Forget Bernie Bros: Meet the Young People of Color Leading the Country’s Socialist Revolution

Image via Wikicommons

If you followed Bernie Sanders’ resurgent campaign for the
Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in even a cursory
way, you heard about the scourge of the “Bernie Bro.”

He’s portrayed as a particular type of white man, one who
refused to vote for Hillary Clinton (sexism!), backed Sanders
(spoiler!), and is now trying to take the Democrats down a peg
by joining up with the Democratic Socialists of America
(racism, or something!).

That person exists. He’s taking up space in independent
bookstores and talking too much in social justice circles the
nation over. It’s also an appealing and convenient stereotype,
a carefully crafted straw man, for anyone who makes their
living churning out an opinion column a week.

But erasing people of color from the narrative is deeply
ahistoric at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. Martin
Luther King Jr. espoused socialist ideals,
Cornel West was an honorary DSA chair, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee
(D-CA) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) are both members of the
progressive congressional caucus; Princeton Professor
Keenanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes extensively about black liberation in a socialist
context
, and University of Pennsylvania Professor Adolph
Reed Jr. has condemned identity politics as “neoliberalism.” Communists
organized against racism in Depression-era Harlem and to
desegregate the blood supply of the Red
Cross
during World War II.

And it’s not just in the past: socialists of color are running
for office across the country and winning, like khalid
kamau
(who capitalizes his name in the Yoruba tradition) a
city councilman and Democratic Socialist in South Fulton,
Carlos Ramirez Rosa, a
26-year-old queer and Latinx activist elected to Chicago’s City
Council, and Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a
radical leftist who was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

Still, the trope has straddled the DSA, which was once largely
irrelevant in national electoral politics but has seen its
membership grow by 400% since Sanders campaigned openly with
socialist ideas, with something of a perception problem—the
idea that socialism is for white dude bros only.

Splinter spoke with several of these activists—gathered in
Chicago last weekend to set the DSA’s agenda for the next two
years—about how to abolish capitalism while creating an
inclusive movement, what socialism has to offer communities of
color, and why the time is now to embrace an alternative to the
two-party system.

These interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for
clarity.


Cathy Garcia, Santa Fe

When did you join DSA?

December 2016

What made you want to join up?

What made me actually realize I wanted to join up was realizing
the folks in my local area who wanted to start the chapter were
badasses, they were amazing folks.

I come from a union background, so I’m used to organizing to
win, I’m used to organizing to fight, and I’m used to
organizing around issues. And while I feel like I have a strong
ideology that underlies that, I don’t like sitting in a room
full of folks who are just there to talk about how great their
ideas are. That’s cool, I’m glad folks have an ideology, I’m
glad they have time to read, I’m glad they have time to kind of
deep-dive into those things. I’ve always fundamentally felt
that if we aren’t making tangible changes in folks’ lives, then
I don’t give a shit what you believe or what philosophy you’ve
read or your course of study, it just doesn’t matter.

So from a strong background in labor organizing, how
did that evolve into desire to be involved in socialist
politics?

I feel like I was born radicalized. I come from a Mexican
background, my mom was from Michoacán, Rancho, a rural area of
Mexico. When she was around 15, she got documents to come into
the United States. My dad was an undocumented immigrant from
Mexico City. They both made it to the United States in the ‘60s
during that wave of immigration and through luck and hard work,
my dad really made the American Dream happen. He moved us into
the suburbs of Los Angeles, we were well-established in the
middle class, but that was certainly not true for the rest of
our family. They were all kind of spread over Los Angeles and
East L.A., so as a very young girl, really coming to confront
the class difference of our privilege and how that class
privilege insulated me from certain oppressions, but not all.

Everyone’s liberation is
tied up with our own. You can’t be free if I’m in chains.

It was a very weird dynamic, and whenever I would hang out with
my family, we would talk about that. From a young age that
really made me think, ‘There’s something wrong here.’ I didn’t
necessarily have the vocab to explain why as a young person,
but my folks really pushed me to get an education, saying this
is how you make it in the U.S., you have to work two times as
hard, five times as hard—I feel like you have to work a
thousand times harder these days.

Teaching then further radicalized me. It was promoting the
systemic issues head-on, right? I was a math teacher, so I
really tried to bring in social justice and, you know, kind of
culturally relevant curriculum. I was at Crenshaw High School,
so when I started teaching, the teacher in the classroom next
door was a big union organizer. So he mentored me, saying,
‘You’ve got a fire in your belly, let’s do this.’ So while I
was probationary I just shut the hell up and the minute I got
tenure, I was elected co-chair, I just dove into union
organizing.

