East Bay DSA Should Not Endorse Cat Brooks

On Sunday, East Bay DSA will be considering a very contentious endorsement request from Cat Brooks, a candidate for Mayor of Oakland. The present article is meant to persuade comrades in the chapter to vote against endorsing Brooks’ campaign.

Cat Brooks has an admirable record fighting against police violence in Oakland, an issue incumbent mayoral candidate Libby Schaaf has consistently been on the wrong side of.

However, just because an activist candidate is better than the incumbent doesn’t mean they are entitled to our endorsement.

I commend the Endorsement Subcommittee for writing such a detailed and well-researched report on all the candidates who sought our endorsement. In this report you can find information about Brooks’ history with charter schools as well as the committee’s reasoning for their recommendations for all the candidates. I highly recommend everyone read the whole thing before Sunday, and especially the section on Brooks. While Brooks now claims to oppose charterization in her questionnaire (I’m not aware of her putting out any official public statement of opposition to school privatization), she includes no mention of her pro-charter run for public office in Oakland only six years ago, expresses pride in her work with Education Trust-West, and fails altogether to mention her years-long work with GO Public Schools, the leading backer of school privatization in Oakland.

I will be voting against an East Bay DSA endorsement of Cat Brooks’ campaign for mayor for three main reasons.

First, the antagonistic manner in which Brooks and her campaign have decided to relate to East Bay DSA — openly denouncing our membership and effectively demanding an endorsement instead of offering collaboration — suggests that there is little hope for us to play a meaningful role in her campaign, work with her to build a broad movement around shared demands, and have a working relationship while she is in office as mayor, were she to win.

Second, in her statements to and about DSA, Brooks has revealed that she holds a political perspective which understands race to be the fundamental dividing line in society instead of class — and this undermines our project of building a multiracial working-class movement.

Finally, her long history as an advocate for charter schools, regardless of her very recent statements against charters, should be a huge red flag for socialists, especially since Brooks failed to mention this history in her communications with us.

Taken together, these concerns should convince every East Bay DSA member that an endorsement for Brooks would harm, not help, our chapter in advancing its strategic political priorities. I understand, given the importance of making East Bay DSA more rooted in Black and Brown working-class communities, why some people think such an endorsement might help move us in this direction. I believe, however, that this will not happen given Brooks’ long history with charter schools (against which working-class parents and teachers across Oakland have been fighting for years), her open hostility to DSA, and the absence of strong union support for her candidacy. Instead, I believe the strategy East Bay DSA adopted at our annual convention this spring, especially working alongside and within large and diverse unions and working to elect Jovanka Beckles, is the best way to accomplish this.

What we learned at the July Meeting

For those who were not at East Bay DSA’s July General Meeting, you should read this statement from our co-chairs about the events that took place there. In short: during an open debate among our chapter about whether or not to carry out an endorsements process in August, Cat Brooks and her associates and supporters intervened in the meeting, took and held the floor (despite protestations from the chair, who was called racist for seeking to facilitate the meeting according our chapter’s democratically decided-upon rules), and denounced DSA as a white, racist organization consisting of “gentrifiers.” DSA was described as “the problem,” the clear implication being that our organization is a cause of both racism and gentrification, if not other social ills.

The aforementioned statement does a good job laying out the context and the details of the July meeting, but I would like to add a few points that were not mentioned or were underemphasized.

First, Brooks’ expectation that we should endorse her without first undergoing a democratic deliberative process — we were literally in the process of deciding upon an endorsements strategy and process when the interruption began — does not suggest that she is interested in a collaborative relationship with East Bay DSA. Her interruption at our July meeting was unprovoked — our chapter had not contacted or been contacted by Brooks’ campaign. (Typically, politically organizations officially invite candidates seeking endorsement to speak before the membership in an endorsements meeting, which is exactly the process we have established for this upcoming Sunday.) Brooks’ primary complaint appeared to be that we were deciding on an endorsements process, rather than offering Brooks herself immediate, unquestioning support without her even having to request the endorsement. This attitude of entitlement to our endorsement before we had even been able to learn her politics or discuss her candidacy, on the sole basis she is a prominent activist, bodes poorly for political collaboration during or after her campaign.

