My name is Mike H, and I’m a member of New York City DSA. In 2017 I helped start the Bronx/Upper Manhattan Branch, and in 2019 I participated in DSA’s National Convention. A few weeks ago I sat down to interview National Political Committee (NPC) member Austin Gonzalez of Richmond, VA about his experience in the DSA on the NPC and on the DSA’s International Committee (IC). I hope this conversation provides insight for the organization’s wider membership, offers more information about what the NPC does, and shows how folks can get involved with DSA at the national level.
So to start, Austin- You want to talk a little bit about your personal background, where you grew up, how you joined DSA, and where you’ve been organizing?
Sure! I’m from Richmond, Virginia and have lived in Virginia my entire life. I am of Puerto Rican descent and my cultural heritage is very important to me. It’s shaped a lot of my experiences living here. As I like to say, ‘Being brown in a southern state will turn you into a leftist real fast.’
I’ve been doing activism in Virginia for ten years and have gone through a pipeline similar to a lot of people. For the past decade I’ve considered myself a socialist, but I never really saw viable organizations for real socialist change until I joined DSA in mid-2016. For me, this was finally (at least what I believe DSA is and can continue to be) the big left org that we needed.
One thing I noticed when I first joined was that there were no full chapters in the entire state of Virginia. There was one YDSA in like, a high school in northern Virginia, but aside from that there were no full chapters. Because of that, a few comrades and I came together to found the Richmond, Virginia chapter. It is in that chapter where I’ve done the majority of my organizing. We’ve helped grow other chapters throughout the state of Virginia in Tidewater, Charlottesville, and soon in southwest Virginia, Appalachia… Right now, I organize within the Fredericksburg branch of Richmond.
I know Richmond has organizers who’ve been pretty active for the last few months with Black Lives Matter. Where do you think DSA fits in the Richmond organizing landscape today?
We’re asking ourselves that question and have grappled with it since the protests kicked off, not just in Richmond but at the national level and in most locals. How can DSA meaningfully be involved in what is the largest uprising that I’ve certainly seen in my life? And the answer we’ve come to in Richmond is, rather than trying to lead in any capacity as a predominantly white org (which is what the DSA is) we are taking direction from Black organizers doing work on the ground and uplifting their voices.
In Richmond, we’ve seen a lot of attempts from the political establishment to co-opt it. It’s been daily in Richmond since Minneapolis burned their police station down. Every single day there’ve been people out protesting. Marcus David Peter Circle used to be Lee Circle, because there’s a giant-ass Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond on Monument Avenue. That’s been a site for a lot of the struggle in Richmond.
We had a black mayor in Richmond, which is a majority Black city. They came out and joined the protests after a big issue over the tear gas police used a few months back. “Oh, I’m marching with the people,” he said! “Oh, I need to listen to the community!” But we know in DSA that this is just a bullshit attempt to co-opt the protests and get a photo-op. I know people have talked about it in Portland. “Tear Gas Ted” getting his photo-op? (Shoutout to the Portland comrades.)
I think on the national level we’ve done a good job of recognizing this to a certain extent. I was happy to see the NPC unanimously adopt both the “8 to Abolition” as well as the “No Cops in DSA” resolutions. Both unanimous! For myself and I believe you as well, Mike- we’ve been in DSA long enough to remember when these were contentious issues. And for some parts of DSA they still are, right? Which is why I was happy to see them pass unanimously, and this told us a little bit about the moment that we’re in. Once again, DSA’s role fundamentally has to be uplifting those Black radical voices. These people, these kids out in the streets, they’re not dumb. They know what the fuck they’re marching for. Even in my small town of Fredericksburg, the kids I’ve seen out there are as young as high school age, and they have enough of a sophisticated analysis to call for the abolition of police. Not something I can say for everyone I’ve ever organized with, right? And I think that counts for something.
You were elected to join DSA’s National Political Committee at the 2019 national convention roughly a year ago. How would you describe the NPC’s role and responsibility in the organization?
The bylaws definition is the “highest decision-making body in DSA between conventions.” So between conventions the National Political Committee makes endorsements and makes decisions that need to be made outside of convention years. We meet quarterly, and when we have our quarterly meetings we have political discussions. We’ll always start off with a reading—readings are good to help get that solidarity. It’s funny, I’d say one of the first things that I noticed going to my first NPC meeting is that NPC meetings, at least for me, are like mini DSA conventions. Emotional rollercoaster and all. You have moments where you’re at your highest, where you’re with your comrades, where you’re basking in the socialist glory, right? Then you have moments where you’re not at your highest. Where there’s political disagreement, maybe there’s some tension.
