A retrospective on the 2021 efforts of DSA in Connecticut.
by Jason R.
As the chapter’s secretary, it has been my privilege to record Central Connecticut DSA’s history in the form of hundreds of pages of general assembly, steering committee and working group notes. I believe that in the course of rebuilding and shaping the socialist movement here in the United States, it is incumbent on us as its drivers to also be its historians, for the sake of future socialist generations who would seek to learn from our successes, avoid our failures, and understand the material reasons for acting in the ways that we chose to. What follows is only my perspective, but I hope it can provide some insight into the collective process to which we all contribute.
I joined DSA in late 2018 after the stunning victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th. As a fellow working class person with a Bronx Puerto Rican side of the family, her upset victory against an incumbent Democrat motivated me to seek out my local Democratic Socialists of America chapter in Central Connecticut, through which I became a founding member of their Bridgeport branch.
Since then, much has changed. I don’t need to tell anyone that 2020 was a hard, confusing year, but it was a uniquely tumultuous one for Democratic Socialists in Connecticut. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic saw our entire at-large leadership and most administrative officers resign at once, resulting in a near complete turnover of leadership and a loss of experienced organizers that our chapter is still recovering from to this day.
Facing the possibility of having only the two largely inexperienced Bridgeport branch representatives in office, I helped push organizers and members from across the chapter to run for the at-large steering and administrative positions. Along with four others, I was elected for the end of 2020 into the 2021 term. From our election that Summer to the end of the year, we threw ourselves in a dozen different directions, attempting to connect ourselves with the struggles we identified around us, from the pre-existing COVID mutual aid networks to the protests against police brutality and the looming eviction crisis.
Although we saw some minor successes in these interventions, especially the formation of the Greater New Haven branch and the recruitment of new members, there were also frustrations with our lack of organizing structure and unified theory of change. Mutual aid work that was started with the intention of meeting needs and learning about communities became massive energy expenditures around logistics with little in the way of direct communication with recipients. Car caravans for “#CancelTheRents” to governor Lamont’s two mansions did not move him, and seemed to harden him against the demand. Despite promises like the deletion of the gang databases and the abandonment of ShotSpotter technology made after the Bridgeport Police Department protest encampment in June 2020, none were kept.
As socialists, we are not just in the fight to do good for good’s sake, or to fight losing battles for the sake of having fought them. Without a real plan to build power and win material changes in the lives of working class and oppressed people, any good we were capable of doing would be undone over time, if not as soon as we’d packed up for the day.
ENTERING 2021 & RIGHT TO COUNSEL
As we approached the new year, our chapter’s main area of member engagement was our DSA Housing Justice Project, which had, until that point, been focusing on internal political education at meetings and supporting the Cancel Rent CT coalition in its pressure campaign against governor Lamont. We had also, in early December of 2020, participated in our first eviction protest in my own home town of Stratford, a formative event that I look back on as our first steps towards a more coherent and unified conception of the organizing we wanted to accomplish.
There was a general consensus among the Housing Justice Project’s most involved layer of organizers around the idea of a campaign heading into the 2021 legislative session. Connecticut’s Democrats and governor would be searching for wins, an opening that we felt capable of exploiting.
The initial goal was simple: use the legislative session to push for a Right to Counsel for Evictions in Connecticut, a guaranteed right to a lawyer for any tenant dragged through the legal process by their landlord. We did not expect to win big; getting the bill considered on the floor of the CT General Assembly would have been sufficient. With this broad outline in hand, I set fingers to keyboard and drafted our Housing Justice Priority Resolution days before our December 2020 DSA General Assembly, and collected the necessary signatures. At the meeting it was passed 27 yes to 10 abstentions.
What followed was a lightning round of a campaign, if I had ever seen one. We produced zines which made their way across the state, practiced our eviction protesting skills again in Hartford, organized over 70 testimonies for the CT General Assembly’s Housing Committee hearing, and my testimony on behalf of Bridgeport Mutual Aid earned me a harassing phone call from the head of a Connecticut landlord’s association. Through our efforts and those of our coalition, we collected more than a thousand signatures for our petition, and ultimately pushed legislators into adopting our Right to Counsel bill with only nominal changes (including a wetlands provision which I still do not understand!).
Although we saw rapid success in moving our members into action like they had never been before, organizers were also aware how much our campaign relied on individual relationships with left-leaning (on this issue, at least) legislators like Reps. Brandon McGee and David Michel, who carried the bill on the legislature’s floor, as we lacked any DSA member legislators who could advance it themselves.
