I made the following comment at the DSA regional pre-conference in Los Angeles on February 10.
I want to urge this organization to not consider an organizational endorsement of Bernie Sanders until we have 1) received a request from his campaign once announced and 2) held a robust, democratic debate process involving the whole membership about whether and how to support his campaign. My experience at this pre-convention meeting has solidified this view, and does not hinge on whether or not President Sanders would be “good” or “bad.”
The rationale for the first point is simple. Bernie Sanders is neither a member of DSA nor an outspoken advocate of many of our positions – his M4A bill fails to meet our standards, and he is not a supporter of BDS, to name 2 examples. Endorsing him in an attempt to co-opt his movement is an act of populist deception that will weaken the DSA, not strengthen it, by making us seem like unprincipled joiners and hangers-on, seeking easy wins instead of radical change. We will be making the locals of DSA – already underresourced – a landing pad for political reeducation, reorienting people from a political campaign to a political movement. This is a task we are simply not prepared to undertake at present. We also have more pressing technological concerns that VAN alone will not address such as dues and member roll information.
The second point is that rushing into a campaign that like this without enthusiastic buying, and transparent planning, is a betrayal of our organizational ideals of internal democracy. We make overtures to a quote-unquote rank-and-file strategy yet this endorsement process as proposed is deeply flawed, if not utterly shambolic. We risk making an unpopular decision to make our most visible organizational priority a messy coalition with a plan to run that program that is at best confused. And we mislead potential members by making our top priority cultivating a political fanbase. DSA has flourished by engaging in and winning fights in our communities, by embodying a multitude of tactics and big tent pluralism, by developing leaders and not just amassing followers.
Bernie Sanders may stand for many of the things we want, but in the final analysis, Socialism is about what you, not what you want. Let’s debate whether to support Bernie if he wants it, and continue to forge a path forward that does not rely on a years-long commitment to one politician. He’ll ask us if he wants to – meanwhile, we have a world to win.
First things first – the Momentum faction are master tacticians. Sure, running the game makes it a lot easier to play, but a strategy document detailing a high-level view of their convention priorities and strategy in the run-up to our August convention shows a great deal of forethought. It’s the details, like ‘only’ running a slate of 8 NPC candidates while picking 8 to prop up, which demonstrate their commitment to tactics and optics; with their fairly secure control of the DSA’s central organs, as well as well-established alliances in the orbit of the Anglophone left, we are looking forward to a year where after all is said and done, the Call’s propositions at the national convention will simultaneously be the most reasonable, most radical, and most principled program conceivable.
They explicitly seek to stifle work to serve the people and programming that focuses on prefigurative politics, while bringing more power into the central body of DSA and calling the question for a Bernie Sanders endorsement; they have a timeline for surveilling the rest of DSA’s ideological poles, preparing arguments against them, which will no doubt echo across the left blogosphere, and ultimately entering into the convention tactically prepared for a showdown. The document makes no statement about the kinds of resolutions that Momentum does aim to draft and pass, but if they are an attack on the relative decentralization under which DSA has grown and flourished, as well as an attempt to rein in the community organizing being done on the basis of something other than their moribund blueprint for social democracy, then in my mind their program is an attack on the modern DSA’s greatest strength. They will be cutting of their nose to spite their face, silencing the echoes of the New American Movement to play the greatest hits of Harrington’s DSOC once again.
The hard truth for critics of this program is that we are not prepared to stop it. It is not that there is no moral or theoretical argument against it (there are both,) but rather that the Momentum faction have already flexed their muscle for parliamentary tactics and procedural bamboozling, are hegemonic in leadership and, by my gut, membership, have the most institutional ties to stronger movements in the progressive arena, and by staking their claim as the center of mass in DSA, are able to supplant challenges from hostile wings with more sympathetic, controlled opposition. Against the LSC and the Build faction, they are the ‘real Marxists.’ Against the Marxists, communists, and revolutionaries, they are the Real Movement. And against North Star – the old guard, yes, but likely their closest ally – they are the radicals with the fresh perspective, the ones who will bring the American socialist movement from its post-Cold War grave into the future. They are the one pole propping up the big tent, all things to all people, all while espousing a politics which, despite shrouds of revolutionary language, is a social democracy rooted in the art of the possible, conspicuously eyeing the UK Labour party and its resurgence under Corbyn.
And yet. Despite the known nature of this dominant and domineering tendency, a serious opposition has failed to materialize from its potential constituents. The LSC platform and the Columbia Falls Statement may be the beginnings of this opposition trying to name and orient itself, but it is months behind Momentum’s strategic development, which by dint of its position within the org is doubly advantageous. There is a lot of catching up to do.
What’s the Game Plan?
For the LSC, they way forward is toward dual power, a philosophical commitment to non-state institution-building, confederations of support and resistance, and consistent and pointed demonstrations of solidarity against hierarchy at key points of struggle. For the Builders, it’s a commitment to basebuilding with a local focus, encouraging DSA locals to engage in local struggle in a way that fosters sustainable organizer communities. For the ex-Refoundation caucus (of which I was a member in San Francisco,) the path was towards a revolutionary worker’s party, though the abrupt resignation of the caucus Steering Committee simultaneously turned heads, raised eyebrows, and crushed hopes. And for the signatories of a recent open letter – The Columbia Falls Statement – it’s in whichever direction won’t lead to a schism at the convention.