Second, for a democratic organization, membership meetings are sacred. A union activist present at the July meeting told me afterward that if any candidate had done what Brooks did at her union’s membership meeting, that would have been the end of the union’s relationship with that candidate right there and then. General meetings constitute the highest decision making body in the organization, and the rules we use to conduct them are intended to make sure that every member has an equal voice in these crucial meetings. Brooks’ disruption was an attack on the democratic functioning of our organization.

Building a Multiracial Socialist Movement

Finally, the meeting exposed the stranglehold of race reductionism and liberal guilt politics on some parts of the Left — a stranglehold that we socialists need to break in order to build a real multiracial working-class movement capable of posing a serious challenge to capital.

By claiming that, since the organization consists of white gentrifiers, DSA is “the problem,” Brooks exposed that she holds a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with mine and I would argue at odds with a socialist analysis. The displacement of Black and Brown working-class people due to unaffordable housing is a very real problem — but it is one fundamentally caused by the profit-seeking of big developers, not white workers and renters. Furthermore, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote after liberals started blaming working-class and poor whites for Trump’s election, “the privileges of white skin run very thin in a country where nineteen million white people languish in poverty.”

The root cause of gentrification is the capitalist system that exploits most people of all races and genders, and forces them to move around the country or into sprawling suburbs to both find a job and be able to afford rent. Those who can’t end up in the streets. While white people are statistically less likely to be poor or homeless, almost half of the nearly 600,000 homeless Americans are white. Even middle-class whites, as with everyone else, feel the pressures of rising rents and sinking wages. What makes capitalism so pervasive is that no working person is immune to these pressures. But what gives me hope is that workers of all races, who together constitute a powerful supermajority of society, have a shared interest in overcoming their differences and fighting back against the landlords, developers, real-estate interests, and captured corporate politicians who are the actual gentrifiers in the Bay Area and everywhere else.

As I wrote in an article last week in response to Briahna Gray’s article, “Beware the Race Reductionist,” I believe that capitalism uses racism to divide working people, and it is therefore urgent that socialists not only unite workers around the basis of class but also come out loudly and clearly against racial oppression. I don’t believe that we have to choose one or the other, either to fight capitalism or to fight racism. We can and must fight both.

But by misidentifying gentrification as fundamentally a racial conflict, rather than a class conflict with racial dimensions (since low-income people in the Bay Area are disproportionately non-white), Brooks made clear she does not share our solidaristic, class-struggle perspective. Instead, she weaponized racial difference — and a sense of pervasive guilt felt by many white progressive activists — to demand that we submit an endorsement to her before we had even initiated an endorsements process, let alone were able to interview her or learn anything about her politics.

I should be clear that, as everyone acknowledges, our DSA chapter like every other major urban DSA chapter is not nearly as racially diverse as is the working class of the local area. Many of our members have more professional jobs, and in the Bay Area as elsewhere this tends to mean they are disproportionately white. The way to build a more diverse socialist movement is not by shaming people into submission, or submitting to shame. It’s by building a multiracial, working-class political movement, one with a deep base in diverse working-class communities, that can win real changes in workers’ lives. Denouncing as “gentrifiers” a room full of mostly-white socialist activists, who are fighting displacement and campaigning hard for Proposition 10, is not going to build such a movement.

