Through DSA’s looking glass
An interview with Jenbo
At the start of the August 2021 DSA National Convention, a series of grievances came to light. These grievances involved tit-for-tat allegations of abuse and misconduct between candidates of the “Renewal” slate for the National Political Committee (NPC) and members of the recently dissolved DSA caucus, Collective Power Network (CPN). DSA’s national leadership then paid $50,000 to carry out a nominally independent investigation.1
The investigatory report greatly expanded its own jurisdiction to “investigate” the internal functioning of the 2021-2023 NPC in the aftermath of the NPC majority voting to both: i) “decharter” of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction Working Group (BDSWG) and subsequent suspension of the BDSWG leadership; and ii) defend the membership of Congressman Jamaal Bowman.
The only punitive action taken in the aftermath of the report was directed at NPC member Jen Bolen, who was not implicated in the summer 2021 grievances, and for events beyond the scope and timeline of the original grievances and investigation. Not coincidentally, Jenbo is a notable voice of dissent against the NPC majority approach to the BDSWG and Congressman Bowman and the increasingly uncritical approach to the Democratic Party and what that means for the political horizons for the DSA.
Andrew Sernatinger and Natalia Tylim spoke with Jenbo to get details on the commissioned report and the aftermath of its publication. The findings of the report underscore the difficulty of managing political divisions in an organization that lacks democratic functioning. This interview should give those curious a picture of the state of DSA on the national level, and how the elected leadership has chosen to navigate the challenges of building a broad tent organization in the Biden era. Editorial comments can be found in brackets ([ xxx]).
Andy Sernatinger: Why don’t you talk a little bit about you and DSA, what you do, what your role is in DSA?
Jen Bolen: My name is Jennifer Bolen, people call me Jenbo, and I have been on the NPC of DSA since 2019. This is my second term. The NPC is the highest elected body in DSA. We are elected every two years at our biennial national convention by delegates from over 200 chapters across the country.
Last term, I was on [the NPC’s] Steering Committee. I’ve taken a step back so I could also focus on working at a socialist supervisor’s legislative office, to try and paint San Francisco red. And right now my main focus in the organization is on multiracial organizing and our housing justice working group. I’m also the liaison for the Afro Socialists and Socialists of Color Caucus. Those are my focuses right now.
AS: A few weeks ago, a report was released on the DSA discussion board. Can you explain what’s in the report? What’s it about? Why is there a report?
JB: Back in 2021 at the DSA National Convention, there was a conflict that involved around 24 members.
In the summer of 2021, there was an internal grievance that arose within, and was handled by, Collective Power Network (CPN) [a former DSA political caucus]. And that resulted in members of CPN writing a public letter [released during the 2021 convention] about three NPC candidates who were on a slate called Renewal at the time. The three Renewal members wrote a rebuttal letter defending themselves. There were horrible accusations of people bullying people into self-harm, and things like that.
The NPC felt that we were not charged with adjudicating grievances and our National Harassment and Grievance Officer (NHGO), the person we contract with to oversee grievances, also recused herself from this because of personal conflict that she had with people involved in this report.
We needed to find out if these members of CPN violated Resolution 33 [DSA’s harassment and grievance policy]; if CPN violated anything by using their own internal grievance system; and if three members of the Renewal slate violated Resolution 33.
So the past NPC decided to hire an independent investigator to decide whether or not these 24 people violated the grievance policy, among other things. We identified a very narrow scope of work for this report, which included:
- Did any DSA members, including NPC members, staff, or contractors violate Resolution 33 with this conflict;
- Was there any retaliation by DSA members, staff, or contractors in connection with the conflict;
- What grievances were adjudicated in their [CPN’s] separate system, and what was the outcome of each, including who was involved; and
- What holes exist in our own grievance system that could be exploited and open the NPC up to liability, and are there any gaps that leave DSA members without recourse for addressing grievances?
Those were the only four things we asked her.
All of that is missing from the report. Somehow the investigator went outside the scope of work and when presented with the report, the majority of the NPC adopted it and approved this change. We didn’t ask for an overview of the grievance system. We didn’t ask to find out why this conflict started.
The report that came out last week absolved everyone by saying that their behavior was in line with our grievance policy. And basically said that the reason a separate grievance policy had to be used was because people didn’t trust the official grievance program that we had. Somehow that was connected to my behavior three months after the report was contracted. [Emphasis added-Eds.]
