This year, members of Boston DSA have participated in the #DonateYourVote campaign through Emancipation Initiative‘s Ballots Over Bars campaign. The #DonateYourVote campaign partners an incarcerated person who has had their voting rights stripped away by the state, and a freeworld volunteer who will vote as their partner would. This year, 165 people volunteered to donate their vote, and 143 incarcerated participants were paired. The African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk has also produced a list of endorsements. If you were not paired but would still like to participate, consider voting in solidarity along the AACC endorsements where you are able. The AACC 2018 Endorsements are as follows:
State Elections: Tuesday, November 6th
Voter Registration Deadline: Wednesday October 17th
For more information: www.wheredoivotema.com
1. Lt. Governor Quentin Palfrey (D) – “We imprison too many people, for too long, for doing too little, and race has way too much to do with who ends up in the criminal justice system.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)
2. Attorney General Maura Healey (D) – “We cannot incarcerate our way to a healthier, more productive state.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)
3. Treasurer Jamie Guerin (G-R) – “We must eliminate mandatory sentencing and reduce the use of incarceration as punishment.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)
4. Auditor James Stamas (G-R) “I fully support ending life without parole & full voting rights for all incarcerated people.” (Twitter)
5. U. S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) – “We need criminal justice reform…we need reform of the whole system.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)
Regional County District Attorney Rachael Rollins (D) for Suffolk County – ”Black people are dying in the streets. That is why I’m running. It’s not a joke.” (Bay State Banner 2018)
Please have family and friends visit the Emancipation Initiative Facebook page and click the LIKE button under AACC’s Endorsements to show they’re voting in solidarity with us this election. Our goal is to reach 10,000 LIKES.
For any questions or comments about AACC’s 2018 endorsements please call: 617-869-2773, or email: email@example.com THANK YOU FOR SUPPORTING THE AACC!
A group of people detained by ICE in Massachusetts—some of whom were on hunger strike last month—co-wrote a lengthy letter to us detailing their perspectives on detention: the conditions inside the jails, the exploitation of the incarcerated, and the hypocrisy of American values. Below is a reproduction of the majority of that letter (some details have been changed for privacy):
The Silence is Betrayal!
It is always my intention to stand up for those issues that are the most important to me and those who have no voice. I try to follow my moral compass, even when it may have conflicted with the realities of the moment.
I have lots to say about this system. What we need in here is the support from people and organizations on the outside to help us raise our voices to denounce the system. We’ve been kidnapped. We need people to go on TV stations, radio, and social media. We need people to use every tool they might have at their disposal to help us that have been kidnapped by ICE for years to stop the virus that has spread all over the USA. I sometimes blame those of us who have been in there and got a chance to go home and did nothing after, even having witnessed the atrocity, the treatment, the unhealthy food…
In County Jail we are detainees with other inmates, without having committed a crime. We live in the same building, we share the bathroom. We share the living conditions. Unsanitary bathroom shared by 80-100 detainees/inmates, inmates/detainees. There is no privacy here. Flies, bugs all over our faces while we are in the shower or the bathroom. When we use the bathroom the next person could be right up to our face brushing their teeth. There’s one toenail clipper per one hundred who live here. Nothing is sanitized. We are not entitled to extra clothes, things that are supposed to be there for no cost are being sold in the commissary. The items are so expensive that we can’t even buy them.
Detainees are scared to complain. And when we do, or when we go on strike, nothing happens. Instead, we end up in isolation for weeks or months after that, or they ship us to a new jail. Not only have been kidnapped by ICE, they take away our rights, strip us of our freedom. We are being confined against our will. Some detainees do not have any family in the US, and some who do can’t even make a phone call because they are too expensive. ICE picked them up in a store, at work, or while they were in the streets. It is very scary and disturbing, the most painful thing that I have ever been witness to in my life. Where human lives are being trafficked by so-called peace officers or law enforcement.
We cannot truly complain because we are immigrants. We do not have any rights in this country—that’s what we are told. Some of us were picked up in state prison after doing time, and were brought here to Bristol County. We have been punished twice: for committing a crime; and punished again by ICE. We’re labeled vicious predators and violent criminals. Why does ICE consider us more dangerous or more of a threat to society when we’re only here to work, to go to school, to provide for our families? Why should we be treated like we aren’t human? Why can’t there be a path to citizenship for us? Any time we try and do something right, here comes an ICE officer to arrest us.
Our human rights are at stake. We are not allowed to be in the dayroom when the nurses do meds. We as detainees/inmates are not allowed to use the phone when they do canteen. We as detainees/inmates have to do lock up and miss our time outside. They strip search us any time they want. Locked down after each meal.
Some weeks ago a group of “rookies” came to the unit, destroyed our cells, and spent three hours to take apart our foods that we bought in the canteen with our money. Treated us like an animal. Why do we have to endure all of these senseless things? A lieutenant comes to scare us every night. Once when he saw people praying in a cell he opened the door in the middle of their prayer and stopped them, tell him them to get out. One of them said: “We were praying,” and he said “I don’t care, I don’t give a fuck. I hate you all.”
The laws say that everyone should be treated as equals, but the interpretation of the laws is different. We could be assisted by the government, but they won’t do it. Instead, they’ve organized themselves in a mafia group to make money off of us. Like human trafficking.
Please pass this on.
Detainees/Inmates at Bristol County
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Whenever I get angry about some particular strain of left-wing thought or discourse, I’ve found it’s helpful to remember that I live in a country where a decent chunk of the population have been bombarded with the idea that politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are socialists. I think it’s good for people to know what their political beliefs are and even argue about them a little bit, but the internet is perfect for arguing and bad for every other part of organizing so it’s important to keep a level head when it comes to discussing political ideologies.
That being said, if socialism really is as “on the rise,” as various opinion columnists would have us believe, it’s important to consider what socialism would mean in an American context. To that end, I’d like to offer a response to a policy paper published by Matt Bruenig at the People’s Policy Project outlining the case for establishing a social wealth fund. In the paper, Bruenig makes the case for a social wealth fund in America along the style of the Alaska Permanent Fund or those managed by the Norwegian state as a means of tackling wealth inequality. While Bruenig doesn’t explicitly call his proposal a socialist one, he traces the history of the idea back to market socialist ideas whereby a sovereign fund could serve as a way “to collectively own, control, and benefit from the wealth of the nation.” The idea of a social wealth fund was also outlined in a column by Ryan Cooper entitled “The Dawn of American Socialism.” Since Cooper also wrote the script for a video for Bruenig’s policy paper detailing the Alaska Permanent Fund,it seems safe to assume that establishing a sovereign wealth fund is to play a major part in creating in “an economic system for the many, not the few,” the goal of the People’s Policy Project .
The central problem with the sovereign wealth fund described in Bruenig’s paper is that it fails to contend with the fact that capitalism is a dynamic system of producing and distributing commodities. That is to say, it does more than dictate the distribution of wealth in society. Of course, capitalism does create an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and between owners and laborers. But making the distribution of wealth generated from the circulation of commodities more equitable doesn’t necessarily upend commodity production, distribution, and consumption.
Why does this matter? Well, for me it matters because understanding the ways that commodities are produced, exchanged, and consumed is central to understanding how capitalism operates and to creating something that could actually replace it. That’s why Marx begins his three volume critique of capitalism and bourgeois political economy with a long discussion of the nature of the various kinds of value which, under capitalism, are inevitably turned into commodities. Much to the chagrin of many people who begin reading the book, it’s something he spends much more time talking about than he ever does outlining what socialism is really meant to look like.
Identifying and carrying out the steps needed to get from a capitalist mode of production to a socialist mode of production is probably the defining disagreement between the various ideologies typically grouped together as “the left.” For proponents of sovereign wealth funds, the fact that they seem to offer a smoother transition from capitalism to socialism with less disruption of existing systems is a positive. Financial instruments like index funds and sovereign wealth funds are proof of concepts for market socialism and would address what seems to be the main problem with capitalism: private ownership of capital and the inequality and exploitation it brings. If the dividends of capital were socialized, as Bruenig has previously argued, it would spread the benefits ofrallying financial markets to all people rather than the small group of very wealthy people who get the benefits now.
It’s certainly true that this kind of system would redistribute wealth in this country and go along way towards reducing inequality in the U.S. Making citizenship a requirement for collecting benefits means that the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country wouldn’t see much benefit, despite facing many additional obstacles to building wealth and particularly egregious working conditions. However, the problems with this proposal run deeper than just who is included within the US population.
The problem with this view is that it ignores the aspects of capitalism today that are fundamentally opposed to socialism. Because I want anybody reading to understand where I am coming from, I’ll lay out how I understand socialism, albeit in broad terms. Under socialism, the goods that any society — capitalist or otherwise — has to produce to sustain itself would be made and distributed in a way that provides a stable and fulfilling life to all, and one that doesn’t result in further irreversible destruction of our natural environment. A socialist system would distribute goods according to need rather than ability to exchange for them, and that production would be done in concert with nature rather than in opposition to it. It also would entail an end to the wage system, or at the very least the recognition that labor by people is what creates value, and that they should not have that value taken from them by the owners of businesses. Finally, there would be an end to the imperial power, exercised through corporate, military, and financial organizations, that the United States has tried to wield as the superpower left standing after the Cold War.