The Columbia Falls Statement, in my mind, correctly assesses many of DSA’s strengths and weaknesses. It credits the strength of the locals while calling for transparency at the top; it rightly assesses that we are too small to be the face of any national campaign, for a politician or an issue; it poses a meaningful challenge to DSA’s historically weak position on imperialism and internationalism. Tactically, the questions of the Democratic party are kicked down the road, and the endorsement of Bernie Sanders for president in 2020 is called for, albeit with some stern warnings against making him the face of our movement (he has never been in DSA) or accepting his politics as our own (we must position ourselves “to his left.”) In my analysis, the statement seeks to defend the organizational structures and values that have allowed for the work that expresses a politics more marginal to the organization, but doesn’t challenge the Momentum goals of a Bernie endorsement or continued work on Medicare for All. More or less understandable stances for an org that basically willed itself back into being after Bernie’s 2016 primary campaign ended, and bloomed due to not just its omnipresence, but apparent totipotency.
However, that’s about the half of it. It is a statement not of position, but of orientation; not an argument, but a plea. What for? Momentum wants the big tent all to itself and has a strategy to win it. After nearly two acrid years of glossy mag potshots, Medium arguments, google doc leaks, twitter alts, fine print disclaimers, Cynthia Nixon Discourse, stupidpol, you name it, the final victory of Socialism for Normal People in the largest socialist org in recent US history seems to be upon us. What is left for the groups that might constitute the “DSA left”? The moral and the strategic arguments for mutual aid, or against hanging all of our Medicare for All hopes on an electoral campaign, won’t be heard at the convention floor, not by people who give a damn, unless we figure out how to engage with Momentum on the level of tactics.
A feature of spectacular society is the way that (real) power is protected, legitimized, and sustained via its own image. Consider George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished banner; Hillary Clinton’s “Future President” tweet; the thousands of hours of Copaganda produced annually to project a veneer of gritty realism (or situational comedy) on the police state. Spectacular leadership is an image of itself that sets itself apart from other images: the image of a Wrecker. The image of Identity Politics. The image of a Vampire Castle. It creates possibilities, and images of those as well: of the Mass Movement, of the General Strike, of the Popular Demand, of the Revolutionary Reform.
The profound social upheaval which arose with the first world war, though fertile with the awakening of consciousness, twice demonstrated that the social-democratic hierarchy had not educated revolutionarily; and had in no way transformed the German workers into theoreticians: first when the vast majority of the party rallied to the imperialist war; next when, in defeat, it squashed the Spartakist revolutionaries.
It follows that social democracy is not a threat to the capitalist order, the base from which the spectacle was and continues to be launched from; indeed, it acquiesces to the spectacular arrangement of society while insisting that the food be subsidized, medicine nationalized, rent free, and entertainment union-made. But enough of the politics of spectacular social democracy – what is its practice?
This is not a critique of organizing in the world, to be clear. But the practice of DSA is not limited to organizing in the world. The crucial practice of spectacular social democracy is the projection of a revolution onto a reform, which turns the (real, democratic) process of open critique and dissent into the shadow of a future betrayal. It makes one see ghosts. The appearance of control becomes central – the image of power that protects and conceals its true nature.
For DSA to move forward, this spectacle must collapse. Fortunately, this greatly simplifies the task at hand. We do not have to stop Momentum in their tracks, since we have already established that this something we cannot do. We should ask – what are the rules of the game we’re actually playing? What secrets do we hold? Can we bluff our way out of this? Can we anticipate their position and turn their projection, their central contradicion, on its head? It may involve secrets and intrigue; we should acknowledge that not everything that gets settled in DSA is settled in parliamentary proceedings or democratic debate. Even tracing back the history of the DSA, through the NAM and SDS, to 1969 and beyond, we learn to expect surprises from history, to do what we can with what we have, to take steps backward in order to move forward. If we can’t win what we want at a given juncture, then we should seek a context where we can accomplish what we need to. If we can’t find one, then we’re playing the wrong game. History does many peculiar and unexpected things, but it does not and will not wait for the people.
It is August, and the convention has come and gone. “Order prevails in South Berkeley!” reads the East Bay Majority. But of course, it is still an order built on sand, slipping through an hourglass whose time is almost up. If one sees the goals of the Progressive movement as closer to the Socialist one than ever before, it is because that is the direction we have been drifting. If we’re serious about DSA as a multi-tendency organization that can escape the fate of most popular left movements of its stripe – recuperated by the liberal hegemony into nonprofits, think tanks, union bureaucracy, the Democratic party, the mausoleum of academic Marxism – we should worry about not getting tactically shut out of the house we currently call home first and foremost. Momentum wants to give the world rose petals, but do the times not call for thorns as well?
The Center for Sex and Culture is living out its last days of existence as a real, physical institution, a single-story building on Mission street between 9th and 10th. Time and money have run out; the books that were not sold at the sale on Wednesday will be donated and archived. Its collection is soon to be dispersed, and the final gallery show – Jack Davis, “FAGGOTS” – will run through the 25th, at which point, I imagine, the building on Mission street will begin its time in hospice. Presumably the plans for a glass and steel apartment building are already being drawn up.
SoMa (or The Folsom, or South of the Slot, or the old Miracle Mile) is changing, like (and into) everywhere else in San Francisco, like (and into) everywhere else in America, like (and into) everywhere else in the world. The sex clubs are almost all gone, and 442 Natoma is set to close. We haven’t lost a gay bar in a few years, but the Stud is in a place that feels like purgatory, fighting for lease extensions months at a time. Stomper’s is a fading memory. We cling to what’s close at hand: the Leather Alliance took over the Catalyst, Wicked Grounds has a Patreon. And it’s not just gay/queer spaces – still nothing in the Brainwash building, a year later, or the nearby City Beer Store, which quit their space a few months after that.
