Comrades, Not Allies: Raising Voices While Building Worker Power

Comrades, Not Allies: Raising Voices While Building Worker Power

A report on an action co-organized by Metro Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky DSA helps show the way forward for how DSA can play a leading role in the struggle for racial justice while not getting caught in the trap of “allyship.”

This article originally appeared in The Organizer, a publication of the Collective Power Network.

Cincinnati is the fifth most segregated city in the U.S. with a history of protest and riots in 2001 following the police murder of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement established a strong presence in the city after the murder of Sam DuBose by University of Cincinnati police in 2015, but became relatively inactive by late 2017. This left a vacuum for radical black activism.

Following the murder of George Floyd and the rapid spread of uprisings in cities across the country, we noticed an event pop up on Facebook on Thursday, May 28th, 2020 for Sunday the 31st, calling for a peaceful protest in Cincinnati. The organizers did not appear to be affiliated with any organization. They were just three people of color who were outraged and wanted to take action.

DSA Cincy’s involvement began through a personal connection that a comrade, Akiva, had with one of the organizers. We immediately asked what they needed regarding material support. They asked if we could supply a generator for a sound system and we agreed to pay to rent one. The organizer we had contact with suggested it was going to be a music-centric event with a brief march through the streets around the university, away from downtown.

Akiva and Christine, a chapter leader, set up a Zoom call for the Friday evening before the event to start building a stronger connection with the organizers. But by that evening, the event had grown to over 5,000 RSVPs on Facebook, and it was clear that the organizers’ original plan was no longer feasible. We realized they were going to need more support from us than just the generator.

With the original organizers, we began discussing alternative locations, routes, and the logistics of coordinating street medics and safety marshals. We started pushing for a change in venue to reflect the numbers while explicitly asking each individual organizer what their goal was to ensure that our actions were lining up with their expectations. We were given some conflicting goals. One organizer approached the event as a way for individual activists to find each other and come into conversation, while another wanted to show the power of Cincinnati and have a political demonstration. In talking through these conflicts, we tried to find a way to satisfy all involved.

Two goals shared by all included COVID-related safety measures and non-escalation in interactions with police. We agreed that masks should be procured for distribution, and selected a rally location and march route that weren’t likely to get us kettled. When deciding on the venue/route, we were very upfront about our criticisms and our preferences, but were explicit that the final decision was left to the organizers. Ultimately, we agreed to begin the protest with speakers and performers at a large public park with an empty reflection pool and no choke points where the cops could trap us as we began the march. We agreed the march should end at City Hall. The route would take the march through a predominantly lower-income black neighborhood at the edge of downtown where we knew residents would be supportive. The route would also pass closely to a heavily gentrified neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine.

Internally, we put out the call for comrades with marshaling and medic experience to attend a meeting the next morning, and managed to identify leaders and mobilize folks quickly. We also reached out to Cincinnati Socialist Alternative for volunteers to help coordinate. All involved recognized that this was an “all-hands on deck” situation.

The structure of DSA Cincy facilitated rapid and smooth coordination. We do not have any committees, but instead work under a system where priorities are democratically decided by the entire membership, and every formal body within the chapter, including a Socialist Feminist Branch and a Labor Branch, is expected to contribute to those priorities. In practice, this meant that the chain of communication was very clear and that our members were already trained and prepared to come together on large projects.

The evening before the protest, the organizers started being contacted by media representatives asking if the group had any political demands and what they were calling themselves as an organization. They did not have a name nor demands planned out, so they looked to us for ideas. We offered the demands our chapter listed in our public statement, including the abolition of prison labor, the elimination of private for-profit prisons, the right to vote for all adults, and an end to the racist “war on drugs,” as first steps to dismantling white supremacist power. We also offered that the national AFL-CIO must expel the so-called unions of police from its ranks.

The organizers embraced the demands and decided on the name “The Queen City Coalition” to reflect the broad constellation of local groups and individuals involved in planning. It’s important to note that we did not ask to co-host the event as DSA, and likely would have turned down any offer to do so. Our objective was to offer structure and support, not to co-opt their event.