Marx is careful to distinguish between the production of different goods by different people (“the division of labor”) and the production of those things as commodities (“commodity production”). The former is necessary for all society unless we are to revert to a chaotic “grab-what-you-can” existence, while the latter is essential for capitalism specifically. This distinction is important to keep in mind when we examine the potential of current modes of production as potentially useful under socialism.
In his paper, Bruenig discusses the two Norwegian social wealth funds: Government Pension Fund-Norway, which holds investments in Norwegian companies, and Government Pension Fund-Global, which exclusively invests outside of Norway. These two funds do hold a substantial portion of wealth in Norway. As Bruenig puts it, “gpf-Norway controlled assets equal to 7 percent of Norway’s gdp [and] gpf-Global owned assets equal to 241 percent of gdp.”1 Between these two and the enterprises owned by the Norwegian state outright, the Norwegian government owns 59% of the country’s wealth (76% if you exclude private home ownership). In 2017 gpf-Norway generated a return of 26 billion kroner in 2017 while gpf-Global garnered about 1.3 trillion kroner, which using current exchange rates comes to about $3,100,799,000 USD and $122,600,822,000 respectively. If that wealth had been paid out as a dividend to Norwegians, it would come to about $25,500 per person.
Bruenig is right to conclude that “the idea that a society could collectively own three-fourths of its non-home wealth through social wealth funds administered by a democratically-elected government without any negative economic consequences would be rejected as preposterous by most political and economic commentators in America today.” While this may be true, I’d like to hold a proposal for a sovereign wealth fund to a slightly higher standard than that if it is to be a means of transitioning from the destructive and outdated capitalist system to socialism.
Below are some of the companies that the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund invested in during 2017 along with their investment in U.S. dollars. 2 Ask yourself: does the continued financial success of these companies have any place in whatever your idea of socialism is?
JP Morgan Chase
These represent about 18% of the U.S equities that gpf-Global has in its portfolio. I would guess that any American fund would be more heavily invested in these companies since they are large American firms which have consistently generated mostly positive returns over time. Even if they weren’t, I don’t think its controversial to say that the profits and dividends generated by the firms I’ve listed above are some of the most oft-cited examples of capitalist exploitation, of both workers and the environment, and rent-seeking behavior. As such, many of them have a vested interest in preventing moves towards more sustainable or equitable systems of production. That exploitation leads to their increased profitability, which is why for many of the companies shown here, the fund has maintained or increased its investment in them year after year.
Conditions set by both the executive branch and federal reserve following the recession in 2008 have led to particularly high returns for U.S. equities. Low borrowing costs set by the Federal Reserve have allowed these and many other corporations to borrow money cheaply. Cheap credit, combined with the bonanza from the recent tax cuts, have led many corporations to buy back large amounts of their own shares to reduce the number of shares available and, thus, drive share prices higher, further inflating a corporate debt bubble. This has been good news for the fund in terms of dividends, since their equity investments are concentrated in the U.S., but it is likely bad news for most working people, who have seen little of the benefit of this stock market rally, and the environment, which is heating up in ways that are quickly outpacing existing models.
The only way that this sort of policy can offer liberation is if your version of socialism is predicated on the idea that current levels of consumption in America are fine, it’s just that not enough people can get in on the feeding frenzy. I believe providing adequate food, shelter, and security to most if not all people on Earth is feasible. That is a grandiose goal and probably the hardest thing in the world to accomplish, but I wouldn’t bother with politics at all if I didn’t think it was possible. But if it is to become reality, it will be at the expense of the consumer culture in which I was raised and that I currently participate in, along with many others. As the late Samir Amin wrote in his 2004 book The Liberal Virus, “the idea that capitalism could adapt itself to liberating transformations, that is, could produce them, without wanting to, as well as socialism could, is at the heart of the American liberal ideology. Its function is to deceive us and cause us to forget the extent of the true challenges and of the struggles required to respond to them.”3
Certainly wealth inequality is a key challenge, though it is one among many. A report from Oxfam entitled Reward Work, Not Wealth, published in January 2018, elucidates another one of those challenges: the immiseration of the global working class. As they state at the very beginning of the report:
All over the world, our economy of the 1% is built on the backs of low paid workers, often women, who are paid poverty wages and denied basic rights. It is being built on the backs of workers like Fatima in Bangladesh, who works sewing clothes for export. She is regularly abused if she fails to meet targets and gets sick because she is unable to go to the toilet. It is being built on the backs of workers like Dolores in chicken factories in the US, suffering permanent disability and unable to hold their children’s hands. It is being built on the backs of immigrant hotel cleaners like Myint in Thailand, sexually harassed by male guests and yet often being told to put up with it or lose their jobs. 4
Though the report doesn’t say for sure, Dolores could very well be working in a chicken factory for Tyson Foods. Fatima could very well be making clothing for Target or Gap. Crackdowns on immigrants both here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the imperial core make an already precarious workforce all the more likely to be exploited. While capitalism has continued to develop and expand since Marx published Volume 1 of Capital in 1867, stories like those laid out in the Oxfam report show that its expansion and development have been fueled by its oldest and most reliable source of energy: extracted labor power from immiserated workers.
Some might say I’m singling out the wealth fund when plenty of workers saving for retirement or who are receiving a pension are likely also invested in these companies. Of course that is true. But pensions are not socialism, nor do they claim to be. What I’m saying is that building a welfare state or distributing a straight dividend to citizens that is built on the continued success of these companies as capital investments is not really a model for socialism either.
Since Bruenig’s paper is primarily aimed at an American audience, it’s understandable that global inequality isn’t really addressed, but as a socialist in America I think it’s important to keep a global perspective. Pew Research found that about 56% of the world’s population is considered low income, meaning they live on between $2 and $10 a day. 15% of the world’s population is considered poor, living on less than $2 a day. Nearly all the countries with a majority of their population either poor or low income can be found in Africa, South America, and Asia. Sub-saharan Africa has more of these poor countries than any other continent, likely because of global capital’s consistent and rapacious interest in seizing the continent’s mineral wealth for itself.
By contrast, about 56% of people in America are considered high income, meaning they live on more than $50 a day. Norway’s percentage is even higher, coming in at 77%. Globally about 7% of the world’s population is considered high income, with most of the majority high income countries concentrated in Western Europe and the British Commonwealth, along with the U.S.
There are problems with these kind of income designations. Moving from poor to low income is often used as a measure of global improvement, but this seems specious at best. Similarly, grouping everyone above $50/day as high income seems to miss a key aspect of the world economy, which is characterized by astronomical wealth concentrated in the hands of an absurdly small group of individuals and corporations, something Bruenig has written on extensively. Nevertheless, this kind of disparity reinforces the need for addressing global inequality, not redistributing imperial plunder more broadly within the core.
I would suggest the Cuban system, at least in terms of its organizational structure, is at the very least much closer to the ideal I have laid out than Norwegian-style market socialism. According to the mathematician and ecologist Richard Levins, Cuba emerged from the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development determined to take the resolutions of that conference and put them into practice without sacrificing developmental progress. These resolutions included a mandate to systematically examine patterns of production, encourage the development of alternatives to fossil fuels, and address the imminent shortages of water. Writing in ReVista in 2000, Levins asserts that integrating these resolutions into their development plans “represents the final recognition that despite society’s commitment to a rising standard of living, natural limitations will not allow a world-wide consumer society with consumption of energy and materials at Euro-North American levels.” Instead of expanding the scale and scope of that consumer society, development should instead be focused on “quality of life, cultural development, education, and people taking care of people.”
Cuba has injected this ecological thinking into their model for development in spite of near-constant attempts to undermine the communist government there. As someone living in the center of the empire behind that aggression, it is important not to whitewash the tremendous pressure this has put on Cuba to forgo an ecological focus in development. Adding ecological factors into decision-making was and is the subject of fierce debate, especially given the many challenges to survival which face a favorite imperial target. However, Levins describes one local Communist Party nucleo as presenting the case in one such formal debate that “far from ecology being ‘idealist,’ it was the height of idealism to suppose that we could pass resolutions and have nature obey.”
The sovereign wealth fund described in the PPP paper suggests a kind of “one weird trick” path to socialism, as if simply redirecting the flow of capitalism’s spoils will change where they came from. It’s a seductive idea, but calling it socialism does a disservice both to the history of radical left action, such as the struggle for independence by formerly colonized people, and to the ongoing realities of imperialism and settler colonialism that built this country and maintain its hegemony today. I am willing to admit that I can’t conclusively lay out the path to socialism, but I think that socializing the benefits of investment in the global economy as it exists today is more likely to further entrench the most egregious abuses of capitalism rather than eliminate them.
It may well be that establishing a public stake in the private wealth currently being directed almost straight upwards could play a part in the transition from capitalism to socialism, perhaps as a means of ensuring liberation for those who have difficulty working. But it is important not to forget that the returns to an American sovereign wealth fund, without significant and concurrent changes to global supply chains,management structures, and reliance on fossil fuels, would continue to come at the expense of the people whose extracted labor power creates value in the first place.
In 2017, the wealth of world billionaires increased by $762 billion, which Oxfam estimated would be enough to end extreme poverty seven times over. This suggests that wealth redistribution, in addition to greater labor protections and higher wages globally, might not be mutually exclusive. However, steps taken to mitigate even just the most extreme abuses, like slave and child labor, in global supply chains of companies like Nestle or Kellogg would have a direct and negative impact on the returns that any sovereign wealth fund would get on investing in those companies. What about if we wanted to focus on not just ending slave and child labor and extreme poverty but also help those considered “low-income”?
