No Check, Snowed In and No End in Sight: How Black D.C. Is Surviving Trump’s Government Shutdown

Government workers protest the government shutdown during a demonstration in the Federal Building Plaza on January 10, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The protest, on the 20th day of a partial shutdown, was one of several held around the country today.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

“He didn’t ask me!” yelled a heavy set 40-something-year-old guy sitting by the window in my barbershop. I had just asked everybody what they thought about President Trump’s claim that federal employees told him to keep the shutdown going. 

My barbershop is at the perfect demographic nexus of the D.C. metropolitan area. Nestled in a strip mall near the University of Maryland College Park, Md., the clientele is mostly black, or Asian and white guys who like black guy haircuts. Working class, college students and upper-middle-class black men of all types and creeds walk in and out of the shop. And one thing we all had in common that day was knowing someone negatively impacted by the Trump government shutdown.

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A “someone” who was usually black.

“Look I’m okay, I’ve been saving for this,” said the heavyset black man as he moved from the window to sit a barber’s chair. “But other people, this is hard to do. And it’s right after Christmas.”

It was Thursday, Jan. 10, a full 20 days into the shutdown and just one day shy of the longest shutdown in the history of the federal government. The shutdown is now the longest in America’s history and some people have been furloughed, meaning they can’t go to work and they’re not getting paid. Other people, such as air traffic controllers, are considered “essential employees” so they still go to work during the shutdown, but get trolled with paychecks for $0.00. Federal contracts are not paid during a shutdown, so there’s no cleaning staff for the in-office daycare for hundreds of federal employees who still have to show up to work. The Acela train from D.C. to New York, usually filled with a zillion lobbyist in suits, is so empty that me and my colleagues literally had an entire car to ourselves. It’s like Thanos snapped his fingers and made half of D.C. disappear—the mostly black half.

Government workers protest the government shutdown during a demonstration in the Federal Building Plaza on January 10, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The protest, on the 20th day of a partial shutdown, was one of several held around the country today.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)
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You have to hand it to President Trump, the government shutdown is the perfect chance for him to advance his two main agendas, the mainstreaming of white nationalism and authoritarianism, all while dominating the news cycle. If you want to actively harm African Americans and Latinos there’s hardly a better way than shutting down the federal government to build a border wall against Mexico.

Endemic discrimination in the private sector forces many African Americans to pursue middle-class dreams through working for the federal government. African Americans make up 18 percent of federal employees, and 21 percent of SES (Senior Executive Service) positions compared to being only 8 percent of executive board members across all fortune 500 companies in America.

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This is especially the case in the DMV (D.C., Maryland and Virginia area) where the bulk of employment is either directly or indirectly associated with the federal government. Everyone here knows all too well that Republican dog whistles about “lazy” federal employees have always been a proxy attack on black Americans in the same way the border wall is a symbolic attack on Latinos. He may be lazy, corrupt and a tool of Russia but when it comes to racism, Trump is pretty efficient.

As I left the shop my barber texted me a flyer to an event where he was volunteering. A “Government Shutdown Throwdown” to feed kids and parents who are being affected by the shutdown. I told him I would stop through.

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By Friday, everyone in the district was getting ready for the “Snurlough,” a portmanteau for the many furloughed workers preparing for what was going to be the mother of snowstorms over the weekend. Restaurants, shops and grocery stores began offering deals and discounts to the many federal workers who were without a paycheck for the foreseeable future.

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One of those places was Jaleo, a Spanish restaurant run by Jose Andres. Andres is an immigrant rights activist, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian food work in Puerto Rico. He also beat Trump in a lawsuit after refusing to open a restaurant in Trump Tower. In other words, he’s the anti-Gordon Ramsey. Jaleo was offering free sandwiches to all federal employees as a sign that Trump’s callousness and bigotry wouldn’t be mimicked by the private sector. While at Jaleo with a friend, we met “Susan” a tall, pregnant, 30-something-year-old black woman who works at the Department of Justice.

“I’m still working,” she said, “But I’m in child protective services at the DOJ. I can’t just leave kids. If another court calls I can’t just leave my clients.”

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Still, Susan considered herself lucky. With a baby on the way, she and her husband had already started saving and re-working their finances even before the shutdown. “It’s hard though, not everybody is as lucky as me.”

That night I drove out to District Heights, Md., to Athletic Republic for the “Government Shutdown Throwdown” sponsored by Kids Eat Free and Soldiers Outreach ministries. It was a cold dreary night but once inside all you could hear was kids laughing and running and the smell of green beans, chicken and juice being served. I spoke with Deveraux Smith of Kids Eat Free, a non-profit that’s been feeding kids and adults for over 10 years in Maryland and suburban Atlanta.

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“Many of our volunteers were the ones who are affected by the shutdown,” Smith said while showing me around the room. “Putting together bags of food for kids, helping out here tonight. It helps them maintain their sanity in these harsh economic times.”

A babble of barbers providing free haircuts for Furloughed Federal Employees at the Kids Eat Free Event.
Image: Jason Johnson
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Kid’s Eat Free and Soldiers Outreach volunteers told me they’ve started to see new faces at the Friday events they put on since the shutdown began. People who never thought they’d need food, rent vouchers and school supplies are suddenly faced with dire times. In the back, my barber was with a babble of barbers (yes, a group of barbers is called a babble!) offering free haircuts while volunteers played party games with the kids.

Often lost in the story about Trump’s shutdown and its impact on the black community is just exactly how black folks feel about the larger issues at stake. What do those affected and those serving the community think about this fight? I asked Jill and DeRon Cloud, the co-founders of the organization, what they would say to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer as well as Donald Trump about the shutdown if they had the chance.

“Ya’ll gotta fight! Ya’ll Gotta take a stand [against funding the wall]. This ain’t for Democrats this is for the people!” DeRon said.

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As for what he would say to Trump?

“Man, are you even human?,” he responded.

Unfortunately, that’s all too human.

Some humans are selfish. Many value power over the suffering of others. And inflicting intentional pain on African American as part of an anti-immigrant political agenda is as human as it is inhumane.

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The question is, will the humanity of the Republicans members of Congress finally win out and end this shutdown? I’m not optimistic but in the meantime at least it looks like people are getting ready for a long fight.

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