Where is the DSA in the Current Uprising?

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With the uprising against police brutality at a decisive turning point, the largest socialist organization in the U.S. — the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — can play a significant role in fueling the momentum of the movement and pushing its demands forward. But it has to make significant changes in its strategy first.

Image: Twitter / @mdc_dsa

The uprising against police brutality is at a turning point. Democratic Party politicians have engaged in countless symbolic acts of solidarity and promised some changes to U.S. policing — but these are insufficient. Right now, the movement can either be co-opted or it can continue fighting for more. 

What should socialists do now in this largest social upheaval in recent U.S. history? How can we keep up the momentum and use it to advance the fight for socialism? 

Since the first mobilizations, members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the biggest socialist organization in the U.S., have attended protests across the country, done jail support, and been arrested. Many rank-and-file members have organized actions and are trying to put forward a framework for police abolition, especially those organized in the Afro-socialist Caucus. We too are DSA members who are participating in the protests. But as a whole, these efforts have been largely uncoordinated across the organization and highly localized. We haven’t utilized the potential force of a socialist organization with upwards of 70,000 members.

As this volatile situation evolves, it’s high time for us to change as well — to question the strategy we’ve been using and take bold steps forward in the struggle against capitalism and oppression. This uprising, as with the labor struggles during Covid-19 for PPE and hazard pay, could be the foundations for a strong, independent socialist party rooted in class struggle and in particular, in Black struggle. This is an opportunity for the left-wing of the DSA to help form a political party along with the Black leaders who emerge from this uprising, as well as to strengthen the fight in the streets against police violence, and connect Black struggle, labor struggles and anticapitalist struggles. 

This is meant as both a political reflection and as concrete proposals for steps forward. We write this reflection as DSA members and comrades in struggle. We want to see the current uprising grow and the socialist movement succeed.

Where Are We Now?

In 2019, the world was rocked by global uprisings from Sudan to Puerto Rico, to Chile. Class struggle defeated austerity measures and, in some countries, toppled leaders. This year, the epicenter of global class struggle is right here in the United States, in the midst of a global economic crisis and coronavirus pandemic.

Just last month, at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, the country witnessed over 200 labor actions, strikes, and walkouts. This highlighted the underfunding of healthcare and the bosses’ and governments’ complete disregard for workers’ lives. It also showed the world the power the working class has to run society. The capitalists and their government wanted workers to die for their profits, and workers fought back. 

The current uprising against police terror has primarily attracted young people — millenials and Gen-zers — who have lived through two massive economic downturns, carry more student debt than hope for the future, and grew up on the failures of the Obama administration. These youth say Black Lives Matter, Black women’s lives matter, and Black trans lives matter. They chant for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. Our generations don’t trust cops. We reject the bullshit reforms that came after the last Black Lives Matter protests. We know body cams don’t make a difference; the whole system has to come down. 

Polls say half of us in this generation think socialism is better than capitalism — even if we’re not yet chanting that in the streets. Capitalism offers us nothing, so young people are thinking about how to achieve alternatives. This is expressed in the mutual aid networks organized during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak, walkouts in workplaces across the country, new labor organizing, and now, with hundreds of thousands in the streets demanding an end to racist police brutality.

American institutions have never stood so delegitimized in front of the masses — from Trump who wanted to use the military against protesters, to the racist police, to the Democratic Party whose mayors and governors order curfews and mass arrests of demonstrators. 

Though we may not recognize the scale of our power just yet, it’s clear the political establishment does, and knows we’re dangerous. This combination — economic crisis, labor struggles, and youth in the streets led by people of color  — is a threat to capital and carries the promise of the struggle against the racist, capitalist system. 

And it has within it the promise of a new, socialist organization full of Black workers and leaders. 

Although the DSA is the largest socialist organization in recent U.S. history, it has not played a central role in the class struggle during the height of the pandemic or the current Black led uprising. Despite periods of rapid growth over the last four years, DSA remains a predominantly white organization. A wing of the DSA — the strongest wing, led by Jacobin magazine — has supported maintaining police union organizers in leadership and made theory out of Bernie Sanders’ weaknesses on race, arguing for socialists to focus on “class-wide demands” (sometimes called “race-blind demands”). The politics of this Jacobin-led leadership have alienated the DSA from Black socialist youth. 

And despite being made up primarily of various sectors of workers, it has not played a central role in organizing people in their workplaces. It devoted more than a year to registering people as Democrats and canvassing for Sanders and local candidates, which didn’t materialize in a militant socialist sector within the labor movement and didn’t change the demographics of the organization— failing to attract the black youth in the streets now. 

If we want to see the movement advance, this needs to change — and that requires a deliberate break with the DSA’s strategy of at least the last five years, beginning with cutting all ties with the Democratic Party. 