After Brooks left the meeting, the members ended up considering right there and then whether or not to endorse Brooks (without following any of the normal endorsement procedures that other candidates have participated in in the past, or would participate in leading up to this weekend). Three Black DSA members, all of them active and regular contributors to DSA’s work, spoke and each of them spoke against endorsing Brooks. One young Black woman claimed that Brooks’ denunciation divided workers instead of bringing them together, and added “that’s what the capitalists do.” Following these statements, an older white man wearing a “Cat Brooks for Mayor” t-shirt rose to speak in favor of endorsing Brooks by saying that if we fail to endorse Cat Brooks we will insult Oakland’s Black population. Given that three Black comrades had just spoken against endorsement, this statement was ridiculous: he was in effect speaking for thousands of people he’d never met, including three in the room. This exemplified that the support among left activists for this kind of divisive and guilt-driven politics rests on the assumption that all Black people have the same political opinions — and if they don’t, they don’t exist.

The endorsement of Cat Brooks is being instrumentalized, by Brooks as well as by some DSA members, to imply that DSA doesn’t support the struggle of Black and Brown people in the East Bay. Brooks herself has been calling us racist ever since the meeting — at a DSA Refoundation-hosted forum Brooks described the July meeting which she interrupted as a “white mob out of a Dixie state in the 1960’s.” (Again, multiple Black and Brown members spoke against endorsing Brooks that day.)

But in fact, DSA has demonstrated over and over again that, in addition to combatting the displacement crisis, we are also committed to fighting racial oppression, from our direct actions against deportations last spring to our strong support this May for striking AFSCME 3299 workers — a predominantly Black and Brown public sector union — fighting against racial discrimination and an unfair contract. Now, after helping Jovanka Beckles’ campaign win the primary in June, we are working closely with her to advance not only an ambitious working-class program in her incredible anti-corporate campaign for state assembly, but we are also vocal and active supporters of her ambitious racial justice and police reform agenda.

Though it may take a long time, I believe actions and campaigns like these, which emphasize shared struggle and are rooted in an inspiring socialist political program, are the best way to build a multiracial working-class movement today. And I believe that stoking racial divisions among the working class and weaponizing white guilt in order to override democracy and force political acquiescence is an equally good way to destroy the potential for such a movement.

WHY ARE CHARTERS SO BAD?

In recent decades, a group of billionaires and their enablers in government have succeeded in shutting down thousands of public schools nationwide and replacing them with privately-managed charter schools — staffed mostly by non-unionized, short-term teachers (90% of US charters are non-union).

Charter schools have many well-meaning adherents, from parents seeking alternatives to crumbling, underfunded public schools, to progressive teachers and principals hoping to create those alternatives.

But the leading “education reform” and “school choice” advocacy organizations and billionaire funders, from Bill Gates to Betsy DeVos to the Koch brothers, understand the true purposes of privatization. First, public schools are shuttered and reopened as privately managed, non-union charter schools. This way older, higher-paid, and more experienced union teachers can be replaced with non-union and easily exploitable, often younger, teachers; thereby cutting overall public school budgets to accommodate lowered taxes on the rich and corporations.

As Andrew Hartman writes, “their aim is to undercut public schools and foster union-free charter schools, freeing the rich from having to pay teachers as unionized public servants with pensions.” This is one part of the broader war these same billionaires are waging — think Janus— to break the power of public sector unions in general, which remain the strongest bastion of worker power to resist corporate control of society.

Finally, privatization creates new potential profit streams and career paths for “education reform”-related products, such as pricey consulting, education “tech” solutions (like replacing union teachers with iPads and apps), and shady deals on charter school construction and other contracts in the absence of the oversight required of public schools.

In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Diane Ravitch sums up the insidious record of school privatization in the US, citing Oakland as exemplary:

The anti-union Walton Family Foundation is the biggest private financier of charters. The foundation in 2016 unveiled a plan to spend $200 million annually over five years for charter schools, and the organization claims credit for opening one of every four charters in the nation. The Waltons and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, using both public and private funds, are pouring hundreds of millions annually into what amounts to a joint effort to privatize public education. The federal government spends $400 million annually on charter schools…
Charter schools drain resources and the students they want from public schools. When students leave for charters, the public schools must fire teachers, reduce offerings and increase class sizes. Some districts, such as Oakland’s, teeter on the edge of financial ruin because public funds have been diverted to charters.

