The first two months of 2020 were the busiest months of Austin DSA’s existence. Debate watch parties, canvasses, planning meetings, and fundraisers filled up nearly every day of January and February as the Texas 2020 primaries approached on March 3.
As 2019 ended, the chapter was significantly ramping up electoral efforts with a newly-formed Bernie committee and a heavy investment into chapter leader Heidi Sloan’s congressional campaign. A new Leadership Committee was also elected in January, alongside five chapter priorities for 2020: agitational campaigns (including the existing Green New Deal campaign work), labor, YDSA, class-struggle elections, and political education.
All of this activity and work is starkly contrasted with the current state of affairs where Zoom meetings dominate our organizing. However, Austin DSA has continued to grow and bring in new socialists since March 3 ended the Bernie and Heidi campaigns in Austin.
Class Struggle Elections in Texas
Bernie Sanders and Heidi Sloan, paired with chapter endorsements for Travis County Attorney candidate Dominic Selvera and District Attorney candidate José Garza, offered Austin DSA a major opportunity to grow, develop leadership, and model what class-struggle elections can look like, even in Texas.
After an endorsement for Heidi Sloan in July 2019 and a campaign launch in August, the chapter’s electoral work began to grow. Heidi was a respected organizer within Austin DSA, a leader on campaigns for paid sick days and Medicare for All. She and several others in the chapter spent hours planning, consulting chapter membership, and building support for the potential campaign. There was an explicit understanding that the campaign would not go forward unless DSA endorsed and became the backbone of the campaign, bringing a significant ground game and fundraising presence. As a result of this internal organizing and a clear idea of how the chapter and campaign would interact the chapter immediately mobilized and began building out campaign infrastructure.
In November, the chapter passed a resolution establishing a local DSA for Bernie Sanders campaign, granting a launching point for the next six months of activity. As the resolution states, our goal was to establish “a Bernie Campaign Committee…to steer a campaign with the objectives of electing Bernie Sanders, recruiting working-class people to DSA and our movement, and using excitement around Bernie’s campaign to strengthen Austin DSA’s other work and campaigns.”
This committee also became the vehicle for Austin DSA to participate in the national DSA Bernie campaign and independent expenditure. In addition to being the majority of Sanders’ Austin field operation from November to February, this allowed the chapter to merge much of Heidi Sloan’s field work with the Bernie work. The combined Bernie/Heidi campaign committee focused heavily on engaging new members as active leaders of events, canvasses, and political speaking. Over six months later, we are still seeing the positive effects of these campaigns, a sign that we have been successful even though Bernie’s campaign ended shortly after the Texas primaries.
From July 2019 to March 3, 2020, Super Tuesday, Austin DSA gained 226 new members. Over 200 people have joined Austin DSA since Super Tuesday ended Bernie and Heidi’s campaigns in Texas, many of them first becoming active in the chapter during these electoral campaigns. This influx of new membership has helped the chapter to continue growing even in the era of COVID-19.
However, this growth and activity was not inevitable. Instead, it is the result of a class-struggle campaign that engaged working-class people in and around Central Texas, understanding that Bernie Sanders was opening a brief window of heightened class consciousness.
The chapter’s electoral work was fundamentally built around bringing in new members to DSA through external events, each of which featured political discussion to underscore why we were engaged in the campaigns. Through a combination of political speeches before canvasses, reading and discussions of political writing, and actively practicing canvassing, the campaign ensured that members were learning the political knowledge and organizing skills necessary to continue the fight for socialism after the campaign’s conclusion.
The backbone of this campaign work was the aptly named Big Ass Canvasses, which started with a goal of besting the largest canvasses in chapter history at 75 people and ended with a final canvass of over 200 people. Canvasses were held daily throughout the final weeks of the campaign, ranging from larger weekend canvasses to small distributed canvasses led by members around the district.
Prior to these campaigns, Austin DSA had put on canvasses for several other campaigns, including paid sick days in 2017, Medicare for All throughout 2018, and the Green New Deal in 2019. While these were largely successful campaigns, the chapter had never scaled up operations to this degree. It would have been an impossible task without an intentional plan to constantly train, develop, and offer opportunities for leadership to newly activated members.
