L’affaire Fetonte: How an Austin union organizer’s work with CLEAT created a schism in America’s burgeoning socialist movement

 

Protesters of SB-4 known as the sanctuary cities bill, block the main entrances to the State Insurance Building, May 1, 2017 in Austin, TX. Pictured are, from left, Danny Fetonte, Sophia Donnelly, Ceci Mireles, and Marsha Perkes. JAMES GREGG/AMERICAN-STATESMAN.

Good morning Austin:

I did not realize when I moved from D.C. to Austin in December 2012 that I was moving closer to the center of American politics.

But I was.

Just ask Lawrence Wright, who in July wrote an epic New Yorker piece, America’s Future Is Texas: With right-wing zealots taking over the legislature even as the state’s demographics shift leftward, Texas has become the nation’s bellwether.

Or Roger Stone, who has increasingly turned his attention to Austin as the locus of the new pro-Trump media as manifested by Alex Jones and InfoWars.

Or Danny Fetonte, an Austin union and political organizer who more than any single individual was responsible for the vitality of Bernie Sanders’ campaign in Texas in 2016, and who, in ways I would have found hard to imagine, has become the source and subject of a national schism in a democratic socialist movement that has exploded with members and energy in the aftermath of Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination for president as an avowed socialist.

In early August, at a high-spirited national convention of the Democratic Socialists of America in Chicago, Fetonte was elected to the DSA’s National Policy Committee. Barely a month later, on Sept. 8, Fetonte quit not just the NPC but the DSA altogether, after a vitriolic campaign to remove him from the NPC because of his role as a union organizer  and negotiator working with CLEAT – the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, a police union – and his failure to make that association clear in his campaign materials.

I have met Danny Fetonte and his wife, Barbara, a few times since I’ve been here, mostly connected to their role in igniting the Sanders campaign in Austin even before he was a candidate.

Left to right, Chau Ngo, Daniel Fetonte, Barbara Fetonte, Liliana Mendoza-Pierce, at Sholz Garten

In August 2016, I talked with them as part of a First Reading on the disposition of Sanders supporters after the nominating conventions.

There is an argument among some Sanders supporters that they only need to vote for Clinton in swing states. Elsewhere, they have the luxury of voting for someone else, like Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

“That’s a mistake,” said Daniel Fetonte, a retired labor organizer for the steel workers, the communications workers and CLEAT, the police officers’ union in Texas, who with his wife, Barbara, are the godfather and godmother of the Sanders campaign in Austin.

He said Sanders supporters need to back the ticket, “because of the program we fought for at the Democratic Convention. If  we walk away we won’t be fighting for that program. Also, it’s going to be a wave election so while we might not win the state we’ll pull in a whole lot of state representatives and state senators and that will help protect the state employees union, the teachers’ union.”

“To vote for a purer candidate who might be better on some issues is a serious mistake,” Fetonte said. “We have tremendous standing in the Democratic Party and we should work with the coordinated campaign. That means voting for an imperfect candidate for president.”

He thinks most Sanders supporters will vote for Clinton.

“If you want to vote for perfection, go live on a commune.”

Which I suppose would make you a commune-ist, not a socialist.

You will note that Fetonte’s CLEAT association was hardly a secret. He brought it up and I used it as one of the ways of identifying him. I thought it was noteworthy for a couple of reasons.

First, I figured he must be pretty good at what he does or a police union wouldn’t get involved with someone with such an obvious reputation for left-wing politics. Second, I figured it meant that he viewed his mission as moving toward a worker solidarity that included law enforcement officers and, in that, he too was willing to go outside his political comfort zone.

Even though I know him and a couple of the other people involved, what follows is not based on interviews with anyone. Rather it is a recapitulation of just some of the enormous output of on-line statements and commentary that have poured forth in that month’s time.

It is long, and most readers may want to skim through it if they have any interest at all.

But I thought it was worth laying out here at some length because Austin is smack dab in the middle of it, because it offers a remarkable microcosm of the powerful tug toward sectarianism in a growing movement, and because it displays just how social media can accelerate and intensify the ugliest tendencies of that kind of struggle.

There also may be an important national story here with some bearing on the future course of Democratic Party and left politics.

The lesson of l’affaire Fetonte is that Bernie Sanders unleashed a revived socialist movement that will not long tolerate his mainstream political tendencies.

In a variation on the Groucho Marx line that he would not join any club that would him as a member, Sanders has rebooted a socialist movement that will almost inevitably end up giving him the boot as insufficiently serious/radical in his socialism. Indeed, if he survives in good standing with DSA, it will be because he was literally grandfathered in as a beloved figure who out of sentiment and gratitude should be spared the guillotine.

In other words, if Sanders’ candidacy served to mainstream socialist ideas in unexpected ways, the harder-edged radicalism of DSA will, for better or worse, move socialism outside that mainstream in ways that will make it more difficult for future candidates like Sanders to square the circle.

