Member Spotlight: Eric
We often say DSA is a “big tent”. It’s true that we all come from different backgrounds, but every one of our unique experiences has brought us to the same conclusion: A better world is possible, and it is ours to build. The following is the tenth in a series of stories told by our members about the events and experiences that led them to the Left.
Growing up in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama in the late 80s, I was drawn to the punk scene’s culture of rebellion – a gateway that led me to the Left.
At the time, Nazi skinheads were the bastard children of the punk scene. They were thoroughly reactionary and racist, and would turn up to shows looking for a fight. They’d get into the pit and start shoving and swinging. Punching them in return was just self-preservation. The Nazis were looking for racist sh*t to do that didn’t stop at being dicks at shows. Fighting back to protect one another turned us kids in the scene into political allies, and opened many up to broader conclusions about what was wrong with society. We probably spent more time getting chased by Nazis than chasing them in the early days, but we didn’t always run, and they didn’t always have the balance of force in their favor.
One of the key moments for me was when the Nazis defaced a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Kelly Ingram Park by spray painting “KKK” on it. A friend told me about a bookstore in Birmingham run by the Socialist Workers Party. It was there I found my first introduction to socialism. The SWP convinced me to organize something to respond to this vandalism. I agreed and they connected me with other leftists and older civil rights organizations. We formed a coalition and planned a rally where I emceed and introduced all kinds of people to speak, including warriors from the “Old Left” and the Civil Rights movement.
Nazi skinheads were having a heyday in the headlines back then. Across the country they were known for their violence. I found an ad for the “John Brown Anti Klan Committee” in a punk zine call MaximumRockandRoll where you could order a “Just say No to Nazis Kit”. I ordered it, and we used it to make stickers and connect with a national network of anti-racist youth orgs called Anti Racist Action, as well as anarchist groups coming together across the country. We started an ARA chapter and planning our own actions. At the same time, we became involved in other political causes like escorting at abortion clinics and later protesting the first Gulf War, where I joined the first nationally organized “Black bloc” at the national anti-war protest in Washington, D.C.
My worldview was expanding while the world was going to sh*t. The deeply absurd imperial pageantry of the Gulf War and the array of colorful dictators graduating from the School of the Americas I learned about from Central America solidarity activists opened my eyes to broader issues. I started thinking more and more deeply about how sick our country is, and what kind of society I wanted to live in. I gravitated to a network of anarchists who were forming a national network organized around a new national anarchist newspaper, Love and Rage.
The image from this graphic was from an anti-KKK protest I attended in Ann Arbor Michigan in 1998 that marked the defeat of a multi-year organizing drive by the KKK in the Midwest.
Later, the anti-racist struggle called me to Minnesota where I moved to join an anti-racist summer project in St Paul run by Love and Rage and Anti Racist Action, but once I arrived I plugged into the anarchist scene there. I found a new community that I completely immersed myself in just in time to participate in the wave of protests and rebellions that shook the country in response to the Rodney King verdict.
I wasn’t arrested for the first time until later that year after I had moved to Chicago after our summer project ended. It was Columbus Day – the quincentenary of the original voyage no less; a celebration on steroids in Chicago – so naturally my anarchist comrades and I went about putting up resistance posters along Chicago’s parade route. We got ourselves arrested, but not for being the subversive anarchists we fancied ourselves. It turns out the Chicago PD were running a dragnet and just arresting everybody as they searched for members of Chicago’s Independista movement – a group of freedom fighters targeted by the FBI in the 90’s for standing up for Puerto Rican self-determination.
In Chicago I continued doing anti-racist work in the streets and at counter protests. Operation Rescue had gone on the offensive against abortion clinics, so physically defending clinics was a big part of our work as well.
I punched a few Nazis and included some anti-choice clinic protesters for good measure.
Over my time in Chicago, I realized that for all the organizing we were doing, we weren’t really connecting with the people in these communities where we lived and worked. While we thought we were doing all these really radical things, the working class people of color in these communities had no idea what we were doing. So I drifted away from anarchism. I found myself in a socialist group instead, called Solidarity. They completely rejected the Democratic Party, and they focused their efforts on labor organizing and had a connection to a long history of work in unions that I found attractive.
I left Solidarity pretty quickly because I was on the fast track to a journey for political purity through a series of tiny microsect organizations who were associated with Trotskyist politics. After moving to Detroit I ended up in one that prioritized fighting fascism, a militant approach to workers struggle, and extreme hostility to union leadership.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, I witnessed the Detroit newspaper strike. I had seen picket line militancy before, but nothing like this. Workers and their allies from the other big Detroit unions were actually fighting back against the cops, and in some cases succeeding in stopping or delaying distribution of the paper despite a lack of militancy by their elected leaders. Detroit was also a 90 percent Black city with a legacy of labor power. The militancy of those picket lines gave me a strong sense of the power of working people when organized, and an understanding of the deep connection of white supremacy to the struggle of working people. It was all laid out in plain sight in Detroit. The organization I was in at the time was also deeply involved in fights against police killings and brutality. For me it was a crash course in knocking doors in some of the poorest neighborhoods in a very poor city building actions to fight for justice for the victims of police murder.
But I hadn’t stopped punching Nazis.
The KKK were still working harder than ever to mobilize in the Midwest. Thom Robb and his “Knights of the KKK” held rallies across the region in big and small cities. We met them head on at every single rally, sometimes shutting them down through militant action or simply drowning them out and running their supporters down in the streets when they were unlucky enough to not be protected by cops. This culminated in a rally in Ann Arbor in 1998. Protesters tried to tear down the fence protecting the KKK, confronted KKK supporters in the crowd and scaled the building to confront the police on the roof of the police station. This shut the rally down immediately, effectively ending the open KKK organizing in the area for a period.
