Lessons From an Untimely Debate: An Open Letter from Jay Schaffner, Kurt Stand, and Ethan Young

We are writing this Open Letter to the NPC with some thoughts about the issues surrounding the dispute over Danny Fetonte’s election to the NPC. The authors are three members of the Portside moderators collective who are members of DSA. Our views do not represent Portside as a group or other individual moderators.

Our hope is that in examining the multiple sides of the political questions behind the controversy, we can draw lessons that strengthens us as a socialist organization.

People come to socialism through their own experiences. And there is no question that today, as in the past, people are coming to socialism through mass activities, social movement, trade unions, socialist and progressive agitation and education, and the election campaign of Bernie Sanders. How can DSA, which is built out of these movements, but is not the same as any of these currents, develop a position and perspective able to bring together these various strands within our ranks? For only by doing so will we remotely be able to contribute to bringing together the various strands of activism in our society with sufficient strength to transform society in the face of the power of US capitalism — and the force behind that power.

We are tasked with building alliances across lines of difference. To do so requires acknowledging the validity of the perspectives and experiences of all sides of the dispute, because that speaks to the validity and perspectives of the wider communities within society they reflect. And that goes to the heart of socialist organization. Different groups of people will always organize themselves to stave off repression, to create better, graspable possibilities.

Success in such endeavors is elusive but always possible. But even where gained it is fleeting. What socialists add is the ability to broaden and deepen initiatives by connecting various strands of struggle. Any attempt to write off street level protest, or mainstream trade unionism, or any other arena of engagement reflects a failure in that task — a failure which will, sooner or later, undermine all we do.

This speaks directly to the controversy surrounding Danny Fetonte which has posed a corrosive challenge to the leadership of DSA and the newly elected NPC at the very moment when our explosive growth commands the leadership’s full attention. This is unfortunate, but since the angry division over Fetonte’s election to the NPC has emerged, examining the issues politically and organizationally in the most inclusive, democratic manner possible, is necessary and the right way to go.

Fetonte, according to his opponents, was deceptive and hid things about his work history when he ran for the NPC at the 2017 convention. Specifically, he has been charged (since his election) with covering up a job he had previously held as an organizer for a police and prison guard union in Texas, CLEAT. Because this information was not featured in his candidate statement, his opponents argue he meant to keep that information secret to improve his chances of election. It came to light when someone went to his LinkedIn page after the election.

Fetonte’s work with a police union would have come as no surprise to people active within the labor movement and the labor left. Whether or not most activists are aware, many people with strong left wing politics get assigned such work, as Fetonte was in his capacity as an organizer for Communication Workers of America, of which CLEAT is an affiliate. (Nor is it unusual for unions in one area to form unions in another area, including law enforcement.)

This state of affairs may be unacceptable to folks who have just discovered the labor movement, or joined with great expectations that one social movement would automatically be aware of and concerned about another social movement’s priorities. But being aware of those differences, and their complexities, is necessary if we ever hope to find common ground.

However, and this goes to the political point, even the complexities of differences in our own ranks are misunderstood. Fetonte and others did not consider that those radicalized by today’s social movements would want to know that he came to work for CLEAT, and how and why. In turn, those who are demanding his resignation are outspoken about opposing police violence and repression, but glide over what it means to do work against racism, police brutality, ICE and the anti-immigrant hysteria and campaigns within the framework of organized labor.

Mediation is the route that the NPC has chosen. That would have been meaningless if it was based on a demand that he resign. It will only be meaningful if it is conceived as part of a wider, open, organized discussion of the broader questions noted above — a discussion cognizant of the different perspectives that arise out of different experiences, out of different arenas of activism. We appreciate the efforts of the NPC members on both sides of the debate to begin this process. The goal of the initial discussion has been met: a resolution which all 16 members of the NPC accept. Now the organization can learn and grow.

But this raises a bigger problem, which has most members on pins and needles. To impose a discussion, especially without an organized framework and educational campaign, the results can only be disillusionment and desertion in numbers that will really hurt DSA. Putting the issues to bed early can only be a step backward from combining the new levels of activism in anti-racist struggles, from that of labor, from that of the full array of social justice organizing to the detriment of all.