From the cafes and thrift stores in the Mission to the bookstores and sex shops in the Castro to the sex spaces in SoMa, this has been a tough past few years. The City is historically a place of flux, constant change, beginnings and endings, coming and going, but the waves emanating through us all right now feel different, not unlike king tides lifted higher by the ongoing crush of climate change and rising sea levels. I see more going than coming, too many endings unaccompanied by new beginnings, death without rebirth. As I left to pick from the carcass of the Center for Sex and Culture, to grab a flyer from Mastrubatathon or something like that, it occured to me that losing the CSC neatly frames what’s happening to San Francisco: it’s becoming a city with neither sex nor culture.
When I think about what I see happening to San Francisco, I’m plagued by a feeling that I can’t quite describe, a collection of things I think I know but cannot prove. A way of conceiving of the experience of living under capitalism in the developed world is that we are constantly being sold a wealth of options, “experiences”, modes of leisure colonizing our free time and even our work time; things that we know are shoddy, or cheap, or false, but a totalizing falsehood, a world remade in the image of the economy but completely untethered by the productive forces that constitute it. This world imposes itself on our own by every means that it can, from the old media to the new media, to the trends and cultures and modes of existence it creates; this begins as an imposed desire, infects whole industries, and eventually remakes our thematic universe with its own images. This constructed unreality, alienated and alienating, the spectacle, is a crucial tool of domestication that seeks to appropriate the commons for its own purpose, which is to become sole proprietor of human experience. It was unleashed on American cities in the 1970s, when the neoliberal turn in finance and policy marked the dawn of a new era in urbanity. It is happening everywhere. What does this tell us?
This new era in urbanity seeks the appropriation of all space and time for the spectacle; new spaces for new experiences, new jobs for the workers whose work is in the creation of those experiences, new apartments for the workers who produce it and the creative aristocracy who oversee it (as well as the capitalists who finance it.) This means the freedom, the lawlessness, the uncertainty of outcomes, the furtive exploratory gestures towards something different – the détournement, spontaneous reclamation of negative space – had to be managed. For communities which could use this outside realm to reflect on themselves, explore cultural identities, this management would be devastating, waged by militarizing police. Once the police had done their job, then it could be done by realtors. “What is an up and coming neighborhood and where is it coming from?” Violence is daily life. The score seems to be settled. A new order imposed.
There are ways in which this reality is still shown to be contingent, manufactured, false, anything but inevitable. But we cannot defeat the forces that impose it upon us by looking into the history, performing past pantomime to ward off the spirits. We have to show the spectacle for what it is, find its constituent parts, trace the thread back to the ways it pulls the strings. We can’t do this by leaning into our identities; a past does not guarantee a future and a guilty verdict lain at the feet of our assailants will not revive the culture that they killed. Identities are reflections of the material and the experiential; they do not exist in a vacuum. Nor is it merely a question of class struggle; workers of the world unite, for sure, but let the materialism flow into all areas of life.
I guess I stick it out because I believe that history is always open to new chapters, new volumes; that if we engage with the world and what it seeks to impose tactically, we can expose the truth; that we can still build powerful collective movements that are capable of playing the game. Also, it’s not like it’s not happening everywhere.
As I was getting ready to leave the sale, I went into one of the bathrooms and saw a flyer for a sex party that happened long, long ago. It was a fantasia, a theme party that eroticized the building trades. It was happening at a club on a block of Folsom street that has long since been converted to skyscrapers, or at least rezoned to creative PDR. I thought about taking it down – what a fantastic artifact! – but decided not to, feeling conflicted. One thing I noticed was that it felt almost necrophilic – a kind of grave robbery, stealing tissue for an experiment, hoping to bring present praxis into a celebrated past by reviving a corpse of sewn-together organs. What for? Why bother? That culture has died once in San Francisco, and making collage out of it will not help me understand or replicate its first birth.
That celebrated gay- leather- cruising- culture, at least the one that is calcified in collective memory, is presented with rough edges softened, to the detriment of specific history. Confusion between presentation and practice that dislocates the material and substitutes the discursive; a higher premium and facility for discoursing about the thing is afforded over participating in the thing. In the absence of praxis, we can miss the ways that negative spaces – alleys, parks, unlit corners, spare bedrooms – were crucial to the formation of a culture that burst back into positive space. Now we have our street festivals, functions at respectable theaters and hotels, boat cruises and Disney, decent film, weddings, bourgeois politics; yet what of the alleys? Statues and placards adorn them, to memorialize the surrender of the commons. RIP.
I didn’t take the flyer. Instead, I feel we must plot a grander theft, stake out terrain, envision tactics in a new queer praxis. Out of the bars, into the streets. San Francisco currently embodies a spectacular contradiction: we are free insofar as we do as we’re told. It’s a domesticated freedom of choice, not a liberated freedom of wills, set in place by the false misunderstanding – we overestimate the generosity of the cultural rentier class at our own peril – that if we at least play by the rules then we’ll be spared the thing we dread the most. The surveillance is total, resistance is futile, if you engage you will be asked to leave. But are there weak points? We can find them. Can we swim against this current? We must try.