AS: Okay. So we have a situation at the convention. There are multiple slates running. The Renewal slate has people standing for election, and during the convention a letter comes out accusing them of all kinds of stuff. They retort with their own letter. And after that, the NPC sets out to find out what happened? Where did this go wrong? Is there any liability or fault here in this situation for the people involved? A similar thing happened in 2019 with public letters during the convention against NPC candidates.
JB: The NPC that was sitting last term realized that this was a problem. We couldn’t have these letters and negative campaigns come out against candidates where members don’t try to solve their grievances using the systems we have in place, but instead hold onto them and make them public in order to smear a campaign or candidates.
We [the 2019-2021 NPC] decided to take some decisive action and say, look, it sounds like you all have a grievance, we’re gonna file grievances against all of you and we’re gonna hire someone who’s not us and who’s not our NHGO to resolve this. We decided if you have an active grievance against you, you can’t run as a delegate. If you’ve been expelled from your chapter, you can’t be a delegate to the convention. Obviously, if you’re expelled from your chapter, there’s some group of people who’ve democratically decided that you cannot function well in your chapter, or you violated some rules. And as part of this, one person who was involved in this letter writing campaign, Kara Hall, was also running for NPC and she wasn’t allowed to run. This was really hard. We didn’t know what to do in the situation.
Making these decisions was incredibly difficult, and so was trying to figure out how to change the culture of DSA to where we’re not withholding grievances in order to use it to attack other people. And because this NPC candidate [Kara Hall] was also a part of that, she had known about this side grievance process. She had also withheld information and released that in the letter that came out with her and her defense letter. We made this decision that she couldn’t run, which if I’m speaking frankly now, I shouldn’t have been a part of making that decision. Justin [Charles] shouldn’t have been a part of making that decision. Jen McKinney shouldn’t have been part of making that decision. Kristian [Hernandez] shouldn’t have been making that decision. Because we were also running for NPC and Kara was another candidate.
At that time, in that room, because it affected people so much on the NPC about how bad the situation was, they pressured us not to recuse ourselves so we could show that we all were supporting each other. Which is why everything that came out of the last convention was unanimous, every recommendation from the NPC was like, we’re all doing this together. Every move that we make, we’re doing together as a unified bloc, we’re your leadership. We’re taking leadership. We can’t have this happen anymore. We can’t have these “October surprises.” We can’t have these campaigns come out because it’s detrimental to the organization.
We were waiting for this independent report to come out to talk about this. But it said that everything was totally correct. Nothing was wrong about how things were handled last term.
We were united on the NPC last term, saying we can’t have this happen. We laid it out in a statement to the membership saying we don’t condone this behavior and were calling for an investigation. But this term, NPC members who signed that statement voted to adopt the report that condoned the very same behavior we agreed was unacceptable. It’s schizophrenic.
AS: Can you explain what the report says?
JB: The report is unwieldy. According to the investigator, she interviewed 40 members and looked over thousands of documents. We gave her the resource list of documents she was supposed to look at in order to do this, and she didn’t give us a list of people that she interviewed, even though we asked her.
The report ultimately looked at the conflict that happened between the CPN members and the Renewal members and determined that because there’s nothing in Resolution 33 that says you have to use Resolution 33, they’re totally fine to use an outside source to resolve their conflicts. She Airbud’d it.
I think it’s fine for a caucus or people to not use Resolution 33, on some level. I don’t think if you have a conflict, you have to use a grievance process. You could use conflict resolution or a mediated conversation to get through it. I don’t think you have to go through this punitive process we have. Her report found that there was no violation of any process because the process doesn’t force you to use Resolution 33.
But then she also investigated, I think at the urging of members of the NPC, outside the scope of work initially assigned to see if current NPC members were de-legitimizing the grievance process. Her conclusion was that people don’t wanna use Resolution 33 because members are critical of the process and that by being critical of the process (despite being in a democratic organization where members wrote the process and have the ability to amend it every two years) they are undermining it: making it so people don’t want to use it.
The report says basically that rank-and-file members and NPC members shouldn’t be critical of the process or else people won’t use the process and we would get these conflicts handled by problematic outside processes, which are actually okay to have under our own process. It’s frustrating.
This is all tied to an event in December 2021, where I had shared with the membership that a member of the NPC, Jose La Luz, had used threatening language about the organization in order to sway a political argument, which I found distressing — and so did other members of the NPC who won’t talk about it.
