Finding DSA’s Niche in Rochester, NY

By Karen Vitale

Electoral politics is my least favorite form of political engagement. Yes, voting is arguably the most widely recognized democratic action, but it is a shallow act in isolation.  I prefer direct action organizing as defined for me in the 1990s by Steve Max and Heather Booth at the Midwest Academy – figure out who can say “yes” or “no” to your demands and make them answer that question publically, in front of a broad coalition of people affected by the answer. I like union campaigns and collective bargaining campaigns for the same reasons. On a personal level, I enjoy radicalizing people at work by asking uncomfortable questions that undermine their assumptions about daily life, and pointing out the obstructionist mechanisms of neoliberalism and assessment culture in our midst. Throughout the 2000s, I lost any interest in education campaigns and awareness campaigns and poorly-attended rallies, and I became a dormant activist.

But here we sit in Rochester, NY in 2016 and Bernie Sanders is running a competitive campaign for president with an explicitly democratic socialist platform. My friend Andrew said “We need to start talking about socialism” and I responded with “I know just the organization!” We decided to start Rochester Area Democratic Socialists as a local chapter of DSA.

Right now more than 50% of Rochester children are living in poverty; among cities its size, Rochester has the highest level of children living in extreme poverty. In 2012, Rochester had the lowest graduation rates of African American male teenagers in the country, at 9%. From 1985 to 2005, Rochester lost 44% of its manufacturing jobs, and that’s before the economic collapse of 2008. The conditions that exist in 2016 are similar to or worse than the conditions that led to the July ’64 Rochester riots.

A number of community groups have strategic campaigns to address local issues: some organizations are from-the-gut activist groups like Take Back the Land; they’re on the front lines of saving families from foreclosure, and Enough is Enough!, which is confronting local police brutality and misconduct and campaigning for statewide legislative changes.  Metro Justice is a member-driven, grassroots organization dedicated to social, economic, and racial justice in Rochester and will celebrate its 52nd anniversary this year. They are hooked in with statewide and national campaigns like The Fight for 15, Working Families Party, and Citizen Action initiatives.

So why have a DSA local chapter at all?

Because of Bernie.

Because of Bernie, we now occupy a very important niche here in Rochester.  We are democratic socialists, and Bernie’s platform is our platform. Because of Bernie, people are asking us “What is democratic socialism?” We have an answer that provides hope. Because of Bernie, people are asking “What’s a super delegate and wtf is going on?!” We can tell them exactly what a super delegate is and why it’s important. People are calling us up and seeking us out.

So even though it sounds uncomfortably like an awareness campaign and electoral politics, our goals for the Rochester Area Democratic Socialists are to 1) educate people from all walks of life on what democratic socialism looks like, 2) explain and help people engage in electoral politics, and 3) mobilize for and amplify the efforts of our local social justice partners.   

What do these goals mean for building our local chapter? Specifically, we educate people on what democratic socialism is by organizing a series of entry-level discussions called “What is Democratic Socialism?” in urban, suburban and surrounding rural counties.  We emphasize that democratic socialism is what happens when we focus on “we” and “us” instead of “me.” It’s important to us that we (who are mostly white right now) partner with African-American and Latino partners who can also articulate visions of democratic socialism. It’s not an academic discussion.  In rural communities it means asking why a Walmart is getting 10 years of not paying taxes in exchange for offering a few part-time, starvation wage jobs. Family farms are barely staying afloat – we can share with them what the Bank of North Dakota (a state-owned bank) is doing to help family farmers, and why they’re able and happy(!) to do it. Democratic socialism is all around us. And as Bernie says, these ideas are not radical.  

Bernie has electrified the electoral process for so many new voters. We will explain electoral politics and help people be engaged, because that’s what people locally want. They want to know who the progressive candidates are; around whom should they mobilize next? Some of them are ready to run for office; many are ready to join or build a third party. We can explain the differences between cross-endorsements and running one’s own candidates. Every time someone from another DSA chapter announces that a democratic socialist is running for office in their city or state, we put the word out locally and people are inspired!  They’re taking us seriously.

We mobilize and amplify our coalition partners’ work by showing up and listening – whether that’s to a meeting or a rally or a fundraiser. We recognize their work. We invite our coalition partners to share the stage with us at media events. We seek their input and guidance. If they have a series of events around a particular campaign, we’ll offer to host a “sister event” that dovetails with their efforts but highlights democratic socialism. Recently, when our DSA general meeting conflicted with the Monroe County for Bernie GOTV training, we publically announced that people who’ve never phone-banked or canvassed before should skip our general meeting and attend the GOTV training. We’ll have more meetings, we told them, but we only had one chance to win NY for Bernie.

I hope we’re good partners. I know that we’re a counterpoint to politics as usual. This week we’re joining a Verizon picket line, and this weekend we’re convening a gathering of key people to talk, listen, reflect and plan how to grow our left progressive numbers.  We are dedicated to keeping the momentum in the AfterBern.

Karen Vitale is the co-chair of Rochester Area Democratic Socialists.

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