Young Democratic Socialists of Nevada Spurred by Tensions in Reno

The Young Democratic Socialists of Nevada are a youth branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, but what do they stand for and what motivated them to form a new group? Report by Charis Nixon and Tanner Barrett with photos by Kacee Johnson.

Members of the Young Democratic Socialists of Nevada participate in a political education meeting at the University of Nevada, Reno. The group started their meetings in the Fall of 2017. Photo by Kacee Johnson.

Establishing the Mood for a Meeting of Socialists

Walking into a recent meeting of the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) of Nevada was like walking into any other club meeting. Members sat in clumps around the room, chatting and laughing together.

Vice President Phuong Tran, 21, greeted newcomers with a smile and cheerfully asked them to sign in. Some members trickled in late with food.

Music played from speakers at the front of the room. The only things that seemed unusual were the choice of song — “Tear the Fascists Down” by Woody Guthrie, an American activist folk songwriter who died in 1967— and, of course, the red YDSA banner hung up at the back of the classroom.

President Louis Magriel, 21, began the meeting by having everyone introduce themselves with their name, preferred pronoun (ex. he, she, them, etc.), and one hobby they would master if they had the time or resources.

These hobbies ranged from gardening, to 3D printing, even to becoming a gym teacher. Magriel’s own answer — becoming a professional Fortnite player — received a chorus of laughter. At first, this seemed to be a simple, fun icebreaker, but Magriel then connected it to the organization’s purpose: he explained that democratic socialism aims to give people the time and resources they need to pursue what they want to do.

At the meeting, the Young Democratic Socialists of Nevada were handing out YDSA and DSA swag to members. Photo by Kacee Johnson.

Differences Between Democratic Socialism and Social Democrats?

The term “democratic socialism” may bring to mind left-wing politicians like Bernie Sanders, but Magriel emphasized the difference between Sanders’ brand of socialism and the Young Democratic Socialists’ general view. While Sanders is a “social democrat”, said Magriel, the members of YDS are “democratic socialists” — and he says, there is definitely a difference.

“Social democracy seeks to maintain the current existing economic system and, essentially, make it ‘nice’,” said Magriel. “Democratic socialism is socialism in a sense that it wants to move past a capitalist mode of production,” he said.

According to Magriel, this essentially means that while social democracy aims to improve upon the capitalistic system currently in place, democratic socialists want to do away with capitalism altogether and create a new economic system. However, he said, this does not necessarily mean social democrats are not valuable to the democratic socialist movement.

“[Sanders] undeniably sparked a huge fire in a lot of us, including me, and including most of the other people who started YDS,” Magriel said. “He kind of showed us there is something out there possible that we could do, there is actually a chance to break out of this myopic, Obama-Bush type of elite politics. He gave the idea that the working class could have a voice.”

Ben Allbrecht and Mark Campbell, from the YDSA Nevada socialist education committee, looked into possible scenarios socialism in the United States. The slideshow featured plenty of memes, including an illustration of “what people think American socialism would look like,” which included a painting of the French Revolution edited to depict Bernie Sanders holding up Donald Trump’s head next to a guillotine. Allbrecht and Campbell went on to say that the YDS vision of American socialism is not too far off from ideals of the past, and included a clip from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech proposing a “Second Bill of Rights”. They also held up Nordic countries as models of the welfare state, labor market policy, and state ownership desired by the democratic socialist movement. Photo by Kacee Johnson.

A Couple Motivated by Distressing Events

Magriel and Tran, who are not only co-leaders but also a couple, said they were personally inspired to start the Nevada chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists after events that happened in October of 2016 and August of 2017. Tran was in her freshman year at UNR when she witnessed a nasty traffic altercation during a Columbus Day protest in downtown Reno on Oct. 10.

“We were in a prayer circle, and we all had our signs and everything saying …‘Abolish Columbus Day’, or, you know, like, ‘Your history is written in Native blood,’” said Tran. “We saw a truck pass by us, and then they looped around and then passed us again while we were walking and said something like, ‘F*ck Indians,” she remembers from the day.

Less than a year after this incident, one person was killed when a car crashed a counter protest in Charlottesville, VA, at a “Unite the Right” rally where former UNR student Peter Cvjetanovic was present.

Louis Magriel also took the podium during the meeting. Photo by Kacee Johnson.

Not Just Reading Karl Marx

“[Cvjetanovic] got a polo shirt embroidered, he flew out across the country to be there. And the symbol he had on his shirt was that … of Identity Evropa,” said Magriel. Identity Evropa is an American neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization which was established in March 2016.

“I remember sitting with Louis in Vegas just crying because something like this, at such a big scale, that someone could run someone over again. It was like a flashback,” Tran said. “We really really felt the need to do something. We couldn’t just sit on our butts and read Karl Marx and be happy with that.”

“[We have been] volunteering with the overflow shelter, they have people go over there overnight and do shifts of that,” said Tran. “This year we are trying to plan a homeless pack drive so that way we can gather items for the homeless and distribute them.”

Although to some the organization represents controversial and non-traditional political views, Tran said the community response to the group’s involvement has not been hostile.

“​They’ve been actually really warm to us,”Tran said. “We aren’t interested in picking fights with people over political things like that. We are really just trying to reach the material needs of this community.”

“Reno is a very individualistic kind of city,” Tran added, “and everybody kind of wants to do their own thing. But we also have to realize our actions have consequences on other people, so we should work together.”

Outside of political education, the Young Democratic Socialists of Nevada also focuses largely on community engagement. The organization participated in a number of philanthropic events and plans to continue their work this year. Photo by Kacee Johnson.

Endorsing No Candidates

Concerning Nevada politics, Magriel said YDS has no plans to endorse any candidates for office this election year. For a political organization that strays away from the two dominant parties in the U.S., it is difficult to find candidates that appeal to their values. There are, however, ballot questions that they find important.

“I do think we can do a lot of good … in these simple ballot initiatives, like ballot initiatives 2 and 4, which would expectedly remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products and medical equipment,” YDS member Nora Prochaska said. “Just making those things more accessible to low income people is an obvious good in my opinion,” she said.

“All of these are ballot initiatives that could create real, progressive change the second they get passed through the state legislature,” Magriel said.

Report by Charis Nixon, Tanner Barrett and Kacee Johnson shared with the Reynolds Sandbox