Even if a sovereign wealth fund was committed to using its voting power as a shareholder to influence corporate policy, enacting changes that go against the fundamental incentives of capitalism would require enough voting power to overrule every other large investor who isn’t burdened by any such scruples about where their returns come from. Where would that number of shares come from? If they would have to be purchased rather than created by the firm, where would the money come from?
I want socialism because I want a different and better world, not just for me but for people in Haiti, El Salvador, India, Congo, and Palestine too. Building that different world means reckoning with how the one we have was created. It means recognizing that America’s consumer-driven capitalism, supported as it is by dollar hegemony and a massive, seemingly constant military mobilization, robs oppressed working people both here and abroad of the things they create and, more importantly, their lives. But in addition to these more pressing concerns, it robs even the wealthy capitalist of their connections to the natural world and to each other, replacing them with competitive consumption, social entropy, and ecological collapse.
To return to the mandate of the People’s Policy Project, if we want to build an economic system for the many not the few, who constitutes the few? Who constitutes the many? The scale of wealth inequality globally does not mean that inequality in the U.S. can’t or shouldn’t be addressed. What it does require, however, is a more nuanced understanding of not only wealth inequality, but how the wealth was created in the first place.
Bruenig would have US citizens turn into socialists by becoming shareholders in Uncle Sam’s index fund. If that’s what “American socialism” is, I guess I’m gonna have to find something else to call myself.
Frank is a member of the IWW in the Midwest active in the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. Unlike his namesake, he is not a tough guy, just a humble librarian.
Footnotes: 1. Side note: I’m not sure why it’s supposed to be staggering that the much larger fund that exclusively invests outside the country would hold assets greater than the GDP of just that country.↩ 2. Find the portfolio of gpf-Global here: https://www.nbim.no/en/the-fund/holdings/holdings-as-at-31.12.2017/↩ 3. P. 27.↩ 4. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/reward-work-not-wealth↩
Content note: This post contains graphic descriptions of police and street fascist violence
This past weekend, I spent August 11 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and August 12 in Washington, DC, as a street medic for protests countering the Unite the Right 2 rally and commemorating the previous year’s attacks. A year earlier, I had spent the same two days in Charlottesville, as a street medic for protests countering the original Unite the Right. Then I went home to Boston, where over the course of the next week, the Holocaust memorial was vandalized, and there was a fascist rally that was opposed by tens of thousands of counter-protesters. I attended a vigil at the Holocaust memorial, and provided protest health and safety training to counter-protesters ahead of the rally, in a building where we got word midway through that there were fascists lurking at the door with cameras.
The organizers of that fascist rally, Boston Free Speech, have always claimed that they were and are mischaracterized, that they are benign supporters of free speech who disavowed what happened in Charlottesville that weekend. This has always been disingenuous. One of the intended speakers for that rally was Augustus Invictus, an attendee of Unite the Right. A few prominent figures from the previous Boston Free Speech rally had themselves attended Unite the Right. The Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, founded by Kyle Chapman, who spoke at Boston Free Speech rallies, and founded the fascist umbrella organization, Resist Marxism (that Boston Free Speech was an original coalition member for), is a defendant in a lawsuit over the events of Unite the Right. It is a myth that Unite the Right was only the most overt nazis, though they were certainly there. Jason Kessler, the organizer, is a Proud Boy, from the portion of the far-right that tries to present themselves as ideological moderates. Anticom, the Pinochet-loving organization with a strong presence at Boston Free Speech’s first rally, was highly visible on both August 11 and August 12. ThinkProgress has documented both Boston fascists’ ties to more overt wings of the far-right, and the connections between them and the larger movement that produced Unite the Right (UTR) and Unite the Right 2 (UTR2) rallies. I write this both to provide a useful account for my comrades of UTR/UTR2, and to remind us of the importance of continuing to fight the far-right where we live, including this Saturday, when they march in Boston and other cities against “far-left violence.”
On August 11, I wandered downtown Charlottesville with my medic buddy and his partner. Police had turned it into an armed camp with security checkpoints. They searched bags and argued about whether I could keep my blunt-tipped first aid shears. I got to keep mine, but some other medics weren’t so lucky. We visited the memorial at the spot where a nazi drove a car through a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. I wandered through the stretch of the road, looking at spots where I had kneeled to provide first aid to the wounded, and standing for a time on the precise spot where Heather had been given CPR.
We took a break after that, and visited the group from Jewish Solidarity Caucus, of which I am a member, that was displaying an anti-fascist banner outside the synagogue and attempting to provide solidarity and reassurance to people leaving Shabbat services. Then we went to the University of Virginia campus, to get oriented with the area before that night’s planned student rally. I had been there before, but not in daylight, or in circumstances that lend themselves to getting oriented.
The police had barricades up blocking off the entire Lawn and Rotunda area, including the plaza where the rally was scheduled for and where last year’s fascist torchlight rally on August 11, 2017 had surrounded and attacked a group of mostly students. I had been a medic then, trying to track the progress of the march with the rest of my trio because I didn’t know when or where counter-protesters were going to show up and possibly need a medic. That part of the UVA campus, full of arch-covered outdoor quasi-hallways, is like a maze, and I described that confusing scramble through it to my companions, a year later, as “Nazi Pacman.” The scramble culminated in arriving at the plaza right before the torchlight march did, sitting down on a bench trying to look innocuous, and then being trapped there by the march’s decision to circle the counter-protesters at the statue. I was trying to look innocuous some more while they passed by us a few feet away, shouting epithets, giving nazi salutes. At one point, in response to one marcher yelling “You leftist pieces of shit!” at the three of us, another passing marcher, looking at us, yelled “Let’s kill some commies!” and other passing marchers watched us and laughed. I hoped they would stay in their formation, and given that their formation was circling the students, I felt craven, even at the time, for hoping it. As the attacks started against the students, we were able to get behind a bench, and wait for an opening to bolt through the increasingly chaotic crowd and get to where the injured people were gathering, where we treated them until the police, who had stood back during all of this, suddenly decided that they wanted to clear the plaza of the remaining few counter-protesters and medics, and advanced on us while we were treating a woman in a wheelchair.
A year later, the same police who had stood by and watched fascists attack, until they became the aggressors themselves, had made it so that I couldn’t go in and reacquaint myself with the place where it happened, in a low-key, well-lit setting. In the name of safety. I became increasingly angry and unhappy as we walked around the campus.
That night, the student survivors of 8/11/17 who were running the rally, refused to abide by the terms – only small clear bags allowed, only a specified number of people allowed, everyone must go through a checkpoint – that the university and the police had set, and started to hold their rally in a nearby field on the campus. A few fascists who showed up were run off, without physical altercation. Police declared the rally an unlawful assembly – on the students’ own campus! – and lined up in riot gear. The students marched, and found an amphitheater in which to rally. More police lined up in the amphitheater. Someone noticed that police were gradually surrounding the rally, so it turned back into a march, which turned into multiple marches. The one that we were in went downtown. We needed to drive to DC that night, so we left before the end, where police confronted and shoved marchers. The whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how unnecessary all of this was, how the police could have just let student survivors lead a rally on their own campus! And how much more vigilantly they were responding to this, than they did to nazis marching through the campus, beating people with torches, pepper-spraying them, throwing tiki torch lighting fluid on them. I’ve heard some “well they were criticized last year for not doing anything, what do you expect them to do?” comments. If, as defenders of the institutions of policing usually claim, they were there to protect people’s safety, then I would expect them to prevent nazis attacking people, and to not bother a benign student rally. But defenders of the institutions policing are wrong in this claim.
In DC, we started out at the large coalition rally, providing aid to crashed skateboarders and people with heat exhaustion. Then we joined with the large march, working our way to the front to make sure that it had medic coverage. A contingent from the International Socialist Organization (ISO), just behind me, chanted to drumbeats, “Black! Latino! Arab, Asian, and White! Unite! Unite! Unite and fight the right!” The energy of the crowd was palpable.
The march arrived uneventfully at Lafayette Park. The Unite the Right 2 rally was being kept far away, by its protective guard of police. As usual, I have trouble imagining any leftist action, even a permitted one, being treated with the bells and whistles that fascist rallies get from the state. A few fascists were escorted away by police, and followed by portions of the crowd. I briefly saw a small group including a man with a canteen and a surgical mask, that I didn’t look closely at in the rain, but that I learned later, through photos, were part of a fascist “European heritage” organization from New Jersey.
My team eventually went around to the side of the park, where a number of unmasked Black activists and a racially diverse black bloc had assembled. I found out later that this was because this was where UTR2 organizer Jason Kessler was expected to enter. The group eventually started marching. Police started to follow it. My medic buddy and I had both been there on the day of the Inauguration protests, though neither of us had been swept up in the J20 arrests and prosecutions, and we became increasingly nervous about the possibility of a kettle and mass arrest. We walked on the edge, and when a large number of police on motorcycles approached the group from behind to box them in, we fell back.
There was no mass arrest, but I became alarmed and said so out loud, as the large group of police on motorcycles, only feet away from the protesters, started ostentatiously, threateningly, revving their engines, while pushing forward. I’ve seen a lot of awful behavior from police as a street medic, but I was still slightly stunned that they were threatening to hit a crowd out to counter Unite the Right 2 with vehicles, on this, the anniversary of the car attack at Unite the Right. Instead, they pepper-sprayed numerous people. We wrapped around the block and found people, some of whom had been pepper-sprayed, fleeing the area.
