D.C.’s elected legal official has started a new section in his office to deal with discrimination in the District and has launched several meetings to deal with the various prejudices in the city.
Attorney General Karl Racine (D) said with the addition of the new civil rights division in his office, vigorous enforcement will be the policy.
“It is important now that the attorney general is elected in the city that resources are used in a way to meet residents’ concerns,” Racine said. “Our new civil rights section will promote equal justice under the law and stand up for District residents who face illegal discrimination and harassment based on race, gender, country of origin, sexual orientation, disability or other protected traits. Discrimination still makes it hard for too many people to find safe and affordable places to live, find jobs that pay living wages, get a high-quality education or simply live happy and productive lives.
“That’s why my office is committed to enforcing our civil rights laws and will take action against individuals or businesses if they discriminate against our residents,” he said.
The District’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) established the civil rights section this year, with the support of the D.C. Council, in response to the lax enforcement of the federal government and the increase in hate crimes against people because of their immigration status, the LGBTQ community and people of color. The District has one of the strongest human rights laws in the country, the District of Columbia Human Rights Act of 1977, and an agency, the D.C. Office of Human Rights, that works to enforce those measures.
Racine said his office will complement the work of the Office of Human Rights.
“The Office of Human Rights has the authority to investigate and mediate complaints of discrimination,” the attorney general said. “Our office will deal with cases of discrimination that are significant and systemic and be proactive in pursuing. If there is an individual case of discrimination, it would have to be rather significant otherwise the Office of Human Rights will deal with it.”
Toni Jackson will be chief of the civil rights section and will lead a small team of attorneys and administrative staff to carry out its mission.
As a result of the founding of the new section, Racine has initiated a series of community meetings for residents to testify about civil rights abuses. The OAG’s civil rights attorneys will listen to residents to understand the issues they face and to learn from OAG how they can use the law to fight for their rights.
The next session is July 13 at the Emery Heights Community Center (5701 Georgia Ave. NW) from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., with Council members Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) as co-hosts. On July 18, Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) will co-host a session at the Reeves Center at 2000 14th Street NW from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. and on July 23, the Anacostia Neighborhood Library, at 1800 Good Hope Road SE, will have a session co-hosted by Council members Trayon White (D-Ward 8) and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) from 6 p.m.-8 p.m.
The final session will occur at the Georgetown University Law Center at 120 F Street NW on July 25 from 6-8 p.m.
Veteran civil rights attorney Johnny Barnes thinks the listening sessions are a good idea.
“I think it is good that the attorney general wants to hear the issues that confront us whether it is dealing with affordable housing, employment discrimination, education inequity and the growing gap in wealth between well-to-do residents and those who are poor,” he said.
Barnes said Racine should conduct the sessions in the context of the District not being a state and its residents “not having the rights that other American citizens have.”
Douglass Sloan, who has served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4 and presently serves as the first vice president of the District’s branch of the NAACP, agrees that Racine’s listening sessions are a good thing.
“It would be a good forum to talk about African Americans and the police tactics of the Metropolitan Police Department,” Sloan said. “People need to know how to address those concerns proactively instead of reactively.”
Jacque Patterson, who has served as president of the Ward 8 Democrats and as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the ward, said Ward 8 residents should attend the sessions, especially youths.
“Our young people are having problems with police officers,” Patterson said. “Our young people need to understand their rights when it comes to dealing with police officers and this is a problem in Ward 8 because we are the youngest ward. We need the kids to be there and they need to express themselves.”