Disclaimer: This essay is an analysis based on my experience as an observer and participant in the Yes on F and No on H campaigns, not a statement made in my capacity as a local leader in DSA SF or as a candidate for Steering Committee. I attended the strategy meeting where we endorsed F, but other than that, was not party to the organizing that DSA SF’s Electoral, Housing, and Justice committees did to make their campaigns successful; I hope I’m not too far off the mark. Also, as I’m writing this, the ballot tabulation in the race for mayor has London Breed about 1600 votes ahead of Mark Leno with only a few thousand left to count. Breed seems to be the mayor-in-waiting, though it’s not technically a lock and I wouldn’t be surprised by a recount effort if the margin is close at the end of things.
Even as the agonizing ballot-counting process continues in the San Francisco mayor’s race, the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America had 2 big reasons to celebrate the outcomes of Tuesday’s primary election. Our chapter’s organizing efforts around props F and H resulted in two decisive victories that can serve as solid cornerstones of future organizing, and they show how our organization can effectively mobilize both offensively and defensively in elections. The circumstances surrounding the measures couldn’t possibly have been more different. Prop F – a civil right to counsel in eviction cases – was a measure that we had been powering since its inception at an endorsement meeting. Prop H – a campaign by the reactionary San Francisco Police Officers Association to deregulate their use of Tasers and limit oversight power by the civilian Police Commission – arrived after a contentious police commission meeting brought San Francisco’s years-long struggle against Tasers to a bitter end, and the DSA SF Justice committee took it upon itself to be the organizational home of the opposition.
Prop F was DSA SF’s first homegrown electoral campaign in its modern history, brought forward by veterans of Dean Preston’s 2016 supervisorial bid at an endorsement meeting late in 2017 (DSA SF member and local writer Chris Roberts recapped this well over at Jewish Currents.) It aimed to fulfill San Francisco’s long-empty promise of a civil right to counsel in evictions, proposed by then-Supervisor David Chiu in 2012. From signature-gathering (which culminated in a dramatic delivery of over 22,000 signatures to City Hall back in January) to months of lit-dropping, door-knocking, and phonebanking, DSA acted as home base for this measure, though we found allies in San Francisco’s broad constellation of tenants’ rights organizations, particularly the San Francisco’s Tenants Union. Passing civil right to counsel wasn’t a fight likely to attract much organized opposition, though we did see the SF Apartment Association and the Chronicle (lmao) were opposed. Our main goal was turnout; to give politically dormant renters (turnout in primaries skews towards older, less progressive, and home-owning voters) a compelling reason to vote – and for a ballot prop, which unaware voters are usually reticent to vote for, especially if it means new costs for the city.
Aided by the Mayor’s race brought on by the passing of Ed Lee, turnout we got. While the ballots are still being tallied, projections put our final turnout in SF at over 50%, which is usually unheard of except for presidential elections. We had to have a smart ground game to reach the voters we would need to put together 50% + 1, considering we had a pretty small budget and a staff of one. We had to be able to utilize the volunteer resources we got efficiently, build our capacity quickly, and hit every neighborhood in our list once, since we couldn’t manage more than one mobilization in a weekend. We were fortunate to have allies in San Francisco’s Anti-Displacement Coalition that helped us with literature distribution and outreach. We built capacity quickly. Experienced lit-droppers and door-knockers became canvassing trainers. Phonebanks regularly filled our office space, and we did internal outreach while we phonebanked voters, making sure we’d have enough people to cover our turfs that weekend, which we almost always did. We drilled scripts into our heads, and tweaked and tweaked as we built a base we would target. In the closing days of the election, we were the targets of a big ad buy by the SF Apartment Association, including on grindr (lol); we were the beneficiaries, conversely, of a progressive unity rally aimed at pushing a slate of candidates and ballot measures across the finish line. (There was a rad door hanger that I cannot find a single photo of online that said “FREE LAWYER FOR ANY EVICTED TENANT BUT ONLY IF YOU VOTE”, which is pretty tight.) And on election night, we won a civil right to counsel for all evicted tenants in San Francisco, which is already inspiring lawmakers across the Bay – and across the country – to enshrine this right for all tenants, not just the most needy. We may have passed the most important tenant protection in San Francisco since rent control, and though the implementation remains to be seen, we have a powerful tool that the most vulnerable tenants in San Francisco – like in Midtown, the public housing community that District 5 supervisor London Breed refused to meet with regarding the proposed demolition of their homes – can use to make their case. The organizing opportunities are plentiful here, but we can and should be out talking to folks about their rental agreements in the coming months, helping people understand their new right. The network we built to pass F is a part of the burgeoning tenant movement in California and the nation. I can’t wait to see what we do with it – and for other cities to try it as well.
Prop H was a different story, but DSA’s work with the coalition that has been fighting the SFPOA’s decade-plus-long attempt to arm SFPD with Tasers – San Francisco is one of the last holdout departments of any large city to not have them – along with our PAC, campaigning apparatus, and firm stance against police militarization set DSA SF, and the Justice committee, specifically, to be the home of the No on H operation. “Fuck yes on F!” was appended with “Hell no on H!” and with financial backing from the ACLU, we started to funnel our resources into defeating the SFPOA at the ballot box.
The POA may have overplayed their hand pretty badly with prop H. The police commission had already voted to give them Tasers, fast-tracking the one Department of Justice recommended reform that gave them a new weapon and ignoring hundreds of others, but the POA decided they wanted more. They sought a downgrade in their use-of-force policy that would’ve allowed them to use these lethal weapons on verbally noncompliant people, and they would’ve required another ballot initiative or an 8/11 Board of Supervisors vote to modify it. They got a comically misleading ballot question and funneled hundreds of thousand dollars into the campaign, and many opponents feared the challenge was insurmountable, that the deference to police that is so widely felt even in contemporary liberal society would allow the POA to stroll away with this one. Fortunately, we were very wrong. If DSA SF lore is to be believed, the Justice committee looked this threat right in the eyes and saw that they had to kill this measure because it wasn’t clear who else would.