BROOKS’ CHARTER CONNECTION

While not as bad as New Orleans or Detroit, Oakland is still among the cities worst hit by charterization. The most powerful force in school privatization here has been a duplicitously-named non-profit called Great Oakland (“GO”) Public Schools. It turns out that Cat Brooks has run for office in Oakland before, in 2012, under her given name Sheilagh Polk — and she did so as a GO Public Schools-backed candidate. Brooks spent three years as a board member of GO Public Schools (2011–2014). Prior to her unpaid stint on the GO board, Brooks worked as media and community relations manager for Education Trust-West, a regional subsidiary of the nationally prominent Education Trust — which is credited as a primary author of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” act. (Brooks actually touted her work with Education Trust-West in the questionnaire she filled out as part of East Bay DSA’s endorsement process.)

(Again I refer readers to the Endorsement Subcommittee report, which has more details on Brooks and other candidates; and you can find excellent statements with more information on Brooks’s platform and charter schools here, here, and here.)

Financed with millions of dollars in contributions from billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, the Walton family, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and school privatization interests like the California Charter School Association and the Rogers Foundation, GO Public Schools funnels hundreds of thousands of dollars to pro-charter Oakland school board candidates each election cycle. The result has been a strong, charter-friendly majority on the Oakland school board, the closing of dozens of public schools, and the diversion of 30 percent of Oakland education funding into the private charter industry.

Now Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is in an apocalyptic fiscal crisis: with a multi-million dollar budget deficit, already underfunded schools are struggling to keep schools open and union teachers are fighting against calls for further school closures and privatization while they fight for a good contract. Defunding through privatization has been compounded by mismanagement by privatizing and pro-charter school board members (who were elected thanks to tons of cash from GO), and a former superintendent, who lined up millions in contracts for private consulting firms while cutting stable union jobs.

Pro-charter organizations are reportedly attempting to push school privatization in Oakland so far — they call 45 percent charterization “the tipping point” — that the public school system collapses financially, creating an opening for complete privatization. (Here is their actual plan.)

Not five years ago, Cat Brooks occupied an unpaid seat on the board of a dark-money, billionaire-funded, school privatization non-profit. Alongside her admirable activism against police violence following the murder of Oscar Grant in 2009, Brooks spent at least six years in various capacities as a advocate for the union-busting charter movement in Oakland.

My skepticism is bolstered by the fact that she has, as recently as last year, invited charter school advocates onto her KPFA radio show. She also remained silent during her mayoral campaign on the issue of school privatization — until DSA asked her about it in our candidate questionnaire, that is. And she has remained silent about her own pro-charter candidacy in 2012. At the time of writing, a month before mail-ballots drop for the November election, Brooks’ official campaign platform doesn’t say anything about privatization. (With one month remaining until ballots reach vote-by-mail voters, there is no sign in Cat’s official platform of even the concrete policy answers she provided in her questionnaire, including opposing school privatization.)

At least some of Brooks’ charter school connections are not a thing of the past. For example, she currently features on her website the endorsement of Toni Cook, longtime and current board director of AIMS, which operates three charters in Oakland with “dilapidated school facilities and poor pay and benefits.” It’s simple: East Bay DSA should not be endorsing the same candidate for mayor of Oakland as Toni Cook.

Which side are we on?

The movement against school privatization in particular and austerity in general is growing — and this broader, indeed international rebellion against corporate control, best represented by Bernie Sanders’ immense popularity, is the context out of which DSA has grown exponentially for two years. The inspiring fight against cuts to public education in Chicago, led by the radicalized Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and networks of supportive parents, has been echoed over and over again this year, the year of the public school workers rebellions from West Virginia to Arizona and now California.

