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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > District Under State of Emergency

The District of Columbia should be declared a “state of emergency” so that federal disaster relief can commence, urged dozens of local citizen groups who call themselves the Fair Budget Coalition. No floods, hurricanes or pestilence are involved; just a disaster of abdication by the business rulers and political governors of the nation’s capital.

Let’s start with the small syndromes. Residents drive their cars and light trucks daily over the same jarring pot holes. Weeks go by and no one calls the District government to pinpoint the complaint. No one calls the District’s bluff that they will fix potholes in three days or less. No one cares enough.

District government trash street containers are always overflowing. Budget cuts have sharply reduced the number of sanitation workers and trucks and most of the remaining trucks are in sad disrepair.

Mitchell Park residents are collecting their own money to clean up the little park in their neighborhood. The broke District government is supposed to do this job with their property taxes. The federal government payments formula to the District, for taking up so much land, is shortchanging D.C. by about $500 million a year, a blue ribbon group of accountants and lawyers reported recently. That is almost the size of this year’s deficit. Nothing happens.

A D.C. health department warning to residents in southeast Washington to boil their drinking water. Risky bacteria was found

in the ageing pipe systems.

The rich in Washington can opt out. They have their bottled water, their clubs, their private schools and their residential roads are not in that bad shape. The “other Washington, D.C.” is not so fortunate; one sixth of the population doesn’t have health insurance. Sixty percent of the city’s poor households regularly run out of money for food. The one public hospital is nearing a closedown. The Public housing agency is in receivership while other agencies — prisons, foster care — are under court orders for underperformance.

Long lines form for motor vehicle inspections and other local government services. The delays are such that private firms will stand in line for you — for a fee.

Whose responsible for the continuation of the decay, depravity and poverty of the nation’s capital? “Duty,” said the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, “arises from the power to alter the course of events.” When governments fail, it is up to the citizenry to arouse themselves. Which citizenry first — the sick, poor, the powerless or the healthy, affluent and powerful? The local well-to-dos of the D.C. region can escape much of the pain of this deterioration and they can look the other way. So, with few luminous exceptions, the banks, insurance companies, chain stores, trade associations, lobbying firms, big non-profits like Fannie Mae (which is exempted by Congress from paying the District’s $300 million income tax every year), accounting firms, other major businesses, medical profession and lawyers just make their money and look the other way.

The Washington Post gives the headlines of local disasters and cruel neglects; the local evening television news provides the police blotter of street crimes. The wealthy establishment tsks tsks and looks the other way.

Something has to start somewhere. A group of practicing attorneys has formed the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Appleseed is an apt metaphor. They are trying — a very difficult task — to galvanize the District’s immensely wealthy legal establishment to use their knowhow and muscle to help the community to rescue itself.

The seeds of a vigorous democracy can liberate the immense talent and knowledge of the D.C. area to solve its problems. But citizenship and community spirit is in high demand and low supply. One trial attorney years ago started a Foundation to support and recognize small community groups trying to lift up neighborhoods and protect their children. His name is Jack Olender — a medical malpractice specialist — who has yet to be emulated by the practicing corporate lawyers who make half a million to a million and a half a year.

Civic leadership is the diamond of democracy — more for its rarity than its resistance to erosion. Is the District of Columbia’s problems all that different from any other cities around the nation? It all starts with civic leadership; just like America did.