We had four meetings that week, only one was in executive session. I had my dates wrong when I shared what I did with the membership. And so technically, but inadvertently, I leaked confidential information from the executive session. And this instance, unrelated to the 2021 National Convention, was proof that I somehow contribute to this culture of people not using our grievance policy.
That was a determination that the investigator made. My being on the NPC and having a transparent relationship with membership undermines the culture that the NHGO is trying to create in the organization. I think it’s bullshit.
Natalia Tylim: It seems like this was commissioned around a particular set of questions, but at a certain point, a determination was made that it was gonna be opened up to actually investigate something that happened after the thing in question. The scope that the report was commissioned for was around events at the convention. And now they’re going forward in time to December, four months after the convention, to talk about the Jamaal Bowman controversy and how that event is influencing a convention in August.
And the finding was that you were the problem, even though you weren’t part of the initial scope of what was being investigated.
JB: When the report came out, it was obvious that there was an angle that people who were producing exhibits wanted. I told them, ‘Hey, look, I’m fine if you want to produce these as separate reports.’ I think Justin said the same thing.
If they wanna hold me accountable for sharing information with the membership, they had every avenue to do so since we adopted an accountability guideline in January 2022. We could have had a vote, we could have had a discussion, but they wanted to make something public and splashy and connected to this report, which is incredible. I think that the membership had a right to read a report that was in line with the scope of work about this conflict that they had that affected hundreds of members.
If the membership needed to have some sort of accountability report about me sharing this information, that should have been separate. But by conflating the two, it removes any discussion of the political disagreement around Bowman, and any discussion of our grievance process and how we fix it. It’s just sloppy work. There’s no desire to ever discuss anything other than a very shallow discussion of my behavior.
No one wants to struggle through the political question. It’s obvious to me, and it’s obvious to members that this report and the statement that went along with the NPC is obviously in retaliation, because I have been critical of the Democratic Party and I have been critical of our grievance system.
NT: Something I hear a lot of people in DSA say is that as opposed to political debates, we get procedural maneuvers. I think that was clear at the convention last year. It was my first DSA convention and I was shocked by it. It leads to a really unhealthy political culture.
What do you think about the way this unfolded? And do you feel like there were any attempts made to actually have the political debate around the Bowman question? I think it’s pretty clear that that’s why you’re implicated in this, given how it has been brought up, even though it does not match the timeline at all.
JB: I said [in a NPC group email] we needed to have a meeting to discuss [Bowman]. Here’s my note about it:
Hey, everyone, As someone who serves on a political body with you and as your comrade, I’m respectively inquiring if we’re going to have any space to debrief the situation. I obviously have publicly stated that I’m moving forward with the board’s decision to remove the leadership.
Losing a vote means just that, I lost a vote. It happens. But I really think there’s something being lost here politically. We’re writing public letters signed by the NPC acknowledging our collective missteps without criticism or group analysis, which means we’re bound to repeat them. As a collective body we shouldn’t promote talking past each other instead of talking to each other. This is apparent when [NPC member] Gustavo [Gordillo] said he was astonished that people were condoning the BDS Steering Committee’s behavior, which is not something anyone had ever said.
I can understand how upsetting that must be for him to think, but if we talked to each other, I think it would’ve been clear. But instead we’re left up to our own interpretation, with information flying in an ad hoc way and we won’t get on the same page. There’s no debrief on the steering committee agenda. There is pushback to discussing this in a special meeting. This is not an insubstantial hiccup in our organization. And I hope as political leadership we can discuss together.
The response [from one NPC member] was,
Jenbo I would agree that debriefing would be ideal. The problem is that you’re manipulative and half the NPC is too scared or traumatized to be in a meeting with you right now. So I don’t see it happening. Every meeting people have had with you recently, you’ve derailed.
The email thread devolved into people pasting tweets of people being mean to them online for their votes to decharter the BDS Working Group, and saying, ‘Jenbo, this person’s calling me Nazi. I hope you’re having a nice day.’ ‘Jenbo, this person’s saying this thing,’ and it just derailed into that. So I just dropped it. When I asked again, are we gonna have a discussion on this, another response was like, ‘I don’t see the point of having a discussion with each other or the membership. We have to focus on the task at hand.’