Do you think there’s a stereotype about socialist
spaces being dominated by white men? How’s that borne out with
your experience?

I don’t feel that way. I went to an elite private school for my
college. I was used to being the only one in the room—sometimes
the only female, sometimes the only brown female, sometimes the
only brown person. I was also used to being in all-white spaces
because we made it to the suburbs.

When I look around here, this is not an all-white space. I
don’t see that, and I certainly don’t feel it, right, because
it’s not just about the demographic composition of a place,
it’s also about, what is the behavior in the culture of that
place?

I’ve found this space to be very inclusive. If folks only want
to see the white men in the room then it means you’re
deliberately ignoring me. If you’re making that accusation,
it’s because you’re deliberately choosing to see that—I’m right
here. Here I feel the camaraderie is strong and that my
experience is really valued, not just as a woman of color but
also because of my experience. So that’s really validating.

If you had to do a little elevator pitch for what
socialism has to offer communities of color, what would that
be?

Communities of color have always had a strong background of
resistance, socialism, and an interest in social justice and
equality—not just what those mean as words, but what it really
means to be making a difference in folks’ lives.

Everyone’s liberation is tied up with our own. You can’t be
free if I’m in chains. We’re taking the model [of traditional
electoral politics] away and bringing it back to us, so that
the power is with us as people and in those relationships we
build, so especially if folks of color are tired of hearing
this bullshit, this is a great space to start doing something
about really changing that power dynamic.


R.L. Stephens, Chicago, elected to DSA’s National Political
Committee (NPC)

What first got you interested in social justice work
and socialism in particular?

So I have a good friend whose brother was killed in this
neighborhood of Chicago called Englewood. We first met in 2006,
I did an interview with her on my show, Stockton to Malone, and in
college, we became really tight, pretty much right away. I
would hear her talk to her brother on the phone, he was like 12
at the time, and she’s really excited to see he’s getting good
grades, and she’s like, “He’s gonna make it out like I did.”

By the time we were juniors, she had basically stopped talking
about him, and the next thing I heard about him from her was,
“Oh, Richie has been doing armed robberies in mall parking lots
and breaking into people’s house, this shit is real.” So,
junior year, we started trying to figure out if she could take
custody of him, how to get him out of this neighborhood. We
couldn’t find resources to more comprehensively intervene. She
tried to move him out, it didn’t work. He had been shot once,
and she was waking up in the middle of the night. She’d call me
crying. He ended up getting killed when he was 19 after being
paralyzed for a year, he got shot again and had been to jail on
a gun possession charge.

Revolutions are impossible
until they happen.

So it’s a big part of my life. When people talk about violence
in Chicago, they fetishize it but also dehumanize it at the
same time. People need not just resources in the abstract, they
need stuff that speaks to them emotionally. That’s the
foundation of organizing, is the connection between people.
It’s in how you feel about yourself and the world around you
that gets changed and is the stuff that makes you fight. It’s
not just the fast money for a kid like this. It’s the fact that
people have his back. He knows what it’s like to lead. It’s
more than just the money. Because people know they’re going to
die, they know they’re going to go to prison. It’s a
feeling that keeps them in the game.

When I started working for the union Unite Here, some of the
black organizers in this union were former drug dealers. It was
everything I knew Richie needed. I know I’m onto something
here, this is bigger than just some Scandinavian welfare state
model. You’ve got to actually connect to the people in the
streets, in the struggle, because that’s how we organize. It
has to be an affective experience.

I’m running for the NPC right now along with this team called
Praxis, and we’re talking about
base building as the foundation for any real, meaningful
socialist project.

What do you mean by base building?

I mean connecting to people, actually trying to built it from
the ground up. Here’s an example: in Pennsylvania, there’s this
project called Put People First!, that’s a base building
project where they set out to have poor people organizers in
every county in the state of Pennsylvania. They’re pushing for
universal healthcare now, but they started out by just going
out, going door to door, going canvassing, just to get people
united around this slogan: Human needs are human rights. The
organizing goal was to create organizers among the poor.

DSA wants to focus on healthcare, so what we’re pushing is a
piece of what BLM and BYP [Black Youth Project] came up with,
this divestment and reinvestment framework when it comes to
police and the prison system. Across the board, the biggest
drain on budgets are policing and prisons. Why is that? It’s
because they don’t want to pay for these services. When you
have an austerity regime, you cut these services and reinforce
the prison system, making it not just the service of last
resort. It becomes the first priority for dealing with the
contradictions and excesses of capitalist brutality. You cannot
remedy this system without taking on the issues of prisons and
police, which means talking about violence not just in a way
that’s abstract, but actually confronting it in a meaningful
sense.