Lesson #1: Democracy and Ethics

Jared Abbott [https://medium.com/@jaredabbott/respecting-democracy-and-due-process-in-dsa-a-respone-to-sam-natale-and-ramsin-canon-82b9a14ec5b3] makes some important points:

“I am not Fetonte’s ally politically, but I think it is very important for us to get comfortable with the thought of people we strongly disagree with sitting on the NPC. DSA is a `big tent’, and although the tent has boundaries, we should be very cautious about empowering the NPC to reconfigure those boundaries and expel its members on the basis of their political beliefs. Giving the NPC a power like that is incompatible with the goal of developing DSA as a large, multi-tendency, open and democratic organization. Relatedly, the NPC should not extrapolate conclusions about which political perspectives are sufficiently problematic to warrant removal from the NPC on the basis of whether those perspectives conform to positions taken in DSA’s resolutions and other public statements.”

We have no direct history with Fetonte or the Austin chapter, so we have no basis to take a position regarding his politics. But Jared’s points about democracy, and their centrality in DSA’s politics, we support completely. And we would add, the question of ethics appears alongside the question of democracy. Expelling Fetonte from the NPC, or from DSA, would be easy, if only a small minority objected. But it would also be accepting a rush to judgment. Fetonte’s reputation has taken a beating in social media. There has been talk of lawsuits, dues strikes, and the rumor mill has cast DSA leadership as everything from elitists to snitches. Unprincipled rival groups have seized on the situation to draw off members.

In short, the attacks on Fetonte outside the NPC — and involving many who claim interest but have no accountability — have become something along the order of blackmail. The NPC decided not to give in, and we applaud that. It would have not only done more harm to Fetonte’s personal reputation, but would have cut the Austin chapter at the knees — and then the NPC — and then the organization as a whole. Fetonte’s opponents can cry bad faith, but there is nothing written or practiced in DSA’s history that would direct the NPC to present a member’s head on a platter. This is something new and old members should come to terms with, or else ask what kind of group they are really looking for.

The question of organizational ethics is not a common theme in left groups, but the very existence of DSA speaks to the need for a serious discussion.

Leadership is accountable to membership. Members are accountable to the movements we support, including labor. And the whole group from leaders to active members to dues-paying supporters are responsible for maintaining DSA and protecting it from the kind of sectarianism and calling-out culture that laid waste to so many radical groups through the years.

This also means taking on the most vexing and challenging questions facing those who would take part in transforming society.

Lesson #2: Police and Police Unions

How we view police and the labor movement’s relationship to law enforcement has been at the heart of the arguments. What follows are seven considerations which should be kept in mind by all.

1) The murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Keith Lamont Scott are imprinted on our country, and especially today’s youth. For African Americans, Latin@s, and other people targeted by the right, police violence is a reality marking all aspects of life.

The impact of Black Lives Matter as a powerful voice in itself, and as a source for widespread radicalization, reflects that fact of life. So too has the dawning public awareness of the meaning of mass incarceration for the black community and with that the growing demand for decriminalization and prison abolition. Furthermore, many young people experienced the police clearings of Occupy encampments further embittering them and making opposition to police violence and the militarization of the police a central focus of their politics.

The fact that all the protests and mobilizations and expressions of mass outrage have not resulted in indictments — let alone convictions — of police officers who have killed people without the least provocation gives an added edge to this. As does the fact that they are quite unapologetically defended by police unions that have often put language in contracts or through municipal/state legislation which offers them immunity for actions unlike that available for anybody else in society — let alone black and Latin@ youth for whom arrest is often tantamount to conviction and imprisonment.

2) Police officers and prison guards come from and are part of the working class. Many unions have members in law enforcement — including AFSCME, AFT, CWA, IUOE, SEIU, the Teamsters, the Steelworkers, and until most recently, even the UE. These are public sector jobs, one of the few avenues of decent pay and benefits post deindustrialization, in part because the public sector is where unions remain strongest. And it is not irrelevant that this is the sector now being most directly attacked. The terms and conditions of police contracts have a bearing on those of other public workers. To separate and isolate is the program of the right wing, which labor as a whole has resisted.

Furthermore, within mass collective organizations, when leadership is provided, there can also be an opening for discussion of community responsibility, decriminalization, and even opposition to police brutality and racism. When cops are in unions by themselves, openly authoritarian politics stand unchallenged. For example, at their recent national convention, CWA adopted resolutions against police brutality, for community control, and for decriminalization and prison reform. CLEAT and other prison locals within CWA opposed the proposals — but their opposition, though noted, did not prevent its passage and did not lead them to threaten disaffiliation.

3) For many younger activists, mass incarceration and police violence are the central point of the struggle against racism. In a world in which physical survival, freedom of movement, for themselves or for family members is always under threat, all other issues can become secondary. Any seeming failure to acknowledge that is bound to produce a mixture of incomprehension, anger and contempt. The question is, how do we act accountably to both social movements? This is not impossible, but it demands sensitive analysis, planning and patience. The alternative is to just cut our ties and retreat to the margins.

