Some 250 people, most in their early 20s, gathered Saturday at UC Berkeley’s International House to celebrate U.S. socialism. Some sported purple hair and others wore crop tops and jean jackets festooned with black and red pins featuring Lenin as well as Stranger Things.
Welcome to the world of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and their annual national conference. The YDSA is the youth branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, founded in 1982 and largely dismissed by the U.S. political world until Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and the 2018 wins that sent its two first members to Congress – New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan Representative, Rashida Tlaib.
Representatives from the 69 youth chapters around the country, including one from UC Berkeley, filled the room with hip young activists excited to learn tactics on how to organize on their college campuses to impact the 2020 elections.
“It’s not like a business convention where they talk to you about synergy. This actually makes sense and it also contributes to my professional development,” said Devon Baker, 19 who flew in from Indiana, where he’s attending Indiana University, just for the weekend.
Baker said he had a blast listening to panels that included speakers like Jovanka Beckles, a former candidate in Assembly District 15, which includes Berkeley, Richmond, and Oakland, and attending workshops like “Defeat the Far Right on Campus” and “Building a Mass Organization.”
While many Americans fear the idea of socialism, for most born after the fall of the Berlin Wall being a socialist is no longer scary, attendees said. Their idea of democratic socialism is based on intersectional politics, a theory of identity that ascribes class, race, sexual orientation, age and gender minorities as determining the most marginalized in society. In addition, they embrace democratic socialism rather than pure socialism, which means they work inside the political system to effect change.
“There are misconstrued ideas about socialism taking away autonomy, giving your money to someone else who doesn’t deserve it or creating a lazy society,” said Remington Mickle, 22, who attends Indiana University. “But socialism is providing for people’s basic needs: healthcare, housing and food. It means taking care of the earth and of each other at a societal level. It’s about extending democracy as far as possible.”
It can also be seen as cool, fun and diverse. For these activist millennials, feminism is socialism, fighting white supremacy is socialism and queerness is socialism.
The rules of the conference were simple and everyone in the room had them down. First, no clapping because it interrupts speakers. Express support by quickly snapping your fingers. Use the socialist symbol of the red rose as an emoji when you tweet. Choose your own pronoun and wear it on your name badge: she/her; he/him; them/they. Respect other people’s pronoun choices. Feature as many pins and stickers as you can. The more glitter, the better.
“DSA and YDSA are very inclusive spaces for the LGBT community,” said Mai Lewis a 20-year-old biology major from Florida Gulf Coast University. (Not their true name). Lewis, who uses they as a personal pronoun, was wearing a blue T-shirt that said non-binary in big white letters. An earring sparkled from their left ear. “I became a socialist through my feminist background,” they explained, “it helped me understand how poor people were being exploited.”
“We don’t just fight capitalism, but white supremacy and patriarchy… it’s not only talking about #MedicareForAll, but about racism’s role in a broken health care system,” said Autumn Picket, 22, from Purdue.
Mickle nodded in approval, adding: “There is definitely an intersection between gender, class and race. Identity oppression is perpetuated through class access.”
Meanwhile, Dale, 28, who asked that his last name not be used and who is studying sex education at City College of San Francisco, sounded downright Marxist: “Socialism is people having the means of production as opposed to being exploited, but socialism is also about having control over our own lives and bodies.”
Despite their age, it was clear that the room was full of well-read activists. The crowd engaged in conversations where concepts like “critical mass,” “deep state,” “canvassing” and “materialism” were employed with ease.
Most of those in the room had never heard about socialism, much less identified with it, before Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
Most of those in the room had never heard about socialism, much less identified with it, before Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Nowadays, 51% of Americans aged 18 to 29 see socialism as a positive thing, according to a 2018 study conducted by Gallup. The discontent regarding traditional politics was palpable at the convention.
Before 2016, “I considered myself a liberal because I just didn’t know any better,” said Isabelle Turner, 20, from Indiana. “The election was a good moment to see that it was not Republicans, but the entire system that was wrong.”
For Kevin Allec, 20, “the Democratic Party needs to change. They really haven’t caught up with time.” From his perspective, socialist leaders like Ocasio-Cortez are “talking about things like they actually care. Not like Kamala Harris or other fake politicians.”
In the last State of the Union address, President Trump stated his alarm about “the new calls to adopt socialism in our country.” He said, “America was founded on liberty and independence and not on coercion, domination and control.”
The Republican Party plans to use the recent election of some democratic socialists as a way to “demonize” Democrats in the 2020 presidential race, according to a recent New York Times article.
Many at the gathering were still behind Sanders for 2020. (He announced he was running for president again today). To that end, they are working to extend their message, first on their college campuses and ultimately nationwide with the support of social media.
“In 2020 I’m hoping for an increase in young voters,” said Turner. “Last election a lot of young people voted. I think we are becoming more aware partly through the internet.”
To wrap the day, Beckles, a member of the East Bay chapter of DSA and former Richmond City Councilwoman who lost her race for Assembly in November to Buffy Wicks , addressed the crowd in the tone of an experienced leftist who knows how to get crowds excited. She is a black, Latina and openly lesbian politician whose campaign motto was “People Over Profit.” Millennial socialists love her.
While Beckles’ words were motivational, her campaign showed the limits of DSA’s electoral strengths. The East Bay chapter of DSA, with 1,250 members, is the fifth largest chapter in the country, according to its website.
The chapter put a huge amount of time into Beckles’ campaign, sending hundreds of volunteers to canvass and rally for her. The chapter even created a website devoted to questioning the origins of the money donated to Buffy Wicks. The site suggested conservatives with ties to Trump and other Republicans supported Wicks. Despite that, Wicks, who raised more than twice the amount of money Beckles raised, garnered 54% of the vote to Beckles’ 46%.
Beckles used her speech to set the stage for the next fight, the 2020 elections.
“YOU are carrying forward the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg, Salvador Allende, Martin Luther King Jr., Eugene Debs, Ella Baker,” Beckles told the crowd. The room was ecstatic.
“That was a pretty intense speech,” said one young activist wearing a T-shirt that said “Make Israel Palestine Again.”
“I know!” said his friend, “It was like drinking straight café. Now we really gotta go organize.”
Gisela Perez de Acha is a Mexican human rights lawyer currently attending the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.