A wide-eyed delegate, floored by his luck running into
Stephens in the hallway, interrupts our conversation stops to
tell Stephens how much he admires him and his work. “I love
Praxis! I love everything you guys want to do!” The delegate
enthusiastically says. Stephens accepts the praise and offers
his comrade a warm hug in response.

How do you balance organizing priorities with members
of the DSA who say you should be focusing on influencing
electoral politics?

This is probably the most controversial thing I’ll say. I’ve
been talking about the positive stuff. Even if you follow every
rule for power building from below, it requires a revolution.
So whether you do stuff with the Democrats, whether you form a
separate party, the reality is the capitalist class has power
outside of the electoral realm and that’s why they win. The
electoral realm is about legitimizing power you already have,
codifying it into law, giving it the legitimacy, which is about
the right to use violence.

That whole quote about “socialism or
barbarism
”—barbarism is already here. People are being
brutalized and they’re dying every day in the most horrific and
preventable of ways. That is true barbarity—to die when you
don’t have to, to suffer when you don’t have to, to have your
hopes and dreams extinguished when it doesn’t have to be that
way. That, to me, is barbarity, an assault on the very soul of
a people. The only way that’s going to change is through a
fundamental shift, and I believe in that.

Revolutions are impossible until they happen. The abolition of
slavery was impossible until it happened. So our task right now
is to lay the seeds for a deeper change.

Oh, and can you give a shoutout to my Mama?


Bianca Cunningham, New York City

We started out talking about one of the Saturday morning
session’s controversies: delegates on the floor said a
representative from Wisconsin challenged the New York City
delegation for sending 75% women to the convention, arguing the
chapter must’ve enforced gender quotas.

Is that kind of closed mindedness or sexism something
you encounter in leftist spaces?

I find that the kinds of people that make those kinds of
statements aren’t very present, a lot of the time we don’t even
know who they are or where they came from because we have 2,000
members, and they’re certainly not the most active members,
I’ll put it like that. [laughs]

How long have you been involved in DSA?

Two years.

What made you join?

Bernie. My union, CWA, endorsed him. I actually lost my job due to union
organizing
. When I lost my job, Bernie actually came out
and rallied with me outside the Verizon Wireless store. It
inspired me to want to get behind him and learn more about what
he’s been talking about.

Was that also your introduction to socialism more
broadly?

I always considered myself to be a Christian Socialist, I just
grew up like that. But socialism as an an actual action or
organization, I wasn’t familiar with or ever apart of an
organization.

What do you mean by Christian Socialism?

I grew up in a very religious household, and I would say I
probably got some different things out of having to read the
Bible all the time than maybe the people who were telling me to
do it thought I would. I think that Jesus was a Socialist, and
I think basically in the Bible they’re warning you against
greed and capitalism, and I think a lot of people miss that.

With a religious upbringing, were your parents also
politically on the left?

My parents were actually Republicans and still might be, maybe
not now, but they were for sure.

Do you not really talk about politics with
them?

We didn’t really talk about politics before. Identity-based
politics, yes, but politics as a broader conversation, no.

Speaking of identity politics, that’s become kind of a
four letter word in some circles, depending on who you talk to.
What role should identity politics play in the politics of the
left, if any?

I’m a firm believer that everyone has their entry point into
the movement, and we, as people on the left, should not be
denying folks the opportunity to mobilize issues that are
important to them while still tying it to a class-based
analysis. So I think the reason identity politics could be a
dirty word is because liberal Democrats have co-opted it to
manipulate and divide people, and I think that we need to
reclaim that narrative and really use it to organize around
things that are important to people.

As a strong Bernie supporter, I’m sure you were aware
of this effort among the liberal commentariat to paint large
swaths of his supporters as all-white Bernie Bros. What’s your
response to liberals who believe that?

I acknowledge that Bernie Sanders did not do a great job of
expanding his message to really address communities of color
head-on and he was visibly uncomfortable talking about issues
of race.

I would say now it’s our job to reclaim this narrative. We
reject the narrative. We’re here, we’re people of color, and we
hear a lot of these abstract terms about the working class and
diversity, normally coming from white, cis males who understand
oppression from theory. Women and people of color understand
oppression because it’s their lived experience. We have a
unique experience to add to theory.

