Inside the International Socialist Organization’s Dissolution After a Rape Cover-Up
The story of precisely how and why the International Socialist Organization (ISO) decided to dissolve itself just shy of the 42-year anniversary of its founding in April 1977 remains something of a mystery to those outside its ranks. Perhaps this is because the group’s members themselves have not been able to fully understand, process, and make sense of the events that undid almost four decades of effort in just under two weeks. Perhaps they have been too busy living the crisis and the attendant traumas to write about what happened in a way that outsiders can comprehend.
Yet the lessons of the ISO’s demise are too important to remain a mystery, particularly given Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) ongoing #MeToo problems.
Earlier this year, the ISO’s annual convention passed historic organizational reforms and elected a national leadership (the Steering Committee or SC) of 21 people, the majority of whom had never served on the body before. This was unprecedented. As far as anyone knows, the ISO’s last competitive SC election was in 1983 when the group’s founding leaders, Cal and Barbara Winslow, were ousted in an effort driven by the British Socialist Workers Party — then the ISO’s “mothership.” Ahmed Shawki and Sharon Smith were installed in the Winslows’ place on the SC where they (and a handful of close allies like Paul D’Amato) would remain for the next 35 years.
In the year leading up to the ISO’s February 2019 convention, dissatisfaction with the organization’s internal regime and external practice became so widespread that the Steering Committee itself became divided into a pro-reform majority and an anti-reform minority centered around Smith, Shawki, and the 1980s old guard. So many resolutions and discussion pieces were submitted to members-only pre-convention discussion bulletins over a six-month period that the final result was 45 volumes amounting to nearly 1,200 pages.
It was during the pre-convention period that the Steering Committee voted on December 16, 2018 to fundamentally change the way SC elections would be conducted. The old system in which a single list or slate of a dozen or more SC candidates was chosen by majority vote at the convention (a winner-take-all system encouraging ideological homogeneity) was scrapped in favor of electing members of the SC as individuals, ensuring that the ISO would be run by its most popular members regardless of their particular ideological slant. This new system produced the first multi-tendency leadership in ISO history: 21 individuals from three different platforms — Independence and Struggle, SC Majority, and Socialist Tide, Revolutionary Current — were elected to the new SC (as well as some individuals who adhered to no platform).
Unbeknownst to the vast majority of the organization and most but not all of the new Steering Committee, one of those newly elected to the national leadership on the Independence and Struggle platform, Joe Richard, was found guilty of sexual misconduct and rape by an internal ISO investigation in 2013. The results of that probe were covered-up by the 2013 SC and whitewashed by a second, rigged investigation orchestrated by the 2013 SC. After learning that Richard was elected to the ISO’s highest decision-making body, an ex-ISO member who led the original investigation notified the new SC about the rapist in their midst by sending them and non-ISO allies a 20-page email full of evidence on March 11.
This bombshell blindsided and derailed the new Steering Committee which was busy implementing a new system for membership dues, putting together new bodies like a #MeToo working group and a people of color caucus (another first in ISO history). A storm of recriminations, expulsions, resignations, and suspensions ensued:
- Joe Richard was promptly removed from the SC.
- Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor who was on the 2013 SC resigned on March 13.
- Charles Peterson was removed from the National Committee — a consultative body elected by the convention — for “undermining the work of the NDC” [National Disciplinary Committee] in 2013.
- Sharon Smith, Ahmed Shawki, Paul D’Amato, and Lance Selfa who had served on the SC since the 1980s quit the organization.
- Steering Committee member Alan Maass accused fellow SC member Joel Geier of aggressively lobbying for Joe Richard on the 2013 SC which Geier hotly contested before resigning a few days later.
- All 2013 SC members were suspended from leadership positions at various levels of the organization.
- A long-time ISO member filed a 10-page #MeToo complaint on March 17 detailing years of emotional abuse and manipulation by Shawki who was effectively her boss.
- Entire branches began disaffiliating.
- Hundreds of leading and rank-and-file members quit.