Now, with that said, I think everybody on the current NPC would agree things have progressed to a place where we can have actual political discussion, actual disagreement, and are able to work it out with each other. Is it perfect? Certainly not. I tell people after every meeting how difficult it can be to properly engage when the dynamics of the NPC are what they are. Let’s say we have a reading. Nine times out of ten I can go into that conversation knowing exactly what everybody’s gonna say. I think partly because of that, and partly because of the not-so-cordial nature of the last NPC (so I’ve been told, I wasn’t in those rooms, but oh, I’ve been told,) I think people are more willing to let things be cordial than really engage in clear political disagreement. That’s my perspective, I’m sure other people have different perspectives.
Now, that’s just the meetings. What I do like about the NPC – dare I say, what I love about the NPC, and this might just be me – I genuinely enjoy working with my fellow NPC members within our committees. And this is the real day-to-day, week-to-week aspect of being on NPC. You have to be devoting at least ten to twenty hours a week if you want to do it properly. You can do it badly if you want, but I would not recommend that, and I’m happy to say that the people I work with haven’t done that. Not throwing shade at anybody, right?
I particularly enjoy working in the committees and engaging with the membership. It’s the main reason I ran for NPC: to be accessible and engage with the membership however possible.
You mentioned the role that ideological conflict plays in the NPC’s work, or as you’ve framed it, doesn’t play. Do you think the way the NPC handles ideological conflict has a positive impact for the NPC and the wider organization? Do you think it could be better or different?
There’s a lot to unpack here. There’s positives and negatives, I would say. First, I’d say the biggest reason conflict plays out, or lack thereof, goes back to the previous NPC because of how vitriolic things got. There’s a bit of natural hesitancy and reticence to get into heated political debates. On the other end, I think the current NPC has done a good job of having open conversations together. Political conversations don’t necessarily always happen, and maybe this is me being biased but that’s less the NPC’s fault and the people on it than the makeup of organization’s caucuses. That’s my belief. For some people that may be a hot take, but as someone who is caucus-less, I think the way a lot of the major caucuses in this organization and on the NPC are set up makes it tough to have real political conversation. And I know caucuses are set up the way they are for political reasons. I think it would be much healthier for the organization’s internal culture, political debate and overall organizational health, if caucuses were more forthright with their positions. I think you’ve seen some of that.
On the opposite end, I would rather people came out and said “No, I think the way we handle elections is bullshit. We shouldn’t be endorsing ANY Democrat.” Right? Instead of, “Oh okay we can well, maybe, blah blah blah…” I think it would be much healthier for the organization if we were able to have these sorts of conversations. I’ve been extremely encouraged by the impromptu panels that have been set up during the time of COVID. The Red Star/Emerge panel earlier today, that was awesome. The Red Caucus panel they held with all the different local caucuses was amazing, so important. Let’s talk to each other, let’s understand each other. Again, let’s struggle together.
Going back to the NPC point and political disagreement, it’s still there. It happens. To anybody who’s a huge nerd and follows all the Loomio votes, you can see where the lines and divisions are drawn. People frame it in different ways. I’d argue people frame it however it suits them politically when they look at these divisions. Occasionally people refer to this as a left side and a right side of the organization. You’ll occasionally see people refer to a decentralist and a centralist side of the organization. Whatever suits your political frame, that’s what you’re going to go with. Once again, there is still room for political disagreement.
What’s one aspect of the NPC’s structure or process you feel causes difficulty?
I think there’s not a clear enough delineation of what staff’s role is and how it relates to the NPC, since we’re the highest elected body between conventions. I think there’s things staff does that volunteers could do. I don’t mean that in the sense of “oh, let’s get rid of the staff.” No, volunteers can help them because there are staff members working their asses off. I don’t know how much staff info I can divulge. I’m not gonna be talking about people’s hours and shit, but people are working their asses off, and I think volunteers can help with that sort of work.
Let’s talk about the International Committee a bit. When you joined the NPC, how did you feel about the IC?
When I joined the NPC—and when I was a rank and file member—I thought it was largely inaccessible to membership, a closed committee. You could only join if you knew the right people. The IC was one of the organization’s older committees and some old heads were in there who’d had their position forever. I think the IC culture led to people wanting to work around it. Justifiably so, I’d argue. I was one of those people. I co-authored the decolonization convention resolution working around the IC. I know our Boycott Divestment Sanction comrades did similarly. They felt the need to work around the International Committee, and it’s a shame that we had to feel that way! Justifiably so, because the IC had shown hostility to things like Cuba solidarity. Certain members of the IC, I should say. It had shown hostility to BDS in the past. And I think because of that, people tried to work around it.
