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What Democrats can learn from the Democratic Socialists about rebuilding the left

The Democratic Socialists of America have mounted a tenants’ rights campaign in Washington, DC. This photo taken April 2, 2014 shows children playing in the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood.
The Democratic Socialists of America have mounted a tenants’ rights campaign in Washington, DC.
Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

On a recent Saturday afternoon, 11 aspiring socialists joined together in a public library in Northeast Washington, DC, to try to clog up the city’s eviction machine. The meeting room was yellow, with a clock set at the wrong time and streamers on the wall left over from somebody’s birthday party.

Gathered around me are members of the DC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. DSA membership has skyrocketed from 7,000 to 30,000 members nationwide since Trump’s election, and this meeting was yet more evidence of the new energy in the organization. It was one of the two weekly canvassing meetings for the new Stomp Out Slumlords campaign (SOS), which encourages people facing eviction to get their day in court.

It’s a worthy campaign in its own right. But it also typifies the wide variety of experiments with bottom-up organizing happening spontaneously across the country, often under the radar of the media. Such organizing is changing the nature of the left in the Trump era. Rather than just navel-gazing on social media — something the DSA has an unfair reputation for — these activists are building on past political movements while working through the thorny issues facing progressives in their “out” years. Democrats and the broader liberal movement that’s looking to rebuild, and reinvent itself, should pay heed.

Empowering tenants and identifying “choke points” in a biased system

A Stomp Out Slumlords training session — a project of DC’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America
A Stomp Out Slumlords training session — a project of DC’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America
Mike Konczal

Landlords count on tenants not showing up for their eviction court dates; for them it means an automatic victory. Landlords also count on tenants’ ignorance about other options open to them, like reasonable repayment programs, free legal counsel, or potential legal counterattacks. (If the properties are neglected, as is often the case, tables can be turned on landlords.) The main purpose of SOS is to raise the cost of eviction by persuading tenants to show up and fight back.

Before the volunteers hit the streets to canvass, they get 30 minutes of training. There are some basic rules: Don’t give legal advice yourself — but advise people to seek legal counsel from a list of contacts. Get phone numbers for follow-up. Ask concrete questions about tenants' plans for their court date (“Can you take the day off work?”), to be sure they’re thinking about the logistics. If someone’s not home, leave a pamphlet in the door, folding it so the word “eviction” isn’t visible to other neighbors. Finally, make sure you use the email and website for, as is a “Cops for Kids” website run by the Dane County Deputy Sheriff's Association.

Stomp Out Slumlords was born this way: At a DSA party earlier this spring, two people who had recently joined the organization, and who work around housing issues, were introduced to each other by Marge McLaughlin, the chair of DSA DC. (They’d prefer not to be named so their employers don’t learn about their political activities.) They decided they should do a project together, and took their idea to the broader District of Columbia DSA community.

Informing tenants of their rights, and pointing them toward helpful organizations — like the DC Bar and the Landlord-Tenant Resource Center — is the first of three SOS goals.

A more systemic ambition is to do enough of this to flood the courts with people seeking to exercise their rights. SOS views the courts as a choke point in a system heavily tilted against tenants; like landlords, the courts assume most people won’t show. When they do show, the courts get overloaded and evictions slow. (The tactic Is partly inspired by Poor People’s Movements by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward.) The ultimate goal is to motivate tenants themselves to become activists — to create “cadres” devoted to the anti-eviction cause.

At first, organizers would go to the courthouse to pull public records of eviction court dates. Then they became available online, and a team of volunteers used their off-hours to keep a database up-to-date.

SOS plugs a very specific gap in DC housing activism. Most tenants' rights organizing here is centered on creating groups in specific buildings to pressure landlords on subjects ranging from maintenance to preventing displacement. Groups like Empower DC and ONE DC lead these campaigns, which require long-term relationship building. SOS, in contrast, gives people who want to work on tenant issues in their spare time a way to do so — simultaneously strengthening ties within the DSA and the broader community.