The defeat of H showed that the once-powerful POA may be starting to lose its grip on local politics. Years of scandal, continued violence and brutality, and a population beginning to distrust police more and more in the years since Ferguson and the rise of Black Lives Matter may have given them a more unfavorable playing field than they expected. The near-universal condemnation of local leaders in political circles, activist groups, and faith communities left the POA with few institutional allies outside of SF’s more reactionary spheres. That DSA SF is actively involved in projects that seek to disarm, demilitarize, and disengage the police – from No on H dating back to the early work we put into the Good Neighbor Guide to Sweeps – is the foundation for what are hopefully lasting alliances against police and policing, against jails and incarceration. In San Francisco, we have income inequality that rivals developing nations. The class divide here is scarcely better illustrated than by the violence that is required to sustain it; to brutalize and dispossess the poor and homeless, to act as a well-armed buffer between gentrifiers and the gentrified. We saw their vision of public safety – for the compliant, for the beneficiaries of the status quo – decisively beat. Between F and H, I think it’s fair to say that after only a year and a half on SF’s political scene, DSA is leaving a lasting impression and providing organizational capacity for politics that are inconceivable in San Francisco’s Democratic political machine except for at its leftmost fringe. It’s not an exaggeration to say that prop F changed the game for tenants, and it’s not speculation to say that prop H failing will save lives. It’s political vision like this that will provide solid ground for us to stand on as the opposition to that machine.
Which brings me to the Mayor’s race. If the current margin holds, then we see yet another example of the city voting in favor of progressive policy but not its most outspoken progressive politician (prop C, the universal child care initiative brought forward by Jane Kim and Norman Yee, seems likely to pass, but Jane will not win the Mayor’s race; this is reminiscent of the 2016 November election that sent Scott Wiener to the State Senate while the voters passed Kim’s prop W to make City College tuition-free for SF residents.) However, with San Francisco’s top-3 instant runoff voting being utilized to its fullest potential yet, we came devastatingly, heartbreakingly close to beating Ron Conway’s political machine – he made no effort to conceal his preference for who would be the next mayor. And we saw the line between the city’s moderate Democrats and its small population of Republicans blurred; while Republican Richie Greenberg managed only a few percent SF’s votes for Mayor, Breed seeking the endorsement of former Reagan cabinet member George Shultz and the lion’s share of tech’s political expenditures makes it clear which side she was on. Ranked-choice voting makes it possible to analyze voting blocs that are appearing around political poles in local politics, ones that exist both within and beyond the local Democratic hegemony. While I don’t think breaking from the Democratic party locally is feasible at the time, I think we’ll start to see a base that engages in electoral contests strategically. In fact, I imagine that Kim’s base, which has sent second- and third- choice votes to Mark Leno over London Breed around 70%-20%, is a key part of that base.
DSA’s work continues into the next election cycle with both the Our City Our Home ballot initiative, the Coalition on Homelessness’ ambitious attempt to house 4,000 of our homeless neighbors permanently, and our endorsement of Tony Kelly, an esteemed local environmental activist who nonetheless faces an uphill battle against developer-backed candidates for Supervisor in San Francisco’s District 10. Organizing the forces that expanded Right to Counsel and defeated the POA into a political pole that is more explicitly and vocally anticapitalist than even the progressive wing of the local Democratic party is an onerous task, but one that we’ll need to accomplish if we want to seek political power – within or without the Democrats. And if we can effectively build and maintain that pole, then by the time London Breed is up for reelection, there may be hope to break the alliance between the moderate Democratic machine and big business in San Francisco for good. The key question is what happens between now and then – 18 months will be up before we know it.
Among pundit media analysts, there is very little disagreement that proponents of throwing me in the fucking sea say a lot of things on the subject that are misleading or wrong, and there is very little chance of an angry mob wielding pitchforks and torches dragging me from my home and out to the storm-tossed coast of the Atlantic where they will leave me to fend against the fierce riptides, thundering waves, and bloodthirsty sharks, even if the left does somehow regain the full power of government. Instead, defenders of that position make a different argument: by taking extreme positions, they say, the left creates more political room for rational reforms to take hold.
Throwing me in the sea “solves precisely none of the problems that have foiled every attempt to dispose of a centrist critic of left-wing movements in the frigid seas in American history,” concedes Ezra Klein, “[b]ut it stands an excellent chance of getting the the country quite a lot closer to doing so.” Clio Chang argues it “open[s] the door for all kinds of gruesome demises of a reviled commentator whom nearly everyone agrees is out-of-touch, content with the status quo, and actively harmful to left-wing progress.” Jared Bernstein agrees: “For far too long, Democrats have way over-negotiated with themselves, starting debates where they wanted to end up, and getting confounded by compromise with a loudly protesting victim. The Chait-in-the-Sea plan is one of the few I’ve seen for a long while that sees the folly in this and takes strong, corrective action.”
It is possible that this is true. On the other hard, it’s possible it’s not. Ocean conditions are hard to predict, and the dark depths of the sea can conceal many mysteries. Defending the act of throwing me to my watery demise as a force for good, without considering my ability to swim back to shore, or survive until I am rescued, puts a lot of weight on these uncertainties while ignoring drawbacks that are more plainly obvious, such as whether this mob can successfully apprehend me at my home or office and march me to the coast.
