How a Petty Tyrant Turned a Functional DSA Branch into a Church
by Benjamin Studebaker
I have another DSA story. If you haven’t heard, the DSA is the Democratic Socialists of America. It’s a left-wing organization that’s been around since 1982, but it’s become politically more significant over the last couple years. Inspired by Bernie Sanders, DSA’s membership has expanded from 6,000 to about 60,000 over the last few years. The DSA is committed to lots of nice things, like a Medicare-for-All Single Payer system. Today I want to tell you the tale of the decline and fall of Pittsburgh DSA. It’s just one branch, but as I continue to write about the DSA and people continue to send me their stories, it’s become increasingly clear that this sort of thing is happening again and again, all over the country.
In the beginning, Pittsburgh was a great branch. As recently as six months ago, there were 1,000 dues-paying members. There were four elected officials in Pittsburgh who had won with the aid of the branch’s endorsement and hard work, and the branch was running a wide array of issue-based campaigns in the city on labor, housing, and more. The success of the branch in the 2017 elections led many more candidates to seek its support in 2018. Everything was looking up.
But there was a group of people who didn’t like the direction the branch was headed in. My Pittsburgh sources refer to them as “the clique”. Rather than contest elections within the branch, the clique holds invitation-only meetings at private residences, preponderantly the home of Dara Levy-Bernstein. From here, the clique intervenes in chapter politics to promote its own agenda and undermine the agenda of the elected leadership. My sources give me a couple key examples:
- A black reverend running for mayor sought the chapter’s endorsement. In his announcement speech he denounced homophobia and transphobia, and he affirmed that LGBTs are equal citizens entitled to equal protection under the law. Nevertheless, because he is a reverend, the clique spreads rumors online that he secretly harbors homophobic and transphobic views. Under the influence of the clique, the reverend is not given a chance to respond directly to the accusations and goes without endorsement.
- Throughout the 2018 campaign, activists who question the clique–even in an ad hoc fashion, in private messages with members–are slowly driven out of the organisation through coordinated campaigns of online and in-person bullying, harassment, intimidation, and abuse. These harassment campaigns involve accusing the person of being an outside infiltrator or of various kinds of ideological immorality–racism, sexism, the phobias, etc. In one particularly absurd case, a member is pushed out simply for claiming that there is almost always a moral obligation to save the life of a human-being over that of an animal.
After slowly bleeding the chapter for a while, the clique staged its coup. In mid-May of 2018, despite the recent election of two DSA-backed state representatives, the clique used a sparsely attended bylaws convention to rewrite the chapter’s rules, stripping the extant co-chairs of authority and instating a new “coordinating committee” made up of its own members. This committee claims it is standing in until new co-chairs can be elected and is defending the organisation from the co-chairs’ alleged failures. They immediately instate a new rule that criticism of the chapter is grounds for expulsion.
A black candidate for District Attorney seeks the organisation’s endorsement. Again, he is accused of having ties to a homophobic and/or transphobic church. The DA candidate does admit that he personally views homosexuality as a sin, but has no intention of acting on this belief politically. Nevertheless, the branch rejects him and the members who were intending to work on his campaign pull out.
Shortly thereafter, Darnika Reed, a member of the clique as well as a variety of centrist organisations in the city, storms a branch meeting with a group of activists. She accused the “co-chairs” of racism, even though at this point they had already been removed from power. She accused one of the state representatives elected with the help of DSA of being “not actually a real socialist”. She then claimed that it was racist to criticise or work against black establishment Democrats because this threatens the power of the black community. She then alleged that it is racist for DSA to work in black districts because DSA is a majority-white organisation, despite the fact that all DSA endorsed candidates in Pittsburgh were running in white-majority districts. To put a cherry on top of the whole thing, she alleged that those who had given up on the DA for homophobia and transphobia were racist for abandoning a black candidate.
The chapter responded to this display by scheduling a series of “time to listen” meetings in which Darnika and her group were treated as the legitimate representatives of the black community. At these meetings, Darnika demanded that the chapter write a formal letter of apology to the black community and to the DA candidate. It was subsequently revealed that Darnika herself had become affiliated with his campaign.
Some members attempted to offer resistance, but the clique came for them viciously:
- If you were a white or male dissenter, your dissent was evidence of your racism or sexism. Members who openly pointed out that the time taken up by Darnika’s intervention and by these meetings showed disregard for workers, parents, and disabled people with limited time were deemed “white supremacist”.
- If you were a person of color or female, your dissent was evidence that you were a “token”.
- At least one member was accused of being an agent of the incumbent DA candidate.
Today the chapter’s membership is decimated. Only around 50 members attended the February 2019 general meeting. The meetings at Dara’s house continue, where bonfires are fuelled with paper on which the clique’s members have scrawled names including “Bernie Sanders” and “Elizabeth Bruenig”. They refer openly to a “purge list” of problem members who ought to eliminated next. It sounds like something out of Death of Stalin:
The attempt to centralise power around an unaccountable committee, the paranoid purges of potential enemies within the organisation–it all sounded to me like the hallmarks of a tankie organisation, one committed to a revolutionary strategy and opposed to democratic politics outright. But when I asked my sources if they believe the clique is ideologically anti-democratic, they resisted this frame.