Democrats’ Co-Opting of the Movement Has Begun

As the youth — many of them DSA members — continue to take to the streets, the Democratic Party is busy trying to halt the protests with repression and co-optation. They pay lip service to #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd and paint “Black Lives Matter” on streets while overseeing the arrest of thousands of protesters fighting in Floyd’s name.

It should be difficult for the Democrats to co-opt this movement after being at the fore of the repression. Minnesota is a blue state — but it took a nationwide uprising before all killer cops were arrested. As protesters took to the streets, Democrats in cities around the country unleashed police violence, curfews, and deployed the National Guard. And that’s not to mention the party’s segregationist, rapist presidential candidate, whose idea of police reform is to teach cops to shoot people in the legs instead of the heart. 

And yet, sectors of the Democratic Party are attempting to put themselves at the head of the movement so they can co-opt and pacify it. The Minneapolis city council, for instance, vowed to “disband the police,” but without any details or accountability. The politicians crafting the plan promise it won’t mean the abolition of law enforcement and that the proposal won’t come up for a vote for over a year, when the uprising has passed.

Similarly, nationwide calls to “defund the police” are vague, ranging from minuscule budget cuts (just look at Congress’s kente cloth mess of a reform bill) to shifting parts of police budgets to increased funding for social programs. Even the ACLU, which talks of “radically defunding the police,” has taken up the slogan “reform is not enough” — but make no mistake: it is indeed only a reform.

Some people may say that #NotAllDemocrats are against the protests. But where is the Democratic Party’s progressive wing? Ilhan Omar, considered the most radical member of the “Squad,” has zig zagged during the uprising. Right now, she is putting out some radical tweets, but during the height of the uprising she spoke out against “outside agitators,” said the National Guard made certain people feel safe, and condemned the “destruction” of private property by protesters. Worse still, Larry Krasner, the “progressive” Philadelphia DA endorsed by the DSA, is locking up protesters.

And where is Bernie Sanders? He’s been mostly silent during the uprising, but when he did speak he proposed the most tepid of reforms — including increasing police pay. He’s spoken against police abolition but says nothing about Democrats repressing protesters and imposing curfews. 

The Democratic Party has George Floyd’s blood on its hands. The Democrats run Minnesota from top to bottom and have covered for killer cops. Democrats allowed Derek Chauvin to stay on the force despite numerous complaints against him. Democrats have blood on their hands: they ordered  the police and National Guard repression that has killed protesters. The lip service paid to protesters’ demands and the appropriation of radical rhetoric are an attempt to co-opt and contain the movement. 

The DSA and the Democrats

Throughout this mass upheaval, the DSA has maintained its central orientation: its strategy of telling people to vote for “progressive” Democrats, and adding a call to defund the police, while Democratic governors and mayors are tear gassing protesters and instituting curfews

This should be unacceptable to all of us. Instead of  supporting Democrats, we need to build a political force that fights co-optation and the Democratic/Republican twin parties of repression. That’s how we can fight back against the racist police and build class consciousness. 

A crucial step for the DSA would be to demand, as an organization, that all DSA candidates running on the Democrats’ ballot line break with the Democrats and launch a national and local campaign to run instead on an independent, socialist ballot line. They should issue a collective statement condemning the actions of Democratic Party leaders around the country as the basis for this break and call on everyone mobilizing to leave the Democratic Party as well. They should pledge never to vote for any police budget, because the appropriate amount for the police force is $0. This would garner tons of media attention and would likely get a lot of support. Most importantly, however, such a statement would be an expression of deep solidarity with the radicalized Black youth taking the streets who cannot count on the Democratic Party to fight for their demands. It could be the foundation for a new socialist political party, made up of the people being tear gassed by the cops in the streets as we write these words. 

This isn’t about purity politics. The survival of this uprising is at stake. The movement must fight against being co-opted by the Democratic Party right now. It’s urgent to keep the movement in the streets, to radicalize and deepen the movement — and to connect it to a struggle for socialism.

Rethinking Protests and the Struggle for Socialism

Liberals and socialists have entirely different views on the value of protests. For liberals, protests are pressure campaigns, ways to “make leaders listen.” They believe change comes in the halls of Congress. Think back to the Women’s March slogan: “power to the polls.” Barack Obama even said recently, referring to protests and elections, “This is not an either/or. This is a both/and. To bring about real change we both need to highlight a problem and make those in power uncomfortable and we have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented.”

For socialists, these mobilizations aren’t about pressuring politicians or electing new ones. They are moments of class struggle, in which the working class and oppressed can realize our strength and organize ourselves. These mobilizations are schools of war against the capitalists. We’re learning tactics and politics. 

