Young Democratic Socialists Winter Conference: Turning The Tide

The following piece was originally published in The Aquarian, who have generously allowed us to republish it here.

ALEX BENSON

On a chilly Friday night in downtown Brooklyn, Jackie Sewell, the youth organizer for the Democratic Socialists Of America, floats around the lobby of St. Francis College, spinning metaphorical plates and letting a whispered “shit” fly periodically as she prepares to greet the attendees of the Young Democratic Socialists Winter Conference.

Around 6 p.m., as the first arrivals filter through the registration line, shaking off the cold and collecting their workshop schedules and socialist swag, they seem to exude a certain relief in each other’s presence, reminding me somewhat of a group of trauma survivors reunited.

The analogy felt slightly incomplete, but being wholly unfamiliar with socialism as a real thing that exists within the United States, I was still trying to wrap my mind around what I was observing. My expectation of encountering a room full of white-people dreadlocks and unrealistic ideals had already been demolished.

Heidi Chua and Claudia Horn, two Brooklynites attending the conference in support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation—a German organization dedicated to Leftist political education in Germany and abroad—were arranging the informational materials on their table, near the main registration area.

I had been standing off to the side, trying to unobtrusively photograph the conference preparations, when Chua caught me trying to get a candid shot of her unfurling a banner. Feeling the need to explain what I was doing there, taking pictures and jotting notes, I introduced myself and thus began the dismantling of my preconceptions.

I brought up the reelection of President Obama, expecting accusations of war crimes and corporate acquiescence, along with some kind of argument that Democrats are really no different from Republicans. Instead, I was surprised to find both women readily agree that Obama’s victory was something to celebrate, even as they remain highly critical of certain aspects of his policies.

“With Obama, we at least have a chance,” remarks Horn.

This is the moment I get the first inkling that I’ve stumbled onto something different. These women weren’t just fighting some noble symbolic struggle, or carping about the evils of the system from the sidelines. They were trying to make the world a better place—in reality, not in theory—and a world with President Obama is a better place than one with President Romney, despite the former’s shortcomings.

But doesn’t the open criticism of Obama undermine him and lend support to his opponents?

“You can support and criticize,” responds Horn.

“It’s very American to criticize. It’s very American to question authority,” adds Chua.

In the end, they both make it clear that they don’t necessarily see electoral politics as the engine to make effective change.

“We are the solution. We change the world,” states Chua.

This wasn’t just idealism talking. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation—or Stiftung in German—was at the conference acting as a sponsor for one of the most anticipated guests, Jérémìe Bédard-Wien, one of the leaders of last year’s student protests against tuition increases in Quebec.

The Quebec students endured every manner of opposition during their six-month general strike—more than one protester lost an eye to rubber bullets and flash bangs—and finally returned to classes only after winning a tuition freeze in September of last year. What had started with a handful of students refusing to accept the redefinition of higher education as a private good became a movement that numbered in the hundreds of thousands and ultimately bested Quebec’s political establishment.

Bédard-Wien radiates quiet intensity through his spectacles as he recounts the experience of the student strike. When asked whether the success of the Quebec students could be repeated in the United States, where there are no compulsory student unions and most people have long since resigned themselves to accept the skyrocketing cost of higher education, Bédard-Wien says he’s “very encouraged. Things are shitty right now, but from that springs struggle.”

And indeed, while Montreal was engulfed by massive demonstrations, Philadelphia was experiencing a student movement of its own, led in no small part by the YDS chapter at Temple University.

Beth Cozzolino, newly elected co-chair of the national YDS organization and former president of the Temple chapter, was among those who helped organize student walkouts and other demonstrations to put pressure on the administration to freeze tuition, even as Republican Governor Tom Corbett was engaged in an aggressive slash-and-burn campaign against Pennsylvania’s education budget.

Cozzolino describes how certain allies, including Temple’s student body president, were ambivalent about the aggressive protest tactics, instead preferring to remain in the administration’s good graces—which struck me as a great strategy for networking towards a future career in academia, but not so much for effecting real world policy change.