While all this was happening, I saw word that back in Charlottesville, police had prevented a march of mourners from getting to Heather Heyer’s memorial site, and that they had attacked a handful of community members. All of those security theater police precautions were implemented in Charlottesville in the name of safety. But whose safety were they meant to be promoting? Clearly not that of the people who had been the most affected by the lack of safety the year before. They were the ones being attacked!
People sometimes criticize anti-fascist work for being focused on street fascists rather than on institutions and structures, such as those of policing and deportation. But I don’t know anyone who does anti-fascist work who doesn’t understand that these are inseparable issues. Street fascists make all leftist organizing more difficult and dangerous. Institutions and structures both directly abet street fascist organizing, and oppress communities on a day-to-day basis. Street fascists seek access to institutions, to the levers of power.
Unite the Right 2 was a flop for the fascists, with the main issue being police response. And as a result, I have already seen similarcommentary to what I saw after Boston’s and Berkeley’s large counter-protests a year ago. That there weren’t really any fascists, that their movement is pathetic and dead and unthreatening. Demonization of antifa. Assertions that when nazis rally we should walk by and laugh rather than countering them, because they are so small and pathetic.
But the primary issue, when it comes to the current wave of street fascism, has never been a few people throwing nazi salutes – as I said at the start of this, the wing of the far-right that publicly admits to being straight-up nazis was never the only show at Unite the Right, nor the original organizing force behind it. And since Unite the Right, we’ve seen the rise of the “‘Patriot’ Pinochet fans pretending to be benign moderates” wing of the far-right, the wing with plenty of fascist ambitions and nazi ties, and a taste for both street fighting and access to the political mainstream, which is able to draw in more people, and create situations like that in Portland on June 30 where they sent several counter-protesters to the hospital, precisely because they’re a big tent and people don’t understand what they are, what their organizing strategy is, how extreme their own views and their connections actually are underneath the “benign patriot” front rhetoric; how strong their ties actually are to infamous events like Unite the Right. The people providing the commentary seem to think that Unite the Right 2 was made small and pathetic by magic, or lack of interest in fascism, rather than by many hundreds of hours of organizing work behind the scenes, by consistent work against street fascists around the US over the last year, and by fascists’ understanding that thousands of people would show up to oppose them.
Oddly, even as they want to present themselves first and foremost as strong, contemporary fascists also have an interest in presenting themselves as small, a heroic underdog fighting off the vast leftist hordes against incredible odds, and also something that will play into mainstream “just ignore them” narratives and allow them to build. That has certainly been the narrative that they had promoted about the August 2017 Boston Free Speech rally. On June 2, at the Resist Marxism rally, a speaker from Boston Free Speech stated, among other things, that the counter-protesters would never have the courage to face them down badly outnumbered, as he had, if the numbers were reversed. When he said that, I thought about the Unite the Right torchlight rally, and the Nationalist Front charging through an anti-fascist line with bats and shields during Unite the Right, and the gloating over anti-fascists having been injured in Portland on June 30 of this year, and the constant, hungry, Pinochet-fanboy rhetoric. Indeed, I do not want those who oppose fascists to be outnumbered by fascists. We’ve seen how that plays out.
This Saturday, August 18, the fascists who were countered last year, in the wake of Unite the Right, by tens of thousands of people, are holding an anniversary march in Boston, as part of a national “march against far-left violence” happening in several cities throughout the US. They have tried to distance themselves from the Unite the Right rallies. I would encourage people of good conscience to come oppose them.
If you are interested in learning more about standing up to the far-right in Boston, Kitty Pryde will be speaking about fighting the far-right in Boston at a Town Meeting at the Arlington Street Church at 7pm on August 15th. You can find that Facebook event here.
There will also be a counter protest against fascist hate on August 18th at the State House. Details can be found here.
On June 30th, massive demonstrations erupted across the nation in hundreds of cities. Demonstrators were protesting the inhumane actions of the Trump administration and its treatment of undocumented immigrants, kidnapping children, sending them to concentration camps and holding them hostage. Even for an evil and corrupt government, this has been a particularly depraved course of action.
In Boston there was a massive march from Government Center to the State House. Thousands of people clogged the streets downtown. A few hours later there was another demonstration, this one organized by Cosecha, a grassroots immigrant rights group. It began with a rally by the Mass Ave Orange Line Station and was followed by a march to the South Bay Detention Center. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a contract with ICE to house immigration detainees in a few county jails, and this was one of them. The police must have figured out our destination because by the time we reached South Bay, dozens of prison guards surrounded the main entrance to the building. They were decked out in full armor and wielded billy clubs.
Twenty of the marchers broke off and placed ourselves in front of the guards, with the hope of blockading entrance to the building. From there the rest of the marches began a rally. Undocumented immigrants told their stories, of why they left Brazil or Guatemala and why they came to America. They talked about their loved ones and the pain that our nation’s influence elsewhere has had, and the pain we inflict on them here. There was chanting. There was singing. The inmates at the facility wrote messages in toothpaste on their windows.
After a couple hours the police were fed up. They arrested us and whisked us off to jail.
Twenty of us offered ourselves up for the civil disobedience part of the rally—the prison blockade. We had very different reasons, but I think all of them basically came down to a desire to fight injustice and build a better world. We were brought into the protest through different paths. For me, the call went out among the Direct Action, De-escalation and Security committee from Boston DSA. The call was kind of vague, but by reading between the lines it seemed to be some kind of ICE blockade situation, and the risk of arrest was explicitly explained as being extremely high.
I’m a very privileged person. I’m a cisgendered, straight white male. In most situations I’m just given default respect for no other reason than the the privilege afforded to me because of these identities. Once it was pointed out to me, it became impossible not to see. Since then I met and married a Mexican woman, and now there’s this huge wing of my family that gets treated differently from how I do. When I think about everything my little nieces and nephews have to deal with, I am filled with deep moral sickness. So when the call came out from some comrades to participate in civil disobedience with Cosecha I couldn’t justify not going along with it.
When the time came to arrest us they did it fairly slowly. One by one they stood us up and zip-tied our hands, then led us to one of two vans, one for the people the police assigned as male and the other for who the police assigned as female. The van they placed the people they assigned as male had ample room to move and the air conditioning was functional. I note this because the van they placed the people assigned as female in did not have air conditioning. To me this was pretty galling because the people assigned as male were all young and able bodied. I would have been more than happy to sit in a hot van for the half hour or so it took to arrest all of us separately, especially when you realize that a significant portion of the people assigned as female in our group were of advanced age or had other physical issues.
Ultimately they took us to separate jails. The protesters they assigned as male went to the Roxbury police station. I’m not sure where the arrestees assigned as female went. The judgments of the police weren’t perfect, though (big shock).
Once at the jail the police placed most of the arrestees assigned as male in a holding cell. They took one of us for processing, but it took very long. One of the other arrestees assigned as male could kind of poke his head into the opening and see what they were doing, but he couldn’t really see much. Later on, from conversations with the arrestee who was processed first, I learned that because they don’t identify as male, but were taken with the arrestees otherwise assigned as male, the corrections officers didn’t really know what to do with them. They were groped by the corrections officers andgenerally mistreated. The process ended up taking over an hour.
In that time one of the other arrestees assigned as male started to have issues with their zip cuffs. Their arm was held in a painful position. We as a group communicated to the guards that they should process him next, just to get him out of the zip cuffs. But they continued to struggle with the first prisoner’s identity for a very long time. Meanwhile the other arrestees assigned as male muddled through and tried to keep our spirits high. And when they finally came to get the next prisoner it was me. In retrospect they seemed to have processed us in order based on our ages, and I being the oldest got picked first.
The process of getting processed wasn’t too bad for me. Given that I’m a privileged white male, I didn’t really have any issues. I just had to give the guards information about myself and try to get everything done with as soon as possible. Eventually I was led off to the smaller holding cells. There was a toilet, a little water fountain, an intercom style phone and a concrete bench. There were strange stains all over the place and the floor was very sticky.
For the longest time I just laid on the bench. Mainly I was thinking about this, about communicating this experience to others, and how easily it had thus far gone for me. The elephant in that particular room is that I’m extremely privileged and didn’t have a criminal record, so my experiences with the criminal punishment system are extremely biased. So here I’ve tried to emphasize the problems other people had in the same experience, but obviously could not capture all of what they were thinking or experiencing. I also thought about Rakem Balogan, a Black Lives Matter activist in Texas who was jailed for seven months, not even for civil disobedience, just posts on Facebook. Posts that pale in comparison to the memes I post on Twitter all day every day.
Every half hour or so a new arrestee was brought into the smaller holding cells. Next after me was the person with the injured arm. All of us were processed after maybe another hour and a half.
Gradually we started yelling to each other through the cells, making jokes and trying to keep our spirits up. One of the guards told us that the bail bondsman was on his way. One of us called the jail support set up for us by Cosecha and heard that the arrestees assigned as female had been released (we later learned this was not quite correct, but some of them were already making their way out as early as 10:30pm.
