A terrible situation came to a terrible end in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on Friday. It’s a long story, which I’ll elaborate on below, but essentially, a social media mob bullied a longtime talented organizer out of DSA, and some seem proud of their tactics. Observe:
To be clear up front: others who are not Twitter trolls shared their general view and had legitimate points that deserved to be (and were) heard. But it’s my impression that it was specifically the bullying that led to this outcome. And this bodes ill for DSA as an organization and therefore for our cause.
For my part, not speaking up loudly enough against these bullies was my contribution to this sad state of affairs. So it’s time to do so. My imagined audience includes both non-members (whose outside perspective I would value) and anyone from DSA, whatever their perspective, who stumbles across this. My policy of parrhesia—frankness—applies as always, though I would remind commenters that eunoia—good will—is also part of that bargain.
The issue concerns a man who we elected to our National Political Committee (NPC) in early August. The NPC is essentially DSA’s board of directors and consists of 16 members who are elected to a two year term at our biennial conventions. The victor in question is Danny Fetonte, who, as he notes in his campaign statement, has worked for over 30 years as a union organizer. The trouble started when some delegates (including several who had voted for him) learned only after the election that Danny had worked for a time for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), a police union affiliated with his longtime employer, the more progressive Communication Workers of America (CWA). And some people, especially newer members whose racial justice work is based on the Black Lives Matter platform, consider the police an indisputable enemy, so many people started calling for him to resign or be expelled from the NPC.
Some people went even further: as stated in this Left Voice piece, “It is not enough to simply remove Fetonte from leadership; the DSA and other left organizations must make concrete steps to say that cops, or those that work directly on their behalf, cannot be socialists.”
For the record, I enthusiastically support everything in Campaign Zero (including the tenth plank, which addresses serious harms done by police unions) as things to pursue in the near term to end the war on Black people.
And it’s precisely because these goals are so important that I’m worried about that declaration in Left Voice, and the unrepentant Twitter bullies who are policing our movement for them.
The “Right Wing” of the DSA: Enemies Within?
On August 27, the NPC (minus Danny) voted 8.5 to 7.5 that Danny had done nothing wrong and therefore must be seated. Here’s how a leader of Left Twitter reacted:
This is a good time to elaborate on what I personally am doing in DSA and what I hope to gain through it, because I suppose these folks think of people like me as “the right wing of DSA” and a “social democrat,” i.e., not a true socialist. This is nonsense because I expressly think social democracy—i.e., any effort to strengthen the welfare state within a capitalist system—is ultimately doomed to fail for structural reasons and, therefore, that our choice is between socialism and barbarism. That’s why I’m in DSA in the first place.
The fundamental question, then, is how do we get to the point where we can replace capitalism with socialism? It’s clear that there are a lot of things that have to be done right to get there, and that means there are roles for a broad coalition of anti-capitalists with many different views and many different temperaments. That’s why DSA’s famous “big tent” pluralism is a tremendous strength (even if other Left organizations deride us for it). It’s our only hope for figuring out a workable path to socialism.
That’s why I focus my activist work on socialist education. Getting new ideas out there into the mainstream is foundational to this effort. This means that, yes, I spend a lot of my time on the so-called “right wing” of DSA. What I’m doing there is holding out a hand to try to help people step to the Left.
It’s part of shifting the spectrum of allies. The Bernie campaign strongly suggested that there are a lot of passive allies who could become active socialist allies out there, as well as neutral people who could become passive allies. Jonathan Smucker gives a good visual depiction of this in his excellent book Hegemony How-To (which I reviewed for Democratic Left), and in a post on his website, where I found this graphic and which is worth a read:
Meanwhile, I’ve seen it said on Twitter that “the tankies are having a field day laughing at us!” for electing a “cop” (actually a union organizer, not a cop) to the NPC. For those not versed in the jargon, tankies are people who, like DSA, are on the far left of the political X-axis (economics), but who, quite unlike DSA, proudly place themselves far to the authoritarian end of the Y-axis (personal liberty). See also Urban Dictionary. A big tent does still have edges, and authoritarians have always been expressly outside of DSA’s tent.
So I don’t much care what the tankies think of DSA, and it’s not just because I think they’re sorely misguided in important ways. (To be fair, they are good on racial justice. The Communist Party always was. Credit where credit is due. I criticize them more for spending their time trying to charge DSA convention delegates twenty-five cents to read their denunciations of DSA. And for defending North Korea.) But no, it’s not because of those things that I’m not concerned about their criticisms; it’s because I generally don’t see anything to be gained strategically by heeding them. I’m more concerned about what people with a budding awareness the cracks in our capitalist system think, because those people are the group we need to bring on board if we want to achieve meaningful social change. Right now, that means I wonder what they think about this whole situation around Danny Fetonte’s election.
And I can tell you, because several of them have confided in me, that they are scared.
Who Is Danny Fetonte, Anyway?
So on that note, let me introduce some concrete information about Danny. I don’t know him well; I met him at the 2015 convention and again in 2017 when he came around to ask for my vote for NPC and handed me the now-infamous campaign literature that did not say anything about his work organizing police officers. But I’ve heard a fair bit about him, both before and after the scandal, because of all the good work he’s been doing in his now-former home chapter of Austin, Texas. Many in the chapter credit him as the engine of its growth from 15 people to over 150 members even before our membership swelled in late 2016; it’s now at 700, and that’s still thanks in large part to Danny’s efforts.