Not surprisingly, the Temple Board Of Trustees took full credit for the tuition freeze—which is only applicable to the 2012-2013 school year—and traditional media coverage of the story supports their characterization. If it wasn’t for Cozzolino’s obvious familiarity with the issue, along with the existence of YouTube videos documenting the protests, discovering the underlying truth to the story would have been near impossible.

Acknowledging the challenge of breaking through the traditional media filter, Cozzolino says, “I’m generally a bit of a pessimist on the feasibility of the Left getting the coverage it needs from mainstream media outlets… Alternative methods of media coverage provide a greater hope for covering what’s really happening in social movements.”

Cozzolino, currently pursuing her PhD in sociology at the University Of Texas At Austin, acknowledges that the tuition freeze victory was temporary. There is nothing to stop the Board Of Trustees from raising tuition next year, short of another successful protest movement, which may prove to be a tall order as the energy of the Occupy movement—at its peak in the fall of 2011—continues to dissipate.

But it was a victory, nonetheless. It did make a real world difference to the students attending Temple University who would have seen their tuition go up. And, in the eyes of Cozzolino and the rest of the Democratic Socialists I met at the conference, that makes the effort worthwhile.

Democratic socialism, as a movement, seems primarily concerned with real world results over symbolic victories, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of that stemmed from the influence of Occupy, which, according to Cozzolino, “functioned as a catalyst for many activists who went on to become active with YDS/DSA.”

Nearly every attendee I talked to had been involved with Occupy to some extent, but despite their deep affection for the movement, it quickly became clear that the they were not particularly interested in looking backward. Indeed, the first panel discussion of the conference—featuring socialist luminary Frances Fox Piven—was titled “What Happened To Occupy?: The Future Of The Left And Democratic Socialism.”

The only other time Occupy appeared on the conference schedule was as the subject of a workshop seeking to determine whether the movement had actually made a difference (it had). The rest of the weekend was packed with workshops offering practical organizing technique and Democratic Socialist theory, caucus meetings among the various identity groups within YDS (people of color, LGBTQ, etc), and more panel discussions focused on issues such as workers’ rights and the corruption of the education “reform” movement, which involves private corporations using the legalization of charter schools to loot the American public school system.

After the close of the second day of the conference, I sat in Wi-Pie, a pizza joint across the street from the convention, considering whether to attend the after-party being held nearby. While I did feel some type of journalistic obligation to see exactly how Democratic Socialists get down, I was still hung up on my trauma survivor analogy and wanted to give the YDS kids time to relax and enjoy each others’ company without having to answer my incessant questions. I started to gather my things and head to my own social obligations, when several of the attendees walked into Wi-Pie, looking to grab a quick slice before the party.

Spencer Resnick, the most vocal of the group, good-naturedly tolerates my interruption to their meal, gamely fielding questions about his political self-identification and motivation for attending the conference, but it’s when he starts talking about his work with City Life—an organization dedicated to anti-foreclosure efforts—that I begin to discard the trauma survivor analogy in favor of a new construction.

City Life, which practices what Resnick refers to as “radical organizing,” provides “a model of having a sword and a shield, the shield being legal defense, and the sword being aggressive public action. By using the legal system where we can and using more militant tactics where we need to, you can leverage the banks in a way that forces them to give people their homes back.”

Perhaps it’s the focus on providing tangible help to people in need, or maybe it’s the sword and shield imagery, but Resnick’s comments begin to form an image in my mind of the young activists as analogous to evangelical Christians seeking to spread their beliefs through missionary work.

As if to support that idea, Resnick continues, “It really is transformative. It really is about changing consciousness.”

Of course, the transformation Resnick refers to involves changing “the contours of society” by increasing people’s awareness of the political and economic forces that led to their situation and creating a sense of collective struggle from that awareness—as opposed to widespread acceptance of a particular spiritual orthodoxy—but the parallel seems otherwise sound, especially when I think back to something that happened earlier in the day.