The bail bondsman arrived. The National Lawyers Guild had explained the likely process of what would happen to us and told us it was a good idea to carry forty dollars in cash into the protest. Their suggestion was dead on and that’s how much we paid in fees to the bail bondsman. After that I was sent back to my cell.
The others gradually paid their fee to the bail bondsman and were placed back in our cells as well.
By this point it was starting to get late. We were getting kind of loopy. The water from the fountain was probably not the best and the bench was sure as hell not comfortable.
Finally the guard came and got me. She gave me some things to sign and told me to appear at Roxbury District Courthouse at 9:00am Monday. This jibed with what the guy from the National Lawyers Guild had told us.
And then they released me, sent me out the back door and told me my fan club was waiting around front. So I hobbled around the corner was was met with a huge swarm of people from jail support. It was almost overwhelming and their happiness and relief kind of made me feel ashamed. Like, I don’t deserve any special recognition. I did a thing that I considered to be the bare minimum that someone in my position could do. I would have felt very bad if I had an opportunity to lend my time and privilege to a worthy cause and I had not done it.
But they had pizza and candy and my cell phone. It was around 1:30 in the morning.
I led the prison support folks to the back door they let me out from and one by one the other arrestees followed me out. Once everyone was out various people from jail support drove us back to our houses.
As I understand it, the arrestees assigned as female didn’t have it quite so nice. First of all, the other facility was aggressively cold. They had brought along sweaters because they expected that, but since it was a 90+ degree day they weren’t wearing them when they were arrested. I chalk that one up to the institutional sexism thing where buildings air conditioning systems are calibrated for men, who are comfortable at lower temperatures for some reason.
Second, there were a hell of a lot more of them, so it took longer to process them all. The fingerprint scanning machines that the BPD use aren’t calibrated for repeated use, so the corrections officers struggled to get good scans. One of the arrestees assigned as female was of advanced age and one of her fingers wouldn’t scan on the machine, come hell or high water. Eventually they had to give up and take a high resolution photo of the finger.
The next most important thing was that several of the arrestees assigned as female had extenuating circumstances, such as chronic diseases, advanced age (as noted above), they were nursing mothers and other such things. In particular the nursing mother began to get very dehydrated. The other arrestees there advocated for her and repeatedly asked for water on her behalf. The corrections officers explained that they didn’t have any cups. The jailsupport people outside were waiting with bottles of water and paper cups, but the corrections officers refused to accommodate the arrestees. One of the corrections officers even bought a drink from a vending machine and drank it themselves. Eventually they were talked into taking a small care package from the jail support people waiting outside to the prisoners, but of the items jail support said they gave to the corrections officers, only a few made their way to the arrestees.
And when the arrestees assigned as female were moved to individual detention cells their water fountains didn’t actually work, to add insult to Injury.
The final indignity that they suffered was that they were released in a slow, staggered manner. It probably took a half hour to release all the other arrestees identified as male after me. The first arrestee identified as female was released around 10:30pm, but the process dragged out much longer with the final arrestee being released around 3:30am.
But eventually we did all make it out that night.
Our arraignment hearing was scheduled for Monday and we needed to be at the Roxbuxy District Courthouse at 9:00am. Our attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild were present and kept us aware of the goings on.We filled out our probation paperwork to check in, but in an interesting twist our case hadn’t been put on the schedule yet. Around this time, a few DSA members working with the Court Watch program arrived and we all went up to our court room together. After watching a couple minor disputes one of our attorneys took us aside for a conference. None of the paperwork for our case had been sent up from the police districts. We twiddled our thumbs for a little bit. Around 11:00 am our attorneys told us that the Boston police had written up our reports wrong, so they had to rewrite them and that would take around an hour. Hopefully they would be fixed and sent back over before the court’s lunch recess.
There were a few decisions to be made, specifically about how to conduct our case. We could bite and fight and scratch, a process that would drag out for a year at a minimum, or we could accept some kind of plea from the district attorney, likely something to convert our charges into a ticketable offense. Our lawyers went over a few scenarios they had seen play out.
There was still a good amount of time that would likely pass before the paperwork was processed, so we went off to have our lunch. By the time we returned our proper paperwork was being faxed over, one person at a time. They Boston Police dragged out the process as long as possible, and the court ended up recessing for lunch in the meanwhile. After a couple sets of paperwork were sent over we could surmise that charges we might be facing—trespassing and disorderly conduct, which jibed with our intake paperwork from our arrests.
As a group we ended up congregated in the hall. As the lunch recess neared its end one of our attorneys arrived for a conference. The district attorney’s office had offered to divert our cases. Not being an attorney myself I can’t fully explain the details. Basically, there’s an option in Massachusetts courts to divert minor cases into different educational programs to prevent further legal violations.
The one caveat with this situation is that a diversion program doesn’t really exist for civil disobedience, and my suspicion is that the purpose behind this was specifically to avoid making it into a huge knock down drag out legal battle that will make a liberal state look bad for prosecuting grandmas for the devious crime of protesting children being sent to concentration camps.
Long story short, our attorneys talked the D.A. down from putting us into this fictional program for three months and instead for one. We decided to roll with that and we made our way back into the court.
After the lunch recess the court heard a couple arraignments and bail cases before we were finally called up. Our attorneys laid out in plain terms what we were protesting and why.
We were disgusted with the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and we could no longer sit back and do nothing. We were making a moral choice to stand up to injustice and we put ourselves in potential harm’s way to do this. The judge accepted it, and we were free.
Now, we still have the specter of a trespassing charge and disorderly conduct hanging over our heads, but for the most part we’ve been prevented from facing harsher consequences.
All told I lost about twelve hours of my life and about forty dollars in bail fees. This isn’t a terrible price to pay for what I feel is the fight for justice. In retrospect I wish the protest had been better publicized, that there was a bigger media eye on grandmas being dragged away in chains. I wish we accomplished more.
But we did do something and I feel that’s a salve against the injustices of the world. The last few weeks have been particularly hard for me. Normally I’m extremely dispassionate and detached, but even I was shaken by the pictures and audio of children in pain, not just because of Trump himself, but by the bestial, monstrous fascist system that created him and brought him to power. Even pissing in the wind against that hurricane of hate feels powerful.
There will be more opportunities to fight for justice in the future. Cosecha and other organizers are building toward a protest at the end of this month. I’m not sure what form it will take, but I’ll be there in some capacity.
I’ve got to fight for justice because I won’t face the same opposition that Rakem Balogan has for merely posting “fuck the police” memes on Facebook. I won’t be thrown into solitary confinement for months on end, because of the privilege I have.
If you’re a comfortable, privileged person, if the injustices of the world make you sick and you feel like there’s no hope, then pay attention. Pay attention to DSA and Cosecha and find other organizations you can help. I feel that it’s important for those least likely to face the hell fury of the carceral state to stand up and use our privilege, to directly interact with the injustices of our society. Put ourselves in danger.
Things are not getting better yet. Soon there will be more opportunities for civil disobedience. We may be soon fighting for abortion doctors or union activists. There is going to be more danger in the short term and one way you can prepare is with this sort of civil disobedience action.
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Joey Peters is a writer, cartoonist, beauty contest champion. You can follow his work at socialismisgood.com
Like nearly every other American city, Boston is facing a housing crisis. Rentsare onthe rise across the Greater Boston area, and processes of development and redevelopment displace longtime residents and restrict the population of ever-growing parts of the city to an ever-shrinking class of bourgeois and petty bourgeois residents. The brunt of this violence falls on working-class people of color in communities like Dorchester, Roxbury, Hyde Park, Mattapan, East Boston, as well as towns outside the city, such as Brockton, Randolph, and Lawrence.
In these communities, landlords take advantage of speculation in the real estate market to extract increasingly exorbitant rents, sometimes with increases of hundreds of dollars at once. At the same time, they neglect their buildings—often on purpose, with an eye toward selling to investors—and evict tenants freely for minor offenses or capricious reasons. Worse, developers, landlords, and investors weaponize mass eviction to clear out a building before or after a sale, usually in preparation for redevelopment or another sale, evicting dozens of people at once with little to no notice without any regard for the human impact and with concern only for the profit they can make. In this environment, precarity in housing is the norm, and homelessness is the devastating result for thousands of people who do not have the resources to pay rent or find housing on short notice after an eviction.
As socialists, we must understand the local, national, and international housing crisis as the natural result of a system of housing-for-profit, housing as a commodity, housing under a capitalist mode of production. The rapidity with which Boston has developed, with whole neighborhood blocks being evicted and demolished sometimes in the span of months—for example, CLVU organizers have encountered this horrifying phenomenon in East Boston—is indicative of capital’s insatiable drive to exploit new markets for greater profit. Landlords, developers, and property managers do not perform their functions for any reason other than profit. The unfairness of landlordism is incredibly glaring, as buildings are often inherited directly, and in many cases the upkeep of the buildings falls to the tenants themselves.
A profound illustration of the relationship between capitalism and the housing crisis is that luxury housing continues to be built and remain empty, held as commodities by developers, investors, or absentee owners, while homelessness is rampant and working-class people struggle to find housing. As socialists, it is our duty to end this system of commodified housing and instead assert that housing is a human right, in practice as well as in words. We cannot achieve the momentous goal of building a system of housing that meets the needs of all by collaborating with capitalists—the landlords, developers, and property managers who exploit tenants and communities for profit.