Although the DSA differentiates itself from liberals, the DSA often espouses the same liberal rhetoric: that the solution is … well … voting. That was DSA’s Sanders campaign. After Sanders’ defeat and his uncritical endorsement of Joe Biden, the DSA refused to question whether it made sense to have spent all that time and energy on a campaign that would just end up supporting the likes of Joe Biden. Even in the midst of a national uprising, the DSA has thrown itself into new electoral campaigns at the local level, often of people of color, calling on members to “phonebank for socialism.” The DSA in Texas is putting together “A Rally for Change with Contactless Voter Registration.” Just this week, in the middle of the uprising, the NYC DSA sent an email saying, “Many of you may be wondering, ‘What should we do now to ensure this movement doesn’t die out?’” The email’s answer is to go vote. 

It’s not time to phonebank, but to fight tooth and nail to keep a radicalized movement in the streets and in our workplaces, help coordinate and develop fighting groups and caucuses among activists and organizations participating in the protests, and push our unions to stand up against police brutality and more. 

What Can We Do?

The DSA is still the largest socialist organization in the country, and many DSA comrades are fighting for socialism and for justice in the streets. But we have a lot to do to get our own house in order. The DSA must immediately bar all cops and cop organizers from the organization. Furthermore, some sectors of the DSA maintain a perspective that is quite class reductionist, such as the Philadelphia DSA’s abhorrent statement on George Floyd. There must be internal discussion and struggle against class reductionist wings of socialism, making clear that socialists should not stand for those ideas.

Internal discussions, though, are not enough. As a socialist organization with chapters all over the country, we have resources at our disposal to keep the movement going. In addition to running campaigns independent from the Democrats, here are some suggestions: 

  • National healthcare workers action: Many healthcare workers are in the DSA, and the group “Doctors for Bernie” recently fused with the organization. Around the country, healthcare workers are battling the coronavirus — a fight that has catapulted them onto the national stage, giving socialist healthcare workers a platform to highlight how capitalism and profit-centered healthcare is killing working class people. Many of these healthcare providers are taking part in the protests against police brutality, linking these two fights. However, this is mostly on a small or even individual scale. The DSA could organize a national healthcare workers mobilization for Black lives, linking police brutality to Covid-19 and Medicare for All. 
  • National “Cops Out of Our Unions” Campaign: Socialists know cops are the racist defenders of private property. Period. But lots of DSA members are members in unions that also include police officers. We must organize a national campaign to get cops out of our unions once and for all. To do that, the DSA will need bar cops and cop organizers out of our own organization as well. 
  • Link up with community and Black-led organizations, as well as unions, to organize assemblies to discuss and advance the movement: Mass meetings of folks — assemblies — can help organize the struggle. Comrades who have been at the frontlines of the struggle should organize mass assemblies to discuss and decide on these issues, from the tactical (what next?) to the programmatic (what demands?). These can be held in workplaces to organize actions, and at universities. They can include the left, community groups, and unions mobilizing now. If we don’t organize independent bodies like these, it will make it easier for those tied to the Democratic Party to fill the space and claim to speak for the entire movement.

We Need a Fighting Organization

Donald Trump announced that he will restart his MAGA campaign rallies with a speech on race on Juneneenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is a dog whistle to his white supremacist base and surely an attempt to further energize a dangerous right wing emboldened by his administration. Racist Joe Biden is no antidote to these right-wingers. Strengthening the mobilizations is.

The Democrats are working overtime to co-opt and contain the movement, some with radical rhetoric, but with the same goal — tame the mobilizations. They are placing themselves at the forefront of local demonstrations, trying to redefine words like “abolish” at the same time other Democrats repress and brutalize radical sectors of the movement that violate curfew or burn police stations. This means that socialists, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the movement for police abolition is in open confrontation with a Democratic Party that wants to use the movement to garner votes. 

Democrats have nothing to offer our movement. And because the fight against Black oppression is a central part of the fight for socialism, the Democratic Party has nothing to offer us as leftists. Aligning with them only undermines our efforts. 

We must build up our own organization, one rooted in and led by the most oppressed members of society and that fights for their demands, not bargains them away. Our organization will demand the release of all the protesters taken as political prisoners by the state. Our organization will call on vast sectors of workers to paralyze the bourgeois productive machine in defense of every single Black life taken by the murderous capitalist state. Our organization can coordinate across broad sections of society and fight for a socialist perspective in the current uprising, showing what is possible when the working class strikes with a single fist. 

The DSA is not this organization right now, but the most left sectors of the DSA, those most dedicated to socialism and to Black liberation, can and should play a role in building such an organization — by putting up a political fight within the DSA, breaking with the Democratic Party, deepening the struggle in the streets, and connecting it to our workplaces. 

Such an organization is worth fighting for. But more than that, it is something we urgently need in the days and weeks ahead to confront Trump, Biden, and all attempts to pacify the radicalized people in the streets.

About author

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.