The Two Legs DSA Needs to Build

The first electoral vote for a Democratic Socialist was cast in Hawaii when an elector voted for Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton.

Back in December, when the sting of the election was still felt as a raw wound — The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists held what was termed a citywide emergency convening at the Mayday Space in Brooklyn. The meeting was scheduled to start at 7pm, but the room continued to fill to over-capacity well after the start time.

The Democratic Socialists (DSA) is the largest socialist group in the country. They are not led by Bernie Sanders, but there were multiple Sanders t-shirts scattered among the crowd at this convening billed as an opportunity to “build a resistance to Trump and a movement for democratic socialism.”

When the speakers began, the room had already become hot and standing room only. The national director of DSA, Maria Svart, spoke about the challenges anticipated during a Trump Presidency, “They are going to go after labor, she said. “Unions, however flawed they are, are going to the best way to organize multi-racial working class power in this country.”

DSA lists three priorities on their website: Decrease the influence of money in politics, empower ordinary people in workplaces and the economy, and restructure gender and cultural relationships to be more equitable.

One challenge the organizers acknowledged facing was educating the public about what socialism is, noting the public thinks socialism is about the government controlling all the money. But according to Svart, “Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.”

Verizon Wireless worker and Communications Workers of America (CWA) member Bianca Cunningham talked about how the working class has allowed itself to be divided. “They use these categories to divide us, and our main enemy are the corporations. They are getting richer, and everybody else is getting divided, and poor,” she said.

From left: Bianca Cunningham, Sen. Bernie Sanders, CWA District 1 Vice
President Dennis Trainor, and former CWA President Larry Cohen. Photo
courtesy of CWA.

Other groups who had speakers were Communities United for Police Reform and Picture the Homeless. Sitting on the edge of the stage for most of the night was Nikita Price, a Civil Rights Organizer.

Price really got at the heart of the challenge of teaching young activists, who live in their own white privilege or who have never lived in poverty, how to effectively organize for the poor and for POC with very different life experiences.

“It’s really hard to organize homeless folks. Unfortunately, most of these folks have reached a level of despair that no one in this room has any clue of.”

Nikita Price

Another DSA event was held soon after the inauguration.

Grand Army Plaza at Prospect Park in Brooklyn was the site of the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. Soon after Trump became president an estimated thousand or more protesters gathered on the Plaza hoping to organize their own type of American revolution.

The temperature on that January night was below freezing, a light coating of snow on the ground, patches of ice dotting sidewalks. But the crowd showed no sign of being bothered by the weather, and every sign of being bothered by Donald Trump. It was also clear they wanted total
obstruction of Trump’s agenda by the Democratic Party. One protester’s sign read Obstruct like a Republican while others simply read Obstruct.

However this energized movement has expressed little faith that the Democratic Party will deliver and expressed cynicism the party will instead protect a neoliberal agenda and entrenched wealth and power.

The Grand Army Plaza demonstration centered around pushing Senator Chuck Schumer, who lives in a nearby neighborhood, to hold firm in his opposition to President Trump’s agenda. An organizer thanked the crowd for
being there — in between their mutual chants of “Immigrants are welcome here” and “Power to the People”. The demonstrators marched from Grand Army Plaza to Senator Schumer’s home.

In an interview with teleSur Svart also talked about how DSA is building on Sanders’ vision in order to counter “Trump and neoliberalism within the Democratic party while aligning with other social and grassroots movements such as the Black Lives Matter, Women’s March and the Native American water protectors” to work toward a social democracy.

Savart told teleSur, “Given the immense structural barriers to forming a viable national third party, yet the equally immense influence that Wall Street has on the leadership of the Democratic Party, DSA has a strategic approach. We are building an independent, organized base that can work with progressive elected Democrats, but can also hold neoliberal Democrats accountable by threatening them with independent political power.”

This weekend DSA is holding the national convention in Chicago. Since those early days of rapid growth last winter, the numbers have continued to rise and the organization was able to pass 25,000 members before the convention kicked off.