We understand that the relationship between landlords and working-class people, tenants and homeless, is one of class conflict: a zero-sum game between workers’ need for housing and capital’s desire for profit. While this conflict may not have the special place at the site of production as the conflict between labor and bosses, it is a site for militant class struggle. We in Boston Refoundation believe that Boston DSA should pursue the formation of tenant unions as a strategy for building working-class struggle around housing, reducing isolation among community members, and creating new socialists in the long term.
Since July 2017, the Boston DSA Housing Working Group (HWG) has been working with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), a tenant organization comprised of working-class people across Greater Boston. CLVU organizes tenants, as well as foreclosed homeowners, against eviction, rent increases, and terrible building conditions using what they call the sword and shield: the shield for legal defense, and the sword for direct action. Their base comes primarily from the working-class communities of color most affected by eviction and rent increases. CLVU intentionally cultivates a sense of ownership among tenants from the first time they show up to a meeting, encouraging them to see themselves as members of the organization rather than people helped by it, telling them “if you fight, we’ll fight with you.”
Many of the organization’s strongest leaders, both members and staff organizers, first came to it as tenants facing eviction and stayed to fight with others. Some tenants currently fighting with CLVU are people who had organized a union and won a contract with CLVU five or ten years before, received evictions or rent increases after the expiration of the contract or after a sale, and returned to CLVU to organize again. Others have been resisting rent increases or evictions for years—some for nearly a decade. This type of militant struggle is made possible because CLVU brings tenants out of the shame and isolation of eviction and into community and solidarity with other people fighting the same injustices. CLVU intentionally develops their political leadership and their willingness to see themselves as capable of fighting, and shows them that through fighting they can achieve the material victory of staying in their homes. We view this model as one that Boston DSA should learn from and emulate as we attempt to develop our capacity to organize tenants. Essentially, CLVU already accomplishes what we and many other DSA chapters would like to do in our housing work: build a base of working-class leaders ready and able to fight capital and win.
Since we began working with CLVU last July, our work has consisted mostly of canvassing buildings identified by CLVU—both less organized buildings in existing struggles and new buildings we’re exploring for the first time. The Housing Working Group has grown a small team of people who engage in this work regularly, with several other members who may have been once or twice. We’ve learned a lot about how to talk to tenants about their material issues, while also being respectful of the sensitivity of those conversations and tenants’ agency in responding to them. In the immediate future, we should work to improve our follow-up with tenants, getting them interested in coming to a Tuesday CLVU meeting or helping them organize a building meeting with their neighbors. In February, we took a first step in this direction by providing ride support for a disabled tenant we’d met canvassing to CLVU’s weekly meeting. We should expand this sort of work wherever we find tenants willing to organize with us.
We can and should work toward this goal by continuing our existing work with CLVU and by exploring new opportunities that we discover on our own. For the former, we can continue our regular canvassing at places CLVU is looking to organize and actively work to improve our follow-up with tenants, finding ways to connect with tenants around material issues and coming to shared understandings about how we can work together. For the latter, we can explore a variety of strategies to identify targets where people may be experiencing material conditions that threaten their housing—eviction, rent increases, and gentrification, among others—and figure out how to organize with tenants around those problems. Both approaches will include a continued close relationship with CLVU while also allowing us to develop our skills as socialist organizers and become more capable and independent in our tenant organizing. Very few DSA chapters have an already-existing tenant organization like City Life in their regions; we are lucky to have them as a coalition partner and owe them a great deal for our progress so far. Our organizing, whether initiated by CLVU or by us, should bring tenants into CLVU’s movement. We do not have the capacity to immediately create the kind of solidarity and social support among tenants that CLVU provides, nor do we have the same roots they do in the communities most affected by eviction and displacement. Furthermore, CLVU has legal resources that we cannot provide tenants on our own. As we organize more effectively over time and begin to help tenants win their fights, we will increase our capacity to build these types of social and political organization among tenants in the long term.
There are a number of routes we could explore to developing our own tenant organizing project, but our adaptation of Metro DC DSA’s Stomp Out Slumlords project (SOS) currently stands out as one of the most promising. Stomp Out Slumlords has provided an inspiring example of a DSA chapter trying a creative, politically informed strategy to organize with tenants against eviction. HWG members have been developing an approach based on insights from the Stomp Out Slumlords project—namely, the idea of using publicly available information from the court system to reach tenants facing eviction—to expand our current work within the context of CLVU. Our approach merges our current tenant unionizing effort within Stomp Out Slumlords’s novel approach to finding and identifying tenants willing to organize. Interestingly, our DC comrades reported in their April update that their work on Stomp Out Slumlords has naturally gravitated toward building-level organizing with a focus on base building, much more similar to our approach and CLVU’s than to the initial SOS program. The Housing Working Group has now used this method twice since we started on May 5, and we are working to evaluate and improve it going forward. We invite any interested comrades to reach out to HWG to get involved.
We should also be on the lookout for housing issues around evictions, such as rent increases, or development around the Boston area in general, especially in regions that may not already be organized by CLVU or a similar organization. We should develop class consciousness among our own membership around their class position as tenants, encourage them to organize their own buildings if they wish to do so, and support them in those efforts by offering organizing trainings and labor.
For all of this work, and especially the last point, we must consider robust political education a necessary component of our work and meaningfully implement that commitment in practice. We must approach all of it with a clearly socialist understanding of what we mean when we say housing is a human right. We will not succeed in organizing with tenants if we are not clear that we are for tenants and against landlords and developers.
We need to take care not to fall prey to working toward capitalist reforms, an ever-present trap especially in the arena of housing. Even the most radical orgs can become co-opted by the Massachusetts Democratic establishment machine, and given the nature of the systems we work in, it may be tempting to make concessions to capital to obtain short-term gains. In particular, the framework of “affordable housing” dominates the progressive housing discourse, but this framework does nothing to strengthen the working class. “Affordable” is never accurately defined within any reasonable understanding of the word, and landlords frequently receive some benefit in return for meeting very low numbers of these units. Affordable housing assumes both that rent will always be extracted from workers’ wages and that the vast majority of housing units will be, by definition, unaffordable. Without a socialist vision and strategy that is grounded in not just a Marxist understanding of the capital and class conflict surrounding housing, but also in a knowledge of successfully implemented socialist housing throughout history, or in promising theoretical models from other Marxist groups and thinkers, we will only be temporarily stemming the tide of late-stage capitalist exterminism.
The proposed PEWG/HWG collaboration, a four-part series aimed at combining theory and praxis for socialist housing, is an exciting first step toward a broader conversation around what socialist housing means and how we can organize with and as tenants. This series, and subsequent events like it, should contribute to the development of class consciousness as tenants among our membership and open new possibilities for organizing from within DSA. In the medium to long term, as we improve our own skills as tenant organizers, we should offer deeper and more robust training for our members to organize their buildings.
Political education events, like the PEWG/HWG collaboration, will introduce more members to the basic ideas of socialist housing and tenant organizing and give them an accessible way to approach that work themselves. If done well, these projects will increase our capacity both by improving the quality of our work and by drawing more of our members to tenant organizing projects. Our political education must give us space to reflect critically on our organizing methods to ensure that they are effective. We must examine our external organizing to ensure that we do not take paternalistic attitudes into our work with tenants or choose methods of struggle for them, especially when tenants are more exploited than our organizers along lines of race, gender, class, or disability. Our internal organizing must value the contributions and labor of all our comrades and not overly rely on methods like canvassing that systematically exclude some of our comrades.
Boston Refoundation believes that tenant unionizing is a promising site for militant class struggle in our area. By applying and expanding the lessons the Housing Working Group has learned so far in our work with CLVU, we can increase our capacity to organize around tenant issues and support tenants in their struggles for our shared goal: housing as a human right. If we can help tenants win material victories in these fights, we will create relationships with working-class leaders across the Greater Boston area—people with whom we can organize in the future around issues other than housing. Building those relationships through the work of tenant unionizing in the long term will make projects like the Mass Against HP BDS campaign and the proposed Prison Abolition project to get police out of Boston public schools more imminently possible for Boston DSA to organize around. It will open up new frontiers for direct service and mutual aid projects that are useful and possibly reciprocal. We believe that we must pursue these projects of organizing and unionizing tenants both because it is right to stand in solidarity with tenants in their fights and because it is necessary to achieve our ultimate goal: uniting the working class to win socialism.
The recent opinion piece by prominent geneticist David Reich has once again fanned the flames of the debate on race, genetics, and intelligence. This is not a new debate — after eugenics was supposedly put to rest, it appeared that this ideology had taken refuge in the shadows of evolutionary psychology and behavior genetics. It is not surprising that the latter field, built on the nature vs. nurture duality, is a hotbed of debate and sensationalism, given the sociopolitical implications and our collective obsession with genetic determinism. Over the years, the question of whether differences in intelligence is due to environmental factors or genetic factors has been repeatedly raised. In 1994, Charles Murray co-wrote the notorious book, The Bell Curve, in which he argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites because of genetic differences. While the book was criticized by the evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould in his summary analysis & rebuttal The Mismeasure of Man (revised ed., 1996), the idea that there is an inherent, genetic differences in intelligence across races, stuck around in other forms. Once the human genome was sequenced, and genetic determinism again became fashionable with its technological reincarnation, billions of dollars of public money was funneled into studying the genetic basis of complex traits, including behavioral and psychological ones, and their differences across racial and ethnic boundaries. The belief that the answer lay in the genes nurtured the idea of eugenics along with it.
