Photo by @jjshgdmn
The Politics of Love
A Night with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Socialists of America-Los Angeles
By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez packed the large chapel of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles on Friday, August 3rd, in an event organized by the fast-growing Los Angeles Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. The 28-year-old Congressional candidate from the Bronx, a former bartender, and community organizer, had trounced Joe Crowley, the fourth most powerful House Democrat, in a recent mid-term primary—all with little money and no institutional backing. She instantly became a national sensation. Along with Bernie Sanders, she has been traveling the country, and traversing the news talk show circuit. Now in Los Angeles, she had gone on a tour of skid row, and was speaking at an event sponsored by Democratic Socialists.
Outside the church, three men with thick beards leaned against a car, wearing matching t-shirts displaying a picture of Ocasio’s face surrounded by glittering bedazzled rhinestones. Her wide-open eyes looked to the side and slightly upwards, gazing with hope and determination towards a future of peace and justice.
Next to those in line for the event, Theresa stood behind a table displaying copies of the magazine Socialist Worker. A retired school teacher who had spent 20 years teaching middle school, she looked younger than her age. Her favorite grade to teach was 2nd grade, but most of her career she taught middle school, with a tough group of wild students who misbehaved as they went through puberty. The crowd fidgeted excited and impatiently as they lined up along the sidewalk, as if waiting to enter a rock concert. Besides the Ocasio 2018 t-shirts, attendees wore ones that said Abolish ICE, and red ones emblazoned with the Democratic Socialist of America Los Angeles logo, a brown and white hand clasped in solidarity under the shade of a Southern California palm tree.
For an event run by an all-volunteer organization, it was well organized. DSA-LA members quickly checked off the names of those waiting in line off of a list of who had purchased $15 tickets. Attendees entered the church, passing literature tables and a smiling woman who directed them to their seats. A teenage Latina with long hoop earrings sat in one of the church pews, next to an older white lady, who sat next to her college age son, followed by a black woman with dread locks and fan shaped red earrings. In front of them a row of middle-aged Jewish women fanned themselves in the hot church, their arms sparkled with plastic glittering bracelets. It was a young crowd, mostly men and women in their 20’s and 30’s, but with seniors scattered throughout.
Women outnumbered men in the diverse crowd of Asian, Black, Hispanic and White participants, but not by much. A white woman sat down, holding a brown suede bag and tiny chihuahua in her lap; she looked typically sheik LA, with a black dress, modest white pearl earrings, and sunglasses perched on her head. Two Latina sisters with long dark hair sat quietly a few seats in front of me, staring at the podium expectantly waiting for Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to arrive.
The gathering took place in the main chapel of the historic First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, with its high ceilings, and mosaic patterned stained glass windows. The church had been founded in 1877 by Caroline Severance, a leader in the early women’s suffrage movement, who after a lifetime of organizing cast her first ballot in 1911, voting at the age of 91. In 1945, the church helped returning U.S. citizens of Japanese descent find shelter and work when released from internment camps after World War II. The church had been active in major political upheavals throughout the 20th century, including heroically defending the right to free speech of accused communist screenwriters and actors during the red scares of the McCarthy era, organizing for peace and against the Vietnam War, functioning as a meeting space during the heights of LA’s civil rights movement, and as a sanctuary for immigrant refugees when tens of thousands of Salvadoran and other Central American immigrants fled to Los Angeles in the 1980’s. After the Rodney King riots in 1992, the church spread the gospel of community healing and empowerment to communities’ rebuilding, still suffering from the anguish and frustration of poverty and police brutality which had boiled over into violence following the acquittal of those officers caught beating King on camera.
DSA-LA members who volunteered at the event scurried back and forth, wearing big yellow buttons that read, “crew” in black letters. A white man wearing his red DSA t-shirt and pined yellow button stood hands clasped in the aisle near the front, telling folks not to sit in the first row. An older white man with a grey balding head fumbled with the microphones and audio equipment, wearing a United Teachers of Los Angeles Peace and Justice Committee t-shirt. As we waited, watching the UTLA retiree and other volunteers fumble to fix the lighting and sound system, the sanctuary chamber filled to capacity.
