BEHIND THE MOVEMENT: #DONTMUTEDC

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#DontMuteDC has been trending for the last few months as a cultural movement that started locally and has attracted national attention. Most recently highlighted on the BET Awards by native Taraji P. Henson, the hashtag created by a Howard University student has given name to a long-standing underground fight for DC’s cultural preservation. 

Pieces of the story have been told though there has yet to be a full account of how they all fit together. Speaking with Dr. Natalie Hopkinson (@TheNatHop), author of “Go-Go Live: The Life and Musical Death of a Chocolate City” and the cultural historian working with #DontMuteDC and Domo (@Dora_Winifred), Dj, activist and organizer of the District Cultural Sustainability Initiative (DCSI), I learned about the different collaborators and how the idea of saving Go-Go created a surge of emotion that empowered many of DC’s forgotten residents.

Many longtime residents can recall the moment they realized the chocolate city would soon be no more. And that’s really where our story begins.

“I was an intern for the wall street journal after graduating from Howard University and I was assigned to cover the Mayor’s race. I ended up interviewing a bunch of DC politicos and they told me, people have been talking about “the plan” for a long time and it’s about to go down with this Anthony Williams election in 1998. Then my political science professor told me If you see white people in a neighborhood after dark, it’s about to go down.” Natalie purchased her home in the early 2000’s after being quickly priced out of the Logan Circle neighborhood she lived in during her time in school.

For Domo, things set in as the U Street corridor became less and less recognizable. “I think when we started to lose some of the innately black establishments we had along U Street and Florida Avenue. Patty Boom Boom was a big signal to me…. I think before that starting to see areas being renamed, like NOMA wasn’t a thing 10 years ago, that is something used to rebrand an area for people coming into the city.”

It was the erasure of these long-time establishments that brought Dr. Hopkinson and activist Ron Moten together again in community work. Having previous experience with Ron’s organizing skills, Natalie began working with Moten to document instances where black cultural businesses were being systematically displaced to make way for newcomers.  These businesses help support a completely black owned economy that provides for many of the districts 70,000 returning citizens and others who fall outside of the mainstream. Don Campbell’s store was one of the businesses being tracked. “I always watched that corner.” Natalie said. “I knew it was going to happen and I see how people act. They start it on a list serve outside of you and by the time they have mobilized it’s done.”

Campbell tried to accommodate initial complaints. He even tried playing smooth jazz. He found himself caught in the middle as he brought his speakers in only to receive complaints from customers demanding he turn the music back on.

“With Don’s store it really hit home because of what Go-Go means to us.” Explained Domo. “Part of what drove me to becoming a DJ is that I felt there wasn’t enough Go-Go being played when I was out… there are only a few places you can go to buy a physical cd and know that they are going to have the most recent stuff. So, to hear that the sound was stopped was really crazy because they are such a cultural staple.”

 “New residents are only comfortable with certain kinds of culture. And it’s not just one person.” Natalie said breaking down the chain of events.  “No, it was an organized campaign within The Shay, they were sending 25 – 30 emails a day to headquarters…you have the VP of T-Mobile showing up at the store, saying turn off the music. They wanted to annihilate this business that means so much to so many people. Mo [Ron Moten] and I were just trying to work with Don to help him do what he needed to continue business.”

That is until Julien Broomfield created the #DontMuteDC hashtag, bringing mass attention to the Campbell’s predicament. Moten and Hopkinson organized officially under the name and created a petition on Change.org to keep the music on. It received 80k signatures. With all eyes on the store and its divided community, several key activists rallied around the cause.

Domo was one of the early organizers of the District Cultural Sustainability Initiative a group formed to connect the different organizing arms supporting the store. “There were people like Ron Moten, Tone P., Yaddiya and Tony Lewis trying to drive awareness and all of these community leaders have different backgrounds and strengths. I really just wanted to gather the people I knew so they could work together in an even more powerful way.”

The success of the petition, early protests organized by Tone P., Kymone Freeman of We Act Radio and Tony Lewis of T.O.B. and a persistent hashtag won Campbell his “right” to continue playing Go-Go music from his store on the corner of Georgia and Florida avenues NW. Though victory was bittersweet as it gave rise to a shared consciousness of cultural loss and disenfranchisement as a result of gentrification.  

From that momentum emerged Yaddiya and Long Live Gogo DC. “Yaddiya is a Go-Go programmer, he’s been doing it for over 15 years and as a reaction to the impact [of the T-Mobile store events] he decided to throw a Go-Go on 14th and U Street. It was massive, we did it again and it was even bigger and got a lot of national press.” Domo said. It was Yaddiya’s deep connections within the Go-Go community that made the events so successful. Attracting crowds within the thousands, these outpourings of support and reclamation of D.C.’s identity continued the wave of awareness for the cause.

To bring substance to the events, the DCSI brought its stakeholders to the table to discuss the community’s needs. Domo recounts, “We tried to intercept the budget to make some changes based on things we needed like, affordable housing, funding for Banneker, and reviving the funding to United Medical Center (UMC). We knew most councilmembers had already made up their minds but we had to try something.”

“A representative from the nurse’s union reached out to us at #DontMuteDC and told us they were going to close the only hospital serving Wards 7 and 8. It was the most outrageous policy action I’ve seen this council take.” Natalie explained. “When we announced we were going to do a Go-Go, we had people on the phone trying to explain why these Wards didn’t need a hospital. we did it and it was beautiful. We ended up getting 22 million back in their budget.”

The DCSI worked with a team of lawyers and different organizations like Bread for The City to fine tune their points for the rally at Freedom Plaza. This rally served as a to signal to elected officials that the native populations were wide-awake and ready to fight for their right to the city.  A point driven further home by the UMC win, with a protest that shifted the narrative in two short weeks. .

What started on the back of Go-Go the #DontMuteDC has become the battle cry of those seeking to regain a sense of ownership and equity in the city. As the summer warms up and the steam from the initial incident cools down, it’s important for activist groups to remain focused. “It’s like Tony Lewis said.” Urged Domo. “We cannot protect DC culture that is innately black culture without protecting DC black people. “We want to keep millennials involved and that’s why we had to take a knee after the budget stuff to take some time to see, over the next year, what our work will look like and what we should be striving for.”

How will this fight shape up over the next few years? The determining factor lies in ability of the organizing bodies to keep citizens engaged and in motion. Though pushback from native residents is ever growing. Some might say the scene is set for the rise of another “People’s Mayor.” What that looks like in  today’s D.C., only time will tell. Interestingly, “Look out for the people who are coming out front on these issues like cultural preservation.” was Natalie’s parting advice. 

Visit the #DontMuteDC tent at this year’s Folklife Festival on The Mall to hear oral histories collected by #DontMuteDC in partnership with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and see performances by the Golden Pocket.

We have witnessed the movement, and even more have become apart of the movement but it’s time to appreciate  the people behind the movement. #dontmutedc has brought the city together and created a buzz around the nation but it wouldn’t be successful without the organizers behind the sccenes.  If your interested in their stories and get more information on #dontmutedc you can read the story in our Bio.

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