There is broad agreement among progressives that the United States would be much better off if it had thrown me into the sea, or accomplished some similar feat, many decades ago. Instead, the political columnist class in America has slowly but surely consolidated its consensus around the status quo, as the financial unsustainability of independent journalism and debate in a media landscape dominated by vanishingly few and increasingly powerful media conglomerates created by unregulated capitalism has resulted in fewer and fewer outlets willing to take even a remotely radical stance against it.
Throwing me into the sea now does not address this problem. Nobody really claims that it does. Their alleged contribution is to refuse to acknowledge the problem at all. They assume an outsized effect on the ethical and judgmental landscape of the commentariat, and dismiss criticisms of their plan as a defensive stance taken by a comfortable punditry that, out of craven self-interest, would not like to be thrown in the sea. They tell a different, much simpler story than other critics of the so-called corporate media. In their minds, the only important question is the ability of the fierce currents of the Atlantic ocean to rend me limb from limb and cast me into the depths for eternity, and the only obstacle to progress is the continued relevance and deference of the media-consuming masses to our narrow consensus against being thrown into the sea. (They omit the commentating elite of their own wing, most of whom would not much like to be thrown into the sea themselves, I presume.)
This is helpful if you believe heavily in the “Overton window,” a theory of politics which holds that the main trick is to have your favored idea framed as the centrist option between “radical” alternatives on either side. By moving the window towards throwing me in the sea, my would-be assailants create space for practical alternatives, like the commentators of major news outlets feeling compelled to offer ideological support for potentially radical changes to the social compact every once in a while. Meanwhile, they energize the masses with a simple, clear reason to revolt and instigate chaos. “Throwing [Chait] into the sea is a good way to demonstrate the revolutionary potential of the working class, for the downtrodden of America to rise up against an elite that cannot understand their struggle in anything but the most abstract terms,” argues Chang.
Suppose it is true that the thought of me being cast into the sea will entice a significant number of fed-up readers into the streets, with the intent of making me an example for the rest of the pundit class to notice. What happens if I am able to return safely to shore, aided by a friendly current or observant fishing boat? Does the mob curse fate for thwarting their ritual sacrifice, or each other for failing to consider an infinite number of possible outcomes of their poorly-thought-out act of retribution? The left failed to consider this before the infamous tar-and-feathering of a Wall Street Journal opinion writer last summer, yet they seem unwilling to learn from that experience.
The theory also dismisses the possibility that the mob who assembles in the street to drag me into the sea opens itself up to the attack that they are merely content to cause havoc and destruction, regardless of outcome, targets and principles be damned. They attempt to deflect this vulnerability by doubling down on personal attacks (“Jonathan Chait retire b*tch” and “Chonathan Jait” are familiar phrases to me at this point) and turning up the volume. It will work if the mob can execute its fantasy without losing the faith of the less-radical masses, who may be skeptical of their means if not necessarily their aims. Far-right radicals often get away with this kind of gambit – but only because they benefit from a partisan right-wing media ecosystem. The mob currently growing in strength and number outside of my home must run the gauntlet of an independent news media unlikely to let them drag me out to sea without harsh recrimination, not to mention the police, who are hopefully going to arrive any minute now, as a brick has smashed through a window of my foyer and I can hear the chants getting closer.
Again, it might work. But the mechanism by which it would is fairly perverse. It assumes that incremental progress is be- hey! Stop! Let go of me! Put me down! What are you doing?
Editor’s note: After Mr. Chait sent us his piece, which he have reproduced in full, he was taken from his home by an angry mob and thrown into the Hudson river. He was rescued by the coast guard after waving down a nearby tugboat, and while the experience was traumatic for him, he suffered no serious physical injury and is expected to recover. In the meantime, we have agreed to let Mr. Chait take a leave of absence, where he plans to spend time upstate, far away from large bodies of salt water.
I recently published a polemic about Trumpcare (Rot In Piss) at the San Francisco Phoenix, DSA San Francisco’s online journal for leftist thought. It’s not an endorsed position, but it argues that the problems with the GOP’s health care plan, and the weaknesses of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, are problems with capitalism and that taking on the insurance industry head-on is the only way to provide decent care for everyone, based on human need. Give it a read (and read up on the rest of what DSA SF is up to!) at the Phoenix.
There’s a cynical aphorism floating around San Francisco’s tech and tech-adjacent circles, stating that the start-up economy, especially of late, is primarily a wealth transfer from Venture Capitalists to landlords and developers. There’s no denying that the industry’s high salaries and real-estate budgets, bankrolled by deep-pocketed venture capital firms, are a driving force behind the Bay Area’s multi-year rent boom. From the skyline down to the sidewalks, you can see the effects that booming industry, and the attendant redevelopment and displacement, have had.
All over the city, especially in the eastern neighborhoods – close to BART, Caltrain, the freeways – new modern buildings have gone up to meet the demands of professional-class renters, with high rents to match. It’s very visible in SoMa, from the skyscrapers in the east, by the Embarcadero and the Bay Bridge and the ballpark, through the west, where the freeways empty out into warehouses, some converted into modern-looking offices, and an unsubtle mix of old Victorians and mid-rise metal-framed condo buildings. All this construction, according to developers and their allies in government and public dialogue, is meant to relax the stress placed on the housing market caused by the boom. But does it? One recent case study suggests otherwise.
