A Failure In Movement Building
I graduated CUNY Law in May 2018. For the last 11 months, I have avoided giving it any more thought than needed. Law school is not pleasant, particularly because of how isolating it can be. You find out early that you need to have a consciously adopted coping strategy. Mine was to spend as little time in the law school as possible. I don’t regret this decision for the most part: a lot of it was connected to my desire to learn from doing real legal work. But I was also avoiding an increasingly toxic environment in the school. One I’m partly responsible for. Well it’s been close to a year, it’s time to stop avoiding it — here’s how I screwed up organizing at CUNY.
CUNY Law was founded with a radical mission: a public, less-costly school producing lawyers who practice for the public interest. When I started, CUNY had been through a period of austerity and regression under Dean Michelle Anderson. CUNY has one of the most strict academic policies of any law school as a way to improve its bar passage rates. It’s a self confirming prophecy — less people taking the bar, more resources can be spent on preparing them, more are likely to pass. I was only a couple of points away from being on academic probation my second semester — I went on to pass the bar by a high margin. The idea that students who get below a 3.0 are unstoppably headed to failing the bar exam is unsupported, and its effects have been kicking out a lot of the students that CUNY Law should be supporting the most. I think my own love of CUNY Law will always be dampened by the fact that people I think should have graduated alongside me did not.
This issue, and the dismissive way that the administration responded to student concerns, created a lot of distrust that was built on with each new class. My class not only internalized our own harm from the academic policy, but also internalized the harms we were told about by the two classes above us who had seen even larger proportions of their class get the boot. I do not want to get too lost in the weeds with this part: I am obviously biased and there’s a lot of politics of Governor Cuomo and CUNY funding generally that is tied into why the academic policy exists. The point is we were quickly inculcated to distrust the administration and for a fairly good reason.
Aestheticizing Radical Consciousness
But just as soon as that distrust was taking form another distrust was growing that represented a fundamental shift from previous classes. Previous classes were mostly honed in on the administration, and sought the support of faculty and other students in their struggles to change school policy. That began to change with our class, and while the fractures were sometimes political, they were mostly aesthetic. It was about cultivating a radical aesthetic, especially through social media but also through “calling out” administrators, classmates, or professors during class and other events. To be clear, I don’t think it was insincere and it was often based in legitimate concerns, but there was more of a focus on voicing concerns than addressing them.
But to avoid appearing fatalistic, and also so I don’t feel like a total jerk by the end of this, I want to acknowledge the things I’m very proud of doing. I was given sole leadership of the school’s National Lawyers Guild chapter my second year of law school. First thing I focused on was creating bylaws to provide a democratic infrastructure with strict diversity requirements so that we would hopefully never have a leadership body made up of one white woman ever again. Second, I went all out on recruitment of the incoming class. And then we went to work: protesting Citigroup’s financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline, organizing a massive contingent of students to attend the Rebellious Lawyering Conference, raising money for Families For Freedom, and much more. We also brought radical speakers to the school and did agitprop on issues like US imperialism against Venezuela to try to raise consciousness of students. Much of this organizing was contentious, both inside the group (i.e. me and a good comrade getting into heated arguments about which speakers should be brought on certain issues) and outside the group (i.e. conservative students complaining that our flyers with pictures of the Nuremberg Trials with the caption “This Group Kills Fascists” were “threatening”). But all good organizing is contentious; as long as internal disagreements are constructive and external opposition is from our opponents, contention is actually a sign that we are effective. Unfortunately this immediate and loud indicator served to obfuscate, at least from me, the failings of my organizing.
My first hint that something was wrong was the all-encompassing opposition to debate. The Federalist Society reached out to me asking if we’d like to do a debate, and provided a list of possible guests they could bring like the counsel of Uber. The idea of Uber’s counsel being taken to task in a way she presumably never had to deal with in court was super exciting to me — I had visions of a fiery Q&A where students demanded answers on questions like whether Uber had any liability for the spate of cab driver suicides. However, my classmates had zero interest in it. I literally could not find another person who wanted to do it. To be clear, this wasn’t going to be some Josh Blackman type troll who would come to “trigger the snowflakes” — this was an opportunity to speak truth to power. But at the time I brushed it off; if the majority of people didn’t want to do it, then it must’ve been me, I thought, who was wrong. I didn’t realize that fostering an environment of rejecting debate is exactly what draws in the exhibitionists like Blackman.