As outwrangle, a commenter on a Reddit message thread on Fetonte, commented when he resigned:

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. This was the exact kind of internal conflict I was waiting for, because it would be when the DSA shows its true character. Is it is a socialist organization, or a socialist club. Is it a revolutionary party, or the left-wing of the Democratic party? Are they democratic socialists, or just social democrats? I’ve been watching this unfold closely, and when the NPC decided to retain him I was disappointed but not surprised. And yet, the membership defied my expectations and were able to chase him out anyway!

I’ve decided to officially join. The question isn’t resolved and there is still work to be done, but this result has left me optimistic and hopeful about the future of the DSA. Like Fetonte said, this is no longer the organization of Michael Harrington or Bernie Sanders. And that makes me so happy and excited.

Bernie Sanders supporters, at left, Danny Fetonte, Jacob Limon, and at far right, Barbara Fetonte listen to Jim Boynton, center, and Glen Maxey, both Primary Directors at the Texas Democratic Party Headquarters on Friday, December 4, 2015, after turning in collected petition signatures asking for the inclusion of Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on the Texas Democratic primary ballot. Over 12,000 signatures were gathered to get Sanders on the ballot.
DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Here is how Fetonte presented himself in Chicago.

Bio

Democratic Socialism is a goal we have to work at to win.  We have to stand for immigrant rights and against climate change.  We have to work both at the ballot box and with our feet in the streets.  We have to work in the movements of Muslims, Latinos, Blacks, Women, Queer Liberation, Disabled Activism, and Labor Unions.  I was active in High School SNCC and the anti-Vietnam War movement.  In our fight against attacks on immigrant rights in Texas, I was one of five DSA members arrested sitting in at the Governor’s Office.  I worked for 34 years as a union organizer.  I taught organizing at CWA’s week long leadership school for 13 years and have taught 8 DSA organizing schools in Texas.  I taught organizing schools for CWA in Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arizona, Utah, and in nine Texas cities.  The skills and insights I have learned can help build a large broad-based DSA. I was active in building the Bernie Campaign across Texas.  In Texas we put Bernie on the ballot by gathering over 12,000 petition signatures.  37 out of the 75 Bernie delegates to the Democratic National Convention from Texas were DSA members.  We have an active organizing program in Texas, where we sign up members face to face as well as on-line.  In March 2014 we had 17 DSA members in Austin; today we have 704 members in Austin and close to 1,400 members across Texas.

Why I’m Running

I am running to build a broad-based activist organization that works in the streets and at the ballot box to support folks who are standing up for their rights. I am running to bring a deeper understanding to the NPC about the labor movement. I have the most experience in the labor movement of any candidate. I am also running to bring an understanding of the challenges we face in the South having organized throughout the Southeast and Southwest for 37 years. I am running to help understand how working in electoral politics like Bernie Sanders can strengthen our organization.

My Previous Political Work

I have been active in DSA Labor and DSA Disabled organizing. I have actively supported our Chapter’s Queer Coalition and Feminist Action Committee. I have worked with 350.org and the Texas Drought Coalition on the environment. I have worked on Immigrant Rights and was active in standing up for Muslim rights in Texas. I have worked with other groups on Healthcare and our fight for $15/hour. I reached out to many of the groups in the Bernie campaign bringing them into a group we founded Texans for Bernie.

My Vision for DSA

My vision is to do activism education and organizing. I have a strong history in this. You can learn more about my vision by talking to the folks that have endorsed me and shared my vision. The following are the folks from around the country that have endorsed me and shared my vision:

But the #yalldarity didn’t last forever, or even a few days, and on Sept. 8, Fetonte left DSA in disgust.

As Fetonte wrote in resigning:

Over the last three years Austin DSA has outpaced DSA groups across the country. All groups gained members due to Bernie/Trump but Austin DSA outgrew all these groups because we were supportive of fights for social justice in Austin. We asked folks to join and we supported other groups’ progressive actions. We spent a minimum amount of time on our bureaucracy and a maximum number effort on involving folks in activism.

We spent little time grabbing the limelight and a lot of time building the progressive movement as we grew locally and nationally. Other organizations and individual opportunists watched as we grew. Many extremist groups sent folks into DSA to recruit and spread their ideas. They built divisions and spread lies in our ranks. They looked for folks to turn to easy solutions. Real organizing builds organization.

At the national, DSA extremists with less than one year in DSA dominate the leadership. Many of the long-time leaders have been intimidated. The extremists and factionalists have been calling and emailing Austin to pick up supporters for their factions; secretly taping meetings and posting edited versions online. The lack of ethics and simply not knowing right from wrong dominate at the national level and has now crept into Austin.

The opportunists and extremists could not allow democratic socialists to build a movement. Many of these folks do not consider themselves democratic socialists.

I can no longer urge Austin DSA members to stay in DSA and I can no longer ask folks to join DSA. DSA has many good folks, but it is no longer the organization of Eugene Debs, Michael Harrington, or Bernie Sanders.

 Many of the new leadership do not think Bernie is a real socialist. In the last weeks rocks have been overturned and snakes have wiggled out. I urge everyone to take a look at what DSA is becoming nationally and what some want DSA to turn into locally. Each Austin member should decide for themselves how to relate to DSA. I have decided to leave DSA.

