Recent Protests Outside D.C. Council Members' Homes Spark Backlash — Here's Why A demonstration has led to a counterprotest, a debate about tactics for activism, and an opportunity for candidates in the crowded at-large race to sling shots at one another.
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NPR logo Recent Protests Outside D.C. Council Members' Homes Spark Backlash — Here's Why

Recent Protests Outside D.C. Council Members' Homes Spark Backlash — Here's Why

Protesters with Sunrise Movement DC held a demonstration outside of Councilmember Anita Bonds' house late on Oct. 9, calling for comprehensive rent control. Courtesy of/Sunrise Movement DC hide caption

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Courtesy of/Sunrise Movement DC

A protest outside of At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds' house the other week has led to a counterprotest, a debate about demonstration tactics, and an opportunity for some candidates in the crowded at-large race to sling shots at one another. If you missed the videos and the dueling statements, we're here to help with an explainer about this kerfuffle, and some background on "home visits" in the city.

What happened at Bonds' house on October 9?

Around 11 p.m. on that Friday, members of Sunrise Movement DC gathered outside of Bonds' house with a message about housing reform and rent control. Sunrise Movement is a national environmental advocacy organization with a series of local hubs, including a District-based chapter, which is part of the Reclaim Rent Control coalition calling for sweeping changes to the city's protections for tenants. Their asks include expanding rent control to more tenants and limiting how much landlords can raise rent annually. Bonds, a Democrat, serves as the chair of the D.C. Council's housing committee, and has control over which bills get public hearings and come to a vote on the five-person committee.

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Sunrise Movement DC organizer Aura Angélica says the group specifically chose that day to protest outside of Bonds' house to call her out for what they deemed a broken promise from the councilmember: She pledged after a September housing committee hearing that a bill mirroring the coalition's demands would get a hearing in early November. But when the schedule of forthcoming council hearings came out on October 9, they didn't see that hearing on the list. The activists, who numbered more than a dozen, knocked on Bonds' door around 11 p.m. When she declined to come outside to speak with them, they proceeded to protest for about an hour outside her house with signs and chants through a bullhorn calling for comprehensive rent control legislation.

Bonds, who is Black, told WUSA 9 that "these are the same tactics the KKK used against Black people."

Marcus Goodwin, a candidate in the at-large race who Sunrise criticized for his job as a developer and campaign donations from the business community, said in a statement that the protesters "harassed [Bonds] through a megaphone, vandalized the Marcus Goodwin campaign sign in her front yard, and dumped stolen Marcus Goodwin campaign signs on her property. This is not the Washington, D.C. that anyone wants to live in — where an African American woman, inside her own home, is terrorized at midnight by a group of radicals." Goodwin is also Black.

(Bonds has not officially endorsed Goodwin, though she has spoken favorably about his campaign. He unsuccessfully challenged her in the 2018 Democratic primary.)

Sunrise Movement DC responded in a statement that it "unequivocally condemns these characterizations, and emphasizes that CM Bonds and Goodwin have used them to distract from the violence of gentrification in D.C. and their lack of action during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black and brown D.C. residents."

Is this a new protest tactic?

No, protesters have long held demonstrations outside the homes of both public officials and private citizens, though the tactic certainly seems to have gotten more attention during the Trump administration. Back in 1970, hundreds of demonstrators went to the Watergate to protest a court verdict, choosing the home of a slate of Nixon officials and Republican legislators because the complex "symbolizes the ruling class."

And while federal government officials are often the target of so-called "home visits," it's also a tactic used on the local level. Ed Lazere, another candidate for the open at-large seat (more on that in a moment), recalls going to a protest two dozen years ago outside of then-Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans' house to call for a better affordable housing bill. "We got [Evans] to say 'yes' in front of his house," says Lazere. Housing advocates have also held protests outside of developers' homes.

Just as home visits are not new, neither is the controversy around them. Critics contend that the tactic is uncivil and threatening. Sometimes the targets of the protests use them to garner sympathy or, in the case of a recent early morning Sunrise protest at Senator Lindsey Graham's house, to fundraise.

Protesters, meanwhile, often say that disruption is part of effective advocacy.

The issue has come up before the D.C. Council, which passed the Residential Tranquility Act in 2010. The legislation further limited protesters' ability to demonstrate outside of homes at night, in response to an animal rights group's protests. (Bonds told WUSA 9 that she almost called the cops on the Sunrise protesters because they were breaking the law by protesting outside her house at night. Angélica, meanwhile, says that police were on the scene and did not intervene.)

This isn't even a new tactic for Bonds, who was among many D.C. councilmembers whose homes saw protests over the summer. Many of those demonstrations took place during the day, though not all of them. Mayor Muriel Bowser's home has been the site of multiple protests over the past few years, including a dance party in June.