Finally, I wrote a resolution and I put it through the Steering Committee to have it discussed at a fireside chat by the NPC, which I wasn’t able to attend because you had to register twice in advance and I didn’t know that. And so I don’t even know how that meeting went, because I wasn’t allowed to attend. There’s no recording, so I don’t know what to do. But I don’t think it went over that well, because there are still questions.
Going back to the question of political maneuvering over political discussion, I think a great example of this is that once the decision around dechartering the BDS working group and removing their leadership went to the membership, obviously there was a lot of blowback from members and from Palestinian-led organizations, like Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), saying that they don’t agree with this decision and they’re not gonna work with DSA until some conditions are met.
Then I think almost a week later, an email came out from DSA’s national chair, NPC member Kristian [Hernandez], saying: ‘Hey. I’ve been thinking we need to reverse our decision.’ There’s this statement about there being unforeseen consequences. So they’re going to reinstate the working group without any discussion.
I have no idea how she came to this conclusion. I have no idea what unforeseen circumstances she’s talking about. Was it PYM? Was it members being mean? Did something happen locally? I have no idea. And that vote went through, like all votes have gone through, either put on Loomio as an up/down vote and everyone votes until nine votes are hit; there’s no discussion.
Or in an email where people just write approve and when it hits nine votes, they post something. Having these votes on Loomio or on email removes any chance of amendment, discussion, debate. You can write your paragraph rationale [on the website], but there’s no procedural way to change anything.
It’s frustrating! People get left off of email threads so they aren’t invited to vote. Recently, with the vote to publish the independent investigation report to the membership, Jen McKinney, who’s on the Steering Committee, wasn’t invited to vote.
She called me and she said, “Hey, what are you talking about when you’re talking about this report being up?” And I’m like, “Oh, it’s up! Oh, you weren’t invited to vote. I didn’t even see you in the email thread.” It’s this rush to action. And this idea that democracy means that they have the majority vote.
As a communist this is really frustrating to me. As someone in a political organization, how do you not wanna struggle through something? How do you not want to make sure you’re getting to the core, synthesizing ideas, learning from your mistakes? Having criticism, self criticism, group criticism, how are you not constantly checking to see if what you’re doing is right?
As a professional human being, how do you vote for something without reading it? Nine people voted to send out an unredacted document containing confidential grievance information to the entire membership in a report that says this is a problem in an organization. Something they accuse me of and want me punished for!
But there’s no criticism or self-reflection. You could see in the follow up statement the majority NPC sent with applied redactions. They never admitted to failing to redact the document, and instead said, “An earlier version left open the possibility of users removing the redactions, which led us to briefly take the report offline.” This was softer language than earlier drafts when they accused members of “altering the file” to remove redactions.
No, they haven’t! They aren’t elite hackers! You highlighted things in black! I told them this was obscene. To blame the membership for your own failings, that’s not leadership. I’m sure Mao said that at some point, sounds very Mao-ish. The lack of struggling through a political problem is incredible to me. I don’t know what anyone’s strategy is for the organization. I think it’s just something that doesn’t exist in leadership culture in DSA.
AS: How have we then moved from a report on something that happened in last summer’s convention into this thing being used in a very particular way against you?
As far as I understand, the only person with any consequences to come out of this is you, not anybody who wrote any of the letters or was involved with the actual issues that the report was asked to look at. So how did that happen? And what’s the motivation for that?
JB: I don’t know how it happened. I have speculations. If you look at an exhibit, I think it’s exhibit 18 or 19 in the report, it is from an NPC member. It’s highly editorialized. There are a lot of comments on there where they share information from executive sessions with the independent investigator, a “leak” which nobody’s gonna address, that really just talks about my behavior.
There are emails from last [NPC] term supplied by the NHGO, which are hack jobs. They’re cut and pasted to remove information, to make it look like I leak sensitive information. It blows my mind that there’s no discussion about it. It’s incredibly hurtful that former members of the NPC, and the Executive Director, all of whom were on this email chain, aren’t saying, “Hey, this narrative is wrong, these emails aren’t in order, and Jenbo didn’t do what’s being said here.”
There was obviously a push in this report from people giving evidence or exhibits to this investigator to try and show that I broke the guidelines in the NPC’s accountability document. But there’s no need to go to an independent investigator about this.
There’s no way for me to ever think that any of this was done other than as punishment for supporting the BDS Working Group over a sitting congressman, and for being critical of the grievance program.
