicted felon on parole is the fact that both the District and the felon have been disenfranchised. The right to vote, is the bed rock upon which this Nation was built, and ironically it is in the Nation’s capital where that right is most under threat. From our lack of voting representation in the Congress, to the Congress’s consistent efforts to overturn our local ballot initiatives, like Initiative 71 legalizing cannabis possession in the Nation’s capital, District residents constantly find ourselves asking do our votes really matter?

The fact that we have made progress on cannabis reform, elected an independent attorney general and attained local budget autonomy means the answer to that question is a resounding YES. It means that the fight for legislative autonomy, for voting representation, for freedom is alive and well in the District of Columbia.

The reformers in this movement are like modern day abolitionists fighting for a better tomorrow, and much like the efforts that led to passage of the DC Compensated Emancipation Act of 1861 it will take a concerted effort from citizens around the country to truly Free DC. As a wise man once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and through our continued efforts we will ultimately get to the day where in the District of Columbia we will not only celebrate being emancipated but be able to celebrate being truly free.