The chapter’s Housing Justice Project would reform its internal structures, creating a more focused Tenant Organizing Committee (TOC) to facilitate the HJP’s more focused tenant canvassing going forward. My attention pivoted after May to the looming event on the horizon for all DSA chapters.
DSA’s AUGUST 2021 NATIONAL CONVENTION
With Central Connecticut DSA rapidly growing and developing its work to the point of considering a state-wide restructuring, I took initiative in pushing active members to run for delegates in both the Western and Central CT chapters. Both sent full slates to the convention united by a shared vision of strengthening our ties that had grown through the Housing Justice Project and other work.
Although our state’s ten delegates across three chapters did not agree on everything, we took the effort to share deliberative spaces. The Central CT delegation held regular pre-convention meetings to discuss and debate the resolutions, amendments and the National Political Committee candidates we would be considering. Despite the fact our individual political backgrounds and minute beliefs may have had innumerable differences, we were united in our shared commitment to accurately representing the chapter’s politics, areas of work, and democratic decisions up to that point.
To that end, I encouraged our housing organizer delegates to communicate with authors of R20, “Class Power on the Housing Terrain,” as the resolution most closely aligned with our nascent tenant organizing work. Our delegation and Central CT DSA’s Housing Justice Project’s core organizers were skeptical of language around creating a “legal aid wing” of DSA’s national Housing Justice Commission. After a series of discussions with authors were moved to support the intent of the resolution and offer amended language to improve that section. Unfortunately, it was too late in the Convention process to submit it to the floor for consideration.
Despite the fact that R20 failed to pass at convention, we believe that the trajectory of housing and tenant organizing in DSA and the wider socialist movement is heading towards a base building strategy for constructing independent, working-class structures connected to each other and the wider movement for socialism (as we discussed in our chapter’s socialist night school on Swedish tenant unions, cosponsored by DSA’s Housing Justice Commission and the Autonomous Tenants Union Network). The passage of R21, the proposal authored by the Housing Justice Commission’s first (and outgoing) leadership, will ensure that these debates continue to take prominence in DSA as we experiment and reorient ourselves around the fertile organizing terrain of housing in the United States. I look forward to Central Connecticut DSA contributing to and leading in those discussions.
One area that saw movement among our delegation was around the question of R32, “Strengthening YDSA,” which was removed from the consent agenda on the first day of voting and subsequently debated and defeated on the floor. As one of our delegates, Bryan C, a 2021 YDSA Convention delegate argued, the request for up to 1/5th of DSA’s operating budget being reserved for our youth wing was far too much power to centralize within a relatively small subsection of our organization. While our delegation was largely in agreement with the intent behind the proposal, the cost estimate was ultimately too large for the realistically small material impact it would have had on our mission to organize the wider working class, which does not lay dormant in university halls, but in our workplaces, our apartment blocks and the streets.
Another two major issues at the 2021 convention also saw debate among our delegation – electoral independence from the Democratic Party and the question of socialist internationalism and DSA’s International Committee work. While agreeing in principle with the explicit independence from the Democratic Party that was argued for in other resolutions, our delegation unanimously supported the majority proposal of the National Electoral Committee, R8, “Towards a Mass Party in the United States.” It was our shared belief that DSA’s nascent forays into the electoral arena must be rooted in our organizational independence from the capitalist Democrats, but that it would ultimately be a wasted opportunity to not contest Democratic primaries where it is possible to win them. Class independence does not flow from a separate ballot line for an independent workers party. It flows from the intentionally built and developed socialist politics of our organization, which necessitates working-class independence to truly function as anything more than a political club, and which I believe we are implementing across our organization’s myriad campaigns and projects through trial and (many, many) errors.
On internationalism, our Central CT DSA delegation was largely uniform in supporting R14, “Commitment to International Solidarity,” due to the widespread support it had from DSA members as the baseline of our socialist internationalism. I look forward to the success of DSA’s International Committee in 2021 continuing into 2022, so that we may have even more meaningful (if equally fraught and tense) debates on DSA’s role in the struggle against global capitalism.
As the convention closed, 1300 delegates submitted ballots to elect our next National Political Committee, the highest decision-making body in DSA outside of the biennial conventions. Our delegation’s focus was primarily on the resolution and bylaw amendments, and as such were afforded little time to discuss the candidates in depth. As I argued in my essay, “Tending Roses: the Case for Re-Electing Incumbents to DSAs NPC,” it was and is my belief that continuity of leadership is vital for the continued growth of DSA as the largest socialist organization in the US. Although I have several political differences with the four candidates I endorsed: Jen McKinney from Eugene, Oregon, Jen Bolen (Jenbo) from San Francisco, Austin Gonzalez from Richmond, Virginia, and Justin Charles from New York City, I view their leadership in their chapters and in our national organization as key elements to our growth towards one hundred thousand members, not for their individual qualities, but for their ability to inspire leadership in others through their organizing and administrative efforts.