— Danny Fetonte

(Note, Fetonte in the foreground of the photo.)

From David Wiegel:

DSA, founded in 1982 to create a political foothold for Marxists, has transformed into an ambitious left-wing force. Membership grew during Sanders’s presidential campaign, and then started surging the day after Donald Trump was elected president in what some DSA members jokingly call the “socialist baby boom.”

The DSA went from 8,000 members in 2015, the year its delegates endorsed Sanders for president, to about 25,000 in 2017, with chapters or branches in 49 states. Its platform calls for a worker-owned economy and the end of traditional capitalism.

xxxxxxx

The average age of DSA members has since 2015 dropped from 64 to about 30, according to an organizer. A May 2016 Gallup poll, conducted after most of the Democratic primaries, found just that 35 percent of Americans viewed socialism favorably. Among voters under 30, that number rose to 55 percent.

I’m with Itch on this. I can’t take comrade seriously, not since 1939 when Ninotchka came out, and the character, played by Greta Garbo, comes to check on some undependable comrades who have fallen under the spell of Paris.

“The last mass trials were a great success,” reports Ninotchka.”There will be fewer but better Russians.”

Almost as soon as he was elected, Fetonte was engulfed in controversy.

Here from Knock in Los Angeles, is a report from Steve Ducey, one of 34 delegates to the Chicago DSA Convention, about the convention and its aftermath:

But despite all the enthusiasm the convention left us with, the DSA is already faced with it’s first big post convention challenge, one that started brewing before we even checked our bags and that if not handled properly could threaten the newfound vitality of our movement.

On the final day of the convention, the results of our National Political Committee election were announced. There were two competing slates of organizers that had much of DSA’s attention: were you Team Momentum or Team Praxis? EVERYONE wanted to know and DSA-LA alone fielded several calls from both groups ahead of the convention, seeking feedback and hoping for our support. With so much vying for our attention, individual candidates running apart from the ballyhooed slates flew under the radar. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t doing their part to win over delegates for a seat on our national leadership.

One such candidate was Danny Fetonte, co-chair of Austin DSA. His literature was all over the convention floor and I was personally approached by two different people asking me to consider Fetonte for NPC. One in particular spoke highly of his dedication to their chapter, its growth, and that they couldn’t imagine where they would be if not for his leadership. His bonafides looked legit to me: years of union organizing and a recent arrest for protesting the racist Texas Senate Bill 4. With his stated commitment to local autonomy, I pencilled him in as one of my votes for NPC.

I showed my ballot to fellow comrade from LA.

“Don’t vote for him. He’s a cop”.

Turns out, comrade Danny’s claim to have “organized state workers in Texas” left out a crucial bit of information: some of those state workers were police officers during his time organizing with CLEAT.

I quickly changed my ballot.

Nevertheless, Fetonte was elected to one of the 16 seats thanks to an organized vote whipping effort. Many who supported him are furious that his work with police unions was not disclosed prior to the election and there are now numerous calls for Fetonte to step down, including statements from the DSA Veterans Working Group, the brand new Libertarian Socialist Caucus, the Queer Socialists Working Group, Greater Baltimore DSA Executive Committee, DSA Boston’s Police Abolition Working Group, DSA-LA’s steering committee and others.

How Fetonte and our newly elected NPC and Steering Committee handle this situation will be every bit as important as the convention itself. One misstep and all the solidarity we’ve built could be in jeopardy. We’ve worked too hard to build this movement to see it derailed just as it is gaining steam.

A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper cuts the zip-tie off of Ann Glenn (second from right) after she, Danny Fetonte (right), and other protesters were released following their arrest for refusing to leave the lobby of the State Insurance Building where they had staged an all-day sit-in to protest Senate Bill 4 on May 1, 2017. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Fetonte fought back.

The Fetontes at the Austin DSA August 2017 meeting at Scholz Garten.

From Medium, here is Fetonte’s Aug. 17 reply: The NPC Steering Committee Shows no Moral Courage:

After being attacked with wide distortions, half-truths, and made up web information, the [Democratic Socialists of America] Steering Committee attacked me. The committee attacked my supposed work history and then they reinforced the lie that I mislead delegates.

The Internet does not know my work history or my views. There was zero deception. All of my work is well known. Labor union members in many of the chapters know everything about me. One local president who claimed they knew nothing about my work with CLEAT had dinner with me and one of my sons. My son remembered the dinner and the extensive conversation we had about CLEAT. People can forget things. But my activities are widely known and the people who know me the best support me the strongest.

 My relations with CLEAT started with me being asked by CWA to negotiate an affiliation agreement for CLEAT to become CWA Local 6911/CLEAT. My assignment with CWA at the time was Area Director for Organizing with District 6. The National Executive Board of CWA asked me to take on as one of my many tasks to be the liaison between the police locals in CWA across the U.S. and the CWA National Executive Board. I was liaison for two years. As the liaison most of my time was spent organizing wireless workers and directing public sector organizing in three states. A law enforcement CWA member was then promoted to be the Director of Public Safety for CWA. I continued to deal with issues that arose with the police sector in my own district.