This is not to say that Eugenics 2.0 hasn’t faced its own share of resistance in academia — much has been written against the idea that inherent genetic differences explain the variable performances in IQ tests along racial lines. The scientists that championed the environmental causes of such differences in IQ test outcomes have put forth socioeconomic status (SES) as the primary cause. A seminal study by Turkheimer et al in 2003 showed that genetic differences could only explain differences in intelligence among kids from high SES background. For the kids from lower SES, environmental factors were the primary cause for variation observed in IQ. A more recent critique of the paper showed that the differences observed between the two SES groups were not significant along racial lines. A paper by Figlio et al published in 2017, the largest study to test the idea that “genetic influences on cognitive abilities are larger for children raised in more advantaged environments”, found on no evidence to support their hypothesis. However, they do admit that “articulating gene-environment interactions for cognition is more complex and elusive than previously supposed.”
This endless debate, however, is spurred on by a major epistemic flaw in understanding the nature and nurture equation. In his detailed analysis of the behavior genetics field in the post-genome sequencing era, sociologist Aaron Panofsky writes, “Behavior geneticists’ focus on environmental factors and interactionism has involved looking at different parts of the nature versus nurture equation, not a rethinking of the presumptions of that equation or the notion of the analytic separability of genes and environment.” What was perceived to be a change in paradigm, ended up being just a shift towards one variable or the other. The individual focus on genes or environment as separate entities have resulted in much contradictory evidence so far, allowing the white supremacists to weaponize scientific evidence to their favor and change public perception (for years, Nicholas Wade misrepresented scientific data to make racist claims as a science writer for the New York Times). However, Panofsky doesn’t provide an avenue to escape the quagmire that behavior geneticists find themselves in.
The promised paradigm shift can be achieved through a shift in how we view the relationship between us and our environment. And turns out, Marxist ideas can help us do exactly that. Engels first proposed the idea of using Marx’s dialectical materialism to examine this relationship is his unfinished book Dialectics of Nature (1883). Marx, in his revision of Hegel’s dialectics, asserted that dialectics should deal with the “material world” of human history and activity rather than the metaphysical world or the world of ideas. As Ernest Mandel describes in his introduction to Capital (Penguin edition, 1976), “when the dialectical method is applied to the study of economic problems, economic phenomena are not viewed separately from each other, by bits and pieces, but in their inner connection as an integrated totality”, dialectical materialism allows for studying the interactions between phenomena in an empirical manner. Engels’ intention in his unfinished book was to employ this philosophy to understand the ever-changing relationship between Man and Nature.
The central premise of Levins & Lewontin’s argument is that because the relationship between an organism and an environment are reciprocal, and hence dialectical, it is the relationship that should be the subject of empirical study rather than either the environment or the organism individually. Additionally, they argue that this relationship cannot be studied outside the context of evolution, echoing both Marx and the famous biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky who proclaimed “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Lewontin went on to further solidify the necessity of using a dialectical approach to studying evolution and development of an organism. In his book The Triple Helix (2002), he writes “that the ontogeny [development] of an organism is the consequence of a unique interaction between the genes it carries, the temporal sequence of external environments through which it passes during its life, and random events of molecular interactions within individual cells. It is these interactions that must be incorporated into any proper account of how an organism is formed”, thus establishing the organism as a site of interaction between the environment and genes. Therefore, under dialectical materialism, the nature vs. nurture debate is replaced by how nature AND nurture contribute to the development of an organism.
Current scientific rationale employs the capitalist ideology of individualism to champion the cause of genetic determinism, and in turn, scientific racism. While scientists, both geneticists and sociologists, have acknowledged that both the environment AND genes play a role in development of cognitive functions, their study designs are flawed because of this reductionist, individualistic approach. Modern technological advances have done little to end the debate despite promises; scientific evidence generated using a reductionist view will only continue to be co-opted by oppressors and white supremacists, and scientists cannot afford to not care about the sociopolitical impact of their work. It is definitely time for a more encompassing understanding of our biology and our relationship with the environment, and dialectical materialism, as Marx and Engels had intended, and Levins & Lewontin have applied theoretically, is poised to do so.
I’m heartened by the discussion I’ve seen unfolding over the past weeks, starting with the Electoral Working Group meeting, and then continued with the open letter signed onto by some of our comrades. This sparked discussions in person and across a variety of other platforms. I’ve seen other members take considerable time to write out their opinions and respond to my questions with patience and understanding, even when it was clear that some of our opinions differed. One person even took the time to specifically call out that they believe we have a shared goal, just with different ways of getting there. These conversations have largely been comradely, understanding, and focused on moving forward together, and give me hope for our chapter.
The main points of the debate, as I understand them, are:
We need to bring the endorsement process to a discussion/vote at the General Meeting.
The endorsement process as outlined doesn’t have enough guarantees that voters will be meaningfully exposed to various viewpoints, especially those that may be the minority.
Online voting itself is a potentially isolating procedure that could reinforce the individualism our capitalist society encourages, rather than emphasizing the collective knowledge and strength in solidarity we hope to build through socialism.
I’ll try to engage with these as best I can.
GM Vote on the Endorsement Process
It’s my understanding, after last night’s GM Planning Committee meeting, that the endorsement process itself will be brought to a discussion and vote at the GM. I think this is good for our chapter right now, and I also think moving forward it’s reasonable to try and figure out what things from WGs need to be voted on by a WG, the GM, the SC, or some other body. Initial tensions around the open letter seemed to stem from fears that people wouldn’t have input into a process where they felt their voice was needed. As a chapter, we should discuss our expectations for what constitutes an administrative decision appropriate for the Working Group level, and what constitutes a political decision appropriate for a WG versus for our highest body, the General Membership. What appeared to some members of the Electoral Working Group to be a procedural decision designed to elicit engagement from the whole chapter was taken by some to be a much more significant change. We need to keep talking about which decisions fall into which category as our chapter develops, and especially as we begin the chapter priorities process that’s currently been approved by the SC.
The Endorsement Process
The endorsement process as currently outlined has the following official points of engagement:
Member submissions of candidates/races to consider (only limitation being state rep races due to capacity and a desire to focus on the smallest possible race).
Member created survey, including a vote (possibly online) on the final survey questions.
WG summaries of candidate responses (sent to email, Slack, and on paper at in-person meetings), providing an opportunity for any and all WGs to focus on their analysis of a candidate’s responses.
Membership vote online on which candidates to invite to a forum.
Candidate’s forum with member-generated questions.
Recordings and postings of the forum on email and Slack, providing an opportunity for discussion.
GM Endorsement discussion.
Vote on endorsed candidates, potentially including internet balloting.
Since this was proposed at the Electoral Working Group meeting about endorsements, I’ve heard the following suggestions for making this process even more robust and member-oriented:
Candidate research to be distributed to the membership, providing an opportunity to bring a candidate’s past into the discussion.
Including pro and con statements on internet ballots.
Distributing notes, recording, and/or summaries of the GM discussion to membership prior to a vote.
Ongoing development of what candidate accountability looks like.
Making explicit the “No endorsement” option in the final vote.
This is to say nothing of the myriad informal/semi-informal spaces we already have for discussion (before and after meetings, one-on-one conversations, Slack, emails, working group lists, phone conversations, etc.). Few (though certainly some) of these options are entirely online. The process before us is neither in-person nor online — it’s some option in between. The world will keep changing, and we must continue to adapt time-tested strategies of organizing to the growing opportunities for building solidarity.
The letter’s signatories are correct in saying that there is no guarantee that any of our members will be involved in all of these discussions, formalized or not, before online balloting, and there is no guarantee they will have heard or fairly considered every viewpoint. There’s not, and I don’t think there should be a formal guarantee beyond our faith and trust in our comrades. When it comes down to it, that’s really what DSA is built on.
Instead, it’s our responsibility to make the importance of these meetings and discussions felt and heard, to mobilize members to come to or otherwise contribute to the process, and to broadcast our viewpoints to the membership at large. This burden isn’t entirely placed on those in the minority, either — the process for submitting analyses of candidates and their responses, the discussion at the GM itself, and the proposed addition of pro/con statements and a “No endorsement” option to online ballots all provide formal protections of potential minority viewpoints within the chapter. The protection of the minority voice is being taken seriously within DSA — what more additions to this process are necessary to prove this? The preservation of in-person meetings and the relationships and solidarity built there are similarly critical to DSA — again, what additions or edits to the process are necessary to prove this?
Member Engagement and Collective Struggle
Finally, there absolutely are members on our rolls who are more active in DSA-specific meetings, working groups, and organizing. And there are some who haven’t yet become regulars at DSA-specific events. This latter category has been referred to as “paper members” or “inactive” members. It’s important to challenge this narrative. There are so many ways to build socialism within and without DSA, and we should work to build connections until we’re no longer ancillary to so much of the movement to rebuild society. This means those of us who have found some specific work in Boston DSA should be reaching out to less active members with the hopes of learning how we can involve them in our work, or support them in theirs, given their unique position, background, and connections to other organizations or activism, and thereby connect more members more deeply to DSA while strengthening the organization itself. As good organizers, we can’t leave members themselves responsible for not coming to a particular meeting or engaging in socialism in a particular way. We must instead reflect on our own programming and approach AND reach out to members to determine what initiatives would make direct DSA involvement more meaningful for them. We don’t know why some of our 1,100 members aren’t regularly attending meetings — all we know for sure is they agree with the principles of Boston DSA enough to meet our agreed-upon criteria for membership.
