A Dispatch From The Floor Of The DSA National Convention
It was exhausting and exhilarating, frustrating and thrilling.
From August 4th-6th, nearly 700 delegates and 300 alternates, observers, staff and volunteers flooded the campus of the University of Illinois Chicago for the DSA National Convention. I served as one of 34 delegates from Los Angeles, the second largest chapter of the now 25K member strong Democratic Socialists of America.
A few of the delegates from DSA-LA.
Alongside comrades from 49 states (Dela-where you at?) we voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement and to leave the Socialist International. With zero comments in opposition, we unanimously approved the creation of an Afro-Socialist and Socialists of Color caucus (pledging to support the Build Black Futures Agenda), and through a consent agenda voted to pursue the goal of not just criminal justice reform but prison abolition.
We also elected a police union organizer to our National Political Committee (more on that later).
We drank cheap beer and whiskey (I didn’t mess with Malort) in dorm rooms, karaoke bars, union halls, and the offices of In These Times.
We sang Solidarity Forever, the Internationale, and did the “OH! Jeremy Corbyn!” chant. A lot.
And in the words of longtime member Joseph Schwartz, we extracted surplus value from ourselves raising $100K to sustain the movement going forward.
It was exhausting and exhilarating, frustrating and thrilling.
And like so many of us who filled the Forum and adhered to Robert’s Rules of Order in shaping the future of the largest socialist organization in America, I never thought this is where I would be a year ago.
Much ink has already been spilled on DSA’s rapid growth, fueled by an influx of angry young people cast aside by decades of neo-liberalism and now confronted with a radical, right wing administration that empowers white nationalists and embraces the worst excesses of our corrupt political order.
But numbers and headlines and think pieces are remote and impersonal. To be on the floor of the convention, to see people’s eyes light up and jaws drop as they marveled at a room full of #beautifulsocialists from all over the country made this surge tangible in a way that no tweet storm ever could.
Neal Meyer, an organizer on the steering committee of NYC-DSA, drove this home during our fundraising banquet on Saturday night. Starting with the 1980’s, he asked members to stand up to show how long they’ve been with DSA. Once he got to the “aughts”, he casually remarked “I think you see where I’m going with this.” November 9th is jokingly referred to as the “Socialist Baby Boom”, and for good reason. Until that date was mentioned, probably 80% of the attendees were still seated, myself included.
If I grew out my beard and slapped on some glasses I’d be a prototypical example of a new DSA member: a white, college educated, cisgendered, heterosexual, Millennial who entered adulthood just in time for 9/11, the Iraq War and the Financial Crisis and voted for Bernie twice (I wrote him in from the “safety” of Hillary-locked California in the general).
The election of Donald Trump put me in a daze but I was more paralyzed than activated. I quickly realized that listening to Democracy Now, arguing with centrist Democrats and MAGA die-hards on Facebook and attending the Women’s March wasn’t going to change anything.
I logged off and started looking for ways to volunteer.
The inequities of capitalism are everywhere in Los Angeles, but to me there is no more prevalent manifestation than our homelessness crisis. Unlike Kevin Drum, I’m not disgusted by the homeless but by the conditions that make their plight possible.
What started as a plan to cook a meal or two a month at PATH instead brought me to SAJE in South LA, knocking on doors urging a Yes on Measure H and a No on Measure S. I had never canvassed in my life but after one afternoon, I was hooked. Days later I joined DSA and started organizing in their Housing and Homelessness committee, fighting for a Skid Row Neighborhood Council and against the Olympics (among other projects. Housing in LA is fucked y’all, but that’s another piece for another time).
5 months later I would wake up on the couch of a dorm suite with my red hoodie as a blanket and a head full of sour beer (still no Malort) just in time for my 8AM convention marshals training. The relentlessly upbeat Hannah Allison, DSA’s full time staff organizer asked us for one word to describe how we were feeling as I muscled down weak coffee and a limp danish. “Unwashed”, I grumbled, but for all my weariness, I was still so happy to be there.
It’s hard to describe how uplifting it is to be surrounded by hundreds of folks just like you, comrades who have committed countless, unpaid hours to organizing in their communities, culminating in the largest deliberative gathering of democratic socialists in the United States in nearly a century.
DSA-LA’s delegates discuss the NPC candidates on the convention floor.
For a convention that was originally planned for 200 attendees, so much could have gone wrong and part of me was genuinely concerned that it would. As a marshal, I took de-escalation training that I thankfully never had to utilize. We were free from harassment by outside agitators, dealing only with a handful of Sparticists selling copies of the Workers Vanguard. Despite some procedural hiccups, it was a drama free weekend.
Much of that is because the people were really fucking NICE, not that I expected folks who espouse inter-sectional socialist feminism to be assholes. We shared good dialogue, and also Lyfts and pizza and La Croix (so much La Croix).
For all our late night revelry, we took care of each other and all made it home safely, ready to continue the work of organizing for a better world; a world beyond capitalism.
But despite all the enthusiasm the convention left us with, the DSA is already faced with it’s first big post convention challenge, one that started brewing before we even checked our bags and that if not handled properly could threaten the newfound vitality of our movement.
On the final day of the convention, the results of our National Political Committee election were announced. There were two competing slates of organizers that had much of DSA’s attention: were you Team Momentum or Team Praxis? EVERYONE wanted to know and DSA-LA alone fielded several calls from both groups ahead of the convention, seeking feedback and hoping for our support. With so much vying for our attention, individual candidates running apart from the ballyhooed slates flew under the radar. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t doing their part to win over delegates for a seat on our national leadership.
One such candidate was Danny Fetonte, co-chair of Austin DSA. His literature was all over the convention floor and I was personally approached by two different people asking me to consider Fetonte for NPC. One in particular spoke highly of his dedication to their chapter, its growth, and that they couldn’t imagine where they would be if not for his leadership. His bonafides looked legit to me: years of union organizing and a recent arrest for protesting the racist Texas Senate Bill 4. With his stated commitment to local autonomy, I pencilled him in as one of my votes for NPC.
I showed my ballot to fellow comrade from LA.
“Don’t vote for him. He’s a cop”.
Turns out, comrade Danny’s claim to have “organized state workers in Texas” left out a crucial bit of information: some of those state workers were police officers during his time organizing with CLEAT.
I quickly changed my ballot.
Nevertheless, Fetonte was elected to one of the 16 seats thanks to an organized vote whipping effort. Many who supported him are furious that his work with police unions was not disclosed prior to the election and there are now numerous calls for Fetonte to step down, including statements from the DSA Veterans Working Group, the brand new Libertarian Socialist Caucus, the Queer Socialists Working Group, Greater Baltimore DSA Executive Committee, DSA Boston’s Police Abolition Working Group, DSA-LA’s steering committee and others.
How Fetonte and our newly elected NPC and Steering Committee handle this situation will be every bit as important as the convention itself. One misstep and all the solidarity we’ve built could be in jeopardy. We’ve worked too hard to build this movement to see it derailed just as it is gaining steam.
Here’s hoping that if we trust the process, DSA will get past this controversy and carry the good work of the convention forward into 2018 and beyond.