Dave Weigel‏ — @daveweigel

At the convention there are two resolutions up for consideration that return to the goals both Maria Svart and Bianca Cunningham spoke about last winter. The need to grow labor organizing and increase racial and class diversity.

The first proposal is being put forward by Cunningham and other DSA members. The Afro-Socialist Convention Proposal is worth a read. It is written in the true revolutionary spirit — looking forward and projecting to what can and should be as opposed to what might be possible within the current system.

Kristian Steffany speaks at the convention

Unfortunately, there has been some negative reactions to the proposal. Considering the low number of POC involved with DSA at the moment, it seems to be a problem that calls out for radical as opposed to cautious.

The authors of the proposal have written the AFRO-SOCIALIST RESOLUTION: FAQs and Common Criticisms Answered as a response to some of the concerns they have heard.

Jazz Hooks a member of the NYC DSA, Bronx/Uptown Branch is one of the authors. On overcoming the lack of Black socialists in DSA despite the rich history of Black socialist activism, Jazz said, “The existing whiteness of the organization deters many people of color who would otherwise be interested in joining. Providing spaces for people of color to collaborate and organize will help bring in many people who would otherwise be uncomfortable.”

You can here more from Jazz on this podcast.

In response to the particular criticism of appropriating Black power from the 60’s — Cunningham shares this personal story.

The first time I was ever called a N — -er is a story that drives me to this day. When I was 8 years old a white classmate spit at me while I was walking down the street and then yelled the word at me. I reacted by pushing him off of his bike and rolling on the ground in a schoolyard fight. After the fight me and my friends, who were also black, came over to my house. I remember all of them being really sad and feeling ashamed, and asking questions like “what did this word even mean and why does it make us feel so powerless?”
My mother came home from work and asking why my friends and I were so down. After they told the story of what happened my mother went on to give us a speech about how we were black and that we should all hold their heads up. She told them they should be proud and that there was nothing to be ashamed of, no matter what person told them differently. She then taught us the chorus to James Brown’s “I’m black and I’m proud.” We went outside in the yard and yelled the lyrics at the top of their lungs laughing, rejoicing and relieved that they were allowed to be themselves and be proud of their identity.
Our answer to the critics is we do not have to “appropriate” Black power.
We are Black. We are powerful. We are here. Deal with it.
Black youth giving the Black Power salute outside a ‘liberation school’

The other proposal is about DSA’s commitment and approach to organized labor and building working-class strength. The “proposal, democratically drafted from concerns of labor activists across the nation, for enhancing the future influence of the Democratic Socialists of America in building working class strength” is available to read here.

However, again the intra-organization politics in DSA appears to be less than welcoming to this full resolution.

The proposal begins with a statement of purpose.

Labor must be acknowledged as an intrinsic and crucial part of the identity of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). If DSA is to become an effective agent of a renewed class consciousness that champions the liberation of the working class, it must by definition be a movement of the workers. We should not aim merely to build stronger relationships with laborers; we must plan for DSA to boldly and unapologetically become an inextricable part of the labor movement.

DSA Labor, like the Afro-socialists, are asking DSA to take a radical and revolutionary approach as opposed to adjusting the sails.

They have also published A new socialist labor movement which states:

The labor movement is in crisis.
For decades, the free reign of capital has destroyed communities and impoverished Americans. Workers exercising democracy and collective power in their workplaces are increasingly uncommon. Unions, once responsible for representing a third of American workers, are struggling to survive.
Union decline is the calculated result of decades of vicious warfare waged on workers by the capitalist class. Although labor has attempted to stem this tide, few unions have successfully taken on the elite in the name of social progress. Too many have grown into narrowly service-oriented bargaining agents rather than militant movements wielding collective power.
This must not continue.

More at @DSA_Labor on Twitter

There are other resolutions on big issues such as BDS — however if looking to build a foundation for an organization that will last beyond the initial emotions and fears of a Trump presidency, it is hard to imagine how it can be done without supporting a radical approach to labor and Afro-socialists.

In fact, it may end up being a one-legged stool instead of creating the power to replace neoliberalism with justice, fairness, and equality.

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