As the recent election ramped up in late February, a freshly formed justice committee within the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America knew supporters of the police union-backed taser measure would vastly outspend any opposing campaign. They also knew they had just two options: Hope someone else would come up with a strategy, or take the lead to defeat it.
So, as leading DSA member Shanti Singh puts it, they basically said, “Fuck it, let’s take on the cops.”
In the end, the DSA formed a No on Proposition H campaign that had a mere $80,000 to counter the $439,000 war chest of the measure’s supporters. In spite of that disadvantage, H was defeated by a margin of 61-38.
Of course, it helped that several city officials like SFPD Chief Bill Scott were against it, and that the American Civil Liberties Union lent the group a good deal of support. But the resounding defeat led by the year-and-a-half-old DSA against the powerful Police Officers Association shook the political status quo.
“Hopefully, this defeat shows politicians like [state Sen. Scott Wiener and Supervisor Jeff Sheehy] they don’t need to kowtow to the POA,” says Alex Post, the No on H campaign manager and DSA justice committee co-chair.
While the No on H campaign was raging, another DSA-backed measure, Proposition F, which would give all San Francisco renters a right to counsel, also passed with a healthy margin. Although San Francisco moderates won the mayor’s office, progressive — and, yes, socialist — ideas otherwise won resoundingly at the ballot.
But electoral campaigns are far from the DSA’s bread-and-butter as coalition-building, grassroots-organizing defenders of the working class — and they’re ready to take on many more fights to prove it.
“We’re fundamentally aware that we’re the new kids on the block,” Singh says. “We’re not here to save the world by ourselves. We’re here to learn from and build power for the working class of the city.”
San Francisco’s DSA chapter came seemingly out of nowhere, but a previous iteration formed in 1982, when the New American Movement and Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee joined forces. But by the 1990s, the country’s rightward turn caused it to dwindle, according to one of today’s DSA founding members Curtis Steckel.
Along came the 2016 Bernie Sanders revolution, which made socialism a more appealing ideology for activists hungry to remind Americans of the nation’s growing wealth gap. Steckel met Matt McGowen, another founding member, on Twitter and they attended the DSA East Bay meetings while exploring what it would take to launch a chapter in San Francisco.
Five S.F. socialists got together in November 2016, and eventually established the San Francisco chapter the following April. Today, it has about 700 dues-paying members, and 16 committees to focus on issues like housing, homelessness, and environmental justice.
“We see, every single day, that capitalism is not working. I think people are very sick and tired of the rich calling the shots for us,” says Jen Snyder, Yes on F’s campaign manager and another leading DSA member. “This is the right time and DSA is the right voice for it.”
In contrast to many of the city’s political organizations, the DSA’s first instinct is not to charge into a situation, but to approach marginalized communities and ask how they can help elevate pressing issues. Justice For Mario Woods Coalition, Greenaction, and various tenants groups have been collaborators.
Rufus Watkins of the Midtown Tenants Association struck up a friendship with many of the DSA members while they were volunteering for Dean Preston’s District 5 supervisorial campaign. The members quickly became concerned with the little attention paid to the broken promise of cooperative ownership for Midtown residents, many of whom were victims of the Fillmore’s urban renewal. As a result, the DSA rallied at City Hall to help prevent the demolition of affordable housing units.
“DSA helped Midtown to be a force in the city,” Watkins said. “Their model of coalition-building will last a long time in S.F. politics.”
This month’s electoral successes proved it, not only for DSA-backed measures but for others they simply endorsed, like Proposition C, which would create universal child care. So when DSA members needed help on Prop. F, it made sense for groups like Causa Justa/Just Cause and the Anti-Displacement Coalition to support them, by knocking on 60,000 doors and calling thousands of people.
“We’re at a point now that it’s understood that we’re in a severe housing crisis,” Snyder says. “It was really just about DSA being that mouthpiece, being that framework.”
Though elections aren’t the sole focus of the DSA, another one is coming up in November, and members are looking to follow up on the group’s June success. Getting Our City, Our Home — which would impose a gross receipts tax to fund supportive housing — on the ballot is the next step to Prop. F. The group also backs longtime Bayview organizer Tony Kelly for District 10 Supervisor.
But beyond electoral politics, they just want to be there to help other organizations, from Midtown tenants to the Coalition on Homelessness, and show up when justice calls.
“We’re always doing more,” Singh said. “I don’t think we know how to stop.”