The Three Elements of Movement Building
But my real awakening came when I went to work for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in DC. I have never worked anywhere like it, and while unfortunately I am not allowed to reveal some of the most interesting aspects of how it worked, I can talk about the general reason it worked. First, it had one of the most racially diverse teams in government enforcement. It was the first time I had ever had multiple Black supervisors. People who have experienced oppression, or are close to those who have, do tend to keep focused on improving their communities. Second, there was a high expectation of work quality. CUNY (and especially my professor Ruthann Robson) taught me how to write about the law, but it was the CFPB that taught me how to do legal writing. And third, that high standard was supplemented with the best development and training of any organization I have ever been a part of.
With CUNY NLG, we managed to do well on that first point (I say we because people of color, not a white person who recruited them, should be given credit for what they bring to a group). But the other two points I failed to advocate for or implement. Turns out, quite simply, that a membership organization’s primary concern should be its membership!
Arguing with ideological opponents is the most core aspect of doing legal work. It is how, as a lawyer, you keep people out of prison. It is how, as a lawyer, you get an illegally displaced community reparations. It is how, as a lawyer, you protect the right of people to access reproductive healthcare. When I saw that my classmates were opposed to doing that, it should’ve been a red flag that we were not holding ourselves to the standard needed to effect the very same radical change we espoused. Quite frankly, while I am a firm supporter of civil disobedience and even revolt, neither of these are enough to create change and it is especially ridiculous for future lawyers to hold them as the only legitimate advocacy.
However I think one of the primary reasons why people were not holding themselves to the standard of becoming adept legal advocates as well as having a radical consciousness was that people like me failed to connect a mastery of legal advocacy with revolutionary change. Sure, I was fond of pointing out that people like Maurice Bishop were radicalized by legal services work and that people like Pauli Murray were not just the most radical but also the most intelligent. But history simply recited is simply received. I didn’t go the step further to say “We should be trying to be the next Pauli Murray.”
Unfortunately the past year at CUNY Law has reinforced to me these failings. I have heard from many students of color, especially in the disproportionately working class part time program, that they are averse to or even disgusted by the actions of some of the politically radical students on campus. I’m told concerns are childish (i.e. not wanting to learn how prosecution works because the students don’t want to become prosecutors) and the means of addressing them are petty (i.e. writing public letters of condemnation for alleged micro-aggressions without taking the concern to the accused professor first). I have said so to many but I’d like to reiterate here that I’m sorry for the role I played in creating that environment. Of course I haven’t been there so this is all hearsay, but given what I saw with the haphazard protest of Josh Blackman in my last semester and having read one of these letters, I’m inclined to believe it is true. I’m not sure what the solution is for CUNY Law students — student organizing’s greatest difficulty is lack of continuity, that any effort to make serious change will have to be accomplished in three years or all the most dedicated organizers dissipate upon graduation. I hope if such efforts do happen that I have the opportunity to support them.
But I’m actually processing this mostly because I am seeing similar dynamics arising in the Democratic Socialists of America. Of course we are mostly not lawyers, so there’s room to accommodate those who want to focus on work outside the formal political system. But again, even in non-legal political work, it isn’t possible to win without some engagement with the system, and that requires a degree of discipline and a focus on movement building. Luckily the vast majority of people in DSA recognize this. But we shouldn’t rest easy knowing there’s a majority support for effective movement building. It doesn’t take a majority within an organization to derail it from holding itself to high standards and cultivating membership. Especially in a federally (or arguably confederally) organized group, a certain chapter or region being led by people more interested in cultivating a radical aesthetic than increasing and training membership is enough to derail the whole group. This derailment has no ideological allegiance: someone can neglect our fundamental task just as easily by harping on identity politics as by harping on how membership who don’t hold the most “radical” views are enemies rather than comrades.
We have time to avoid getting derailed. We have the insightful leaders and members needed to keep us on track to building a socialist majority. What we need is for everyone who understands this to be our primary focus to show up for the Convention and make sure we get the bylaws, leadership, and resolutions to keep us on track. It will probably suck — internal organizing often does, especially in a situation like this that calls for exercising compassion and patience even as others are being disrespectful and vicious to you. I wish I could say there’s a sure way to handle the inevitable stress and emotional strain, but there is not. The Convention will likely be full of fun and inspiring moments, but it could also lead to people burning out. But this is the historical moment that we will look back on decades from now. It is now or never, socialism or barbarism. We need you, we need a dedication to building a socialist majority through concrete campaigns that build membership, more than ever.