At the corner of 8th and Harrison streets, the brand-new LSeven luxury development1.LSeven looms large over the western SoMa landscape. It’s within walking distance of BART, Muni, and a growing number of tech offices in the neighborhood – Thumbtack, Atlassian, Airbnb, and many more call the neighborhood home – as well as the similarly redeveloping mid-Market corridor, home to Twitter and Uber and Dolby. But the tenants haven’t shown up – at least not in the numbers the developer was expecting. So what is a corporate landlord to do when their units won’t rent at the exorbitant rates they’re asking? Some of the luxury developments in the neighborhood have begun to offer move-in specials as demand has cooled slightly. But L7 has opted to take a different path – by converting their unrented units into high-rent SRO housing with the help of Homeshare.
In a scheme reported by San Francisco Magazine2.SF Magazine that sounds potentially at odds with housing law, Homies are asked to provide their age, gender, and sexual orientation to Homeshare, who then aims to match them with compatible roommates with whom to move into a unit in one of the properties Homeshare contracts with (the others are 340 Fremont, in Eastern SoMa, Potrero 1010 at the foot of Potrero Hill, and Artistry and Parc on Powell in Emeryville.) Homeshare overfills these units by placing dividers up, subdividing bedrooms or common space to generate a comparable rate per square foot of space. Is this the venerated market intervening? We’re told that luxury building is necessary to meet demand. Yet when the renters never show up, the house finds a way to get its money back.
As luxury housing continues to spring up around western SoMa, redevelopment continually threatens the remaining character of the neighborhood. The historic Stud, up the block from LSeven, will almost certainly have to relocate once their business-saving agreement is up3.SFist. The Folsom street corridor has seen a spate4.Triptych, SFist of restaurant5.Citizen’s Band and Pinkie’s, SFGate closings, and others still are still on life support 6.Brainwash, SFist. Ground has finally broken on a towering micro-studio development 7.Socketsite across Dore from the Powerhouse, at the heart of the Folsom Street Fairgrounds and last half-block of SoMa’s famed Miracle Mile. What will happen if those don’t rent8.I have a suggestion? It’s impossible to tell, but it seems that for corporate landlords, capitulating on their sky-high demands and disappointing their investors is the least preferable option – and they’ll leave neighbors, renters, and housing activists in the lurch without a second thought.
Corporate landlords are changing the rules of the game and making it impossible to keep up. There’s no one quick fix that will ‘solve’ the housing problem, but letting developers such as LSeven take over whole blocks of land and use them as test tubes for experiments in late capitalism cedes ground to developers that will take monstrous effort to regain. A vision of housing in San Francisco – or anywhere – must put the needs of people before the profits of developers. We the people should not accept ‘innovation’ that manages our expectations of what homes ought to look like downward, especially not in a time and place where there is at once so much wealth and so much need. And for the people that devote their professional and personal lives to keeping the edgy, queer, kinky heart of western SoMa beating – we ought to be working to fight the sad possibility that the only pair of Jeremy Novy’s iconic bootprints left in the neighborhood might be within LSeven itself 9.Broke-Ass Stuart.
On January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump – the physical embodiment of every fucked-up instinct, insecurity, and preoccupation of the American psyche – will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. There is widespread fear that his administration, stacked with reactionaries and far-right demagogues and backed by a unified Republican congress, will be able to reverse every federal gain made in the realm of LGBT rights in the last 8 years. There is no hope, in the immediate future, of the patchwork of employment or housing laws that protect LGBTQ people completing itself and covering the country. No chance of a federal ban on the torture of queer youth. What is more likely – not guaranteed, because we cannot know these things, only make judgments based on what has already happened and is likely to continue – is a state-by-state assault on nondiscrimination ordinances, insidious ‘bathroom bills’ that are monstrous invasions of privacy targeting trans people, and the introduction of laws that turn the notion of religious freedom into a weapon that is, unsurprisingly, usually aimed at LGBTQ people. It is not a pleasant reality to consider.
But on January 20th, as in all uncertain times of protest and social upheaval, there is opportunity. An opportunity to show the onlookers around the globe what can happen when the people who dare to dream of a better world come together. There will be moments, on January 20th, when it feels like anything is possible. When the overwhelming presence of the crowds and the chants and the signs and the slogans transport and transform us, elevate us to a plane where we see not just the people in the crowd but the forces that brought us together and the power that is so very nearly in our grasp.
LGBTQ people, by and large, do not raise one another. Our relationships are usually not like those of our parents. Our coming-of-age stories are often marked by fear, deceit, and trauma, as we realize that the bodies we were given cannot fit the mold we were raised in no matter how we might try. But we have role models and influences. People who help us on our way. Breadcrumb trails, left by strangers, to whom we feel affinity nonetheless as we discover that our ideas about ourselves were not unique or wrong or shameful. Norms change, and the way society understands gender and sexuality does as well. But so long as there are people in the world living in places where nonconformity to those norms is punishable – by restricting access to bathrooms, or housing, or employment, or healthcare; by bullying, or harassment, or ostracizing; by institutionalization, or torture, or extortion, or death – it will be the responsibility of liberated LGBTQ people to fight like hell against those injustices and pass that hope on to a stranger who needs to know there is a better world out there.
So on January 20th, in these times and places when all things are possible, it is our duty to be the most transcendently queer versions of ourselves. Not just for one another – though certainly because it is how we come to know each other. Not just because projecting our self-image and identity gives us strength, though it is an individually empowering thing to do. Not just so we can look fierce for the news, though that certainly helps spread our truth. We come as our truest selves because our identities are a rebuttal to the social structures we overcame. We do it for the people everywhere, young and old, who need inspiration and guidance on their own path of discovery. We do it for the skeptics: the ones who question if we need a space in the revolution, as well as the ones who question if we need a revolution at all. We do it because any promise of a just future is incomplete unless we overcome – and ultimately overturn – the social barriers that force us to present half-selves in certain company.