I helped get anti-union cops removed from a picket line and replaced with pro-union police. I got three young people released from charges in a rough county. I got a Labor Notes activist free from a Mexican jail with the help of CLEAT. I helped a CLEAT local in one city win their contract by getting three other unions to threaten to relocate their conventions. These activities I did while still directing organizing throughout District 6. During this period, I recruited 15 salts to go into a 1,000-person AT&T wireless call center, where we built an underground union organization. After 5 years, the call center became union.

My activities in solving problems never changed my opposition to white supremacy or homophobia. I supported the proposal abolishing prisons and police at the convention. Both systems are thoroughly broken and we have to take a new approach to working out those problems in society. I was well-known as a radical and socialist during all my years as a union organizer.

I was first promoted to national staff of CWA in 1986. I became the Director of the State Workers campaign in Texas. Correctional officers were one of the many groups we as TSEU organized. We had 18 organizers reporting to me on the work with mental health workers, social workers, highway department workers, unemployment workers, as well as correction officers. I took on an issue of AIDS in the prisons, where neo-Nazis were asking for inmates with AIDS to be tattooed with an X on their foreheads. I put together a training by an AIDS counselor for our staff and executive board. The 30 activists who went through the training learned about AIDS, ARC, and HIV and how to deal with it in the workplace. I was accused of organizing trainings on how to become a homosexual. I went to a 300-person meeting in Huntsville Texas organized by neo-Nazis where one was shouting “barbecue fat boy Fetonte.” I left the meeting with 150 correctional officers who stood with our union in opposition to the Nazis.

I retired in 2008 from CWA and volunteered for the Obama campaign. I was known to have contacts in labor and law enforcement and was asked to solve a problem. There was a dispute between the Obama campaign and a large police group that I helped get resolved. It was common knowledge among the labor movement and activists about my background. After the Obama campaign I was asked by a friend — who had just become Executive Director of CLEAT — to help him. I told him I was a socialist and had a long arrest record. He said CLEAT knew about my politics, views, and arrest record but that he needed my help.

I worked directly for CLEAT training law enforcement officers into becoming organizers. One of my assignments was to help an Association that was almost all-white organize people of color, woman, and LGBT officers into the Association and into the leadership of the Association. I helped organize a law enforcement officers for immigrant rights contingent in the Saint Guadalupe march. We marched for six miles through Brownsville Texas. I worked on a collective bargaining campaign for a large EMS group. We did a petition drive and the EMS workers won a good contract. I also worked on a collective bargaining campaign in Cameron County Texas where we got to an election. The voters turned down the Sheriff’s Department having the right to collectively bargain. I worked extensively on this campaign including involving other unions in the Rio Grande Valley on this campaign.

Everything I put out at the convention about myself was true and well known. Of the 41 candidates of the NPC, I was one of the few that actually talked about my own work history. I have asked the present NPC to write up their work history. It is unfortunate that a number of the working groups and even chapters made statements without ever talking to me. I have offered to talk to any chapter to talk about this situation. My initial reaction was not to respond to the vicious attacks which I thought were coming from a few uninformed DSA members. I was then encouraged by both staff and NPC members to continue to encourage my supporters and myself to not engage on social media. The NPC statement was never shared with me prior to its release. I found out about the statement when I was meeting with a local DSA group to answer their concerns.

What is even worse though is that much of what I write is known by the leadership of DSA and they still wrote that outrageous statement. We are in serious trouble if the NPC is led by folks who have so little backbone in standing up for what is right. I have requested a full weekend hearing to examine all aspects of this conflict including activities by some to encourage this Internet hysteria. I hope the politics does not prevent due process. Due process is more than a slogan if we actually stand for it. I am not resigning no matter how vicious the attacks are. I will stand up to any attacks by National DSA to infringe on our Austin’s local autonomy.

Please forward this to as many DSA members as possible, post on social media and encourage them to let their views be known. I will be glad to accept retractions from any group in DSA that regrets their misinformed statements.

— Danny Fetonte

 

On Aug. 28, the NPC issued a statement on its vote the previous night to censure, but not remove Fetonte from their ranks:

On Sunday evening, the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America voted to censure Danny Fetonte, a member of the NPC, for uncomradely and misleading behaviour inconsistent with what is expected of a leader of our movement. In addition, the NPC voted against removing Fetonte from the NPC by a vote of 8.5 against his removal to 7.5 votes for his removal (the half vote result from the YDSA co-chairs splitting their one vote). This fell short of the 11 votes needed to remove Fetonte from the NPC.

These decisions follow a robust discussion on the appropriate response to Fetonte’s omittance of important information during the most recent national elections. In reaching this decision, NPC gratefully accepted comments from numerous DSA Chapters and Working Groups and sought an amicable resolution by engaging in mediation with Fetonte, which broke down this weekend.