People waived white fliers to fan themselves, and a large industrial fan blew hot air from the left corner. Behind me, a white man with a bald head and thick glasses, sat sweating next to his partner. Next to him a younger man with a shaggy beard, mustache, and cascading dirty blond curly hair crossed his arms over his purple shirt emblazoned with the words “Deep State.” His girlfriend in denim shorts with large oval glasses rested her head against his shoulder. A few seats away a black couple sat, a man wore an African design – gold, green and purple triangles embroidered around the ends of his short sleeves. His partner’s hair twisted up in a bun on the top of her head; she stretched her arm around him, and gently touched his shoulder with her finger tips. The lights dimmed and then went back on as the crowd waited for the program to begin.
A muscular Chicano wearing a tight camouflage t shirt the displayed the tattoo of woman’s arm on his left bicep anxiously looked around. It was five minutes past the announced start time, and he wasn’t the only one melting in the afternoon heat. He was looking forward to hearing what Ocasio Cortez had to say. “With the way things are going,” he explained, “you have to choose a side.”
An Asian woman walking down the aisle raised her arms in surprise, her face lit up with excitement, as she turned to greet a friend she didn’t expect to see—a black woman who had been sitting close to the aisle, wearing a shirt displayed the names of black victims of officer involved shootings. Volunteers passed out water to the waiting crowd. A Latina reached up from the middle left pew for a bottle of water, and a white woman passed it to her over others’ heads.
Finally, the elected steering committee of Democratic Socialists of America’s Los Angeles chapter took to the stage, volunteers who committed their scarce time between work, school, and family to run the daily operations of the second largest DSA chapter in the country. The Los Angeles Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America had grown exponentially over the past year. With over 1,300 active members, the organization had the strength and energy to operate 15 or 16 standing workgroups and subcommittees to engage in education and organizing on housing and homelessness, healthcare, immigration, prison abolition, climate justice, and religious socialism. Divided into more than six different neighborhood organizations, Los Angeles DSA regularly hosts events; community canvasses, demonstrations, meetings, forums, and happy hours every week. In addition to Los Angeles, separate chapters in Long Beach, the Inland Empire, Ventura, Orange County, Santa Barbara, and San Diego, as well as college campuses, have been engaged in increasing levels of activity-and that is just Southern California. The youthful elected volunteers of the DSA-LA steering committee, six women and four men, stood shoulder to shoulder smiling and giddy as they looked out at the packed church. The lights dimmed, and committee member Rachel Reyes, a self-described queer woman of color, and retail manager. She looked in her mid to late 20’s; her lipstick bright red, she wore a black dress imprinted with a giant red rose, and leaned towards podium’s microphone to speak. Someone yelled out, “We can’t hear you!” She leaned in closer.
“Welcome! We are going to have a conversation with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez this evening. First, how many of you are DSA-LA members?” About a fifth of the crowd raised its hand.
“Great! Well, first we wanted to thank Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her campaign, all the DSA members who volunteered tonight, and this amazing historic First Unitarian Church… Through our collective efforts as people, as workers, together we can make change. So often we are taught that one person can save us, one person can destroy us, and only one person can fix this country. But the truth is, by working together, by struggling together as a movement, we can defeat the forces of capitalist and build a socialist future. DSA LA has been supporting unions, including with the Hollywood labor center, so we can all earn a living wage, and fighting increasing economic inequality, corporate power, and the concentration of wealth. We are organizing so that no one is gunned down in the street by the LAPD, and to make sure housing is a human right.” Reyes continued, describing the organization’s work. “People deserve housing, and they shouldn’t be criminalized for being homeless, living in tents and subject to police harassment. We believe that as human beings, we have a responsibility to care for one another. “
“They said it wasn’t possible… to elect someone who looked like me and who shared my values,” Reyes continued. “Democrats are frustrated by the same old centralized Democratic Party telling us to tone it down and appeal to moderate Republicans, and to swing voters. Alexandra Ocsaio-Cortez won by a landslide on a Democratic Socialist platform, giving New York and the Bronx a taste of what is to come. When we rally and march, we have a saying, “When we fight, we win.”
