Hey there! I’m Tim S., one of the 19 Twin Cities delegates to the 2019 DSA Convention. How’s it going? That’s great, I’m also doing well. Thanks for asking! (I’m assuming you asked, you seem very nice.)
This was my first DSA National Convention and it was fairly eye opening. I don’t follow DSA national politics — personal, organizational, or otherwise — particularly closely, because I’m mostly interested in localism. Ya know, how we build up power in the Cities to protect each other while we kill capitalism.
I flew to Atlanta alone — mainly because of bad planning — kind of dreading the whole Convention Biz. The hotel was weird and surrounded by Hooters and Hard Rock Hotels, but convention hotels are always weird — huge and open, metallic and carpeted, oppressive and confining, all at the same time. This one was 60+ stories tall, with rickety sounding, overburdened elevators full of stressed out comrades fingering at their lanyards, ears popping on the up and the down, worrying over dozens of resolutions and bylaws changes they still haven’t fully read. Endless conversations starting with “what chapter are you from?” over cigarettes on the curbside or across a breakfast table, with undercurrents of “what caucus are you with?”
As an event in a particular place, the convention was perplexing and wonderful. I couldn’t possibly wrap my head around Atlanta after walking around it for a couple of days, but people were generous and kind, the food was great, the mass transit surprisingly decent. But like any city, if you walk around enough, you meet people who are some combination of desperate, angry, and doing their best to keep their communities cobbled together. We had a couple of socials at Georgia Beer Garden, an overtly socialist-friendly bar on a two block stretch supposedly full of them. Two comrades and I — walking back from the Street Fight Radio show last Saturday — ran into a man who looked to be in his 50s, but was likely much younger, patrolling the neighborhood on bike. He talked about his gratitude for the HIV medication that keeps him alive. He vibrated with anger recounting the murder of his wife and his separation from his daughter. He told us not to mess with Atlanta cops, offered to escort us back downtown, reluctantly let us head back on our own. It felt like a genuine attempt at mutual aid — and it did make me feel safer, in a way. Or at least more of a part of the place.
The substance of the convention was… complicated. An early vote switched the system for National Political Committee voting from Borda to Single Transferrable Vote, which was a Big Deal for the process-focused, caucus wary among us, but was probably a bit baffling for those who came to talk “substance.” An Ecosocialism boosting resolution — with an absolutely vital Red Deal amendment co-sponsored by our chapter comrade Nazir — passed handily, giving my hippie heart great joy. Three labor resolutions passed, with varying degrees of support, supporting a variety of different organizing approaches, hopefully making real space for tactics that actually fit workers’ needs — not just as ways to build power, but also to reduce harm in toxic workplaces. We committed to providing childcare in every chapter and pushing to make it a public good, a concrete expression of material aid to people too often pushed out of organizing spaces. We established a national Antifascism Working Group, after a very close vote, challenged again a day later by its opponents, but ultimately surviving to make DSA an anti-fascist organization actually committed to anti-fascism. We committed ourselves to decriminalizing sex work, but still gave space to those who fear the consequences of industry-wide decriminalization.
I’m deeply proud of what we accomplished, together. And I was pissed off, sad, relieved, and ecstatic, depending on the moment. My memory is forever scarred by flurries of procedural motions, rearrangements of the agenda, unrestrained hisses and boos despite constant pleas from the chairs to stop, and points of information interrupting like hiccups throughout. Vague budget concerns constantly circled around the Great Debate Hall like angry silent pterodactyls, no one quite knowing when they might be called down to attack a particular proposal.
I’m still not sure where the heart of DSA lies. A resolution to provide $100 a month stipends to chapters failed, after pretty heated debate, pointing to a central tension in the org: do we redistribute the contents of our deepening coffers to the locals or provide them with training and political education produced by national committees, in places deeply detached from local fights? (A false choice, basically, but the one we were given.) Do we keep the chapters as the core of our organization’s culture — or allow the centralization of power and resources in DSA to continue?
We’re growing fast, and that presents an even clearer question for the org: is there space and time for Bernie 2020… and for building up a solidarity economy that lets us survive climate change? For rank-and-file and brake light clinics? I’m not sure. Most of the big procedural and substantive fights obscured these deeper tensions, leaving even bigger issues unresolved.
On the whole, it’s pretty clear that the work of defining this organization is shifting to national committees, to people I’ll never meet, in places I’ll never live and can’t even afford to visit. This is a plea to those people: don’t let your social circles define your vision. Don’t replicate the same models you almost certainly hate in the Democratic Party, just because you’re the one doing the modeling. Solidarity means giving up power, spreading it around a bit, and softening your ego. We all need to do that.
So! Despite a number of disappointments and frustrations with the way this particular democratic happening happened, DSA is the greatest hope for an emergent, powerful left — one I’m determined to support. Only a strong, vibrant coalition of anarchists, socialists, social democrats and sympathetic/dissatisfied liberals can stop fascism, enact an economy- and culture-wide Green New Deal, erase borders, and liberate humanity. I will continue fighting for democracy and transparency within DSA and without, but I respect the different visions my comrades have of what that means.
I’m back in Minneapolis now, feeling ambivalent about an organization that’s clearly in deep conflict about its direction, but part of a chapter full of amazing people and talented organizers — and I’m not fully able to reconcile these feelings. But I think I know where my heart lies. On the way back, I had a layover in Chicago where I killed an hour with a young conservative dude from Michigan, admitting to my politics after a few minutes, feeling strangely and giddily emboldened. We talked about a 30 hour work week and how power corrupts and the deep need for empathy and kindness in a world of atomization and fear.
Despite all my misgivings, DSA gives me a real feeling of community and strength. I’ve never felt more confident to say that I’m an anarchist to conservatives, that I’m a socialist to liberals. To know and confess that capitalism doesn’t define what it means to be human.
I believe DSA expresses a strong, collective, sometimes messy determination to build and express power to beat capitalism, fascism, and colonialism for good. It’s a place where ecosocialism and antifascism are now fundamental values. As an anarcho-ish dude in an organization that mostly sees things differently, I’m content to keep making my case, chipping away at unneeded centralization of decision making and resources, and to generally push for consensus and openness wherever I can. But I love and respect my comrades in this fight, even when I disagree with them — we have so much struggle in common and so much left to do.
And we’re going to win, imperfectly, together.
In solidarity and love,
– Tim S.