Mike: In the spirit of being up front: Do you think the IC ’s dominant politics made you feel like you had to work around it? Meaning not just the committee’s closed nature, but also its politics?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think the Committee’s politics weren’t in line with the wider membership’s politics. Those things feed into each other. Because it was a closed committee, it was very insular. These people, all with similar opinions, collected together on the IC and held onto their seats and people trying to oppose their opinions were conveniently not let inside the committee. Now again, that was not the entire Committee. There were good people on the International Committee. I’m not talking about the Committee from last year when they opened it up and let at least a decent amount of people in. It’s still a closed committee but with a little bit of new blood in there. I’m talking about the old Committee, the Committee that I knew when I was a local chair. Hell, I remember when the International Committee was a fuckin’ myth, because nobody knew what it was or what it did.
Now I think it’s more transparent. The politics were a big reason why people like myself worked around it, why BDS organizers felt the need to work around it, even after our organization passed BDS in 2017. There was still a desire to work around the IC and say, “cool, we’ll make our own working group and have autonomy.” Which I can’t be mad at because I did the same thing.
So that was the previous version of the IC, essentially. Can you speak about how you worked with people to overhaul it, what it’s like now, and what you’ve got planned?
Absolutely. This is where I’ll sing the praises of my CPN comrades. I touched upon it earlier, but CPN sponsored convention Resolution 4, Building the International Committee. The IC set up an open application for a month where people applied to join a year ago. Some people were selected, some weren’t, and that was the beginning of the IC starting to open up. It received a lot of scrutiny because people care deeply about foreign policy and international solidarity and issues of that nature.
Blanca Estevez of CPN and I were attached as liaisons to the IC at our first NPC meeting. One of the first conversations Blanca and I had with then-IC co-chairs Carrington Morris and Ethan Earle, who both deserve endless thanks and appreciation for the amount of work they put into this, was about the need for restructuring the IC and how this process was already in motion.
We worked through several drafts of a proposal to overhaul the IC… and I feel compelled to say because of concerns about this aspect of the proposal, that the proposal basically kills the IC and sets up three new bodies that work together. One is the International Secretariat, one is the International Steering Committee, and another is the working groups which are split by continent. Now the NPC appoints the leadership for all these. I’ve seen concerns about the NPC appointment aspect of this process, and I didn’t like it either! I pushed an early proposal draft to include IC leadership being elected by the IC membership. Unfortunately, that didn’t make the final proposal, but that’s an example of how this is a transitional process. We’re still perfecting it and it’s something we’re working towards. I hope to see that election process become part of the IC in the future. Not that the IC leadership being appointed by the NPC which is elected by the membership is necessarily that bad. It’s a compromise I was willing to work with, and I’ll own it. But in the future I hope it’s something we can work towards.
With that out of the way, The core dilemma we faced was: How do we open this up to the membership, but not create a situation where we have a ten thousand person listserv and nothing gets done? I suppose you could say we have attempted to have it both ways, and we’ll see how it works out. I’m optimistic.
Our International Secretariat is ten people. Our Steering Committee is ten people. All working groups have either one or two co-chairs. It is our working groups under our Steering Committee where members will soon be able to join and get involved according to their interest. But we still have the Secretariat, which we hope isn’t going to wind up having too many cooks in the kitchen. Reason being, and an example I often use of the issue: Bolivian coup d’etat. You’d think a statement for this could be relatively straightforward, right? Fuck the coup, right? And this is not me saying there were people in the Committee saying the coup was good—everybody knew it was bad, but everybody wanted to add a fact. “Oh, we need this, oh, we need that, but don’t forget that, but this happened in 1960”—and it’s like, Jesus! It’s been two days already. Can we just release a statement saying the coup was bad? That’s one of the main impetus for the Secretariat. A smaller body to write quick, snappy statements for international politics where things happen in a very quick fashion.
The Secretariat also develops foreign relations with other organizations worldwide. That’s a lot of power for that small body, right? Still necessary I’d argue, and the Steering Committee and working groups are where international solidarity campaigns can happen. Hands off Venezuela, BDS, etc.
I envision an organization where we can fund brigades through our working groups. A brigade to Cuba, a brigade to Venezuela. I went to England last year. We should be sending our membership to England for elections. Send people to India during something. I want being a DSA member to mean something. Join DSA, join the IC, join a brigade. See the world! Wouldn’t that be amazing? Hopefully, but you know with COVID maybe not. But I think that’s a beautiful project we could be engaging in, and that’s something I’m really excited to see. Brigades are just a flashy aspect of it. Real campaign work is what will be important and extremely rewarding. There’s a lot of good people in IC leadership I’m extremely excited to work with to see what they can get done; what we can get done. Watch for the monthly DSA dispatch when we can open our working groups to the membership.
When I ran for the NPC, one of my platform planks was anti-imperialism. If I can leave the NPC with an International Committee that centers anti-imperialism, I’ll be happy, and I think we’re on the way. Like I said, it’s a transitional process, but I’m very optimistic for the IC’s future.