Confronting Harassment and Oppressive Behavior within DSA

This piece is part of a series on issues within DSA, written by members of the Refoundation Caucus during the 2018 campaign for vacant positions on the DSA NPC. For the full platform, see here.

Introduction

DSA has a harassment problem. This is indisputable and the consequences of this harassment echo through every chapter, working group, organizing committee, and organizing space that DSA moves into. Harassment can be seen in how members interact in meetings, at actions, and online. Online harassment is real harassment and should be treated as such. Harassment has driven many women, non-binary, and queer comrades away from DSA and has tangibly made our organizing space unsafe for those who do not fit into the hegemony of DSA. As comrades, socialists, and organizers, we in the Refoundation Caucus feel that the current state of affairs is unacceptable. To the end of correcting this problem, we have prepared the following policy positions which, if implemented, will go a long way towards changing the culture of DSA. We must take concrete and bold steps towards establishing an organizing space that is safe and welcoming to all and has no tolerance for abusers or harassers.

The causes of DSA’s harassment problem must motivate our solutions. By listening to our hurt comrades, we find the source of the problem in the reproduction of reactionary ideas and oppressive structures within DSA. Moreover, we find that when our comrades seek recourse for harassment they receive effectively no help from within our organization. We in Refoundation propose strong grievance policies for implementation at the national and chapter levels as well as a challenge to DSA’s reactionary culture at large.

Causes of Harassment

It’s our great fortune to have comrades speaking out against their mistreatment in DSA. Only by taking them seriously can we begin to address our harassment problem. In their Statement on Women in DSA Leadership, Rosie Bz and Annie DF point to the gendered division of labor in Boston DSA as a major contribution to the mistreatment of women in their chapter. Women were disproportionately tasked with the administration and emotional labor of their chapter, such as coordinating events and bottom-lining child care. With men unwilling to contribute to those tasks, BDSA’s women were worked down in three capacities, as wage workers, as domestic workers, and as socialist administrators. Rosie and Annie put their mistreatment in the context of the gendered division of labor:

“the men who rely on us to bottom-line administrative tasks are often the same men who rely on us for emotional support, or lash out at us when we express a political opinion they they disagree with — sometimes in explicitly aggressive tones… While there is much discussion within DSA about the need for more diversity, we’ve seen little evidence that people are committed to doing the hard work to make it possible for women and other oppressed groups to take leadership roles without feeling tokenized, burnt out, and thoroughly discouraged.”

As far as DSA in general also operates on a gendered division of labor, we can expect non-men members to have their work similarly devalued. Our informal gender structure creates a subordinated position for non-men, and by implication a dominant position for men. Therefore, we must eliminate the gendered division of labor to put our comrades in an equal position within DSA generally. Without the informal gender hierarchy, we can more easily and effectively tackle the harassment problem.

The causes of our harassment problem are both internal and external. Because we live in a patriarchal society, we learn from the earliest age to reproduce patriarchy. The structural subordination of women, femmes, and non-binary people can seem normal, or even expected, to us. Men are far more likely to feel as though they are entitled to a certain level of power or respect within an organization, and often don’t recognize their own reproduction and amplification of oppressive hierarchies. This can show up in a myriad of ways, from responding aggressively in an email chain, to taking out their anger on others during a meeting. Refoundation understands that these issues are delicate and take a lot of nuance, but ultimately seeks to dismantle the oppressive hierarchy of patriarchy within our organization.

Grievance Policies

At the 2017 DSA convention, a resolution was passed which represented a strong symbolic step forward for the organization. However, in the year that has passed since the convention the problem persists. A key step towards rectifying this problem is defining, in strong terms, what harassment is and what the consequences for it are. While in the intent of the current policy was to provide flexibility, in actuality it has provided a cover for non-uniform enforcement. Additionally, the lack of a formal grievance process has resulted in abusers and harassers who are in good standing with their local to hide behind powerful friends and allies. We continue to see that a process based around reporting a grievance to local leadership does not work. As such we propose the following policy changes:

  1. The creation of a new policy written with clearer language that will, within 45 days, go into effect nationally and every local must have a roll-out plan for this policy. Depending on chapter size and capacity, this roll-out will be between 45 and 100 days, and by that time every local must demonstrate that they are in line with this policy. National leadership will also provide support and guidance as necessary during this process.
           A. This policy will clearly define harassment and abuse as well as providing a  guideline for discipline at the local level
           B. This policy will also contain guidelines towards a process of transformative justice for the victims so that spaces will be made safe for them once again.
  2. The strengthening of the National Grievance Committee and the mandated creation of a Grievance Committee at every Local.
           A. The Local Grievance Committees will not only oversee all grievance complaints but will also work to develop proactive policies to ensure that local DSA spaces are open, safe, and accessible for all.
           B. Each Local Grievance Committee will be required to do regular reports back to national to share challenges and discoveries and to network with other Local Grievance Committees.
  3. The enshrinement of a National Grievance Officer in the by-laws of DSA nationally.