Background

Many local chapters, working groups, and individuals have written emails and submitted resolutions demanding Fetonte’s removal from the NPC due to his omittance of his past employment history during the recent NPC election. While Fetonte is not, and never has been, a police officer, these members have raised concerns that his prior work as a trainer on union matters for an association which organizes police officers is incompatible with our organization’s commitment to the abolition of prisons and the racist police state, as affirmed by the vote on the consent agenda at convention. Additionally, many members expressed concern over the impact that Fetonte’s membership on the NPC has had on our racial justice organizing work, especially in the aftermath of the horrible events in Charlottesville.

At the same time, other members have expressed concerns that Fetonte’s removal from the NPC would set a terrible precedent for due process and minority rights in a “Big Tent” political organization seeking to build a mass movement. They have additionally cited mitigating factors, such as the several years of Fetonte’s employment by CLEAT, the complicated nature of police union affiliations with large unions, his long history of support for the rights of immigrants and LGBTQI people, and his well demonstrated commitment to principles of equality and anti-racism in keeping with the finest traditions of our movement.

There’s more to read there if you want the whereases.

On Aug. 31, Fetonte issued another response, which reads in part:

The battle for democracy within DSA has been seriously undermined by the last three weeks actions of by the National Political Committee (NPC) in refusing the duly elected Danny Fetonte from being seated and participating in the NPC. The NPC is also the Board of the non-profit that DSA is. Not putting me on the NPC Listserv, excluding me from participating in NPC meetings, calls, and excluding me from steering committee calls which were open to all NPC members except Danny Fetonte were all unauthorized actions.

These actions by the NPC were illegal and unethical. The meeting that was held where I was censured was a good example of not having charges brought, not allowing the person charged to defend himself in any way, and excluding me from the vote.

This is not due process.

Some NPC members have claimed I was excluded due to a past practice of when the NPC talked about an NPC member on a controversial issue they were excluded. There was no precedent, this has never happened, and the NPC uses this argument to attempt to avoid responsibility in excluding a duly elected NPC member and Board member of the non-profit organization.

This is a made-up excuse.

The slander that was encouraged by the NPC itself is inexcusable. It will take a long time for DSA to say it is a democratic organization and to restore its credential as an organization that functions democratically.

If DSA is going to lead a broad-based movement for social and economic justice and build a movement of millions of working people this ignoring of internal democracy will be a serious obstacle to the functioning of DSA.

xxxxxxx

Internet bravery will not change this country. It will take people talking to Americans of all walks of life. Most Americans have had to deal with the real pain of capitalism affecting all parts of their lives. The reason Bernie Sanders did so well is that he spoke directly to American people who are being abused and crushed under capitalism and the very real transferring of wealth in our society to a very small class of thieves.

Dogmatists within our ranks would get in the way when law enforcement unions stand up for justice and provide resources in that fight for justice. 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.

CLEAT has taken actions I do not support. CLEAT has taken two actions in Texas I do support. In Texas in the fight against demolishing labor unions, the AFL-CIO this year gave an award to CLEAT for being a valuable ally to Texas labor unions. It lobbied hard in the Legislature and in House districts against the attempt to eliminate payroll deduction for NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and CWA unions. CLEAT’s local organizations were not being attacked but they chose to fight alongside the rest of labor. Another key issue in Texas this year was our fight against SB4, which is a bill that attacks immigrant rights and puts every citizen in Texas with brown skin in danger. CLEAT as an organization lobbied, testified, and worked hard throughout Texas in representatives’ home districts and at the capital to oppose SB4. Sheriffs from Dallas and Austin stood up against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and almost every major police chief and sheriff testified and worked against this attack on the immigrant community.

The extreme position of avoiding working with any Democrats until we have the ability to elect socialists would say to the disabled rights movement that it is okay for you to be denied real assistance because “we have to be pure” and can only work for “socialist” candidates and we should not try to move moderate legislators and progressive Democrats to work in favor of the rights of the disabled. The position of only working for socialists might work in Berkley and Brooklyn but in most of the country we have to work with Democrats in order to stand up for justice.

What is amazing about DSA is the large number of Internet bullies and Internet “know it alls” we have attracted. The Internet bullies who act tough behind a keyboard but have never been hit by a billy club, never been in a street fight, never fought scabs on a picket line, and never been arrested; know how to threaten a person’s family anonymously but are scared to let their neighbors know they are socialists.

These Internet bullies only know how to fight in a computer game.

The “Internet know it alls” like to make profound statements in perfect English. The “know it alls” have accumulated their knowledge from text books and Internet essays. The “know it alls” have hardly lived, spending their life on campuses and in coffee shops with laptops, iPhones, and tablets.

But, the Internet know-it-alls, as Fetonte would have it, dominated the public discourse about him and what his fate ought to be.

By Emmet Penney writing at Paste:

I flew from Santa Fe to Chicago at the beginning of August. The largest socialist organization in America, the Democratic Socialists of America, was having its bi-annual national convention. My chapter, the Santa Fe DSA, had nominated chapter co-chair Cathy Garcia and me (co-chair of Membership Outreach) as delegates. Our chapter hasn’t even been around an entire year, which is not uncommon. DSA has grown from a 6,000 person organization to a 26,000+ person organization in the last year, and I’m part of the groundswell. This convention was going to be a watershed moment for the organization. On the flight north, I did a lot of staring out the window at the plane wing feeling excited and overwhelmed. I also panicked about how much work I was missing.