Here in Oakland, the OEA and Oakland parents are fighting tooth and nail to combat OUSD’s malfeasance and stop the bleeding caused by the years of privatization and austerity. It seems the tide is turning and the momentum is with the growing movements of education workers, parents, and socialists, not the “education reformers.”

Therefore, it’s not totally surprising that Brooks has come out against charters in her questionnaire. The writing is on the wall. But if Brooks has really had a change of heart about the value of public education, why hasn’t she used her campaign to come out in support of Oakland teachers’ efforts and against school privatization? Why is she using her radio platform to promote charter advocates, and why hasn’t she openly renounced her past involvement with forces of school privatization such as GO Public Schools and Education Trust?

There is good reason to believe that Brooks hasn’t actually changed her political orientation around privatization. At a DSA Refoundation Caucus-sponsored forum in August, when asked if she supports socialized medicine, Cat Brooks responded that, since public health care resources are not getting to poor or working people in neighborhoods in East Oakland, we might have to resort to “privatization” to make sure East Oakland is served.

Privatization cannot insure that East Oakland is served. Underfunded and means-tested local public health resources, while insufficient, are almost entirely intended for poor and working people. Those better off patronize private employer-based or market-based health insurance and even private healthcare providers. So while middle-class or well-off Oakland residents can go to Kaiser or private practices, poor and uninsured Oakland residents, if they can get any care at all, might have to go to public clinics or the dramatically underfunded Highland Hospital, run by the county. Because the healthcare system has been largely privatized in this way already, wealthy people and businesses — i.e. those with the most political influence — have no vested interest in public health programs that help the poor, and thus support even more regressive taxation and even more budget cuts to those programs. Those cuts become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy that public programs don’t work, encouraging calls for more cuts and more privatization.

This is how Republicans at the federal level plan to kill the Veterans’ Administration, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security: further privatize, segment, and undermine the programs so that fewer and fewer people have a direct interest in the programs and even those who would benefit from them don’t understand them, making them easier to completely dismantle in the future. This is also why Obamacare, which puts public monies into a balkanized and privatized health insurance system, is both ineffective economically and politically unviable. (Single-payer healthcare, on the other hand, leading to a fully socialized healthcare system, is the only solution.)

This is charterization logic in action. First, revenue going to public schools dries up thanks to lavish tax cuts to the rich (think Proposition 13). Then, privatization advocates point to sub-par public school functioning to justify putting more public resources into private hands, i.e. charters. This pulls even more resources out of public schools, leading to more dysfunction and louder calls for privatization. Meanwhile, privatizers reveal themselves as union-busters, trying to win parents over to the view that the teachers, their “high” compensation and job protections, and most of all their unions are to blame for the schools’ problems.

Even worse than this vicious cycle of defunding, privatization also pushes the well-being of our schools and hospitals into the world of unaccountable nonprofits and for-profit corporations. By putting essential services like education and healthcare into the market — turning them into commodities — the wellbeing of the children and families they serve becomes subordinated to the profit- and prestige-seeking of Bill Gates and the Koch Brothers.

In fact, the county’s public health system, Alameda Health System (AHS), has been undergoing cuts and privatization already. In the same forum, Brooks said that she would use her “tenure as mayor” to “push unions to do more” to include Black and Brown workers. However, while the 3,000 AHS workers represented by SEIU 1021 are only 24% white, union workers have been combating both privatization as well as racist treatment by their employer and the government generally, including demonstrating against the deportation of one of their coworkers. Meanwhile SEIU 1021, one of several unions representing thousands of Black and Brown city of Oakland workers, went on strike late last year while demanding a better contract. It is unclear to me how a Mayor Brooks — now these workers’ boss — would “push unions” to do more.