On January 20th, if you are able, put on your best wig and marching heels and clean your leathers and put glitter on every damn thing and wear the clothes that makes you feel the most like you, whatever that means, and meet your neighbors in the street, and share your dreams with one another. So long as we have hope, it isn’t too late to start making them come true.
Race Bannon’s recent column in the Bay Area reporter, “Rallying the ‘Differents'”, left me with feeling of both excitement and frustration. He clearly understands the weight of our current moment, and offers up a much-needed call for unity as well as an equally-needed directive to keep being who we are, as loudly and proudly as ever, in the streets and the sheets. But as the tone climaxed to something just short of a call to arms, I felt let down as his fiery proclamations of strength in numbers and the power of coalition gave way to calls for individual action. Building our movement must come first.
As diagnosis of the threats now facing the LGBTQ, kink, and leather communities it is both clear-minded and much-needed. Given what we already know, we can expect renewed attacks on our public and private lives based on accusations of immorality, sinfulness, and supposed public risk. The impacts of mass moral panics like this are many. They exist on an individual level – such as harassment in public, the workplace, or online; violence committed by emboldened bigots with less fear of retribution; and targeted campaigns against private and public individuals that can destroy one’s career, living situation, social network, or basic sense of safety. They also exist on the societal – such as changes in sexual education policy, ‘Religious Freedom’ laws that give workers, both public and private, license to discriminate at will, and enshrinement into law conservative cultural norms, rigid familial structures, and damaging stereotypes that damage our ability to function in society and set back the fight for liberation. We must resist these shifts, and be ready and willing to offer ourselves up as examples of a strong, dynamic community that operates as a force of social good not just in spite of, but thanks to our embrace of nonconformity.
But a diagnosis is not a cure, and recognizing the enormity of the storm coming will not keep it from blowing us away when it makes landfall. The power of any community can only be expressed to the extent that it is organized and directed, all at once, at a shared goal or common enemy. What is to be done? Race calls on us to be political: join movements, run for office, support politicians and organizations that share our values and goals. Yes, obviously. And in order to accomplish any of that in a meaningful way, we need a coalition of our own. What force on earth is weaker than the feeble power of one? Race acknowledges this, but not in much detail and to no specific end. We must go further.
What happens when we assemble our rainbow tent? We must work quickly to establish a purposeful unity. It is crucial to recognize that to fight for our common goals, we must set down the exclusionary tendencies that often define our social structures in the LGBTQ and kink communities. There can be no compromise on the equality of everyone in our fight, and we must explicitly state points of unity and a mission that reflect that. Once we’ve accomplished this, we gain access to tools that can truly make an impact. Conscious consumption becomes an organized boycott. A few people on the street corner becomes a march to City Hall. Your phone call to your representative (who, for most San Franciscans, is Nancy Pelosi, just yesterday chosen again to be House Minority Leader) becomes a communication shutdown. But there is no power without powerful unity, and to start anywhere but there is to waste precious time and effort.
And we must not only look at the coming storm, but also the shaky ground on which we stand. We can, and should, celebrate the ascension of LGBT people to seats of power in government and positions of prominence in industry. But we cannot ignore the realities we face at home of a city that becomes a little less queer on the first of each month, of our bars and businesses and playspaces facing uncertain futures, of a community that is more fractured beneath the surface than our rainbow crosswalks and sidewalk placards suggest. Any movement that we build must face these realities and seek to mitigate them practically and politically. San Francisco is a place where so much LGBTQ history is written, and will continue to be if we are the ones to make it. But lasting change cannot come from above. If our leaders capitulate to power, if the corporations that sponsor our parades and festivals abandon us, we must be willing and able to hold them to account by whatever means possible. We have to leverage the force of everything we do to make San Francisco a haven – the bars we pack every weekend, the fairs and festivals we host for visitors to throng at in the summer, the businesses that bring in the venerable “gay dollar” – and use that to the advantage of all of us.
Race named a few organizations worthy of our support at this time, ones who seek to protect sexual freedom from the meddling hands of reactionary prudes. I would suggest that we look at a couple others as well, as models of how to organize in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We don’t have to go back in time far at all to see how, when facing existential threat, our community rallied to defeat someone powerful – among the many electoral disappointments from November 8th, there was a victory against Proposition 60 worth celebrating. Facing an insurmountable spending gap bankrolled by Michael Weinstein’s AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and an ugly campaign that tapped into societal disdain for sex work and sex workers, as well as moral panic over widely-misunderstood public health risks, the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee and the Free Speech Coalition organized a campaign that defeated a measure that many thought was sure to pass. We should read their playbook as we prepare for the political fights that are coming.
So, in summary: Race is right. Now’s the time to act, but we cannot waste our time going about it alone. Let’s build something together – something that takes the anger and fear and hope we feel now, and converts it into change by combining it with every skill and strategy we have to offer in the presence of radical ideas. A machine, powered by the hearts and minds and hands and feet of ordinary people with a common cause. We must assemble ourselves, keep our people safe and our institutions intact, and find our points of unity that will define our work – not just now, or for the next few years, but for the rest of our lives. The work will not be easy, but it will be made easier by the fact that we are doing it together. Will you join us?