“Let’s hear you say it,” Reyes challenged. The crowd roared in response, “When we fight, we win!”
“If each of you brought a friend to the next rally, we’ll need a bigger space,” she declared. “And if we all do that, and our friends do too, we may have to rent out Dodgers stadium. But we don’t do it alone, we work in coalition with groups like the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Los Angeles Tenants Union, LAANE [Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy], and others. That’s it for now. Tomorrow morning, we will be canvassing in neighborhoods throughout the city to repeal the ban on rent control. Information is on our website.”
At this point Reyes welcomed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the stage and the crowd jumped to its feet, clapping and cheering wildly to welcome the New Yorker like she was a rock star. The sanctuary vibrated with the energy of the crowd’s noise and excitement, people clapped and cheered for what seemed like two or three minutes. “Thank you,” Ocasio exclaimed.
A few screamed, a last high-pitched excited shriek. Ocasio, with brown skin, long straight black hair, and a black dress, broke into a wide smile, taking in the crowd’s energy.
“Thank you. This just shows the energy and excitement of people organizing around a message of solidarity, of social, racial, and economic justice… I am an educator, organizer, and working-class New Yorker… You know, in my heart, I’m an organizer. An organizer builds and grows movements to let people know that they are not alone in their poverty, in their identity, and right to dignity, and who they are. “
“We didn’t win as DSA. It was part of a larger campaign and coalition. The key was to meet people where they were at. That is rule number one of coalition building. It’s not some superficial identity—what people are, who they really are, are their names, their person. They have a mother, father, friends and sisters. You have to meet people where they are at. So, when we organize, we have to do so proactively, and accept people for their imperfections, and meet our neighbors We meet them where they are at, to help them take that first step. You really have to eliminate the ego; and the idea that they aren’t good enough on some small issue. It’s bigger than anyone of us, and it demands grace, forgiveness, and love.”
“What we did is, we educated and expanded the electorate. We expanded the electorate by 68% over the last off year mid-term election. You see, society doesn’t see immigrants, those formerly convicted of crimes, no matter how small, the poor, and working class. They are invisible. But there are far more non-voters than swing voters and moderate Republicans. We are better off as a democracy, as a movement, a government, and a society, when we expand voter participation. The politics of today don’t see us. There was a recent United Nations report that 40 million in the United States live in poverty, and five million live in third world conditions. People don’t vote, not because they don’t care or don’t want to, but because no one is fighting for them.”
After her introductory remarks, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sat down next to two young DSA-LA leaders, journalist Molly Lambert, and Maikiko James, DSA-LA steering committee member, and operations manager at the gender equity advocacy non-profit, Women in Film. Maikiko James asked the first question to break the ice. “So, we all know that there are all these New Yorkers who’ve moved to Los Angeles, but no one from LA ever moves to New York. So, our first question is, when are you moving out here?”
Ocasio, “Well you know Spike Lee said he is from the People’s Republic of Brooklyn, and we’ve got a saying where I’m from in the Bronx. Bronx born and bred. And I’m staying in my hood.”
“Look. What we did,” Ocasio explained, “is build a grassroots campaign in our community. When people say those words, coalition building, and grassroots organizing, what that really meant, was that when I was bartending downtown, I would put clipboards, flyers and a change of clothes in a brown paper bag. When I was done with work, I would change and go to someone’s living room in Queens or the Bronx, and listen to those who gathered at house parties and in living rooms. People would pull together their neighbors, and I met them in living rooms for eight months before anyone paid attention. What grassroots organizing is, really, is it feels lonely, and it feels like losing a lot. But if it feels like it is the right thing to do, then you keep going, and that’s what keeps you going. That’s what we did.
I didn’t have the support of a lot of other groups at first. There was Brand New Congress… and especially important, Black Lives Matter New York. Other progressive groups were not really helpful. When I asked for their support, they were like, No. Who are you? I got the same response from community organizations, but they’d invite me to an action, to speak out against the displacement of neighbors evicted from a building, really as a dare, to test to see if I was for real. And to their surprise, I’d show up. You have to give first before you can ask. I was just giving for eight months, and we brought the movement together.”
