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. You can’t pre-empt everything with a constitution. And this moment was indeed exceptional. At the convention we voted to make prison abolition an official stance. This presents at least a minimal conflict between Danny’s record and the organization’s goals. Danny seems to think his record was well-known. It was not. I was there. Lastly, Danny has proven an authoritarian leader in the last few weeks. There’s not room for that kind of behavior in the DSA—that’s explicit in chapter bylaws. We ought to be able to trust our membership’s common sense when assessing the scenario. If we cannot trust each other to size up an exceptional situation for ourselves, we will foreclose on democracy’s vitalism in favor of institutional technocratic anemia. This, I believe, was one of the NPC’s fundamental mistakes.
The good news is that the fight’s not over. And there’s a lot for the organization to learn from this over the next two years. Transparency goes lacking. There are tons of rumors I could have written about—many weren’t far-fetched. But in truth, I have no clear picture of how this all unfolded between Danny and the NPC. Most of us don’t. Danny’s latest dril-tweet-uncucked-by-character-count statement wasn’t particularly clarifying, even if it provided keen insight into a man who refers to himself in the third person, thinks the South African Police were very good and also normal, and who acts like a jackass even after he wins. (Though, in his defense, anyone who called his house to harass him is also a jackass). Since he’s offered no plan or vision for how to heal the organization after this, and because the locals have a great amount of autonomy and can buck national directives, it should be easy.
But things aren’t okay. 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. We have seen SWAT teams serve petty warrants in the middle of the night. We have seen Arpaio’s Tent City concentration camp for prisoners. We have seen the black box torture facilities maintained by police departments like Chicago’s. We have seen the incredible cheapness assigned to black and brown lives in this country. And we know that this is not the exception. It is the rule. Many of us know this intimately.
Soon, there will likely be an abundance of footage and stories about cops cracking down on “looters” in Houston. Soon more police departments will be adorned with more military grade flak jackets, sniper rifles, and armored vehicles. Soon the DSA will have to realize that no matter how big it is, the left doesn’t need the DSA. The DSA needs the left. There are people to whom we are accountable, people with whom we must ally ourselves if we want to live in a more just and equitable world. And so we will have to understand that there are ideological commitments upon which we cannot compromise, activities we cannot condone. Did we vote for prison abolition because we like the sound of it? Or did we vote for it because it is a world for which we want to fight? No one is coming to save us but us. And history will remember our answer.