Members of the Democratic Socialists of America march at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York. Photo credit: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.
We at Public Seminar are picking ourselves up off the floor after the closure of our university and 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. It’s time to return to the political crisis that the virus interrupted.
The Democratic administration we hope for in November will have to address the wreck that the Trump administration has made of our country. But voters also need to insist that a new President and Congress rectify older wrongs. In the last week, social media has revealed two more grisly incidents of American racism. On Memorial Day weekend, in New York City’s Central Park, Amy Cooper set off a social media storm by calling the police on a stranger. African-American birdwatcher Christian Cooper had asked her to leash a dog illegally running off-lead. Worse, the white consultant repeatedly lied to a 911 operator, claiming that the nature enthusiast, now recording her with his phone, had threatened her with violence.
It is no secret in New York, or anywhere else, that making an African-American person into a police suspect can be lethal for the person targeted. Christian Cooper survived — but in Minneapolis, 46-year-old George Floyd did not. On Tuesday, a video surfaced showing a handcuffed Floyd choking to death. A policeman kneeled on Floyd’s neck while other officers watched, bystanders begged them to stop, and Floyd gasped the iconic words: “I can’t breathe.”
Minneapolis is burning as we write.
Covid-19 had seemed to stop the world — but of course, it didn’t. It’s the same world: we know because we can smell the smoke and hear the rattle of breath escaping a crushed windpipe. So we recommit to politics with our first special issue, taking a long look at a multi-racial social movement determined to create change in the face of a party system that has done little to stop state violence: Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Co-executive editor James Miller sets the stage by taking us back to February 29, 2020, as Covid-19 was slipping silently past Trump’s border guards in California and New York. After over a year of campaigning, and with two mostly white states endorsing socialist Bernie Sanders, African-American Democrats in South Carolina rallied behind former Vice President Joe Biden. Subsequently, Biden ran the table on Super Tuesday, and Sanders partisans saw the Democratic nomination that had barely eluded them in 2016 swirling the drain.
It was a stunning disappointment for DSA, Sanders’ best-organized constituency, but the organization was ready. We asked Andrew Sernatinger, author of a motion passed at the 2019 DSA convention that resolved not to endorse any candidate but Sanders, to dive deeply into that decision. Sociologist Robert Ross, a DSA member, picks up the story there to illuminate the conversation that he and fellow Students for a Democratic Society veterans had about what they saw as another, potentially disastrous schism on the left. The result was a letter, from one generation of socialists to another, originally printed at The Nation and reprinted here by permission.
As Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara wrote in the New York Times, 88% of Sanders’ voters voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and they are likely to vote for Biden too. But, as Honda Wang points out, DSA is invested in grassroots democracy, not brokered, political alliances: read this essay to understand the socialist path to power as these organizers understand it. Annie Levin agrees with Wang: why should a vibrant and growing organization that has managed to unite many tendencies on the left endorse Biden when neither he or the Democratic Party shares those values?
We called on other DSA members to provide a counter-argument, and they agreed. Economist Max Sawicky endorses the principles of the resolution—but believes the stakes are too high not to support a Democratic victory in November actively. Sarah Newman, a former Green Party organizer, closes out this cluster by reflecting on the consequences of her support for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election.
We were happy to get back to politics. But we also know that politics are happening elsewhere than the United States. Mark Frazier, co-director of the India China Institute at The New School, returns us to Hong Kong, where the Chinese Communist Party is on the brink of ending any semblance of self-rule for that territory. And we end this week’s offerings with the fourth installment of “Sentencing the Present,” a reflection on critical thought in the time of Covid-19, curated by Jonathon Catlin and Benjamin P. Davis.
This virus will be with us for a long time. We at Public Seminar will continue to talk to you about it. But now we are getting back to politics.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.