Hello from the frontlines of the “Maoist infiltration” of the Democratic Socialists of America. Summer is nearly over and a lot has happened since I told y’all why I joined DSA back in May. So I figured it was time for an update: do I regret my decision to join? Has DSA been taken over by cops? Have the transphobic hipsters been kicked out yet?
The answer to all three is no. Rather than regretting my decision, I have never been more excited to be a part of DSA for two reasons: (1) the Convention went about as well as it could have gone, and (2) momentum to do direct work serving the people in local chapters has kept up. There are still problems, some being the ones I mentioned previously, and others coming out of the Convention. But when we view these problems within the constellation of the organization, they are actually indicative of why DSA is the most important socialist organization in the United States. Admittedly, not a high bar when the others hawk newspapers, but still.
Let’s start with the Convention. Going into it, a lot of drama had been stirred up around the election of the National Political Committee. Two far Left slates, DSA Momentum and DSA Praxis, were the conduits of the bickering even if the actual candidates in those slates rarely participated in the infighting themselves. As a few new member said to me, “It doesn’t really seem like there’s a lot of difference between the two.” And in terms of the platform there are only slight differences, which is why initially I had supported both. But where there were differences was that DSA Mom’s candidates came from liberal metropolitan areas and were mostly white, while DSA Praxis drew more from rural and conservative areas and were half people of color. A few sloppy statements by DSA Mom supporters exacerbated a tension that many already felt: that despite all their criticism of Hillary Clinton ignoring “flyover” country, DSA members in places like New York City and San Francisco had no interest in giving their rural counterparts power in the organization.
While it got pretty heated, I think it was ultimately a healthy internal conflict for DSA. Like most democratic organizations, we absorb power dynamics from the society we are within, and it is only through struggle that we can find ways to subvert those dynamics. DSA Mom and Praxis have admirably committed to working together (DSA Mom has a slight lion’s share of the NPC but not a majority), and I doubt they will be the focal point of this tension any time soon. But it is a tension that we need to continue to tease out, and that can hopefully happen through more interactions between chapters rather than a once every two years Conference.
But there is another tension involving the NPC that I want to touch on briefly, which is the election of Danny Fetonte. Fetonte is a prominent DSA organizer in Austin, Texas who ran for the NPC highlighting his impressive resume of union organizing work. What he did not note on his statement was that work included working with a police union called Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT. Like most police unions, it is a right wing organization that spends as much time protecting its members from accountability for their brutality as it does protecting pensions. Even when they talk about their freaking pensions they can’t resist throwing in a random “STOP CALLING US RACISTS.” If you’re not convinced that they’re an awful group, here’s a handful of bills they were instrumental in passing into law:
- SB 923: makes posting information about police officers a crime.
- HB 326: allows sworn affidavits for search warrants to be made over the phone.
- SB 158 amendment: watered down the body cam requirement for police.
If you’re wondering why I’m being unusually specific on the basic question of “Why are cop unions bad?” it’s because several people, especially in Texas CWA, have come out in support of Fetonte and claim his removal from the NPC would be a “slippery slope” leading to attacks on anyone in a union that represents police like the AFL-CIO. I cover their whole statement in this Twitter thread.
But again, after going through a brief panic attack about it, I realized this incident is overall a healthy development for DSA. During the Convention, we passed a resolution calling for the abolition of policing and prisons. But what does that mean? How do we get to that abolition? Is it just some ideal we aspire to, or does it mean immediate divestment from those systems? These questions need to be answered. And more importantly we need to address how unions have dealt with police and whether that is an acceptable relationship to have. When the purpose of the police is the suppression of working class dissent, especially Black dissent, it creates contradictions for unions that represent police. No matter what happens with Fetonte, these questions will not be fully answered and we must continue to press them.
The most exciting thing about DSA, the reason I joined and the reason I continue to be such a cheerleader for the group, is the power of the local chapter’s work. I spent the summer in DC and got to spend a lot of time with their amazing local chapter. Prior to meeting them, I had sort of expected that they would be focused on federal policy given where they are. And while they were on the frontlines of the struggle against the various sadistic Republican healthcare bills, the majority of their work was focused on the local community, from tenants’ rights canvassing to supporting local restaurant workers with direct action. They are daring people not afraid to risk arrest but also patient and smart enough to do the mundane, crucial work of grassroots base-building.
And they are not alone. DSA locals throughout the country are engaging with the material conditions of their communities rather than just doing protests and reading groups. New Orleans DSA is replacing brake lights to fight traffic stops that can lead to violent encounters for people of color. Phoenix DSA unloaded NINE TONS of turnips for a local food bank. Iowa City DSA fought their state’s minimum wage decrease with “wage canvassing” to businesses. Buffalo DSA fought public utilities rate hikes. Atlanta DSA supported a tent city protest after a local shelter was shut down. DSA chapters throughout the country aided the AT&T strike. While Charlottesville showed the world that DSA stands united against fascism, our chapters like Akron and Twin Cities have always been fighting far right violence. Our chapters are showing up for progressive groups in a way that no other political organization is, like DSA North Carolina’s work with the NC Abortion Fund and Central Indiana DSA’s solidarity with our DACA comrades.
This is just some of the things DSA has been doing. We are everywhere doing awesome work. But I have to do a bit of a call-in right now. This list was a pain in the ass to put together. We tend to promote our rallies, reading groups, and electoral campaigns a lot (as we should!) but do this important local grassroots work quietly. We cannot be quiet about this work. Whether on social media or local news, it is crucial that people in our communities know that we are out there doing work for them and not just sharing memes with each other online.
It can be easy to get caught up in the flashier sides of Left organizing, especially when they’re as cathartic as taking down Nazis. But if we want to really change the way our society works, we have to figure out how to make the grassroots organizing we are so good at into the face of our organization. Because if we do that, if people see us as the group that shows up for them, then we will become the first mass socialist party in this country. And the potential for that is why I am sticking with DSA.