It’s frustrating because it seems like my behavior, meaning trying to explain why I voted not to expel Bowman, of telling people there’s this other conversation [Jose’s threat to the NPC to split DSA], is a thing that I still struggle with. Like, fuck, that was the wrong vote. Bowman should be gone.
But me explaining my vote and explaining this dynamic that’s happening—there was a whole fucking conversation that we’re not telling the membership about—that’s more egregious than that act itself. Which is upsetting, because [not talking about] it also condones that sort of behavior.
When making the NPC accountability guidelines in January 2022, [former NPC member] Matt Miller made an amendment to add in that you can’t threaten the organization while voting; it failed handily. Because that’s acceptable behavior to people.
NT: Leadership has a lot of responsibilities to membership, but it just seems like there’s kind of picking and choosing going on in terms of which responsibilities are gonna be carried out and which aren’t. And I feel there are underlying different ideas about what the membership participation aspect of the organization is. For example, the BDS position and the BDS working group are things that the entire membership voted on having. There’s a culture where if you do something that goes against a debate on the leadership itself, it’s seen as very different than if you do something that goes against the convention, which is a higher decision making body than the NPC.
I’m curious what you think about how those things play out. And also, we were in the minority arguing for a more democratic organization at the last convention. Not because people don’t want democracy, but based on an argument that if we have democracy, it’ll destroy the group. I’m curious what you think about that and how you’re thinking about questions of democracy and membership participation after this whole experience.
JB: I think there are two mindsets about this on NPC. One is that the people elected to the NPC are there to represent a base. I think it has to do with when you run on issue-based slates, where they feel they have a duty to only work on the Green New Deal and not anything else.
When the Bowman question of expulsion was being brought up, [NPC] members of Socialist Majority Caucus and Green New Deal were shopping around that letter “For Unity, Not Unanimity” to not expel him. I was like, “This is disgusting that you guys are shopping around a letter with a desired outcome when you are supposed to be the liaison to the working group, working on mediating a solution. But you already have a solution that you’re advocating for outside of this. How will they think you are working in good faith?” And I was told, ‘this is just organizing.’
That started to show the crevices between people who feel a duty and responsibility to their “constituents”: their caucus mates, the people who voted them in last time. And then there’s people who feel like they have a duty to the convention and to convention resolutions, to things that were democratically decided.
It’s difficult. Last term on the NPC, we saw how bad the term before us was [2017-2019]. It was very much an approach of reaching across the table on everything. We’d work together to try and help something that the convention wanted. And that’s why we all supported it. It wasn’t because my base said that was fine. I remember saying on the form that I represent the organization, not like every communist in the organization. Which is why I support what the convention may vote for that I may not agree with completely, mainly along electoral politics. And that’s changed this time where you can throw other convention resolutions under the bus if it doesn’t fit what your narrow push is for.
AS: That sounds contradictory, because if you were to come back with, “My base says I need to push this position about BDS,” that would not be legitimate…
JB: NPC members always tell people to go talk to your base, go talk to your base. And then they say they think I’m organizing against the NPC. But I don’t have a caucus to secretly organize with; everything I do is public. My base is the membership. And then I get in trouble for talking with them too much. But a caucus, behind-the-scenes, wrote a response letter to the announcement about comrade Bowman by the NPC before the announcement was even published, and gathered signatures in support of it, which means they obviously got the scoop from an NPC member beforehand but that’s not ‘side organizing’. So it’s not contradictory, it’s hypocritical. I think you’re using a very nice word, but it’s hypocritical.
NT: I feel like a lot of the ways that people argue against democratizing the organization, isn’t by saying ‘we’re against democracy,’ it’s by saying democracy will be chaos and everybody will want their thing, as opposed to seeing it’s actually the way that we can build a healthier organization where people don’t just put out public letters against each other, but actually clarify political arguments. I’m curious, after this experience, where you’ve fallen on some of those questions.
JB: Where I’ve always fallen. People who think that way, think people are dumb. People who think that way don’t trust a membership. We all talk about these coalitions that we’re building and trying to get the org to look more like the “multiracial working class.” And then you have someone come in and we’re like, ‘Hey, your voice doesn’t matter because we think you’re dumb. We’re gonna make these decisions. And even if you guys overwhelmingly voted on changing something in the organization, if we don’t think it aligns with what this group of people who have more power want, it’s just not gonna happen.’