Lambert asked the next question. “DSA-LA has been protesting ICE, protesting the deaths of a child in an ICE detention center to abolish the agency, opposing the efforts to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles, which besides accelerating gentrification, evictions, and displacement, would bring in ICE and homeland security to LA to further criminalize communities of color. Both Los Angeles and New York claim to be sanctuary cities, but their police forces still collaborate with the homeland security department. They are not doing enough. What does the abolition of ICE mean to you?”
“Well you brought up an important point, it is not just gentrification and community displacement, it is racial justice and criminal justice that we are talking about as well. You cannot reform an agency that commits human rights violations, that is separating children from their parents, and that is administering psychoactive drugs to kids. It is morally abhorrent. Every day we allow it to continue, we degrade ourselves as a society. This militarized force didn’t always exist. We have to end family detention, with a goal of documenting all of those with no documentation. “
“What is it going to take to create a climate where more woman of color run for office and win?” James questioned.
“As a woman, as a person of color,” Ocasio, “I’ll say from experience. They don’t take you seriously. In Michigan Abdul El-Sayed – is closing in on the race for Governor. But the racism on the left is really a self-fulfilling prophesy. Not every-day Democrats, but “strategists,” they said it was too risky in Michigan. Why? They say “other people” won’t vote for him. 75% of people are cool with him, but they don’t support him because some ‘other person’ might not vote for him. We need to oppose this false narrative. We have to say, sure, some bigot many not vote for Sayed, but I will. I mean, they voted for a man named Barack Hussein Obama! We have to fight this fear that we are going to lose. It makes us timid, and cautious, and unsure of ourselves…. We have to run courageously, and believe in ourselves, that we will win. When people see that they’ll turn out to vote.”
“All over Los Angeles,” Lambert mentioned, “The rent is going up.” Whole neighborhoods are gentrified, while wall street banks and hedge funds are the biggest landlords, driving displacement, and homelessness. Meanwhile, while they are evicting working class families, and there are homeless tent cities in every neighborhood, all of these new luxury units are sitting vacant. Los Angeles has a high luxury unit vacancy rate. How does gentrification impact your district?”
Ocasio, declaring, “In every major urban area in this country there is a housing crisis. There is a crisis of homelessness in America. It is not due to a lack of inventory. We have the largest homeless population since the Great Depression. In New York, there are three empty luxury apartments for every homeless person. This is a broken system… but it is the system of real estate speculation, where housing is used to store wealth, both from across the United States and globally, that is destabilizing communities. In Manhattan there are empty storefronts everywhere. There is a bank on one corner, a coffee shop on the other, and nothing else. People don’t have the money to spend on stores. No one actually lives there. Our economy is collapsing on itself, on this speculative bubble.”
One could see Lambert affirming what Ocasio stated. The same trends are impacting neighborhoods all over LA.
James, who had begun with the joke about moving to LA, got serious. She asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to address comments she made about Israel and Palestine, and the boycott divestment and sanctions movement.
“The left is an amazing group of critics; we don’t have all the issues. How do we address these issues?“ Ocasio. “I come from a family where we were treated like second class citizens. There is a humanitarian crisis in Palestine. The Israel and Palestine issue is not an issue always talked about in my family. I saw it through what was right or wrong. People are getting killed protesting, and it is wrong. I didn’t grow up with a deep understanding. I felt torn up after that interview, that I let down my comrades in the movement; I wasn’t prepared. I want to make sure I can be a good ally. I am doing my best to find ways and language conscious of people’s experience of oppression, and learning as much as I can to frame the issue in a way to change how it is discussed.”
Ocasio didn’t answer the question of what she thought of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. After a contentious debate at last summer’s national convention in Chicago, the Democratic Socialists of America had voted overwhelmingly to support the boycott of Israel. The issue has come up before for DSA members running for public office. Illinois gubernatorial candidate Daniel Bill disinvited Chicago Alderman, and DSA member Carlos Rosa from serving as his running mate for Lieutenant Governor because of his defense of DSA’s position on the issue. When Alexandria Ocasio Cortez avoided taking a firm stance on divestment from Israel, many DSA members grumbled that she had sacrificed principle for politics.