Angélica says the tactic is especially important in 2020 because the pandemic bars protesters from going to public officials' offices and restricts most hearings to virtual forums, making it harder to contact politicians or find venues to protest them. But putting COVID-era restrictions aside, she believes there's still a place for a home visit.

"If D.C. residents are up all night worried about how they're going to pay their rent ... worried about eviction, why do you get to sleep a peaceful night?" she says. "Is it annoying for the neighbors? Yeah. Is it annoying for D.C. residents not to have housing protection? It's more than annoying — it's life threatening."

What does this have to do with the at-large race?

By October 14, Goodwin followed up his initial statement with a shot across the bow at Lazere, one of his competitors in the at-large race. Both of them are seen as top-tier candidates, with Goodwin representing the more business-friendly perspective and Lazere earning the endorsement of most of the city's labor unions and left-leaning groups, including Sunrise Movement DC.

Goodwin accused Lazere of encouraging Sunrise to protest at officials' homes.

"Three days before the Sunrise Movement went to Anita Bonds' house, stood in the street, and waved stolen and vandalized campaign signs of mine, Ed told them in an interview to stand outside the homes of elected officials and get in their faces," Goodwin tells DCist. "I imagine it's not a coincidence."

He also said that a family living in his former residence was woken up by protesters with the group (the social media account he included in his statement appears to be from a different hub of the Sunrise Movement associated with the School Without Walls, not the chapter that endorsed Lazere). Goodwin called on Lazere to "disavow their actions and their endorsement."

Lazere and Angélica, meanwhile, both deny that he had anything to do with the protest outside of Bonds' house.

"I praised [Sunrise Movement DC] for their activism, including visiting councilmembers at their homes, and encouraged them to do the same to me if elected," says Lazere. "I was commenting on something they've already done. I read about the protests [at Bonds' house] like everybody else."

So what's this I hear about a counterprotest?

Goodwin's statement tying Sunrise to Lazere came out on Wednesday. That evening, a group of people organizing under the banner "Protect Black Women" appeared outside Lazere's house to protest, according to WUSA 9.

Fitness professional Gym Jonez says he was one of the protesters. "Eleven-thirty, midnight should not be the time to protest a 75-year-old elderly woman. There's got to be some boundaries to this thing," he says, adding that after seeing the protest at Bonds' house, he "called up some friends of mine who felt the same way" to go to Lazere's house and demand an apology on behalf of Bonds.

"We wanted him to say, 'Hey, I don't condone that,'" says Jones. "We're just a group of passionate Black and brown people who care about the community, who just want some atonement for the action."

Lazere says that "it's fine" for the group to protest at his house, while noting that he's skeptical about the protesters' claims.

If the demonstrators opposed "protesting at someone's house, particularly a Black woman's house, then they violated their own rule by protesting at my house," says Lazere. (While he is white, his wife is Black.) "It just felt like a campaign stunt ... It's a little surprising that this group would come together organically so quickly to protect a councilmember if they hadn't had a connection already, given that the only criticism that connected me to Anita Bonds came from Marcus Goodwin."

Goodwin denies any ties to Jonez and says he doesn't "have any real strong opinion" about the counterprotest, adding "But honestly, [Lazere] got a taste of exactly what he was advocating for."

Jonez also says he and the "Protect Black Women" protesters are not connected to Goodwin, and he isn't even sure who he'll vote for in the at-large race. "We just came together," Jonez says. "We just saw, hey, they're picking on an older Black woman ... We just wanted to be the voice for someone who, we knew she wasn't going to fight back."

Bonds, meanwhile, appears to be trying to create some distance between herself and the tactics of the group that claims it's fighting back on her behalf.

"I just think it is very disrespectful to demonstrate late at night, and disturb the peace in my neighborhood, or anyone's neighborhood," she said in a statement to DCist. "I don't know who the various groups of protesters are, but I do believe their tactics crossed the line, and are wrong."

Where do things stand now?

Despite the efforts of the counterprotesters, Lazere did not disavow the Sunrise Movement. Quite the opposite. He came out with a statement that reaffirmed his support for protesting, tying it to the "good trouble" that Congressman John Lewis called for.

"I don't want to lose sight of the larger issue — the bigger thing to say here is that people have a right to protest, whether it's at my house or Anita Bonds' house," says Lazere, who sees Goodwin's comments as a "threat to protest generally, and that does bother me. That's just trying to stifle debate and particularly trying to stop systemic change, and that's clearly wrong."

Goodwin contends that he does back protests, to a degree: "I totally support protest, but not in the way that goes beyond decency," he says.

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