To the new SC’s credit, they informed the membership of the scandal on March 13 via email and went public with what happened in the ISO’s newspaper Socialist Worker on March 15 (although they withheld the ex-member’s letter containing the evidence of Joe Richard’s guilt, nor did they name Joe Richard or anyone involved in the cover-up in statements published since). Socialist Worker also failed to report that Richard was suspended from his position as an organizer with Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (Rutgers AAUP-AFT) after word got out about the 2013 incident. Richard quickly resigned after his suspension.
By the time a national conference call on March 24 to discuss proposals about the ISO’s future was held, resignations had shattered the organization. The group’s nominal membership of 980 (January 2019) fell to under 500 judging by the number of members and ex-members who voted in the week-long straw poll that followed the March 24 call.
Why did the ISO implode so quickly, especially when the new leadership took many of the right steps to deal with the grenade that was dropped in their laps?
The ousting of the SC old guard was years in the making. Rising frustration, anger, and resentment at all levels of the organization finally boiled over and ISO members looked forward to something of a fresh start and a new way of doing things coming out of the February convention. Instead they were forced to deal with the worst scandal in the group’s history — a shocking rape and six-year-long cover up perpetrated by the members of the new SC from two out of three reform platforms. The revelations raised disturbing, unanswered questions:
- What other rapes or crimes were covered up by the old leadership that no one blew the whistle on?
- Why did Joel Geier lobby so vociferously on Joe Richard’s behalf, particularly when others accused of similar crimes were summarily expelled without any due process?
- Did Joel Geier’s $10,500 donation to the ISO’s nonprofit — the Center for Economic Research and Social Change — in 2013 have anything to do with him successfully swaying the 2013 SC to his point of view on the Joe Richard case?
- Did Joel Geier and Joe Richard know each other prior to the 2013 rape case or after, given their collaboration on a Marxist Internet Archive project that same year?
The 2013 SC’s cover-up was the straw that broke the ISO’s back but it was objective conditions — principally the rise of #MeToo and the rebirth of the American socialist movement inside the “graveyard of social movements” i.e. the Democratic Party — that caused the ISO’s membership to question and eventually reject old methods, old habits, and old leaders. Reforming the way the Steering Committee was chosen allowed Joe Richard to ascend to the top of the ISO which in turn triggered someone to blow the whistle on him. People quit in droves when the new and improved ISO — more democratic, more outward, more struggle-oriented— quickly turned out to be steeped in scandal and iniquity.
So what lessons can activists and organizers take from the ISO debacle?
1. Don’t do cover-ups. Also, don’t rape, sexually assault, or otherwise abuse people.
This should go without saying but it’s worth reiterating anyway given the ubiquity of sexist abuse. No organization can ever be completely be free of criminal or anti-social behavior forever, but once people become aware of such acts, covering it up is exactly the wrong thing to do.
2. Volunteer organizations are not equipped to investigate violent crimes with the aim of finding people guilty or innocent.
Joe Richard is lucky his accuser did not go to the police. The ISO is lucky none of their members (at least according to written documents) told the accuser or witnesses not to talk to the police since such acts could amount to witness tampering or obstruction of justice.
3. Volunteer organizations have a duty to protect members and the people they work with from abusive behavior.
While political organizations cannot conduct professional investigations and do not have the scientific and technical expertise to deal with forensic evidence, protecting or tolerating abusers means putting everyone who comes into contact them at risk. Since volunteer organizations are not courts of law and cannot deprive people of property or liberty, evidentiary standards used to guide disciplinary decisions must different (preponderance of evidence versus innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt). The punishments a volunteer organization can mete out — censure, suspension, expulsion — are far less devastating to an individual than jail time or fines and there should be far less reluctance to resort to punitive measures when interpersonal conflicts arise.
When an investigation is warranted, a third party (preferably a law firm) should be retained to conduct an inquiry to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of bias (organizations investigating themselves and leaders in charge of looking into their friends have a funny way of finding no wrongdoing). In 2013, the the Steering Committee never retained an attorney to deal with a potentially criminal matter yet the ISO’s nonprofit took in $1.7 million so clearly funding difficulties had little to do with this decision.
It has come to our attention that 2013 ISO Steering Committee members who were complicit in the rape coverup are now working with Democratic Socialists of America, so here are their names:
ISO’s old guard — Sharon Smith, Ahmed Shawki, Lance Selfa, Paul D’amato — are back as the International Socialism Project (ISP).