Outreach group seeks to empower Anacostia with the spirit of Frederick Douglass
|June 15, 2012||Posted by John Zangas under News, Print Issues, Stories, Volume 2, Issue 4 (July/August 2012)|
The Frederick Douglass House, the one-time residence of the celebrated social reformer, abolitionist, and former slave sits on a hill in Anacostia overlooking the river, with the capital’s famous monuments visible in the distance. Recently, the house has become a focal point for the activities of Occupy DC’s Progressive Black Caucus.
Every Saturday since January, Caucus members have held a vigil at the memorial site, displaying protest signs and speaking to tourists about the pervasive social and economic ills impacting local residents. The vigil is part of the Progressive Black Caucus’ outreach project in D.C.’s troubled Ward 8.
According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the nation’s capital has one of the highest levels of income inequality among U.S. cities, with the wealthiest 20 per cent earning, on average, almost 30 times more than the poorest 20 per cent. These disparities are split between the Wards, and are strongly racialized. In 2010, 412 Ward 3 residents claimed food stamp assistance, less than 0.5 per cent of the area population. In Ward 8, that figure was 35,423, over half of the area’s residents. Ward 3 is 78 percent white, non-hispanic, whereas Ward 8, is 94 per cent African American. A recent study by the District Based Urban Institute, found the unemployment in Anacostia to be 25 per cent. This is among the highest unemployment rate of any American city.
Long-time activist C-money has been involved with the Caucus since October last year. He believes youth outreach will help solve some of the issues facing the neighborhood. “All my life I’ve lived in Southeast [D.C.] and we’re not educating our youth about the history of Frederick Douglass. Half of them don’t know who he was or his history.”
The battle for fair access to education will not be easy. In January, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray recommended the District close more than three dozen public schools in its poorest neighborhoods, in favor of charter schools. Yet C-money remains upbeat: “We can make [positive change] happen once we educate our youth and once they know what Frederick Douglass stood for [and] his life history.”
“Frederick Douglass would have been interested in the issues the occupy movement is interested in,” adds Jeremy, a National Park tour guide. “Douglass invited high profile guests to his home and served them elaborate dinners, so he could speak with them about his vision for equality,” he explained.
Raymond Voide, an artist who has designed art and projects illustrations for Occupy DC, painted an 18-foot banner for display at the Douglas House. The banner bears a famous Douglass quote: “Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”
He donated his “most valuable piece of artwork” to the Caucus to help raise awareness of a “revitalization of the Frederick Douglass spirit” in the area. He argues, “if you want to fix what’s wrong with the country you have to talk to the people who have been hit the most.” Voide says minorities have been hardest hit by home foreclosures. The numerous vacant buildings, lots and abandoned structures in Anacostia seem to confirm his suspicions. “Minorities have been given more bad housing loans by banks than any other group,” Voide says, before noting, “We have to listen to people more than we talk to them in order to outreach to them”.
Tony Davis has been with Occupy DC since October. Before the movement came to DC, Davis wanted to send a message to President Obama. Having recently been made homeless, he was drawn to the Occupy movement in hopes of finding solutions to the housing crisis. Davis agrees that revitalizing the area requires community outreach: “We need to bring awareness to the hood and show the people they have a voice; that all the issues Frederick Douglas stood for are still their issues.” He glances at the twenty foot banner of Douglass’ portrait before continuing: “He agitated and we gotta continue to agitate, mobilize to fight joblessness, homelessness, profiling and the injustice of massive incarceration of our black brothers.”
At the vigil, occupiers unfurl the banner across the front porch. The ranger appears at the door and rubs his temples before gently admonishing the Caucus members to move their placards from the area. “We support your right to be here,” he says, “but we also have to consider the rights of others who want to photograph and visit the home.”
Reluctantly, the protesters roll up their banner, needing to protect it from the rain anyway. They intend to return each Saturday from noon until 5:00 p.m., however, until a critical mass joins them in the vigil. They say there is much to be done and much to fight for in the neighbourhood. “We’re not living the dream of MLK or Frederick Douglass. I mean look around here,” says C-money, before loudly proclaiming, “but we can make it happen.”