Power makes light; brake lights don’t make power

Written by East Bay DSA member Michael McCown

East Bay DSA should not vote to endorse the brake lights clinics proposal. Although pitched as advancing prison-abolitionist politics, the project undermines socialist critique of our racist police system; as an organizing project, it fails to build power for the communities it seeks to serve; and as an institution-building project, it fails to create opportunities for democratic participation in EBDSA, or projects of EBDSA.    

1) The proposal claims that fixing brake lights will reduce instances of police stops and opportunities for police violence on working people and people of color, since brake light stops are one of the most common reasons people of color are pulled over by cops. Makes sense; but the key assumption here is that cops actually pull people over for “legitimate” reasons, i.e. having a brake light out. Fixing brake lights to eliminate the “reason” for the stop takes the stop at face value. Rather than critique our racially-biased criminal justice system, the proposed clinics advance a respectability politics not out of sync with the idea that police are just “doing their job,” and if communities of color just fixed all their brake lights they would not experience traffic stops at a higher rate than other communities.

2) The brake lights project seeks to bring EBDSA closer to communities of color, and proponents have drawn on the precedent of the Black Panthers doing similar “serve the people” programs. But no work has been done to determine if this is really a deep or widely felt issue in Oakland. As a result, while each clinic might fix a lot of brake lights (no reason not to take a free light), organizing will not occur. The project is not structured to democratically involve clinic participants. It does not create a pathway for participant to become leaders, to take ownership over the project, or to participate further in Left politics and EBDSA. As a result, participants will have their lights fixed and drive off.

3) What if, instead, in order to serve the people of Oakland EBDSA members began by learning what is important to residents; then, agitate on issues that advance a socialist agenda which we can work collectively to change. Many of these issues may be shared by our existing membership, like high rents, lack of healthcare, or high traffic fines. By choosing projects that challenge power and lean toward a class-struggle model, rather than service-based model of organizing, we can bring diverse peoples together and share real political leadership. Because ultimately, it is only through collective power that we can defeat shared opponents. A series of community service events is not an ideal way to bring people together; it is more likely to reify social differences rather than emphasize the necessity of shared political struggle.

Proponents of the brake lights clinic have already addressed what they see as a charge that the brake lights clinic will be perceived as a form of “white saviorism,” (their words) and that the above argument erases the voices of people of color who support the brake lights program. But I’m not hand-wringing about optics. At Sunday’s meeting we will be making decisions about what kind of organization we want to become, and the projects we choose to pursue will determine that. When evaluating these decisions, the questions we should ask are: is the underlying ideology of the project sound, does it build power for the diverse communities that comprise working-class Oakland, and does it diversify and build the institution of EBDSA as representative of Oakland’s working class? The answer on all counts is no, and we should vote it down.