This year, two of three city council members endorsed by DSA-Los Angeles, Nithya Raman and Hugo Soto-Martínez, voted YES on two separate occasions to increase the amount of public money going to the Los Angeles Police Department. Our DSA platform classifies the police as a “white supremacist organization” that “disorganize[s] working class communities through the routine application of violence, intimidation, and coercion.” Beyond the more routine disorganizing acts like evictions and protest/strike-breaking, the LAPD is notorious even among police departments for its track record of state-sanctioned theft and murder targeting Black and brown Los Angelenos. So why did DSA-LA electeds vote to support more racist policing?
Socialist representatives currently have little leverage in the fight for control of state policy, which is monopolized by ruling-class representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties. Today, with both Democrat- and Republican-controlled governments pushing for cuts to public services and heightening state repression, the working class struggle for reforms can be lonely in the halls of power. Socialist electeds are under enormous pressure to compromise their principles in exchange for table scraps: in the LA case, it seems that a YES vote was cast to ensure the city provided their district with a small discretionary budget. In this context, it can begin to feel that socialists in office are powerless to enact the transformative platforms on which they were elected.
But there is incredible power to be harnessed in the mass movement for democracy and human liberation. This is especially true of the mass movement against the cops that re-emerged in 2020 and quickly became the largest protest movement in American history. DSA is active in this movement. We have a National Abolition Working Group; in NYC, the chapter’s #DefundNYPD campaign mobilized community members and over 40 city council candidates in support of their program; next week, DSA-LA will rally with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles for a Defund LAPD action. Socialist electeds at their best are champions for these mass movements of the working class, uplifting the work of DSA and the worker’s movement while exposing the odious machinations of bourgeois government and standing firmly against all forms of oppression.
Who can forget DSA-endorsed U.S. Representative Cori Bush’s five-day sit-in on the Capitol steps, which resulted in an extension to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium. Bush is a socialist who came out of the Ferguson movement and understands the value of fighting alongside working people in our struggle for a better world. “This is why this happened,” she declared when the extension was announced, “Being unapologetic. Being unafraid to stand up.”
Who can forget the words of Montana legislator and self-described democratic socialist Zooey Zephyr against her state’s anti-trans legislation, words so powerful they got her barred from the House floor? “The only thing I will say is if you vote ‘YES’ on this bill and ‘YES’ on these amendments, I hope the next time there’s an invocation when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.” Who can forget New York’s DSA Representative Zohran Mamdani joining taxi drivers in a successful 15-day hunger strike for debt relief? This alignment between our socialist legislative power and people power is what builds the socialist movement.
So why did DSA-endorsed council members go against the grain of DSA’s platform and vote to increase funding to the LAPD? A Soto-Martínez staffer reportedly stated that the vote was about tactics, not principles. This logic only works if one believes that defunding the arm of the state that violently represses our political project is not a tactical gain for socialists and the working class, or that chipping away at the criminalization of poverty (materially and ideologically) is less of a material gain than a small discretionary budget.
Some might still argue that voting against the budget would be merely symbolic without a deeper bench of socialist electeds. But what would it take to move beyond the symbolic? Adherence to the platform’s anti-cop position. Any leverage gained in the halls of power is not worth the trust lost from activist and working class Los Angelenos. Standing by our anti-cop position has more strategic value for DSA: in materially enacting our anti-carceral agenda, in building future constituencies for even more socialist electeds, and in building consciousness and organization for a socialist future.
If anyone tells you this can’t be done, just point them to New York City. This year, DSA electeds at the state and city level in New York put this strategy to the test and voted NO on terrible budgets. And these socialists didn’t just vote NO; they managed to increase their power. At the state level, they managed to pass the ecosocialist Build Public Renewables Act, and at the local level, they managed to bring more progressives into their no-voting bloc.
To grow DSA into a better structured party surrogate, we must develop clearer standards for our electeds, and create more open, democratic processes to hold electeds to those standards. In our amendment to the NEC resolution (“Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy”), comrades in Marxist Unity Group and Reform & Revolution put forward some red lines for socialist electeds:
- Socialists don’t vote to increase cop budgets
- Socialists don’t vote for the war machine
- Socialists don’t vote to break strikes
- Socialists stand against ALL forms of oppression
If these standards are violated, the amendment calls for an open discussion between members and electeds: as it stands, too much is decided by electeds and their staff behind closed doors, out of sight from the general membership.
Of course, like with any rule, there will be exceptions. But these kinds of rules are still crucial to establish. How can we expect DSA electeds to meet our standards without first letting them know what those standards are? Raman and Soto-Martínez’s votes aren’t the first for DSA, and they won’t be the last: just the other week a DSA elected in DC expressed support for pro-cop legislation, and since 2021 DSA has been rocked with a demobilizing controversy surrounding DSA electeds’ material and symbolic support for Israeli oppression. To respond better in the future, DSA needs clear expectations and strong democratic mechanisms to uphold them. Help us ensure that DSA electeds never vote for cop budgets again – vote YES on “Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy” if it makes it onto the national convention agenda, use the language of this amendment as a framework for your local chapters’ relationship to endorsed electeds, and get DSA involved in the mass movement by working with abolitionists doing the work in your community!
For a response to this article, see “Coalition and Antagonism in Los Angeles: The Realities of Having Socialists in Office.” – eds.