You helped draft the resolution to establish the
Afro-Socialist caucus, which was approved this morning. Can you
tell me more about how that idea came to be?

A year ago, when we had our membership explosion, the question
came up as to whether we should form a caucus for people of
color. I was originally against the idea because I felt like I
didn’t want to be separated from the rest of the group.

As we continued to see our membership grow, people of color
would reach out to me and say ‘I’m really uncomfortable in this
majority white space’ and reach out to me for guidance or to
express their disappointment that it wasn’t diverse or even
reflective of our neighborhoods in New York City, so how could
this organization really be building power? I wanted to address
their concerns, so I came up with this idea to have
Afro-Socialist happy hours, which was for DSA members of color
along with other black people and people of color on the left
in general so we could start to establish a community. I was
overwhelmed by the support in the very first one. We were able
to engage with folks who were in DSA, never thought about being
in DSA, because there was such a need for this type of
community. That transformed into a series of happy hours in New
York City, with members coming from as far as New Jersey and
Long island to say, ‘This is important for me, and it feels
good to be in a left space not dominated by white males.’

We are black people, we care
about issues that affect people of color, we care about issues
that affect women, and we’re socialists.

I find in our coalition-building, it’s been particularly
helpful in our racial justice work to be able to act as
somewhat of a buffer between this overwhelmingly white
organization and the work they want to do. We also want to
dispel the narrative that socialism is only for Bernie Bros or
white men. We are black people, we care about issues that
affect people of color, we care about issues that affect women,
and we’re socialists. We want to give people the opportunity to
learn more about our solution to capitalism, which would not be
black capitalism, it would be Democratic Socialism, and also
revive the black radical tradition.


Delé Balogun, Chicago, elected to NPC

How long have you been involved in DSA?

I’ve been involved in DSA since just after Trump’s election,
but I was a socialist organizer for seven and a half to eight
years in Portland. I wasn’t involved in DSA then—I was bouncing
around other socialist organizations—but they were much, much
smaller at that point. In Portland I also did LGBT organizing
and I was heavily involved in Occupy Wall Street, Fight for 15,
Black Lives Matter, and most recently, before I moved from
Portland two years ago, Palestine. I went on the delegation to
Palestine with Interfaith Peace-Builders.

You were part of the team that helped draft a
resolution in support of the movement to boycott, divest from,
and sanction Israel (also known as BDS), which the convention
unanimously approved. Why was it so important that the DSA
speak out on this issue?

DSA was really one of the last big, progressive organizations
to choose to have a voice on that, to endorse it. We can devote
a lot of resources to the BDS movement as well. Going and being
in Palestine two-and-a-half years ago and hearing—there are
barely any words to describe how brutal the occupation and
siege in Palestine really is. Palestinians asked our
delegation, even if we didn’t do anything else, to please bring
back their stories. So this is one way we can show solidarity
with the Palestinian people and help end the occupation. Just
like in South Africa, decades ago, organizations on the left
around the world came together to help end apartheid. We have
the same thing happening here.

African-Americans in particular have always been a
reliable base of support for the Democratic Party. What can a
group like DSA do to push those people a little further
left?

One of my platforms running for the National Political Committee is that the DSA
needs to do a couple things for a couple populations. We need
to do concrete organizing in rural communities and in black and
brown communities. We need to have organizers on the ground,
building relationships with people and getting involved with
all the different programs, like violence prevention.

A lot of the programs that the Black Panther Party advocated
for back in the early 1970s—like free breakfast and community
programs—I think the DSA needs to take a look at their 10-point program and think about
starting some of those programs in black communities. There
would be a lot of support. It would take some years, but slowly
but surely, they’ll get that support.

Why are programs like offering free breakfast or help
finding work easy ways to improve people’s quality of
life?

Well, because capitalism isn’t offering that. Look at the South
side or the West side [of Chicago], you have food deserts in a
lot of places. There’s an enormous amount of neglect, so
there’s a lot of places where you have to go very far for a
grocery store. Healthcare in poor black and brown neighborhoods
is sorely lacking. I would like to see the DSA team up with,
for example, free and mobile health clinics, and help spread
that around even more. A lot of the services that capitalism is
not able to offer, I think DSA is able to show that this is the
kind of society that we want and if we’re able to show people
this in their concrete lives, that’s how they’re going to be
convinced.

Correction, 4:58 PM EST: This
post originally misstated Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s name and
history. His father, Chokwe Lumumba, was elected mayor of
Jackson, MS, in 2013 and served until his death February
2014.

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