As an organization, I believe we have a responsibility to guarantee each member the opportunity to vote on important matters, and must provide the resources to make that vote an informed one. An internet ballot is no more or less informed than an in person one. There’s no guarantee that a person at a meeting has mentally engaged with a particular viewpoint in a meaningful way. The proposed process, by including online balloting, provides both opportunities and mandates to reach out to the 1,100 members of Boston DSA to encourage this engagement. The proxy process shouldn’t be eliminated — it provides important opportunities for remote comrades to participate in the debate and procedure of an in-person meeting in real time beyond just the vote. Internet balloting isn’t a replacement for proxy services — it’s an addition, and a meaningfully different one. It places the majority of the burden for enfranchisement on the organization, rather than its members, and it proactively and purposefully extends this opportunity to every member in DSA.
This is far more difficult than reaching out to the few hundred people who regularly attend DSA meetings — it’s also the kind of organizing that is critical to practice in the process of creating a militant movement capable of winning the socialist society of our collective hopes and dreams. Far from isolating our members, it encourages us to practice the skills necessary to reach massive numbers of people with our message and still work to come to a collective decision. It provides a stark reminder that it’s our responsibility to engage our comrades, not to dismiss or fear them. It pushes us to trust them to make good choices when provided with the information and the process to do so. Our chapter has already made us proud with its collective choices time and again — we’ve endorsed an important BDS campaign, unanimously passed an important resolution condemning FOSTA/SESTA, put two of our own members in office and begun learning what it means to then hold them accountable, and worked together to rework our outdated bylaws to include things like cop disclosures. I believe that our members will only continue to validate our trust and solidarity in greater numbers when afforded the opportunity to do so.
Claudia B. and Hannah K. are Boston University YDSA co-chairs. For the past few months, they’ve been working on a campaign to get the tour guides of Boston University paid a fair wage. In honor of May Day, we’d like to kick off the first post on Boston DSA’s Political Education Working Group blog with an interview about their organizing work.
First off, could you tell us about the background on the tour guides campaign you’re working on?
Claudia: Tour guides at BU are not paid, but they do receive a hoodie. I was a tour guide last year and quit as I started to recognize the how exploitative the program was. Our members in Boston University YDSA were super into labor organizing so we were trying to find a campaign that had the potential for political education and a feasible goal, as well as one that allowed our members to practice organizing conversations and that wasn’t too risky.
Hannah: I’ve never been a tour guide, but I have a lot of close friends who are/have been and talking to them about their working conditions I definitely sensed dissatisfaction—which, of course, is the seed of any productive organizing conversation because it means you can get them pissed. In addition, it was a good starting point to get students at BU to start thinking about labor—because BU is such a bourgeois, “career-oriented” (yuck) school most people think it is fine to work for free for resume-building purposes (“paid in experience and connections”), so I think both of us recognized that a smaller campaign would have the potential to open people up to re-examine the work they do in their own lives. Because so much of the way a university operates depends on unpaid or underpaid labor: teaching assistants, student research, learning assistants, tour guides, etc, etc—we’ve actually heard a lot of people tell us that they didn’t think about the work they did that they weren’t paid for as “work” until now.
What has it been like organizing the tour guides? Are most receptive, or are some interested in maintaining the unpaid status of BU tour guides?
C: We have gotten a lot of support! We have over half of the current tour guides to sign the list of demands and a large number of past tour guides. There are some tour guides that are hesitant about the demand of a $15/hour wage. The largest backlash is from student employees in the office who are currently—there are some students who answer phone calls and check in parents who are paid less than $15/hour, and then there’s some that get a stipend to do more oversight of the tour guides. They’re opposed to them getting paid because they think it’ll lower their pay or make their positions less valuable. It’s been important in our organizing conversations to explain that it’s a “boss” problem not an “other workers” problem.
H: And also with the $15 thing we often ask: well, why isn’t everyone paid $15 an hour? And if they agree with that (and most do): aren’t the tour guides a good place to start? We have also gotten a few scab/cop types who argue that tour guides should remain volunteer because if they’re paid the position will attract the “wrong kind of people.” To which, a) wow, there’s a lot to unpack there but, b) you should be paid for work regardless of whether you like doing it or not.
What are your demands, and what has BU’s response been so far? How would you respond to statements that the tour guides would prefer to work for free?
C: The main demands include a $15/hour wage, the option to use work study awards to be paid, transparency about the requirements of the position, and a more thorough hiring practice, because currently the student workers in charge of hiring tend to just hire friends.
The biggest proponents of continuing this system are people who claim that making the position paid would attract the “wrong kind” of candidate. We argue this will attract the same, if not better, candidates. People who were already willing to do this for free will continue to be interested, and they will be more able to prioritize it as a job and keep it. Admissions has an issue with turnover with this current system. Additionally, admissions boasts of having diverse tour guides, yet a system of unpaid workers fundamentally seeks to exclude working class students. Another argument we sometimes hear is “if people ‘consented’ to work for free, it is entitled to change and ask for compensation now.” To this, we say that it is well within a worker’s rights to advocate for better working conditions at any time. Specifically, in such cases, students are fed lies about how such unpaid positions affect their later employability. As students come to realize these falsehoods, it is quite reasonable for them to change their expectations.
Hannah, you’ve written before about how BU has a long history of labor organizing. Are there any events in BU labor history that you’ve drawn from in this campaign?
H: When we first started BU YDS, I got really into researching BU’s history of student activism. The fact is BU used to be way more radical than it is now—you can find old pictures from BU in 60s and 70s online and they seem like another world. There are photos of BU undergrads protesting US involvement in Iran and protesting Robert McNamara speaking at BU! That would never happen here today! And while BU is very different today, there’s definitely been value in looking at our campaign as part of BU’s larger labor history. While I don’t think what we’re doing is anywhere near the scale of the ‘79 strike, I do think that looking at what we’re doing as part of a much greater movement allows us to look ahead in terms what we’re doing with our campaign—how can we try to transform the momentum we have with the tour guide campaign into something greater, and something that has the potential to energize the campus in the way it was back in the 70s? That I think is the bigger project, and something we’re thinking about a lot.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your organizing campaign and how have you responded to them?
C: While I think all of BU YDSA is proud of the work we’ve done, I think we would’ve liked to center large groups of workers more than we were able to. The admissions office work is very isolated and makes organizing very difficult. All of the demands were crafted following one on ones with current and past tour guides. We were able to mobilize around 6-7 really amazing leaders to try to combat this. We are hopeful that the tour guides have been empowered to further advocate for their rights in the workplace despite these challenges.
H: I think—and this relates to what Claudia said about our issues centering workers—a big part of this is just that we’ve been so time-crunched in pulling this together. We had to spend the first half of the year building our YDS chapter so that essentially we’ve only had a semester to organize around this issue. If we had more time, I have no doubt we would have a stronger worker base, but the fact is we’re up against the university calendar and also Admissions’ calendar, as they are most vulnerable when turnover is high at the end of semesters.
It seems like the labor movement has grown from traditional unionizing campaigns to organizing more types of workers and different types of employment. Can you speak to how your campaign fits into that?
C: Hell yeah! We’re very excited about this. Unions rule but the fetishization of union workers takes away from all other labor struggles. This concern with only union labor also takes the focus away from marginalized workers as certain privileges and infrastructure are inherent to union organizing. That’s something I’m very proud of with regards to our campaign; there’s power in a union but ultimately it boils down to the people—
H: —also unions involve a lot of structure and regulation that ultimately isn’t workable in organizing all workplaces—
C: —definitely, and women of color are a huge exploited labor sector in terms of care work and people often ignore their organizing efforts because they can’t picket. While we obviously want the workers to see their demands realized and see BU respect its students’ requests, this campaign has had definite success. Whether in the mind of the tour guides themselves or their peers, a conversation has started about what it means to be a worker. There has definitely been increase in dialogue about how students are coerced into working for free. I think this lays a nice foundation to organize around internships, gig economy jobs, and other sources of precarious work or exploitation we have been told is necessary to attain success.
Anything else you’d like to add?
C: We are hoping to use the momentum from this campaign toward something like a campus wide $15 minimum wage—
H:—which is something that other student activists have started working towards. For example Virginia Tech’s YDSA is campaigning for campus-wide $15 now, and in addition, Rutgers has a very strong group of student activists fighting for $15 as well. Rutgers is also notable because it’s a state school, so winning $15 there actually helps to push New Jersey to make the state-wide minimum wage $15. We also think that $15 campus-wide minimum wage is achievable because it will benefit ALL BUworkers, and not just student workers—it’s an easy sell: who doesn’t wanna be paid more?
For more information on the tour guides campaign, check out Hannah’s piece about BU’s labor history , or this piece from BU’s Daily Free Press about this specific campaign. To support this campaign, you can read their list of demands or sign their petition here. On May 4th at 3pm,a small group (per admission’s request) will be meeting with John McEachern and Kelly Walters. You can also show your support by walking with the organizers to this meeting. They will be meeting at 2:30pm at Marsh Chapel. Supporters are encouraged to wear BU colors or apparel to show this is really about creating a better community. Please click GOING on the Facebook event if you are going so they can keep track of numbers!