We must intensify existing democracy: A conversation with Louisville DSA member Robert LeVertis Bell
Across the country, DSA members are running for office and getting elected. Even when they “lose,” democratic socialism wins because it becomes part of the conversation, as it is in every industrialized country except this one. Robert LeVertis Bell is a public school teacher and DSA member who’s running for Metro Council in Louisville, Kentucky’s District Four. Nick Conder, also a member of Louisville DSA, spoke to him about why he decided to run.
What made you decide to jump into politics?
This is the time to be bold with regard to our electoral strategy in DSA. I believe that DSA should be using elections to expand the influence of socialism and to organize people into socialism. The person who previously had the seat I’m running for decided not to run. When that opportunity presented itself, I realized that this particular race was one that I was well suited to win. And I thought it was a good test case for establishing an electoral presence in Louisville of the sort of politics that DSA advocates.
Where do your politics come from?
I grew up in a movement household. My grandmother is a local activist. She’s one of those people that every city has, the stalwarts of the black community in the civil rights tradition. I’ve been an activist, radical organizer, and anticapitalist since I was a teenager. I was involved in anti-police brutality organizations and various anti-fascist organizations as a young person. Now I’m 39 years old, and I’m a teacher. I’ve been involved for the past two years in rank-and-file teacher organizing. We’ve had some work stoppages here in Louisville and throughout Kentucky, which have gotten a lot of attention as part of the Red for Ed teacher strike wave. So all of that together, from black activism to anticapitalism to the teacher revolt, has shaped my politics.
What are some of the most pressing issues that are facing District Four?
When people in my district talk about the problems that the city is facing, they go immediately to talking about the schools: police in the schools, segregation in the schools, the teacher strikes, the administration’s bullying of teachers. They talk about schools first.
Then they talk about housing. They talk a lot about gentrification, the fact that this particular district is home to pretty much all of the most acutely gentrifying areas in the city of Louisville, each of them in different stages of the process. People want somebody to stand up to the city’s runaway developer-centric politics.
The other thing people are most concerned about is what we would call austerity politics in the city. Last year, when there was a budget shortfall, the mayor responded by instituting some draconian cuts to city services. They wanted to close our nearby fire station. They already closed the library, and turned it into a community center, then they closed the community center. They want to close the public pools, they want to close an additional library, they want to take an ambulance off the streets. People are concerned about this. They want to live in a city that provides a baseline of a decent life.
You’re open about being a democratic socialist. What does socialism mean to you?
I want to expand democracy. Where there is not democracy in our communities or our neighborhoods, I want there to be community councils and tenants councils. Where there are not unions, I want there to be unions in the workplace. Essentially, where there are not existing democratic structures, I want to make more of them. I also want to intensify existing democracy. If there is already a union, I want to make it a stronger union. There’s already some semblance of democracy at the ballot box, but I want to increase people’s level of access and choice. Democratic socialism means strengthening political democracy and expanding democracy into our economy. It means giving people control over more and more aspects of our social life in a democratic way.
How did you come to DSA?
It took me a while to join DSA. I had to be convinced about the efficacy of electoral campaigning as a vehicle to build socialism in the United States. That was something I was very skeptical about for a very long time. But that changed with the 2016 Bernie campaign. And as I watched more DSA campaigns, I saw in real time how people were deepening their political understanding, how people were becoming strong organizers, how people were and still are building something that is approaching a robust movement against capitalism in part, though not exclusively, through electoral campaigns.
Has being part of DSA’s national network improved the prospects of your campaign?
Absolutely. In a real sense, we need finances to run campaigns. That’s how it works. And I’ve gotten a lot of financial support from people in DSA across the country. The reach of DSA into local campaigns like mine has been game changer, especially when I’m fighting tooth and nail against opponents who are funded by mega churches and developers. Having this broad nationwide socialist movement behind me has been an equalizing force, maybe more than equalizing force.
Do you see your campaign as an extension of the teacher revolt?
Absolutely. The work stoppages here were a crash course in solidarity and class consciousness for so many people. That was invigorating to me, and it helped do away with some cynicism I had about the future of our city and our state. Being a teacher in that movement has given me a different view of what’s possible.
If you were to win, how would you see your relationship to the socialist movement playing out?
First off, I intend to stay active in my DSA chapter. I do political education in our chapter, and I will continue to do that, whether through our DSA Socialist Night School or through the office itself or both. And then I intend to use whatever tools are available to me to foment more political participation throughout my district. More democracy. That, to me, is how we’re going to build socialism.