While Dara self-identifies as Marxist-Leninist, the clique has purged not merely democratic socialists but many socialists of other tendencies and traditions. The only principle to which the clique seems persistently committed is that of its own power, and the principal strategy it uses to pursue power is the affiliation of its perceived enemies with immoral ideologies. The clique contains and makes alliances with centrists like Darnika, if those centrists are willing to support the clique and speak in the language the clique propagates. All the while the clique hypocritically claims to protect DSA from “careerists” who are interested in political power. Theirs is a careerism of anti-careerism. By opposing everyone in Pittsburgh who tries to do anything meaningful for anyone, they have turned the DSA branch into an irrelevant organisation. Candidates no longer seek its support or become involved with it. Its campaign sign-up lists are passed about at meetings and return largely empty. More and more members become inactive or leave the organisation outright, both voluntarily and as a result of the incessant, endless purging.
Indeed, my sources report that Dara speaks openly of wanting “a ‘left’ movement that acts as a secular alternative to religious community”. The goal is a pure organisation in which everyone speaks the way Dara wants them to speak, where the most virtuous gather at Dara’s home to provide Dara with the community she lacks, where Dara is respected and feared in much the same way that a religious cult leader is respected and feared. Her history reflects this–she was previously expelled from the Israeli Communist Party for “internal subversion”. It seems that every time Dara joins an organisation she must attempt to turn it into a personal fiefdom where she dictates church doctrine.
Despite all the horrifying things Dara and Darnika have done to this organisation, I admit to feeling a certain degree of sympathy. These are clearly deeply alienated people who have been forced to retreat into political organising to find the meaning and community they cannot get outside it. Capitalism regularly creates miserable people, and miserable people lack the psychological resources to put the needs of the community or the movement ahead of their own. They are themselves emotionally under-resourced, and we cannot expect people with this much pain inside them to protect others from their pain.
But you know what we can do? We can prevent such people from penetrating our organisations. When clearly unwell people begin storming into meetings and seizing microphones, or spreading malicious rumors about members on the internet, we don’t have to defer to them on the basis of their background. We don’t have to let them hide behind identity politics as an excuse for bullying and viciousness. We are entitled to say that people like Dara and Darnika in no way represent the kind of politics we wish to be part of and to deny that these self-appointed representatives of oppressed groups speak for those groups in any meaningful way. We are entitled to call this what it is–a cynical attempt to turn the left’s compassion for women and people of color against it, to use the left’s willingness to defer to oppressed voices to subjugate and destroy left-wing organisations as functional political forces.
Why do they do it? Because these people don’t care about having functional left-wing organisations–they care about forcing large numbers of people to listen to them and to help them fill the gaping holes in their hearts. That is the work of support groups and churches–it must not be the work of the Pittsburgh DSA, if the Pittsburgh DSA is to matter to anyone but the people who attend its ever-shrinking meetings.
There is another way. In and amongst the tales of woe I read this week, I saw one lovely story about the Providence DSA branch in Rhode Island, which recently endorsed a state senator without fanfare. Strong institutional rules must be created to protect branches like this from outside agitation and seizure, and to rescue lost branches from the cliques and cults that hold them hostage. DSA needs an anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy effective in every branch, no one should ever be permitted to storm a meeting, and all branches should have a clear commitment to combining social movement building with electoral campaigning. Branches which permit systemic harassment and reject electoral politics are not meaningfully committed to democracy or to political organising more generally. Many individual branches seem incapable of holding themselves to these standards. The national organisation must have the power to enforce them, and if some branches are not willing to accept the national organisation’s decisions they should be cut loose. Many members of DSA are strongly committed to maintaining the autonomy of the branches, but this has only served to weaken the organisation and permit large numbers of members to be bullied and abused without limit. Continued decentralisation means not only continued political irrelevance, but a toxic atmosphere in which petty tyrants know they can treat people like garbage without oversight.
An additional in-chapter source argues that the bylaw convention had a normal level of attendance (with about 10% of the chapter attending) and that the decision was more democratic than this piece alleges. This source also claims there were three votes on separate occasions, and the decision to create the new committee survived all three votes. However, this same member still says that “Any electoral expertise we had built has been slowly eroded over the course of 2018 and 2019 and it has absolutely kneecapped the chapter.”
Another source claims that this bylaw convention produced a vote of just 34 to 34, with a presiding chair (not one of the co-chairs) breaking the tie and with power immediately transferred to the new committee at the end of this first meeting, calling into question the legitimacy of subsequent confirmatory votes.
So while there is some disagreement among these sources as to the extent to which the transfer of power from the co-chairs to the committee was democratic, the sources agree that the chapter was poorly run after this took place.
Another source claims that the clique did not play a role in opposing the reverend, and that the candidate for DA has only just now told chapter leaders that he plans to seek the chapter’s endorsement at the April 16 endorsement meeting. This source claims that Darnika became involved specifically to pursue a vendetta against Summer Lee, an elected official endorsed by the chapter. The source also claims to have been harassed by the clique and to have seen a “hate list”.