Crime in D.C., has recently become a national political story. Even though recent data shows crime in the capital is actually decreasing, dozens of Democrats in Congress crossed party lines to pass a bill overturning a D.C. law that modernized the District’s criminal code and reduced maximum sentences for some crimes. President Biden signed it into law in March.
Politicians and pundits praised this stunning denial of democracy as a victory for public safety. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defended overturning D.C. policy by criticizing and patronizing D.C. elected officials: “When the soft-on-crime local government has become this completely incompetent … then it’s about time our federal government provides some adult supervision.” Now, legislators are reportedly considering overturning police reform measures that D.C. lawmakers wrote in the wake of nationwide protests for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
The politicization of D.C. crime and the push for federal intervention in D.C.’s affairs are historically precedented. Just after the 1968 uprising in the city prompted by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., officials sought to impose tough, punitive measures that they argued would deter and decrease crime. These interventions came even as the D.C. government sought to reduce racial inequities in the criminal justice system by limiting the power of police and giving the predominantly Black community more control. In a conflict between local community control and aggressive policing, however, policing won.
Fifty-five years ago today, King was assassinated in Memphis. Across the country, thousands of Black Americans took to the streets in grief and anger. Compared to simultaneous uprisings in more than 100 American cities, the District’s disorder resulted in the most property damage but also the most arrests and federal troop involvement.
In the months after the 1968 uprising, a cloud of concern about crime hung over the city. The nearby suburban Fairfax School District, for example, indefinitely banned school trips to the capital after the unrest. Virginia Ali, co-owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, recalled that many people were afraid to come to the restaurant, located next to many damaged businesses: “The riots had a very profound effect, and people were actually afraid to come into the neighborhood.”
National politicians and some local groups capitalized on this fear to push for “tough on crime” measures and federal intervention that they had advocated for even before the rebellions.
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), for example, wanted federal troops to “stay indefinitely.” The Washington Board of Trade’s president and the broadcast company WMAL also supported stationing federal troops throughout the capital. “Semi-martial law is not a pleasant idea,” a WMAL editorial claimed, “but there seems little choice.” Campaigning for president, Richard M. Nixon made crime in D.C. a cornerstone of his message, calling the city the “crime capital of the world.”