I didn’t have time for these fears when I arrived. There was too much to do. I worked registration for the first two days. It was hectic enough to keep my mind occupied. And then there were all the resolutions we were going to vote on that I needed to re-read. And workshops. And informal Gatherings. And voting on the organization’s National Political Committee (NPC), which manages and directs the organization. Platforms for different slates, or groups of candidates running for NPC on the same ideological convictions, had been released during few weeks leading up to the convention. I had to catch up on all of those, too. There’s not a lot of time to prepare for all this if you work full-time like I do.

And then there were individual candidates. Some of whom I’d heard about only on the day of voting. One of those was a man named Danny Fetonte, an Austin, TX organizer with a remarkable background. He’d organized tons of different workers’ unions. His support of LGBT and immigrant rights was impressive. And our Austin friends, with whom Cathy and I sat, couldn’t say enough about him. Many were in the DSA because he’d brought them in—Austin is our mentor chapter. They’ve helped us shape Santa Fe’s chapter into what it is today. Cathy and I were excited to vote for a member of their chapter with solid leadership skills and a great record.

By the time I’d gotten back through the security line at O’Hare, Fetonte had been elected to the NPC. This time, I was flying to Berkeley to do some work for an environmental non-profit. It felt like a whirlwind, but here I was doing everything I wanted to be doing…even if I was broke. And I was proud of everything we’d done at the national convention. What made me happiest was that we’d voted to make prison abolition an explicit part of the DSA’s aims. By a huge margin, too.

But then a strange thing happened.

In Fetonte’s campaign literature, “state workers” featured in the litany of groups he’d organized. I figured this meant teachers, or something. But what it actually meant was CLEAT, or Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. So: cops. He helped organize a big cop union. To me, cops aren’t members of the working class. They’re the bulldogs of the rich. They’re white supremacy’s first line of domestic defense. Maybe you disagree. Fine. But had I known about Danny’s involvement, I wouldn’t have voted for him. Neither would a lot of other delegates. In response, working groups and chapters wrote official statements calling for his resignation (majority). Some wrote statement defending him (minority). The controversy was big, but containable. We needed to ask him to resign and we needed to develop better and clearer rules around campaigning and disclosure in NPC races. This fire would put itself out. I had faith that Danny would take one for the team: he’d step down and run again next time.

But he wouldn’t step down. As people dogpiled on Austin (most of their membership claims they didn’t know either) with the petty, stupid acrimony the Internet inspires, he laid low. Eventually, he released a statement. In the new mode of stubborn politicians incapable of strategic thinking, Fetonte became a self-own machine. His statement can be be summed up like this, “I did nothing wrong and will be accepting apologies in my office between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Leave a message at the beep.”

Then he chaired the Austin chapter’s meeting about his situation and handpicked friends during the Q & A. One of them just screamed at everyone and called them traitors for not loving Danny enough. Another—his wife—let slip that Danny had indeed named CLEAT in his record when he ran for NPC and lost in 2015 (this is back when the delegate pool was in the low hundreds, if even). Any opposition to Danny at that meeting was suppressed. In an instant, he’d proven himself a petulant, anti-democratic leader who, it seems, willfully withheld information from an electorate of newbies because they hadn’t heard of him.

Just before that infamous meeting, the NPC had tapped a member of Santa Fe’s chapter to help mediate between Danny and the NPC because of our chapter’s relationship with Austin and because of this member’s experience mediating for a major union. Fetonte swatted away the olive branch. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve never seen someone so ardent about fucking himself over.

All the while, more details on CLEAT and Danny’s work with cops kept pouring out. (For the sake of time, I’m going to keep this CLEAT-specific. It’s damning enough on its own, but there’s more out there if you’re curious.) After Charlottesville, and Heather Heyer’s murder by a Nazi motorist, we discovered CLEAT is pushing to make it nearly impossible to prosecute someone for such a crime. CLEAT has also come out against the Sandra Bland Act, named for the woman who was found hanged in a Waller County, TX jail cell three days after she was arrested at a traffic stop, which aims to curb racial profiling. And, while Fetonte was working with CLEAT, a cop raped a handcuffed woman in the back of a cop car. The officer’s CLEAT local blew $1 million to protect him and succeeded. This is disgraceful and disgusting. Could work for such an organization be so hard to completely disavow? For him, yes.

Finally, after some dawdling, the NPC voted to keep him. This isn’t surprising for three reasons: First, the DSA’s origins aren’t as far left as many believe. To be crude, Michael Harrington founded the organization in the 1970s to force the Democrats further left. Look at the Democratic Party. Teddy Roosevelt on horseback in the Spanish-American War is farther to the left than the Democratic Party. And having police collaborators on the NPC wouldn’t be a first for the DSA. Second, this broke more or less on racial lines. White people in America are generally more comfortable with law enforcement, it turns out—even in an allegedly socialist organization. (For the record, a collection of PoC members did release a thoughtful statement in support of the NPC majority’s decision which I encourage everyone invested to read).

