Brake Lights & Socialism

This is the opening letter for the handbook New Orleans DSA made about our brake light clinic project, Gimme a Brake (Light)!

Dear Comrades,

To begin, I want to open this handbook by saying right away that this project, Gimme a Brake (Light)! is easier to make happen than you think. When the idea first came to me, as I was changing my own brake light, I immediately dismissed it as too complicated. How many kinds of brake lights are there, even? And how many different ways of changing them? This might seem silly now, but I haven’t been organizing that long. Most of the projects I’d undertaken at that point, ridiculously, I’d done alone. I had recently joined the New Orleans DSA, and pitched it to them to see what they thought. It was their belief in the project, their enthusiasm, and their work that carried the project to fruition. This is why organizing with like minded people is so important. Our work means so much more when we band together and make impossible things happen.

Changing a brake light is not typically difficult or expensive. However, being stopped by a police officer for having a brake light out can be both. A ticket can cost a significant amount of a working person’s earnings. If that person has a warrant out for their arrest due to unpaid tickets or something like that, they might be detained and arrested. This means more fines. It can also be quite disruptive to a person’s life — they might miss work or be unable to care for their children. It can also be extremely traumatic. In fact, any traffic stop can pose an existential threat to the person being pulled over, especially for people of color and people without papers. In 2015, Walter Scott was stopped by a police officer for having a brake light out. He pulled into the parking lot of the auto parts store he’d been going to to replace the bulb, but he was tased and shot to death by the officer who pulled him over before he got the chance. In 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over for having a brake light out, and was shot almost immediately while informing the officer that he legally was carrying a firearm. His partner Diamond Reynolds bravely live streamed the encounter so that the world could see the aftermath of the unjust execution that had just occurred in front of her and her toddler daughter. Having a brake light out is not that dangerous. The most dangerous thing about having a brake light out is probably the threat of state violence.

We did not change brake lights because we thought people could not do it themselves. We didn’t give the supplies for free because we thought people couldn’t afford them. We did not conceive of this project as charity. The Democratic Socialist project requires that we address race, gender, ability and class oppression as they exist, bound inextricably together. For working class people, the time and energy that it takes to change a brake light are in short supply — who wouldn’t put it off for a while? And if you’re unable to change it, you’ve got another reason to put it off. If you’re a person of color, the physical danger of the traffic stop is ever present. If you’re undocumented, it’s possible that a traffic stop could dramatically disrupt your life, even lead to deportation. Through an intersectional, democratic socialist lens, a free brake light replacement clinic is inherently political.

I see this project as occupying an interesting place between mutual aid and direct action. It is like mutual aid in that we are offering a service to help people meet basic needs so that they may be slightly more empowered to live a life beyond the isolating personal struggle to survive. It is direct action in that we are spending 6 hours visibly declaring our intention to protect people from state violence at the hands of the police. While this purpose was centered in almost all of our communications regarding this event, the brake light is a powerful enough symbol on its own that the message is clear for people who are endangered by police interaction. Centering the message of protection is crucial for people who do not understand how this kind of policing endangers people around them. This message is for everyone that hears it, not just the people we serve. The work and the message amplify each other.

This kind of work is powerful and should be pursued by socialists. Some socialists are skeptical of the power of mutual aid because of the possibility of it becoming just another charity. There are many ways in which we can avoid clouding our political message that way. To be clear, this service should always be offered unconditionally to anyone who shows up. There should never be any means testing. The only requirement should be a broken brake light. This should not be used to actively recruit people — the service should not come with a lecture on false consciousness. Treat people with great respect, hospitality, and kindness, and this project will build trust with people who are skeptical of socialism. Finally, funding should be community based, and offered unconditionally based on your vision for the work, rather than from sources that seek to influence the direction and meaning of the project and that demand quantitative accountability. This is a low-cost project, so this should be easy to obtain.

Ultimately, the meaning of this work lies in community members standing up for one another, lending each other a hand, and doing a simple favor for each other. The meaning comes from showing that we are moving beyond fear and anger, and taking steps to solve problems for each other when we are able to. We are telling people they are not alone, their burdens are everyone’s burdens, and we can share them. We are building power beyond electoral politics. I feel very certain that there are so many more tiny, easy, low cost services we can do for people that have big symbolic and material impacts. I hope that this project starts DSA chapters across the country on a path to look for these projects and share their experiences making them a reality so that we can continue to build the powerful communities that can address our own needs without turning to systems that would oppress us. I hope that this work opens our hearts to the needs of others and builds our strength within groups of socialists as well.

In Solidarity,
Kaitlin Marone
New Orleans DSA

A Note About Safety and the Police:
The concern has been raised, with varying degrees of faith, that this action would endanger those it intended to serve by acting as a trap, allowing state and nonstate antagonists to harass people on their way to the venue.
In New Orleans, the municipal police force is still operating under the terms of a Justice Department consent decree, and the areas where motorists are at the highest risk of a pretextual stop are short drives outside city limits, including Gretna, Louisiana, which has the dubious honor of being the arrest capital of the United States.
The NOPD has also recently made public clear limits on the procedural prerequisites necessary for their resources to be lent or personnel to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, in contrast to the enthusiastic enforcement of immigration detainer requests offered by the Sheriff’s Office in Jefferson Parish, which leads the state in deportations.
This is a discussion you should have with your chapter, those you partner with & those you intend to serve, based on your local situation.

Mark D’Arensbourg
New Orleans DSA