The campaign committee was broken down into two sub-committees, one to handle canvasses and one to handle all other external events, many of which were debate watch parties. All of these events, from raucous debate watch parties to quiet fundraisers, were structured to offer immediate opportunities for new members and volunteers to get involved canvassing and phonebanking. This combination of social events and ground campaigning, always framed by the politics we fight for, was effective in growing campaign leadership from a small group of established DSA members into several dozen people all engaged in planning and executing events.
March 3, election day, did not bring the results we wanted, but we should be proud of what we were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. There is now a deep bench of socialist organizers in Austin who will be able to apply the skills they learned to our next campaign. In addition, there are hundreds of new members in the chapter who are now attending our more regular chapter events, participating in Socialist Night Schools, phonebanks, and campaign strategy meetings, each of them also developing their politics and organizing skills to be able to contribute as leaders in the future. While not every DSA member needs to be a leader, we do all need to be equipped to speak about our beliefs in order to continue to build socialist power and convince our coworkers, friends, and family that a better world is possible without capitalism.
Organizing in the Time of Coronavirus
The end of these major campaigns coincided with the onset of COVID-19 in Texas, of course bringing the chapter’s public gatherings to a screeching halt. We quickly shifted our meeting plans to Zoom and began figuring out what kind of organizing could be done in the shadows of both a global pandemic and the conclusion of our chapter’s highest level of activity.
The chapter’s first online general meeting was attended by over 100 people, a sign that membership realizes the importance of our politics in the midst of deep public health and economic crisis. Since mid-March, we’ve found our footing in new and ongoing work and are looking for more ways to continue our fights.
While three of our electoral campaigns had concluded, José Garza’s bid for Travis County District Attorney continues to a runoff later this year, allowing us to continue to fight for a local class-struggle candidate who would end cash bail and ensure that murderous cops would be charged as such. Mutual-aid efforts gained momentum over the last two months, with members helping create and support mutual-aid pods in their apartments and neighborhoods. Our Feminist Action Committee is continuing their efforts to raise money for abortions throughout Texas even while the state threatens reproductive rights during the pandemic.
Our members have also gotten involved in several national DSA campaigns in response to the coronavirus crisis, including the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), the Restaurant Organizing Project (ROP), the #DSA4USPS campaign, and the COVID-19 bulletin. These are campaigns that have the organizational strength of a nationwide socialist organization behind them but that rely on the efforts of people around the country to organize workers to exert their power. National coordination has become especially important as geographical barriers become less pronounced and we face unprecedented disruption of jobs in industries that are almost completely unorganized.
Thousands of protesters have been marching through the streets of Austin demanding justice for not only George Floyd, but also Mike Ramos, a Black man killed at the hands of Austin police a month before Floyd.
Austin DSA members have been protesting and supporting those in the streets since the protests began. On June 7, the Austin DSA Leadership Committee published a resolution detailing immediate steps for the chapter to take, supporting local city council resolutions to call for defunding the police, reallocating funds to other public health and safety programs, and taking away weapons that had already injured local protesters. Knowing that we needed to determine a chapter plan democratically and with all members involved, the chapter held a special voting meeting to vote on a resolution drafted by the membership outlining our demands and plans for supporting the protest movement and fighting for the defunding of Austin police. While these plans are just getting underway, we are seeing many new members get involved for the first time, bringing an energy and urgency that matches the moment.
Internally, members new and old are helping to conduct political education and organizer training every week. A mobilizer program was put together to call every new member to ask them about their situation during COVID and to help them get involved in chapter activities. We know that people join DSA with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and political development, and that it is our job to ensure there are opportunities to expand their organizational and political skills.
Socialists must continue to hone these tools, especially as the conditions surrounding us remain so turbulent. While we will not have every answer or plan, we should be working to prepare ourselves to deliver sharp analyses for any situation that arises. Although our electoral campaigns did not yield all the victories we wanted, the losses highlight our need for a long term plan, for strategies and tactics that anticipate the long road ahead for our movement.