4) Unions live under a constant state of siege as they have for decades, under attack by business and government. Union officers, staffers, long-time member activists will tend to look upon any attack from outside their ranks as unfriendly and hostile. That is all the more true of socialist and left-wing militants who often do the hardest work inside the movement, including working with locals with conservative, right wing, racist views, representing them as workers without conceding one inch on matters of outlook.

5) Some police officers are decent and try to be genuine “peace officers.” Others just try to do the minimum to get by on the job from clocking in to clocking out, and others are authoritarians, racists, or common criminals hiding behind a badge. That said, most people, black or white, look to police in the face of crime or accident even if they might find a greater threat to their safety when the officers show up. This complexity is shown at community hearings denouncing ICE. A frequent refrain is that fear of deportation causes people to fear calling police for help when needed — so that, for example, reported incidents of violence against women are down, not because the incidents are fewer, but because there is less reporting. They want an end to immigration raids so that they can call the police — even though the police are often hostile and disrespectful to the youth of the community.

6) Police are parts of the communities in which they live, if not the ones in which they work. We have seen that black officers can be just as vicious in their treatment of African American suspects, maintain homophobic views and treat trans people with disrespect and brutality like their white peers. Women officers can be no more respectful of women in custody than men. Yet their family members, friends and neighbors do not treat them as pariahs because they went into law enforcement — and families are not divided over that choice of employment (as they often are, for example, when someone scabs while someone else works). And many of them are capable of holding contradictory views — the support of Colin Kaepernick by a group of black police officers is one sign of that amongst many.

7) Yet police, as part of law enforcement, do serve and protect the established order. Irrespective of their individual qualities or perspectives, their role is to maintain the system as it currently exists. Our criminal justice system as it exists is unjust, perpetuates racism, is a force against labor, serves to repress the left, to highlight a list that can go on. In particular, the racism of policing in our society should not be downplayed or rationalized in any way, shape or form — working class unity will not be built without directly confronting the source of division in inequality maintained through direct and indirect forms of violence. Thus advocates of maintaining or reinforcing the status quo — like police unions — must be confronted without losing sight of the fact that the problem is systemic, not making our main target the cop on the beat, or confusing the roles of individual cops, their unions, the brass, the civilians who set department policy, or the state as a whole, when targeting the causes of oppression.

We hope this is read in the spirit of solidarity, and that our analysis and suggestions prove helpful.

Jay Schaffner, Kurt Stand, and Ethan Young

[Jay Schaffner is an at-large DSA member in New York, a member since the founding of DSA in 1982; and before of DSOC and NAM. Jay is one of the founding moderators of Portside. He is a former executive board member of AFM Local 802 in New York (Musicians union); and for 21 years was the supervisor of their recording department, and helped negotiate many of the AFM’s electronic recording agreements. Years earlier, he helped develop “people-to-people” travel to Cuba, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe with Voices of the Future and Anniversary Tours. In 1974, he ran for the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, getting more than 25,000 votes on an independent line. Originally from Chicago, he was a member of the National Committee of the CPUSA for many years, before leaving in 1991 and helping to form the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

Kurt Stand joined Metro DC DSA in 1983. He has served on the NPC, and been part of the Labor and Anti-Racism Commissions. A member of several unions when working in waterfront industries, he was later a member of NABET, a staffer for the NALC, and, as a unionist, active within the National Rainbow Coalition. From 1989 forward he served with the International Union of Food and Allied Workers and was elected its North American Regional Secretary in 1994. He was a member of the CPUSA’s youth group in his native New York City and Milwaukee, active in anti-war and political prisoner defense work. A strong supporter of the former German Democratic Republic, he was in federal prison for 15 years. Today, he lives in Cheverly, MD, works as a bookseller, is active with community and reentry organizations, promotes labor cultural events, and serves as a Portside Moderator.

Ethan Young joined Central Brooklyn DSA this year. He has worked alongside DSA members in groups such as Socialist Dialogue and Left Labor Project (LLP). A Chicagoan, he worked in many different areas of left politics over 50 years: against school segregation; the Vietnam war; the Daley machine; repression of the Black Panther Party; the Cuba embargo; Nazi organizing in the Chicago area; US intervention in Southern Africa and Central America; and the dictatorships in the Philippines and Iran. He is an ex-member of USW Local 65, UAW 2110, and SSEU Local 371, DC 37 AFSCME, and Line of March, a Leninist group that folded in 1989. Over the years he has worked with various left collectives and publications in Chicago, the Bay Area, and NYC, where he currently edits and writes for Portside.org, LLP, and People for Bernie.]