We’re talking about a guy who has been doing concrete organizing work for years—getting out there and acting on projects to support working class people and marginalized groups of all kinds. Danny played a prominent role in the campaign against SB-4, the Texas law that would have given local law enforcement the ability to ask about a person’s immigration status during routine traffic stops (I heard he was arrested for his role), and he helped organize Texas Muslim Capitol Day. He’s the guy in bright(er) red next to Bernie in the top left photo below, and the one whose hands are zip-tied at a protest against SB-4 in the bottom photo:
I also heard from a member of the organizing committee of the Dallas DSA chapter that Danny drove the three hours from Austin to help them write their by laws. That’s not anyone’s idea of a good time. That’s the unglamorous and even tedious work of organizing, but it needs to be done well.
This all seems pretty commendable to me. Like someone we want to have in DSA!
Regarding the relationship between police unions and DSA, Danny wrote,
Texas DSA has at least a dozen members who organize or work with law enforcement. DSA in Texas has a past NPC member — who while serving on the NPC — organized police and correctional officers. There is no secretive group within DSA who stands with police when there are abuses. Myself and others oppose the organization of the present criminal justice system, oppose the way corrections and law enforcement is organized in America, and think the whole system has to be changed from top to bottom.
Hmmm. It sounds to me like he sincerely thought that it would help the cause of a multiracial working people’s coalition if he organized police officers. There is obviously room to disagree here. The point of this article is not to take a side, but to preserve that space for tactical and even strategic disagreements among people who share the goal of ending our racist and exploitative criminal justice status quo. That, after all, has always been part of DSA’s culture: come in the door and let’s talk about how we get there.
Unfortunately, Left Twitter sees it differently:
Anti-Capitalists of All Stripes, Unite!
So, I don’t actually know of any police officers in DSA, but I for one would welcome all those Black (and even white!) law enforcement officers who stood up for Colin Kaepernick into DSA in a heartbeat, if they wanted to join us. I’d love to talk to any police officers who are sincerely trying to do racial justice work inside the police department where they work. From where they stand, it may look like the most promising path. Others may not agree that it is, and can even say so to constructive effect, but I’m glad for any officer who’s thinking and trying. We need all hands on deck to fight police brutality, and we need it now.
And then there are the others who are terrified that the capitalist dirt they have on their professional hands will be discovered and used to make them the subject of the next Twitter-led purge. They’re asking themselves, will the line be drawn at police union organizers? (That’s already bigger than just police officers, after all.) What about lawyers who have taken on cases about which they had mixed feelings? What about people who work in, say, finance?
Personally, I’d love to welcome finance professionals whose own daily work helps them understand the problems with capitalism—and actually, we have, and our big tent is better for having their experience and knowledge under it. They help us get those who aren’t yet with us but could be to stop and think.
The list could go on. Do we really want to throw all these people out, along with the sincere anti-capitalist energy they have to offer?
It seems that Left Twitter does:
Michael Harrington was the chair of DSA from its founding in 1982 until his death in 1989, which is egregiously left out of this Britannica article that otherwise is a great writeup of his life and legacy. Comrades, it is foolish to try to get rid of people like this. We’re only 30,000 strong, guys. That’s nothing. Getting people in the door to hear what we have to say—that’s still our major challenge. If you are into expelling people, then I have no faith in your ability to build a meaningful movement.
Heeding the Better Angels of Our Nature
Here is a statement by Danny Fetonte after the rest of the NPC voted 8.5 to 7.5 to seat him, because they could not find any basis to remove him for malfeasance, which is what would be required under DSA’s constitution to boot him out. It’s true that it was a defensive statement; that’s exactly what I would expect from a person who’s been blindsided by genuinely unexpected public vitriol and even subjected to doxxing by people inside our movement. [ETA 9/12: To be clear, the info I saw released was a phone number, not SSNs or anything like that, which someone has informed me doesn’t count as real doxxing; moreover, it may have been by someone who is not a DSA member. So evaluate it as you will.]
And Twitter responded to the NPC’s vote by expanding its witch hunt:
We already saw above that this group wants to purge those they mistakenly label “socdems” from DSA. It strikes me that their cohort is mainly people who joined DSA in the wake of the 2016 election on a wave of fury directed at the Democratic Party—a fury I share, by the way. I guess many of them had been trying to work within the DNC, but they weren’t able to take it over, and they’re angry.
So instead they came in and seek to take over DSA, and are congratulating themselves for doing it. But comrades, as I said, WE ARE STILL REALLY TINY. There’s absolutely no cause to congratulate yourselves at this stage. Hillary Clinton and Company aren’t going to suddenly realize how wrong they were just because you came in and bullied Danny Fetonte out of our organization.
Unrepentant Twitter bullies don’t have what it takes to build the a meaningfully large movement. It is okay if we disagree, even vehemently. That is part of the tradition of this organization, too. We can dislike—we may even despise—other people in DSA; we are human beings, after all. We can and should absolutely campaign against concrete actions proposed by other members if we think they are wrongheaded. But don’t let that get in the way of watering every single seed out there that’s beginning to recognize that capitalism has big problems. It makes no sense for us to be spending our energy fighting against the alleged “impure” within our ranks—people who are actively doing real work to organize in support of, say, immigrants facing real and urgent threats—when there are so many real enemies out there.
And recognize that others are looking at you on social media, and they are opting out. If that’s what it takes to be a socialist, then I guess I’m not a socialist, they think. I guess they’d probably find something wrong with me, too.
DSA has always had a culture that welcomes those people in the door, talks to them, listens to them, and gives them a safe space to think and develop politically. If we lose that, then we lose our most important asset.
On that note, I thank you for reading this and welcome any thoughts.
Author’s note, 9/12: I have yet to see anyone who disagrees with me respond to this post by addressing the concerns of people who are not Danny Fetonte but are afraid that they could be subject to the same treatment. This is what most of the positive responses have focused on, so I encourage commenters to focus their attention here. I am reluctant to approve further comments specifically about Danny’s case, as that is now merely the backdrop; I may do so on a case by case basis, if they are considerate and relevant to this larger discussion.