From coding to designing fliers to knocking on doors

There’s something magical in watching a bunch of talented people contributing their wide-ranging specific skill set to a problem like eviction. A professional graphic designer made the Anti-Eviction Operations Manual, which outlines goals and best practices for the campaign, as well as the pamphlets all canvassers carry.

Professional coders work at scraping the eviction court data from the website, freeing up more time for canvassing. DSA members with professional data expertise use court records to study the effectiveness of the campaign. They’ve found that contact with a canvasser indeed increases the odds of a court appearance, and decreases the chance of eviction.

The activists behind Stomp Out Slumlords are collecting evidence of the effectiveness of their interventions. A “default judgment” typically means the court sided with the landlord because the tenant did not show up in court.
The activists behind Stomp Out Slumlords are collecting evidence of the effectiveness of their interventions. A “default judgment” typically means the court sided with the landlord because the tenant did not show up in court.

While data is great, the project hinges on people knocking on doors. I go out with Ajmal Alami and Emmett Parks, both 22 years old. Ajmal, visiting DC from Virginia Tech, joined DSA last August, and also serves as co-chair of YDSA, the national student wing of DSA. He joined casually, he says, but quickly “[your] life becomes consumed by socialism. That’s how DSA happens to people.” This was Ajmal’s fourth tenant-canvassing trip, and he was training Emmett, who was on his first.

Emmett, from just outside DC in Silver Spring, was working on Montgomery County’s successful $15 minimum wage campaign when he got interested in DSA, which was also active in the campaign.

The pair were knocking on doors in Deanwood, a neighborhood in Ward 7 in the far Northeast part of DC — an older, majority-black area that’s one of the poorest in Washington. The unemployment rate is some two-thirds higher than in DC as a whole. The area is clearly on track for rapid gentrification: You see signs for new luxury condos destined to arise in empty lots.

A lot of their time is spent just figuring out how to get to people’s doors. The front doors of some buildings are missing a working lock, itself a housing-code violation they note on their clipboard. One woman invites the two in to talk about the back-payment arrangement she was able to work out with her landlord. (Under DC law, if you’re invited into a building by a tenant, you can’t be kicked out.) Even with such payment agreements, landlords often push for eviction.

Mainstream Democrats dismiss the DSA as being more interested in flaunting a lefter-than-thou attitude than doing hard political work. But this project belies that.

As do many other DSA campaigns. In New Orleans, members are hosting brake-light replacement clinics — broken tail lights being one of the most common reasons people are pulled over by the police. In North Texas, DSA is sponsoring free flu vaccine clinics. There are multiple DSA campaigns testing out Medicare for All canvassing strategies.

SOS was designed to reflect what worked and didn’t in Occupy Our Homes, which grew out of the 2011 Occupy movement. Taking over spaces to prevent evictions is extremely time-intensive (obviously), and a tactic rarely requested by the tenants themselves. Some participants in that movement also detected too much of a “client” mentality among activists: People were serving individuals instead of empowering them.

The straightforwardness of what SOS does helps defuse potential class and racial tension: Canvassers don’t present themselves as saviors but as providers of tools and resources. The Democratic Party leadership, worried as it is about how to simultaneously negotiate the terrain of race and class, might learn quite a bit from the project.

As Ajmal and Emmett come to the last names on their clipboard, they have one of those moments that make a hard day’s work worthwhile. The last building is a poorly maintained one close to the neighborhood train stop. Three out of the 12 residents facing an eviction summons on the same day.

An older black female resident notices the two canvassers as they’re trying to figure out how to get into her building. She says she’s lived there for almost 50 years and is facing eviction; organizers from a different group bought her some time. The landlord was forced to make overdue repairs to her apartment, and now she was now on a back-rent repayment plan.

She volunteered to help Ajmal and Emmett connect with other residents. She let them know problems each had had with their landlord, and offered tips on how to approach each person. The woman took some pamphlets and promised to spread the word.

Thousands of words have been spilled on opinion pages about how the left ought to remake itself. But the first step of any new political movement begins with small groups of people finding each other and going out into the world.

Mike Konczal, a Vox columnist, is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. He also blogs at Rortybomb, and his Twitter handle is @rortybomb.

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