As we ended the decade, my soon-to-be wife and I – both from the South – decided it was time to come home and find a new life in Atlanta. So I did what any good socialist would do after I found a job at UPS: I joined the union and became active in it immediately. It was a huge local of mostly UPS and freight (traditional trucking) workers. I reconnected with Solidarity due to my new labor work and founded a local chapter. I threw myself into labor organizing, working as a union steward (shop floor representative) and becoming active with the progressive union activists and leaders involved in the Atlanta Labor Council.
I developed a reputation as a fighter (not punching any Nazis, just standing up to management). UPS was a brutal company to work for, but the union made it bearable. By themselves, workers were harassed and fired for any reason (i.e. no reason) whatsoever. Anyone who spoke out to stand up for themselves was retaliated against. With the power of a union, we could fight back. At UPS,. the fight for safety was constant. Overweight packages would come down the belt that were way too heavy for workers to be lifting manually – so I called OSHA on them. Pregnant women at or near full term were tasked with the same heavy lifting as the rest of the workers and refused disability leave, so I fought for their right to apply for disability. One worker who suffered from chronic cancer had to apply for FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) any time she needed treatment, and the company tried to fire her every time (she still has her job there to this day). My time in the Teamster rank-and-file taught me how important these types of fights were to building unity among workers. Unity between white workers and the mostly black workforce was not a given at UPS, and I learned more intimately that unity is built by actively showing solidarity with the just struggles of black workers who were in a constant fight against discrimination and structural racism at the company.
I did drive to D.C. to attend an anti-Nazi protest and got to punch one Nazi during this time. My priorities had definitely shifted.
I joined a caucus in my union called Teamsters for a Democratic Union. By 2004, I had convinced a respected rank-and-file member who was also a member of TDU to run for president of Local 728 at the head of a slate of activist members. He won, presiding over a 6,000 member strong group of workers with me by his side as one of the Business Agents and a close confidant.
Solidarity couldn’t avoid electoral politics forever. 2004 was an election year, and at our convention we argued over who to endorse. In 2000, I had voted for Nader, and spent the next four years regretting that decision as Bush proceeded to wreak havoc in as many countries around the world as possible. Faced with another terrible candidate from the Dems – John Kerry – the group didn’t even consider him, or not making an endorsement at all so that those of us who felt like Bush was a dire threat could work against him without bucking the organization. The convention weighed our options between Ralph Nader and the Socialist party’s candidate. To me, after spending so many years moving from one radical Leftist sect to another, it felt like we were arguing over how to be irrelevant. I was done with purity politics. So, I left the organization and began a long period of being an independent leftist for the first time in over a decade.
I read Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air and got to meet him when he came to Atlanta on a book tour. He talked about the failings of sectarianism, and made clear what we had to learn from the New Communist Movement. That hit me like a hammer. If the real job of a Leftist is to change the world, you have to be where the people are. I wanted to work with people who could get sh*t done.
“Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions. That is where serious politics begin.”
My cynicism towards the existing Left was growing. To me, at the time, it felt parochial. It felt like a waste of time. And workers’ very real fights loomed large in front of me every day.
The most important work I did during my time working on staff at Teamsters Local 728 was educating, training, and empowering workers to become leaders of their own movement. Fighting for others is great, but people have to become shapers of their own history. The socialist struggle – and labor with it – is so much more protracted than we think. So many of us are presented with this great idea – socialism! – and we think, “I just have to tell others about this great idea.” But it doesn’t work to just try to convince others of an idea. We have to meet people on a variety of levels – wherever they’re at – for them to see this worldview through their own lens, and act on their own volition, to the extent that they themselves will begin to work on their own self-motivated organizing. I learned how to train worker activists and developed the union’s educational programs to strengthen the shop floor organization. I also took on the role of the union’s Political Director, adding encouraging our members to engage with electoral politics to my list of duties – not just in terms of consciousness, but in the real world. As civil rights leader Ella Baker would argue, the best work we can do is to organize people to organize others. Union members were still ambivalent, union leaders were still risk averse, and relationships still went bad on occasion.
Then, millions of people started feeling the Bern.
2016 was a watershed moment for me just like everyone else. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, militancy in the movement for immigrant rights, and a series of high profile worker fights during the Obama years had thoroughly convinced me that a multi-racial, anti-corporate politics of some type could prevail and deliver many of the big ticket Left populist reforms that had been popularized by Labor and the Left during the Obama presidency, like Medicare for All and a $15 per hour minimum wage. Initially, I had thought Elizabeth Warren was the only candidate with the right mix to win. Then, Bernie Sanders started drawing crowds of thousands to rallies and making televised speeches, and Warren declined to run.
Apparently, working people weren’t afraid of socialism anymore. I started to see members of my union show up to Bernie events. I hadn’t recruited them – they had come to the conclusion on their own that they were socialists, because what Bernie Sanders was saying made sense to them. It was true to their experience. I was in awe to see that when workers’ consciousness changes, it changes radically. This led me to join MADSA because they were playing a leading role in the Bernie campaign, and a number of union activists I was close to around the country were joining because of the Bernie campaign as well. Since then, Trump has won an election, I’ve left my job at Local 728, Black Lives Matter is now a movement of millions and socialists are winning races across the country.
These days, I continue my work for the movement at Jobs with Justice (and MADSA, of course). I don’t get to punch as many Nazis as I used to, but I’ll happily share what I learned about the power of labor organizing to make real change – and some of the Nazi-punching stories, if you really want. Hopefully as you read this, we are beginning a new page of history in a Trump-free America.