The fact that we don’t elect people on political lines, but on resumes, [is] also a huge thing. Like, “I had the time to work on these campaigns. I work for this really successful housing policy, big-brain, think-tank thing.”
There’s still this idea that people who’ve done something really cool, like organizing campaigns that aren’t tied to a resume line aren’t as important. And if we keep taking away the ability for other people to make these decisions, it doesn’t matter how many people from the fucking trade unions we invite to join DSA. They’re not gonna have a voice.
But what systems are we upholding by the way that we do our work? And the way that we think about democracy? And there is this idea that because you’re in leadership, you can override the will of the convention. Granted, the thousand delegates that go also have a different class composition than the membership, but there’s still that layer of connection to their chapter that they probably feel more beholden to than someone on the NPC.
AS: Let me ask you about something you said earlier, which is that this has a lot to do with the Democrats. The way that all of these things are shaking out of the leadership. Do you wanna explain a little what you mean?
JB: A member of the NPC last term said we all don’t have the same definition of socialism. And I think about this all the time. A lot of people aren’t working from an economic view of socialism, or they’re looking at it as any social justice change. They want a political revolution and not a social revolution or an economic revolution.
It is easy to want to tie yourself to the Democratic Party. Or the idea that we need a mass party and so we need people to join. And somehow if you join DSA, you bridge from blue to red and all of a sudden you’re a socialist. And there is something to say about meeting people where they’re at and radicalizing people. But I think that people are scared of breaking from the Democratic Party or being critical of it. And so they think that if leadership is critical of it, it’ll be off putting to potential members or it’ll be to the detriment of working class folks.
This is such a gross thing to talk about. It’s so dumb. We’re socialists, right? I don’t have the same goal as the most progressive Democrat in the world. I don’t want a bunch of cool progressive Dems to be running the world.
I think that’s where the divide is. When people run themselves in circles on why we have to support the Democrats still; you’re overthinking it and upholding the system by not being critical.
We can say, “Hey, elect this guy in this place because as a Marxist, we’re gonna fight for these reforms to help the working class.” We’re not gonna be like, no, don’t make our lives better. But, the fact that we can’t even be slightly critical, I don’t know what people are actually [going for]. I don’t even think dirty break, clean break, all this shit is even a thought in their heads [anymore]. I think it’s just like in the immediate, what do we do? Electoral organizing around Democratic candidates. And then they make up a bunch of reasons why people can’t be openly socialist in our socialist organization. It’s mind boggling to me.
I work in city hall, it’s not like I’m anti electoral, right? I went up and helped Kshama win. It’s not like I don’t think there’s a place in the electoral sphere for us to plug in. But I don’t think that it is tailing the Democratic Party. And I think that’s a huge point of contention that we don’t know how to grapple with.
What do we do with these Congress people we have in office who are saying outwardly anti-socialist things like, “I would vote for the Iron Dome again if I had the chance.” And allowing that to fly under the guise of “We’re winning.” What are we winning? That’s not a win to me.
People don’t wanna talk about this because they think that even by talking about it we’re somehow setting our mass movement back. But we can have critical support. We can censure people for doing the wrong thing. There’s no reason that anyone should side with what Bowman voted for and said afterward. Like, “I am funding occupation and I would vote for it again, as a socialist.” How do you sleep at night?
And how do you support that as a socialist leader, over someone who says my cousin was martyred at the West Bank? I think people don’t want to leave the Democratic Party because it’s comfortable, and they haven’t actually interrogated what it means to be a socialist.
NT: Can you also say how you think that this issue of the question of the Democrats also impacts the organization’s position specifically on Palestine and BDS?
JB: They don’t want to lose a congressional elected. I agree, just on principle, like it’s easy to be like, get him outta here. But then how do I deal as a political leader in DSA with the fallout and attacks that we’re gonna get from the Israeli lobby and other congressional electeds and other groups saying, you’ve just ejected your highest electoral ranking Black member. And how do you square that? And that sounds like a problem that we should struggle through and figure out or else we’re never gonna get to the point of actually holding electeds accountable.
We have to weigh as an organization, what is the good and bad on this question? But also it’s very telling what the NPC is willing to put under the bus for a congressional elected. And if Jamaal Bowman had said that he was pro-life, would we have let that fly? Or is that something that the NPC feels strongly and deeply about that we would have expelled him? What if he crossed a picket line?
