An Abolitionist Moment in Chicago

An Abolitionist Moment in Chicago

This moment holds possibilities for change that we have never before experienced… we are asked now to consider how we might imagine justice in the future. This is a very exciting moment. I don’t know if we have ever experienced this kind of global challenge to racism and to the consequences of slavery and colonialism… this is a pivotal moment. This is a moment of possibility. That does not mean that we are offered a new future. What we are offered is the possibility of reimagining and recreating the future.
Angela Davis, June 20 2020, Port of Oakland

… it takes a lot of things to change the world:
Anger and tenacity. Science and indignation,
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite perseverance,
The understanding of the particular case and the understanding of the ensemble:
Only the lessons of reality can teach us to transform reality
Bertolt Brecht, Einverständnis / Ideology of Consent

A Necessary Preface

Last month, Democratic Socialists of America member Cinzia Arruza wrote an analysis of DSA’s actions to date in the resurgence of Black Lives Matter which I read as fundamentally about 4 things:

  1. DSA is not an interventionist organization.
  2. DSA needs to become an interventionist organization to meet the needs of the antiracist rebellion we are in—as the largest socialist organization not only right now but in the last 100 years.
  3. Despite the many publications-based conversations, DSA does not “have a vibrant culture of debate.” I attribute this, in part, to the fact that most assessment occurs in the Executive Committee, but
  4. The lack of vibrant internal debate is reflective of an absent political value, that DSA should be a space where the disagreements that exist as the formative Big Tent principle of DSA should be encouraged and openly contested.

The organization, strategies, and tactics Arruzza describes here (I and II) would require a political reorientation of DSA, not simply changing the organizational practices. Arruzza suggests that DSA is not an organization that has “a vibrant internal debate”—a space to openly contest ideas. Changing this involves confronting the politics that produce these organizational practices that inform the organization’s everyday tactical and strategic decisions.

It involves making a political argument about why we need intentional structures to make spaces for arguments to be contested, like for instance in post-action assessment. It involves a transparent, open process of comradely debate where tactics and practice are discussed, including an assessment of what was argued beforehand, what won out, how that was executed, how it played out, and what played out relative to what we had hoped.

Why Intervene?

The police murder of George Floyd set in motion spontaneous protests that became a riot that became an uprising that became a rebellion. When the people burned down the 3rd Precinct of Minneapolis, they raised the possibility that the police are an institution that can be changed. This revolutionary knowledge is becoming generalized across the population, and the state of affairs is changing every day. So our politics must move, too, in order to seize the moment and organize the massive spontaneous upsurge that has posed the greatest threat to the state in decades.

The rebellion did not stay in Minneapolis but moved across the country in the names of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and many others. Since then the Minneapolis City Council has voted to abolish their police department and immediately transition to an alternative safety force. Sixteen other cities have begun the process of defunding the police.

Labor struggle has also risen as we’ve seen over 500 strikes in the early weeks of the Black Lives Matter resurgence. Workers have also demanded support of Black Lives Matter and organized against their bosses, opposing police discounts, taking down businesses, and exposing other hidden abuses of power in the process.

But some of the biggest indicators of this opportunity to intervene and spur progress is the fall of Confederate statues across the country. There is a reason people of privilege express fear when statues start falling. They are seeing the impermanence of the privilege and power that state repression usually secures. They know that if the statues can fall, the system that grants them privilege on the basis of our oppression can fall, too. The people of Minnesota showed that the seemingly impossible is always possible. Then the people of Seattle, lead by socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant, opened up the actual doors of City Hall for the people in an inspiring display of  inside / outside coordination.

Here in Chicago, we have been ignored and silenced by the mayor’s office, not even given lip service on reforms. Attempts to bring forward ordinances in City Council have been stymied by a Rules Committee requirement of 26 signatures to get a hearing. We must be bold and organized if we hope to take advantage of both the mobilized consciousness of the masses and the momentarily destabilized forces of the state.

The On-Going Moment of the Rebellion

Socialists in Chicago and across the nation must ask themselves in this moment: will the organized forces of the antiracist rebellion present a threat to the state and produce concrete changes? As socialist organizers we are now in the position of trying to harness the power of the masses so it can be made and remade to win a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) and to defund the police.

There’s been a lot of talk about going all-in on defunding, but with little public discussion about what that means. To my mind, the most immediate work is to unite on CPAC and the movement to defund. This is certainly a heterogeneous mass movement, but there does seem to be enough agreement to allow many of the same organizations to continue to organize together on an action by action basis. To achieve our goals, though, we will have to come to an agreement about what, precisely, defunding means, in terms of tactics to achieve it and how its implementation will look.