Change of Culture

Harassment and abuse stem from a problem with the culture. We can no longer simply pretend that white supremacy and toxic masculinity are absent in leftist spaces. There are too many accounts and too many abusers for this problem to be isolated. As the Refoundation Caucus, we are calling for strong and systematic cultural changes to DSA as a whole in order to protect our comrades who face harassment and abuse. These changes include:

  1. The Local Grievance Committees will be responsible for conducting an analysis of their chapter’s culture, what toxic ideas present themselves and what informal structures operate. Their analysis will include aggrieved chapter members.
  2. The Local Grievance Committees will then form a campaign to challenge toxic culture at all levels of chapter activities (e.g. meetings, events, social media). Before finalizing their campaign, the Local Grievance Committees will present their plans to aggrieved chapter members for approval.
  3. Their campaigns can come in the form of political education, enactment of a code of conduct, skills training in administrative and emotional labor and calls for men to take on these tasks in their chapter, and more.

Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Justice and Accessibility

Recent events, including the resignation of the National Disability Working Group Steering Committee, show that accessibility and accountability continue to be a major failing of DSA writ large. As such, we in Refoundation are calling for the following:

  • An immediate restructuring of the Medicare for All Committee to include the Disability Working Group as a key voice in the policy and praxis of both the committee and the campaign. “Nothing About Us Without Us” should not just be a petty slogan but an actual key organizing principle. If we are serious about mounting a health care based campaign, we must get input from our comrades who are most impacted by the capitalist ‘health’ system. As such, we are also calling for the specific inclusion of the Queer Socialist Working Group, the Socialist Feminist Working Group, and the Afro-socialists & Socialists of Color Working Group in the planning and implementation of all Medicare for All policy. As socialists, we must stop pretending that one issue can be addressed in a vacuum. Ableism, sexism, homophobia, trans misogyny,  and racism are supported and maintained by the current medical system and we can not seek to alter the medical system without also addressing that. A more diverse leadership team will allow for a more nuanced, accurate, and effective campaign that will not ostracize disabled comrades.
  • The strengthening of accessibility across DSA both locally and nationally. This will be done through a series of resolutions passed from the NPC that mandate a set of accessibility standards developed by the NPC in communication with the Disability Working Group. This will ensure that those affected have a strong voice in developing the policies without all of the labor being forced upon the members of the Disability WG when, as the Steering Committee resignation statement so aptly points out, best practices are a simple google search away. DSA has gone too long without having mandated accessibility practices and that must change.
  • An official statement denouncing any and all ableist speech and actions  from DSA members, especially including high-profile members and affiliated media outlets. While we acknowledge that none of us are perfect and that every comrade should be in a constant process of growth and self-examination, we should be clear that language and actions that demonize our disabled comrades and their work is unacceptable. Until clear growth has been made and genuine remorse shown, members who have previously expressed ableist views should not be allowed to serve in leadership positions within DSA. We call on the NPC and National Staff to review complaints made by members of the Disability WG and others about members of the Medicare for All Committee and to act in no uncertain terms to show what is and is not acceptable behavior.  

“We Must Love and Support Each Other”: Conclusion

Socialism should be a philosophy and practice of radical care and support for others’ humanity. Solidarity is not just a buzzword to use in debates or lyric to sing at marches. Solidarity is a constant process of supporting one’s comrades. As DSA currently stands, we do not have solidarity. No amount of electoral wins, no amount of press coverage, no amount of new members will mean anything if we do not start to stand in solidarity with our comrades. While non-cis-men are being harassed out of the organization, we do not have solidarity. While instances of abuse are being covered up, we do not have solidarity. While our disabled comrades do not have a voice, we do not have solidarity. Solidarity is practice and we, as the Refoundation Caucus, demand that we start to practice it or we can never call ourselves true socialists or radicals.

Through the proposals we have outlined in this document, we will seek to move DSA towards true solidarity and end the tolerant environment for harassment and abuse that currently exists. We will advocate for these policies in our locals, in national discussions, and on the NPC.  Failure to enact our proposals–or similar large-scale cultural changes in the organization–will lead to DSA becoming an increasingly toxic space for anyone who is not straight, white, cis, male, and able-bodied. We, as the Refoundation Caucus, will never cease to advocate for a better world, a better society, and a better DSA. As Assata Shakur taught us: “We must love and support each other” and we will fight to support our comrades through true solidarity.

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