It happened again. A person in DSA (usually a man) abused another member (usually a woman). The member reported the abuse to someone in chapter leadership, or national leadership, or someone responsible for handling grievances. The grievance went nowhere, or resulted in a warning or short suspension. The abuser is still in DSA. The reporting member is not.
Variations on this pattern have publicly played out twice in the last year. In September, I published an open letter from the member who was raped by former NPC member RL Stephens. They wrote this letter because the internal investigation into Stephens’ behavior went nowhere. In October 2017, a member of DSA-LA publicly shared that she had been stalked and harassed by Nathan Fisher, and that she had been further harassed for reporting it. This week, another DSA-LA member shared that Fisher had stalked and harassed her as well. Fisher is still a member of DSA, protected by members inside and outside of chapter leadership. Similar stories have quietly played out in DSA chapters across the country.
When Stephens’s abuses became public, he reneged on a promise to go through a restorative justice process and left the organization. He did the same when his behavior came to light in DC years ago. He will likely find other organizations, workplaces, relationships to exploit. Nothing has happened to the members that enabled, covered up, and made excuses for the abuse. Even worse, nothing happened to the system that allowed this all to go unaddressed for so long. I have a hard time imagining the story will go any differently with Fisher.
I used to have high hopes for DSA’s ability to combat abuse. In 2017, I co-authored Resolution 33, which was meant to be a comprehensive grievance process for DSA. At the time, we had no process for addressing harassment and other forms of abuse within our ranks. When Resolution 33 passed nearly unanimously at the 2017 National Convention, I celebrated it as a huge victory. In our Dear Comrade letter, distributed to the first wave of chapter HGOs, I wrote that DSA is “not bound to address harassment and abuse through Resolution 33 alone.” We all hoped Resolution 33 would provide a process for getting the worst abusers out of DSA while members worked to build an organization free of harassment from the ground up.
I am proud of what we tried to do with Resolution 33, but for every success story there are five about abusers using the process to retaliate. Those of us that want to end abuse are forced to fight on two fronts: against both abusers themselves and leadership that is, at best, apathetic.
Take, for example, Maria Svart’s response to the harassment in DSA-LA. She was privately informed about what Nathan Fisher had done in June 2017. When Fisher’s behavior became public in October 2017, concerned members reached out to Svart via email. Svart denied knowing what had happened beyond what had been posted on Twitter, writing that “The only thing [she’d] heard of was the terrible picture online, everything else you mention if true is also a huge problem.” She did not respond when I pointed out it had been reported to her months earlier.
Take, for example, the aftermath of getting Stephens out of DSA leadership. After word reached me that he had stepped down (no official announcement was ever made) I wrote this email to NPC member Allie Cohn:
Would NPC consider writing a post-mortem report on how the investigation process went wrong and what changes could be made in the future? Things that immediately stick out are a) whether RL was given notice of the specific charges he was facing, b) whether anyone was given time to review their interview summaries and c) how investigative reports are released.
I agree that nothing should be done with regards you RL specifically without [redacted]’s consent. That said, I think a demonstration that leadership can identify what went wrong here and how it won’t go wrong in the future may be helpful to members who are confused or scared by what happened.
Here was the response I received:
I will bring this up on our call next week. I think the best thing at this point is to have the guidance of Paula, our new NGO, to navigate the next steps.
Thank you for all you have done and continue to do.
That was the last thing I ever heard from the NPC on the matter.
I don’t doubt that Svart wants an end to harassment in DSA, or that Cohn wanted Stephens gone as soon as she learned what he did. But throughout my conversations with National staff and leadership, I sensed they wanted something else as well: for the abuse not to be their fault. Uncomfortable but necessary conversations about abuse turn into conversations about staffing and liability, while the real question in front of us (how to end abuse and remove abusers) is never returned to.
Abuse is a community problem, and solving it takes community accountability.
We need to examine how cases like Stephens’ and Fishers’ happened. Not only what these men did, but how they got away with it for so long. This involves difficult conversations about how we failed members of our community.
We need to ask what the fail points were in each case. Did the victim feel they could report it, or not? If not, why? How can we change this so the next person (and there will always be a next person) doesn’t face the same hurdle? How do we address the next hurdle, and the next?
We need to ask how our spaces encourage abuse, and how we can work to change them to stop abuse before it happens.
We need to start listening to members about how Resolution 33 has failed them so we can prepare to change it (or replace it) at the 2019 National Convention. Stephens is gone, and hopefully Fisher will be gone soon, but that means nothing if the next abuser will be given the same free reign.
This process will be slow and difficult. The good news is that we don’t need to wait for the process to be reformed to address abuse in the meantime.
Last week, I got an email saying that a DSA-LA member (RM) who was active in the LA Tenants Union planned to come to MDC DSA’s happy hour and talk about how we could collaborate on housing work across chapters. I recognized his name as someone who had smeared members to protect Fisher. After checking my facts, I emailed the member who had invited RM to say that he should be uninvited from the happy hour. Housing leaders here in DC agreed to not work with RM. Doing this took a few emails over a few hours. It was easy.
I share this example not to show that I am a Respecter of Women, but to show that addressing abuse does not have to be complicated. Every time you hear about abuse, you must choose to put a stop to it. This means ensuring abusers do not hold leadership positions in your chapter, do not receive endorsements, and do not have an opportunity to discredit those who speak up about their abuse.
Each member of DSA is capable of doing what I did. It is not hard but it takes initiative. If you care about what happened in DSA-LA, ask about the rumors you’ve heard about abuse in your own chapter (and if you haven’t heard them, ask why). Ask those affected how they want you to advocate for them. Ask your chapter and national leadership what they are doing to stop harassment.
Ask how you can help.