Going all-in means:

  1. Signing on to, endorsing, and elevating the recently released set of demands by the Black Abolitionist Network (BAN)
  2. Embracing and fighting for CPAC as a movement for democratic control of the police by the people
  3. Beginning the move to defund by creating the institutions and mechanisms by which the police are abolished and drained of their resources
  4. Creating a coalition of existing organized forces (CAARPR, Right to Recovery, Afrosoc, DSA, 33rd/35th Ward Working Families, and others) to support BAN
  5. Organizing at marches and rallies as a clear DSA contingent to attract unorganized socialists, but also to present ourselves as a unified force supporting the movement to defund

To carry out this plan, we must formalize a large antiracist coalition. It requires a mutually informative structure to help relate to BAN in a more organized fashion. An example would be the coalition that has been exchanging endorsements and organized the June 5 action in Union Park. It included Black Lives Matter Chicago, Right to Recovery, Chicago Teachers Union, BYP 100, Afrosoc, 33rd & 35th Ward Working Families, and DSA. This does not mean bringing in all the organizations that have been able draw big crowds, but rather, consolidating the forces that agree on the terms above.

Continuing to build this coalition creates a stable group that does not need to organize from scratch at every demonstration but is able to roll the organizational apparatus forward and create real new political habits among the people.


Now, I don’t have any illusions that my ideas are the ideas—I’m sure other comrades have many great and conflicting ideas of their own. However, I’d like to share my vision of DSA as an interventionist socialist organization to help start a conversation.

DSA and its coalition partners should organize and facilitate teach-ins and read-ins in city parks and other public areas to educate prior to, and in some instances at, demonstrations.

These teach-ins are not proposed as stand-alone new events. Rather, they would take place before or after demonstrations and would be designed to bring together coalition partners, new DSA members, and the DSA-curious to educate folks about the reason for the action. Large demonstrations are not always conductive to active discussions, and these teach-ins could help to facilitate that.

These teach-ins are consistent with the practices embodied in BAN’s Mass Resistance Trainings over the July 4th Weekend, which outlined a major need of the movement. We should create many more satellite teach-ins and read-ins to support a growing movement’s hunger for education.

Parks & Plazas

The teach-ins should be organized with coalition partners before demonstrations and cover the theory, history, and practice of the specific action taking place, whether it’s for CPAC, defunding the police, or something else entirely.

Holding these teach-ins in public places has another benefit. It allows us to discuss what it means for public space to be for us—for the people.

When held on the Magnificent Mile, these teach-ins also interrupt commerce by interrupting tourism. This is essential in picking a fight with the mayor on terms she can understand. Parks and plazas are for the people, and we have a right to the city. In a city as segregated as Chicago, how we intentionally use space together to push forward this anti-racist movement will be essential to interrupting the automated reproduction of state repression.


This plan should be facilitated through Chicago DSA’s Antiracist Working Group and Political Education Committee. It will orient DSA to the struggle in a productive manner. It will increase our ability to educate more people about the Black Lives Matter movement, and about any given day’s demonstration. It can help us to bring in new members, not only to DSA but to all coalition partners. Lastly, we can train new, active comrades how to organize by doing, by creating the infrastructure that makes these teach-ins and read-ins happen.

City Council

How does DSA  situate itself with respect to our members who hold elected seats in local political structures? The six socialist Alders represent an inside valence to our struggle from outside the system. The Alders lead in a space we cannot go inside,  but also we push from the outside and give them the confidence to lead, to take on the system from the inside in new, radical behaviors.

The Mayor’s office is using the “space” in City Hall to choke out any attempt to voice what the people are en masse demanding: CPAC and defunding the police, notably, through the Rules Committee requirement of 25 co-signatures to even receive a hearing. We are going to need much more public opposition to bring the experience of what is happening inside City Hall to the people. Tweeting about it is not enough. DSA and its Alders should leverage major media to call out the mayor in public and bring our demands to a wider audience.

What is the role of DSA?

All six of the Socialist Alders are DSA members. In members-only meetings, we should engage in direct conversation with Alders and develop plans of how best to support them from the outside by making public Mayor Lightfoot’s opposition to substantive political change. Chicago DSA’s working groups seems like a critical location where these organizing conversations with Alders could take place.

Crucially, this will involve sometimes staking out positions about how our Socialist Alders should act and presenting our ideas to them, not merely waiting for them to lead. The goal is to create a more open, mutually generative relationship where we are engaging them on live political, strategic, and tactical questions.

All-in On City Hall, All-in with the People

Going all-in on defunding the police should be about centering all of our forces in and out of City Hall against the mayor’s office. This is how we can develop the full power of our movement, from our membership to our elected officials to our coalition partners.

How do we put ourselves in a position to pick this sort of fight? Open moments do not spontaneously remain open on their own. Organized forces must intervene with specific demands and ways to achieve them. We need the confidence to take up these demands knowing we only win CPAC or defund the police with an authentically abolitionist horizon. Abolition requires vigilance at every turn. The state will act quick to put us the movement down. We cannot afford to be passive and reactive. To abolish racism—to abolish capitalism—we must be interventionists. We must fight racism as socialists.