It was the lunch session between workshop blocks, and Bryan Harris, attending the conference from Bard College, had pulled out a well-worn acoustic guitar. As he strummed and started singing “Solidarity Forever,” a traditional labor union folk song, the other attendees chimed in, some enthusiastically, some less so, but even they sung the words while sheepishly grinning and slightly rolling their eyes.

Replace “Solidarity Forever” with a spiritual hymn and the scene could have replayed itself at any number of Christian youth rallies across the nation. In fact, growing up in North Carolina—a place I like to call the buckle of the Bible Belt—I had personally witnessed such scenes on numerous occasions.

Satisfied with my new analogy, and feeling like I was starting to understand what Democratic socialism was all about, I bid farewell to Resnick and his friends, and headed out into the dark February chill.

The next morning, as the final day of the conference began, the attendees sipped coffee and munched on bagels, eagerly anticipating the arrival of one Dr. Cornel West, the closest thing the Democratic Socialist Movement has to a rock star.

Known in popular culture for his Matrix cameos and frequent appearances on shows like HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, West has been involved in the struggle for human rights and justice since the late ‘60s. He marched in the civil rights movement, and got himself arrested protesting South African apartheid while a professor at Yale Divinity School in the ‘80s. He witnessed the fall of Jim Crow and the Berlin Wall, as well as the election—and subsequent reelection—of the nation’s first black president (for whom he cuts no slack).

West—who describes himself as “a bluesman in the life of the mind”—speaks to the attendees of love and justice, of the importance of organization to social change, and of perseverance in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition. Ironically, it is the presentation by this deeply religious man that causes me to abandon my evangelical Christian analogy, already on shaky ground due to the YDS attendees’ stubborn refusal to tell people how to think.

As West speaks—his vocal tone displaying the improvisational rhythm of a saxophone player—I get the sense that he is very consciously passing the torch to a new generation. References to death, mortality, and the long bending arc of the human struggle appear frequently during his talk. I imagine the apparitions of those who had already gone ahead—Eugene Debs, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks—waiting in the back of the room like dead Jedi.

I’ll be along soon enough, brothers and sisters. Just a few things to say, first.

During the question and answer session following his talk, Wendi Barrett, out of Penn State, asks West “when it became okay” for the elites of society to engage in the type of exploitation, corruption, and greed exemplified by Wall Street. West pauses to reflect before answering, perhaps rifling through his extensive mental codex of the history of injustice, and smiles at Barrett.

He offers her a few choice pieces of history—including an impressively concise introduction to the term “robber baron”—along with an encouragement to continue seeking knowledge, before taking a question from Daniel Turner, the sole attendee from the deep South.

Turner, who attends the University Of Alabama At Tuscaloosa, asks West for advice on being a progressive in a state where there are “a few Klan outposts but no DSA chapters.” Referencing the “strong but thin” progressive tradition in the South, West advises Turner to seek out a few like-minded people to form a support structure against the imposing cultural inertia.

West exhorts the assembled young activists to “be marathon runners, not sprinters,” taking a long view of the struggle, and accepting that an ideal society is unlikely to be achieved in the near term. This nearly fatalistic commitment to working towards a more just society no matter the circumstances starts to form the core of my final analogy for the Democratic Socialist Movement.

On the second day of the Battle Of Gettysburg, the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment found itself pinned down and nearly out of ammunition. As the Confederate troops prepared to push forward, Union Army Colonel Joshua Chamberlain gave the order to fix bayonets. Tired, hungry, and half-mad, the Union soldiers—most of them carrying unloaded rifles—charged the rebel position, breaking the Confederate advance. If Chamberlain’s regiment had fallen, the Confederate Army would have easily flanked the Union forces, likely winning the battle and possibly the entire war.

As I walked around Brooklyn after the conference, reflecting on what I had observed, the Democratic Socialists seemed very much like the modern day equivalent to Chamberlain’s regiment. On paper, it would be easy to dismiss them, to assume that the forces opposing them are too strong, too well-entrenched. But while the rest of us look down our cynical noses, these young activists are courageously charging into the breach.

Tomorrow remains forever uncertain, but their efforts may well be the thing that turns the tide in our society’s ongoing war against oppression and corruption.

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