And finally, the NPC majority’s rationale is symptomatic of a larger trend in America: institutional strictness vs. democratic common sense. I’m sympathetic to the NPC’s wariness about turning the DSA into another hardline leftist organization with people getting booted for ideological differences every other day. Removing Fetonte from the NPC could be seen as a step in that direction. Especially because none of what he did qualified as “malfeasance,” per our constitution.

But constitutionality and democracy aren’t synonymous.

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 Austin, as a chapter, has been compromised. Internally, Danny has created a sectarian, anti-democratic culture within the chapter. Externally, they’re going to have a hard time forming meaningful coalitions. Defend Our Hoodz, an Austin area organization of working class people of color dedicated to saving their neighborhoods from gentrification and racial injustice, released a pointed statement last week. They refuse to work with Austin until they remove Danny from the organization. They don’t trust cops or the people who help them. Who can blame them? The danger is that this spreads. Local activity and solidarity could be hampered nation-wide. We don’t have time for that. We need each other.

And that’s the real problem. The DSA has swollen in size. It is no longer the same organization it was last year. Filling its ranks are younger people with a different experience of America than their older counterparts. We don’t remember the post-war boom or the promise of the American dream. We remember the fallacious brutality of our war in Iraq, Katrina, the 2008 financial crisis, and the crackdown on Occupy. And more importantly for Fetonte and his supporters, we remember Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Garner, and all those who’ve been murdered by cops without redress. And we remember watching cops decked out in military hardware roll down the streets of Ferguson after Michael Brown’s murder.

We’ve never seen the mythic neighborhood cop who works a beat and knows the community.

Here is the  25 Aug 2017 statement from Defend our Hoodz-Defiende El Barrio in Austin: Cop Organizers Don’t Belong in Our Spaces – A Statement on Austin DSA

As many organizers across the US have done, members of Defend Our Hoodz – Defiende El Barrio – Austin have followed the situation that occurred at the National Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention, in which Austin DSA co-chair, Danny Fetonte, was elected to the National Political Committee (NPC).

We completely agree with critics, including countless DSA members, who recognize that Fetonte’s role organizing with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), his omission of this organizing in his candidacy, and his inability to denounce it, and in fact justify it, is incompatible with a position that the capitalist police force as we know it should be abolished. Fetonte was a part of CLEAT as recently as 2014. He has stated proudly that he “worked directly for CLEAT training law enforcement officers into becoming organizers.”

Defend Our Hoodz upholds a principle against working with the police or police collaborators in any capacity, and Fetonte’s history and actions inherently means Austin DSA is unwelcome in our organizing. Truthfully though, we likely wouldn’t have formally commented on this issue, but DSA’s other co-chair attended a Defend Our Hoodz meeting in the past month prior to the national convention. While they said they attended our meeting as an individual, we cannot overlook their leadership role and more importantly, their defense of Fetonte’s record and actions in the wake of what has happened.

It’s apparent that Austin DSA has doubled-down on their support and brushed off critics who have called for Fetonte’s removal from the NPC and involvement at the local level. They allowed Fetonte to facilitate the discussion about himself in their most recent meeting, and as an organization, back Fetonte’s pride in his ‘organizing’ work, which involved such things as organizing, “a law enforcement officers for immigrant rights contingent”, an offensive concept when SB4 is turning all police into ICE agents by Sep. 1st.

Many of those excusing Fetonte try to claim that ‘he’s done good work’, while separating him from his pig union work. This is liberalism and opportunism in action. It’s worth noting that an older white man is being praised for supposed progressive organizing while his work with police unions is rationalized or downplayed. More absurdly, Danny and Austin DSA have tried to spin his work with the unions as progressive, rather than disown it entirely. As our group is led by and primarily organizing people of oppressed nations, we consider this a pattern of white chauvinism, especially when he wants credit for things like trying to train officers to not be racist.

For these reasons, Austin DSA leadership will not be welcome at any Defend Our Hoodz meetings or events. We encourage those members who are upset with the local DSA’s actions to to publicly take a stand against the Austin chapter’s support for Danny Fetonte and break from the organization as long as Fetonte is involved, forming another chapter if they choose to do so.

We call on Austin DSA to remove Danny Fetonte from its organization, make clear statements against police apologism, and state clearly that the police are not part of the working-class, but its most violent oppressors. We encourage all of those that seek the abolition of the capitalist police force to organize with groups that truly organize against the police, and not just when it’s convenient or trendy to say so.

– Defend Our Hoodz – Defiende El Barrio – Austin

But then, in a very different vein, there is this Sept. 10 post from a Counternarration, a blog by a democratic socialist living in D.C. (but originally from Detroit), under the headline, Unrepentant Twitter Bullies.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

The last word goes to Austin DSA Chair Châu Ngô and the statement she released on Fetonte’s leaving DSA:

 

This is a chaotic time for our membership not only here in Austin, but around the state and the nation. And as painful as it is, we have to directly confront the reality we find ourselves in and the continuing aftermath of the struggles and controversies of the last month.