It was not wanting to upset the Democratic Party, but also the way that the NPC talked about Palestine as “an issue some members care about” instead of ‘as socialists, we’re against occupation’. The way that they talk about the BDS working group, calling them a group of white people, not understanding that if you’re Arab, your skin may be lighter. They see things through a very American lens.
So, as long as a Democrat is in office promoting the green new deal, but is anti Palestine, that’s fine? I just don’t know what that line is. When they’re affected personally, will there be a line? Maybe if they knew more Palestinians, they’d feel different? Maybe if they read Imperialism they’d feel different? No idea.
AS: What effect do you think that this has all had on DSA? DSA a year ago had a very different vibe in the organization than it does today. And some big things have happened. So from your vantage what effect do you think this all had?
JB: I think it stalled work. I don’t think it’s the narrative that the BDS working group stopped us from doing work for months and things like that. Because we had to focus on that. For the last year this NPC’s been in office, the only thing that we’ve done is take punitive measures. We haven’t done anything as far as external campaigns, we haven’t done anything as far as internal campaigns, really. We have this Roe campaign that’s out now. We have these electoral candidates, but no unifying campaign.
And the things that we have done is punish me; punish the BDSWG; not punish Jamaal Bowman. This hyper focus is framed as security culture and it’s like, you look at all of the different socialist organizations in the United States and how they all turn inward at some point. And I get really afraid that that’s what’s happening now. I don’t know how to bring us back to pushing for something, especially not talking with each other. I’m hopeful something will happen. My goals now are to reach out to PYM and all of them and figure out what to do, because that’s affecting on the ground organizing.
So yeah, I think we’re not giving anybody a positive alternative to what they’re experiencing now. But it just seems like there’s a dearth of leadership and it has just turned us really inward and it’s a bummer.
NT: Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot is the whole question of grievance processes and healthy membership organizations is a fucking enormous task that we have to figure out as the Left.
And I don’t think anybody has the answer, but do you have any thoughts on how we work towards building something like that that’s healthy? And that actually feels like it’s reinforcing democracy as opposed to feeding factional rifts in organizations? This isn’t just a DSA question. This is a whole Left question and I think it’s central to how we rebuild the Left. It’s something that we’ve been talking about since we launched Tempest and we’ve all dealt with in other organizations we’ve been in and we’ve dealt with and it’s like, fuck, we have to have some way of having these conversations together.
JB: One thing that’s kind of heartening is that even people on our communications forum, who normally don’t engage positively with me, are kind of in shock about these voids that we have in the grievance process. I think that people are realizing that there should be more transparency.
There’s always a call for more transparency. But I think that these resolutions that Tempest put forward like, the fact that DSA members are now asking why can’t they recall anyone [on the NPC]? Or Socialist Horizon, people are thinking about these things a little bit more critically. The trouble is I don’t know how to get around the caucus culture or slate culture. But I’m here to figure that out.
What we can do on the NPC is have the Steering Committee make decisions every two weeks during their meetings, stop having votes on Loomio. If people vote that change down, that’s kind of indicative that maybe they shouldn’t be elected again. And just try to democratize things in this little area as much as we can, because that will have a good effect on the organization.
AS: Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to bring up?
JB: Chapters are doing really good work. That’s always been the case in DSA. National bodies, too, the BDS WG with their summer school programs are helping chapters’ political education, or their film screenings.
We need to move away from this idea that the NPC represents a base and I’m represented by an NPC member, versus I own this fucking organization. It’s my organization. I can find a hundred buddies and make an amendment. I can make a resolution for the convention. I don’t need Jenbo to do this for me.
People need to read more Debs. People need to feel empowered that they run the organization. I think one example is the way that the tech committee is reaching out to chapters and helping them and forging these social spaces along with organizing spaces. And it’s actually really interesting to see the way that national working groups are organizing with people and not towards a—as far as I know—caucus goal or something like that, but just helping them organize in a way that’s like, ‘Hey, here’s what you should know about the way tech and democracy interact. Here’s the way you can organize your building.’ It gives me hope to see comrades just helping each other organize. That’s what I tell myself to get through the day.
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Andy Sernatinger & Natalia Tylim View All
Andy Sernatinger is a socialist labor activist and frequent writer on issues in the Democratic Socialists of America. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.
Natalia Tylim is on the Steering Committee of the Tempest Collective.