CONCLUSION

Ours is one of nearly two hundred chapters of a socialist organization that has, against all odds, exploded to fifty thousand members in the last two years. We are regularly making national headlines, and from the East Bay across the country we’re participating in inspiring local and national campaigns and building a new base of militant resistance to capitalism and oppression. Before 2016, the breadth and depth of political engagement and sophistication DSA represents was unimaginable. Now we represent the future of American politics.

I am incredibly proud of the work that East Bay DSA has done since I joined, and the future is bright. That is why I do not take lightly the hostility shown to DSA by the Cat Brooks campaign. Considering the extremely positive relationships we’ve built collaborating with diverse unions, tenants groups, and the Richmond Progressive Alliance, it is obvious that DSA is capable of making an important contribution to important coalitions. Brooks’ campaign does not seem to me to offer this kind of collaboration. Additionally, endorsing someone with a record as a charter activist would put a wedge between us and union teachers and public school advocates — groups we desperately need to work with to build a multiracial movement to fight austerity and injustice in Oakland and everywhere else.

That is why I will be voting no, this Sunday, on a Cat Brooks endorsement.

POSTSCRIPT: ROLE OF REFOUNDATION AND IMT

The following is not an argument against endorsing Cat Brooks but a related note that I felt was important to share.

The strongest champions of a Cat Brooks endorsement within DSA are the leaders of the local DSA Refoundation Caucus. The host of the aforementioned forum is a Refoundation member as well as a prominent member of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), a small, orthodox Trotskyist sect that has decided to enter DSA all over the country. It turns out that IMT has been very vocal about East Bay DSA’s electoral strategy in the recent past. In fact, three IMT members wrote last year that DSA should not support Jovanka Beckles or Gayle McLaughlin because “they are not DSA members and are not accountable to us.” (Both in fact are DSA members.) More significantly, the IMT members argued that we should only support candidates whom we select to run, as DSA candidates first and foremost, as part of a broader program to build an independent workers party. This argument was made again at East Bay DSA’s April 2018 convention, where we debated our electoral strategy, and these same people argued against the more flexible strategy the chapter ended up endorsing overwhelmingly. (The alternative strategy they proposed had contained their proposal for an independent workers party.)

Brooks is neither a “DSA candidate” nor someone we could hold accountable. It seems far more likely in the case of Brooks’ campaign than Beckles’ (wherein we are playing an extraordinarily active and collaborative role) that DSA become, as the IMT members wrote last year, a “cog in an electoral machine we do not control.” Additionally, a major point from IMT against endorsing Beckles was her affiliation with the Democratic Party — which, as far as I know, Brooks shares, even though the Oakland mayoral race doesn’t require one to declare their party affiliation. IMT and Refoundation’s support of Brooks seems hypocritical to me, to say the least.

It’s one thing to change your political position over time. I certainly have. But to me the conduct of IMT and Refoundation in general betrays what seem to be less-principled motivations. (Also IMT, a democratic centralist organization, the members of which are more or less required to toe the line of the national or international leadership, has held relatively stable views on these questions for years.) They held a candidate forum for a candidate the chapter hadn’t endorsed at precisely the same time the chapter was attempting to carry out a fair endorsements process — a process that the same Refoundation comrades undermined at the July meeting where we established it. This is, in spirit if not in letter, in conflict with our chapter’s bylaws, which are meant to ensure a clear and democratic treatment of endorsements. And then Refoundation used the forum as an opportunity to denounce — or prompt Brooks to denounce — their factional opponents within DSA.

Taken together with over a year of factionalism and disruption, this conduct suggests that Refoundation and IMT are, at least in part, using this contentious endorsement question as a way to divide the chapter and advance their own factional interests.

Whether or not we endorse Cat Brooks’ campaign for mayor is an important political question for East Bay DSA members to decide. Many members support the endorsement, and many oppose it, meaning we should be able to have a serious and principled debate. But by using the Brooks’ campaign as a bludgeon against their opponents, Refoundation comrades are undermining the capacity of the chapter to have a fair and clear debate on the question.