James looked around, and raised a finger touching the space between her upper lip and nose as if to stop herself from saying something else. After an awkward pause that most didn’t notice, Ocasio cocked her head back, and rose a hand to touch her long black hair. Lambert stepped in with another question, and they moved on.
“When I was commuting to work on the subway,” Ocasio recalled, “I would regularly see a black or brown man pressed against a wall by the NYPD. Stop and frisk. Often, they would find a small bag of weed, and then it’s a wrap; they’d book you, and you were off to jail. I would then take the train downtown to where I was working near NYU- New Yok University. It’s a gentrified neighborhood, and these white kids are playing hacky sack and smoking joints out in the open. The police aren’t doing anything. I remember the rage I would feel at the disparity and open discrimination in selective enforcement of drug laws.“
Earlier Ocasio mentioned Medicare for All, the need for a single payer system. “What industries besides healthcare need an intervention like single payer,” Lambert prompted her New York guest, “such as energy, education, or finance, warrant public intervention– DSA-LA is pushing for a municipal initiative to have a public bank.”
Ocasio took the opportunity to explain her position. “We have to look at policies and the need for a public option in a lot of industries,” she mentioned. “Like finance, for example. We should look at postal banking. When I get off the subway to go home, I pass a check cashing place, a pawn shop, and payday loan store. This is how a plurality of Americans, the working poor, bank. They charge you 10% of your income in interest and transaction fees, and people are already not getting paid a living wage. We have to redesign the financial system where when you go to cash a check, you just get charged what it actually costs to process that transaction, not whatever they can get away with.”
“Another area where we need a public option is in employment,” Ocasio continued. “We need a Federal jobs guarantee. We need public options for the labor market to establish a floor for job equity. In many workplaces, like restaurants where I’ve worked, your employer basically has you hostage. They make you clock out before you finish your shift, and do all sorts of things to steal your wages and continue exploiting people. And undocumented workers, and those with criminal records, feel they can’t go anywhere else, so they just accept the subjugation.
We need a guarantee of paid healthcare, a living wage, and paid family and sick leave. People should be able to leave their job and then be able to get a guaranteed job. It would foster competition in the labor market, and force employers to pay workers a living wage- establishing a floor for wages and working conditions.”
“So, what should we do now?” James asked.
Ocasio responded to promote another Congressional race, urging the crowd to phone bank for DSA member Kaniela Ing, running for the August 11th Hawaiian Congressional Primary. “When you don’t take corporate donations, when you don’t take corporate lobbyist donations, and aren’t financed by lobbyists, we win through work,” Ocasio noted. “One person is one person, but when everyone works together, we can accomplish a lot. Send my buddy to Congress with me.”
With that, Ocasio-Cortez’s conversation with two female leaders of the Los Angeles Democratic Socialists ended, and the crowd rose to its feet in applause. The clapping continued for some time, and while a few people left after Ocasio-Cortez left the stage, most sat back down. Another woman returned to the microphone. Her name was Kelsey Goldberg, a redhead writer, actor, comedian, and also a member of Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles’s steering committee.
“We have had three surges of membership growth in the past few years,” Kelsey rose her voice to keep the crowd’s interest. “One was after Trump was elected, the second after the fascist violence in Charlottesville, and the third, Ocasio’s victory. This last surge in growth is unique, because people are moved to get involved because of their hopes, not their fears…. People are joining because they believe there is another way. Socialism is tangible, the reality of socialism in tenable.” After a few announcements of upcoming events, Kelsey urged participants to stop by a table in the back, and join DSA.
As the audience streamed out of the church into the cool Friday evening, friends lingered on the sidewalk, talking about the night’s inspiring program. In groups of two, three, four, and more, they walked off, deciding whether to eat Korean or Salvadoran food nearby, or to catch an uber and grab a drink, to continue the conversation that started inside.