On the day of the protest, we made sure that our DSA comrades were all wearing visible red DSA Cincy shirts. During the rally at the start of the protest one of our chapter’s co-chairs delivered an explicitly socialist speech that described the interwoven nature of capitalism and white supremacy, showing George Floyd murder in its greater societal context, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. She also explained that while our membership is currently predominantly white, our mission is to become a vehicle for the multiracial working class to take power, and in order to do that our membership must reflect the multiracial working class. Thus she called explicitly for black organizers to join our ranks and fight with us so that we can win. We unfurled DSA’s red banner onstage and flew it during the march. We were unflinching in our socialist commitments and clear about our intentions to organize for the long term.

The march started out moving far too quickly, and we were able to communicate this to a lead organizer who slowed things down. Still, she kept getting swept up in the rush of it all so we continued to communicate with her about pacing, providing a clear reason (we couldn’t lose the back), and she thanked us repeatedly for helping her try to set a better pace. She was not frustrated but thankful that we were vocal, because she knew the risks and because she knew that we cared enough and respected her enough to bring it up.

Due to the excitement of the moment and the size of the crowd, we did lose control of the march for a period of time until one of our marshals, Emiliano, could run up and reach the front again. During the march, the major issues were related to the number of comrades we were able to mobilize in relation to the enormous numbers who came out, as well as the inexperience of those comrades working in such numbers. Once our marshal made it to the front he took orders that the main organizers were relaying, carried them out without issue, and was able to continue to keep the protest peaceful and safe.

The march kept snaking through the streets of Cincinnati. The winding route kept the police on their toes and they had trouble anticipating our movements. Because of this they never had a good opportunity to kettle us. Most importantly, we stuck to the demand of the main organizers not to escalate or fight police, even when they deliberately attempted to bait us.

The organizers made a quick decision to lead the march back up the hill to the park where we started. The steep incline slowed us down and caused everyone to be calm and worn out by the time they reached the park. When we arrived, someone who we had never seen before was using the DSA Cincy bullhorn to lead a moment of silence for George Floyd. Once the demonstration was over, she announced that anyone who wanted to break curfew and continue marching should follow her. All of the DSA comrades decided that we needed to leave but that we should turn over the bullhorn so they would have a way to lead people.

Beginning on the morning after the protest, our chapter has been doing jail support—offering food, water, medical supplies, fresh clothes, phone chargers, and rides home to the arrested protestors as they are released from jail. While doing this we have continued to be unabashedly socialist, wearing our red DSA shirts and talking to people about organizing for working class power.

We had three key takeaways from the event.

Comradeship not allyship.

Sometimes there is a tendency in DSA nationally to defer to others and shrink away from boldly being socialist. We explicitly did not do this. While we made it clear that we were serving in a support role to the original organizers, we were upfront about our intentions every step of the way. We were not afraid to offer critiques, e.g. “this march route is bad”, and we offered our radical demands as examples to the organizers. Engage with people as your equals and have honest conversations. They will respect you for that.

It is not opportunistic (nor is it perceived as such) to openly recruit people to join DSA during these events.

We made it very clear during our interactions with the organizers and during our speech that, yes, we are mostly white right now, but we want to become a vehicle for the multi-racial working class to take power and our organization needs to reflect that. Explicitly appealing to and recruiting nonwhite working people is central if we are actually going to build the kind of organization that can win. We recognize as socialists the value and necessity of being organized and therefore need to do our best to organize the activists running these events who are not yet organized.

You can do quite a lot with very little if you’re well organized.

Though we clearly did not have enough marshals to properly manage thousands of people on a march through the city, we were still successful because we were well-organized and our comrades behaved in a serious and disciplined manner. DSA Cincy is a medium-sized chapter, with around 500 members total and around 50 active members (likely more after this event!).

Since the day of the protest, we have gotten so many new member requests that we had to install GreetBot for our Slack channel to make sure everyone gets introduced. The next problem we have to solve is how to further engage with the current uprising while plugging all of the new members into the work.

Illustration: Stephan Crown-Weber

About the author

Christine Niemeier-Walsh, Akiva Guttwright, & Emiliano Leon are members of Metro Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky DSA.