Ultimately I am proud that our entire delegation ranked Jen McKinney as #1 on our ballots. She is a tireless organizer who, in her role as the NPC chair at the end of the last term, shepherded us through a tense convention season and numerous political landmines and crises, from hurricanes to abortion bans. I am also happy to have ranked highly the non-incumbent Kara Hall from Las Vegas, who as a chapter leader spoke with Central CT DSA’s steering and electoral committees about the successes and failures of her chapter’s work in Nevada.
As the new NPC begins the first full year of its term, I believe that it is incumbent upon them to not only step fully in to their roles as political leaders in our organization, interpreting and refining our shared points of unity as determined by past conventions, but also to take on the organizing roles as well. Chapters now more than ever are reaching a point at which coordination from national DSA is not merely an optional add-on, but a vital component of creating a unified struggle against capitalism that breaks localized barriers. I hope to see each of them, even the ones I left off my ballot entirely, take on the challenge of leaving their personal or factional politics by the wayside to embrace the messy, in motion and work-in-progress politics of our rapidly maturing national organization.
BACK ON THE GROUND: CLOSING THOUGHTS
As the convention ended and delegates “returned” to their chapters (as much as one could “return” from a virtual convention), I took the opportunity to step back and reassess my contributions to DSA in Connecticut thus far, and the work of my chapter as a whole. Since entering leadership in the summer of 2020, I had thrown my energy in a thousand different directions, hoping to find the special area of work that was ripe for socialists to recruit from and build off of. From my work with Bridgeport Mutual Aid in the immediate aftermath of the first COVID lockdowns to our struggles against the Bridgeport Police Department in June of 2020, I found that what was lacking was not passion nor principle, but the basic organizing skills which are a fundamental necessity to a successful political project of any kind.
What was missing was how to build and maintain lists, how to have a structured one-on-one conversation which moves a person from inaction to action, how to delegate work democratically but efficiently, how to assess and analyze conditions and the campaigns proposed around them, and so much more that is left unsaid in amateur organizing spaces. Without these skills, the passionate efforts of new socialists will largely be wasted on well-meaning endeavors that apply only half-cures (if even that, as the Bridgeport Police Department protest’s demands were quickly agreed to but never implemented) to individual symptoms of capitalism, rather than contributing towards a strategy to upend the capitalist system altogether.
I have heard rumors and whispers that the mass resignation of our former leadership at the start of the pandemic resulted in “all the good organizers leaving.” While I imagine that my reasons are different from the source of those complaints, I can’t help but agree. Losing out on our most experienced organizing cadre, with decades of experience between them from labor organizing to electoral politics to street demonstration, was undoubtedly our greatest catastrophe in recent memory, and in many ways, all of our work in rebuilding the chapter and its branches has been in reaction to that event. It has only been our recruitment and development of dedicated socialist organizers, and their willingness to share their knowledge as freely as is possible, that has kept our chapter going through our internal leadership crisis and the constant whirlwind of the United States’s slow motion decline.
With that in mind, my return to the chapter started with dedicating my time to the organization’s two most active areas of work, to better learn from the organizers involved in our most successful projects and to root myself in what our membership chose as our priorities. I canvassed for our Housing Justice Project’s tenant organizing campaign and in Hamden’s elections for our victorious democratic socialist slate, which saw some of our largest turnout ever for our JAMboree canvassing event. These campaigns, both building on past successes and failures in our chapter, are proof positive to me that the ingredients for a truly new socialist movement can be found where passion meets good practice.
As we exit the first quarter of the new year, 2022, I am filled with hope. Never in my life have I participated in something as meaningful as the Democratic Socialists of America, and it is my daily honor to struggle alongside each and every fellow member as we work to build a new world from the ashes of the old. There will be many failures and much frustration on our path towards liberation, but I take solace in knowing that, to quote abolitionist author and organizer Mariame Kaba, “nothing that we do that is worthwhile is done alone.” Being in DSA means never being the only socialist in town. The next comrade is only one door knock away.
Jason R is on the at-large steering committee of Central Connecticut DSA, where he serves as secretary.
Image credits: the Central CT DSA delegation to DSAs 2021 National Convention.
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