Danny Fetonte is an extraordinarily talented organizer and a dear friend to many of us. He has helped Austin DSA grow fifty-fold in three years and played a crucial role in the Bernie campaign in Texas. At the same time he has been at the center of a very painful fight within DSA. We cannot accept harassment and threats nor can we accept bad faith arguments or personal attacks of any kind, including from those members tasked with leadership. Danny’s choice to leave the organization is a shocking and sad end to a long and terrible episode for all of us. Danny’s contribution to the socialist movement and DSA is longstanding and considerable. A far happier conclusion would be Danny’s continued participation in Austin DSA’s many projects including fair housing, hurricane relief and the protection of our black, brown, queer, undocumented and immigrant family. However, we respect his choice. I am confident that he will continue the fight for social and economic justice, albeit outside of Austin DSA. 

The truth is, as terrible as things have been, we will be okay, because we have to be. It’s awful that this has been some members’ introduction to the trials of being part of a socialist movement. The silver lining is that in a red state like Texas, growing strong through adversity is necessary to survive in a state that has historically been hostile to the aims of socialism.

Châu Ngô closing the Bernie Sanders office in Austin last year.

As our movement grows, so does our organization, not just in numbers but in the type of immeasurable strength that can only be felt when you see DSA folks in action, like our Houston siblings busting their butts (still!) because of Hurricane Harvey or our siblings in Charlottesville literally putting their bodies and lives on the line standing up to the Fascists. There is power there in our dogged determination.

Effectively navigating these waters in the coming years will take a lot out of us. But we know that fighting a multi-headed system that continues to rip apart our communities and maintains the genocide and oppression this country was built on is an enormous task. We do not shy away from the fight. The only way forward is together.

We will trip up along the way. We will make mistakes and be forced to reevaluate who we are and why we fight; our tactics may shift, but no matter what we do not stop and we will not stop. No matter the organizations you are in, groups you are with, and coalitions you work with, those change and morph just like the people within and that includes DSA as well. But as long as we have our eyes on the horizon, we will collectively get there no matter what card we may literally be carrying in our pockets. That was a roundabout way of saying our labels don’t define us. And yet those labels can help guide us. What’s important is the work, why we do it and if we are willing to grow.

Think about the things we need to destroy, to reform, to build, to create, to nurture. There is no one silver bullet. No one person will solve all the issues. We love each other and must respect each other as individuals. At the same time, we must be an organization of group solidarity rather than a group of factions coalescing around individuals. An injury to one is an injury to all. We must stick up together, protect those in need, take up the banner when others can’t and give back to those we’ve taken from as well as take back what is ours. That is how we will forge ahead.

We have been forced to engage with one of the most important issues of our time- the racist violence of the police state, and what relationship if any DSA can have with law enforcement unions, as well as non-law enforcement unions that may include police among their membership.

Unfortunately in the last month many members have violated “call in, not out” culture and our own rules against harassment. Social media is often the worst place to have difficult, vital conversations and encourages and even rewards toxic behavior. Confronting the horrors of the police state is deeply necessary, and this requires confronting the connections our members, chapters and affiliated unions have had with it. However, we cannot skip due process and allow that confrontation, and more importantly, adjudication to occur online.

The consolation though is that this incredibly important conversation has been brought into un-ignorable focus, and going forward we can recommit ourselves daily to having it in the spirit of solidarity and good faith. This will be an ongoing fight, because we are made up of so many different folks from different backgrounds and different experiences of the labor movement but it is a conflict that is starting to be resolved. By having this fight, we have learned so much about ourselves and our roles in society. Some of us had forgotten that the ones we needed to worry most about are the victims and potential victims of policing and the system that it is explicitly protecting. We must do better as an organization and we are learning how.

Today, we are 30,000 strong. But our movement is part of a sea change around the country and the world that is far larger than the DSA alone. We do not live in a vacuum. We must be a place of welcome. Our rose is a symbol of the future we want. The worker must have bread, but they must have roses too. We must never settle for mere adequacy but rather fight for a better world for all. That struggle will sometimes be painful, but lately there have been far more thorns than petals. We must not build walls. We must not discard people. We must welcome our siblings with open arms, even when we disagree strongly with one another.

As a big-tent organization, the bonds we have in our communities provide us with the ability to work together while we figure out our values and goals. We pick each other up when we fall and help each other grow as members of DSA and the human race.

Many of us joined because of Bernie Sanders, myself included, and have found a political home that is warm, generous, open, welcoming, forgiving, accepting, questioning and active. I liken DSA to a family and being part of a family is hard sometimes but also fulfilling and needed.

My favorite slogan from 2016 is “Not me. Us.” Bernie and DSA got us started along the path and engaged. Let’s keep going.

Our next meeting is on the 21st at Scholz Garten, 7pm. I really do hope to see you all there. Keep an eye out for more information.

For those who have questions about membership, please contact membership@dsausa.org

Châu Ngô and Jose “Chito” Vela at August DSA meeting at Scholz Garten.

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