In the past year, the Democratic Socialists of America has gone from being an obscure leftist organization to the hot new millennial trend. Since Donald Trump's election, the DSA has capitalized on the leftward tilt of the youth, and its membership has surged from 8,000 to more than 25,000 (one of those new members is, full disclosure, me). As new chapters begin popping up all over the country—and roses, the group's symbol proliferate all over Twitter—the question remains: How will these recently organized socialists put their ideology into practice?
Kaitlin Marone, a comedian who is also a councilmember-at-large for the New Orleans DSA, had one answer to that question: last weekend's free brake light repair clinic, which was widely praised by her comrades across the country as "good as hell praxis," "extra spicy praxis," and "dank as hell praxis." These are, in the Marxist and meme-drenched slang of the extremely online movement, high compliments. It's one of the most novel events put on by a DSA chapter to date, and also a way to help people in a real way.
Promoting the event on DSA's national Facebook page, the organization wrote, "Out taillights are a main reason for traffic stops. Traffic stops are especially perilous and life disrupting to undocumented immigrants and PoC."
The New Orleans chapter of DSA is still in its infancy—it was only formed in April—so I caught up with Marone to talk about what brake light repairs have to do with socialism, and what's next for the chapter.
VICE: Why did you decide to organize the repair clinic?
Kaitlin Marone: There are a lot of reasons, but the main one is a few years ago, I got pulled over for having a brake light out, and I had a really traumatic experience with some cops in Florida. It was horrific. Recently, it happened to me again, but it wasn't nearly as bad. As I was changing my brake light, I realized it was extremely easy to do, and also really cheap. I thought, We should just do this for everybody.
It was right around the time the cop who shot Philando Castile was on trial, and he had been pulled over. It was just in the air.
How does repairing brake lights aide DSA's mission?
In a few ways: There's the aspect of helping people avoid any kind of interaction with the justice system, so keeping people from getting tickets and everything serves the mission of prison abolition and all that, which we've gotten started with.
Also, there's also an aspect of building power outside of the electoral politics system. In New Orleans, it's really hard to create change through regular electoral politics because it's so closed, and it's hard to break into it. Doing service like this is a way of making that change on the outside, and helping people meet their basic needs in a way the government will not.
Helping people meet basic needs like that helps us build a stronger working-class base. To get a ticket for a brake light can ruin your whole month, it can ruin a few months, it can ruin your life for a longer than that. It's such a small thing we can do to change that for people.
I know DSA has the reputation of being a largely white organization. Traffic stops disproportionately affect people of colour, so was this a way to get more people of colour involved in New Orleans DSA?
We were not actively recruiting anybody through this process. We were just doing this as a show of solidarity and support for the community. I would imagine that there's some part of what we're doing that could make DSA more appealing to people of colour, and more appealing to people who are disproportionately subject to state violence. As an event, we weren't out there trying to bring people in.
Our local DSA chapter has the same demographic representations as most of them. The only way we can change that if we're sincere about wanting to represent all the people in the working class is by making a sincere effort to center issues that affect people of colour, and [the brake light repair event] seems like a good way of showing that in good faith.
How did the event on Saturday go?
We had about 15 to 20 volunteers through the day. We ended up changing brake lights on 50 cars. We had more people come, but we couldn't help because they wanted something else done. Overall, our response was entirely positive. Everybody who came was really excited that we were doing it, and grateful for the service we were providing. People wanted to talk to us about their interactions with police, and their experiences before with having brake lights out, which was a really interesting thing, because it also wasn't something we were spending a lot of time pushing on people. People who came knew what we were doing. There was a sign that said, "If your brake light is out, we're going to change it for free." You know what that means if you're a person who that's going to affect.
"People were mad because they thought we were trying to spread the disease of communism through the trick of free brake lights."
Someone wrote on Twitter that the event enraged neo-Nazis online? Were you aware of that? What were they enraged about?
It was funny because people were really trying to find ways to criticize it. I didn't see a lot of enraged neo-Nazis, but we were looking around [for criticism] because we wanted to make sure people didn't give us any shit on the day of. We were looking at some pretty conservative local sites, and people were making stuff up—like, "I can't believe this is federally funded." Which, like, alright, tell me why Donald Trump is sending money to the Democratic Socialists of America.
People were mad because they thought we were trying to spread the disease of communism through the trick of free brake lights. It just really upset people that socialists were doing it. It was fascinating to watch people make shit up so they could get more angry and justify why they were angry. Because it's such an indisputably good thing to do for people. Although there were people in these groups who were like, "What's the problem with this? They're just giving away brake lights. My church does this." Which was cool because these are people who would normally hate what we're doing.
I know that New Orleans DSA's tweets about the event went somewhat viral, and in general, the DSA is great at using social media to get their message out. Do you think your event translated that online enthusiasm into real life results?
It's complicated. If we're talking about social media directly affecting the number of people that came into get brake lights changed, I would say social media via the DSA channels didn't do much. Social media [posts] on Facebook got spread around and did help people get in touch with us, and came because of that.
But it blowing up on Twitter was good for a few reasons: One was that it helped spread the word here among leftists who were maybe on the fence about joining DSA or staying with us, who saw what we were doing and saw it was a genuine effort at making a difference. People told me that was part of the reason they decided to actually pay dues. Also, we raised a ton of money from that, which ended up being a real godsend because we were able to experiment much more with what we're doing.
The biggest thing that came from it blowing up online was last night we did a conference call with 80 people from other chapters who want to get started on their own brake light clinics. People all over the country could be starting this now, which means that the impact is going to be so much bigger.
What's next for New Orleans DSA?
We're still a pretty new chapter. We just formed in April. We're going to keep work on [brake light repairs]. We're [also] starting to get a plan together for the hurricane. We're pretty close to Houston, and it's affecting a lot of parts of Louisiana as well. We want to take the work we've been doing in direct service and channel that energy into hurricane aid. Right now, we don't know what that looks like because the hurricane is still going on, and we're still waiting to find out what's happened in Houston and Louisiana.
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