Organizing is more than just campaigning
Organize Right is a regular column with less beat than a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, like the left, lessons from its history and its impact on the present.
One of the more interesting contrasts between left-handed and right-handed is that while right-handed people vocal support and admiration for the military, the left-handed people who shut it down are better at mimicking the really important aspects of military organization. Right-handed people may buy combat uniforms and plate carriers, carry black rifles, and drink coffee named after black rifles, but left-handed people like to write after-action and progress reports that openly evaluate their own successes and failures with the aim of improving and contributing to their performance in the future achieve goals in the long run. Many of these reports are available if you search.
Today we take a look at the lessons learned from Stomp Out Slumlords (SOS), an ongoing radical tenant organization project of the Washington, D.C. Chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America. The group’s original goal was to force reforms by making the status quo untenable for landlords. It didn’t work out the way they planned, but they learned a lot from successes and failures. And we can too.
Left-wing campaigns begin with an analysis of the situation. In this case two questions: What are the mechanisms of the system behind evictions in D.C. and what are its strategic bottlenecks? SOS believed it had found one before the landlord-tenant court. Since most renters don’t bother to show up, landlords are usually given default judgments. Eviction is cheap and costs the landlord a few hundred dollars in fees. But if the tenant does going to court and dragging the process – by moving to go ahead, challenging the eviction, or requesting a reduction in unpaid rent based on the terms of the property – landlords’ legal fees rise dramatically and may not be sustainable.
That’s bad for a single landlord. But when the landlord-tenant court has too many cases, it gets even worse: the whole system jams and landlords cannot evacuate anyone. The status quo ranges from good for landlords to terrible for landlords. The crisis is making landlords – and local governments – ready to accept the promoters’ demands.
The SOS crew pondered and rejected some tactics popular among leftists, such as organizing tenants at the building level (they felt they lacked resources), organizing rent strikes (ditto), and gathering mobs to stop evictions (some of them had tried this and were disappointed to learn that they “were only beaten up by US marshals and people were evicted anyway”). Instead, they decided to involve DSA members in door-to-door advertising. They monitored public records to identify people who were threatened with eviction and then approached them at home in an attempt to get them to fight the eviction, aiming at the landlord-tenant court to glue.
As of 2017, SOS set up weekly advertising teams of 10 to 20 people. They distributed literature, advised tenants to go to court, and gathered contact information to identify potential cadre leaders in poor black neighborhoods (“cadres” are the most dedicated and talented organizers for whom work is a true calling). By April 2018, they had 50 regular participants, monthly business meetings and teams that split the work of finding leads, acquiring, following up and maintaining their database. These efforts resulted in a noticeable increase in the number of lawsuits, but did not lead to the desired result of breaking the system. They had knocked on 2,500 doors and in a week or so they would be knocking on 200 more. The problem: In just one year, landlord-tenant courts saw around 30,000 cases. They couldn’t make a dent.
Worse still, holding a workshop with tenant attorneys, they knocked on 300 doors within a mile of the session, followed up on initial interest, got people’s firm commitments to attend, but only eight people actually showed up. These eight people were not interested in the radicals’ strategies. They wanted advice on their own real problems and were deeply awake to what the solutions were. Some of them actively wanted people to be evicted for causing problems in their buildings. Fear of violence and the desire for more police work were common topics. That was deeply uncomfortable for the socialists. As SOS put it:
Like the DSA as a whole, our group is overwhelmingly white, almost all tenants are black, and some of them tend to make sweeping statements about what is wrong with blacks and what blacks should do. These issues obviously put us in an awkward position: we have no interest in building an organization that oppresses tenants, and we will not support statements that would sound overtly racist to our mouths, but neither can we dismiss the concerns people have about their immediate safety.
On the plus side, continued exposure to actual tenants meant SOS was learning more and more about how evictions actually worked. It found that most eviction suits ended because the tenant either paid or moved out and the landlord dropped the case. Tenants who went to court usually tried to negotiate with the landlord’s lawyers rather than going to the judge. This worked very well for the landlords, as the tenants mostly did not know their rights or did not understand the process.
In February 2019, SOS realized that their original goal was impossible. They had set up a training program; They received referrals from lawyers and community service workers who believed in their mission. But no matter what they did, they couldn’t hope to attract enough people to overwhelm the system. They had also spoken to enough tenants to learn that most people facing eviction are temporarily short of money. It is difficult to organize together around individual topics. The likelihood of tenants coming together was the quality of living issue, which affected everyone in the building.
So SOS turned to organizing buildings, shifting its canvassing every two weeks, and smashing 300 to 500 doors to find clues. After failing to get tenants to join the DSA or attend DSA events, they focused on building capacity for the tenants themselves with the goal of one day starting a city-wide tenants union. They actively organized in a total of four buildings.
In one building, SOS formed a tenants’ association, but it was plagued by internal power struggles (which burned its best volunteers) and then, to its disappointment, by inaction under a president who was reconciled to management and hostile to the radical policies of the DSA. To their regret, SOS had failed to persuade a henchman candidate to run for office. They used their trusted recruits in the building to complete the organization they created and made demands on the developer company who owned the building. Surprisingly, this led to meaningful results: the company that managed the complex was fired, and that change alone reduced eviction complaints at the property by 70 percent. Tenant complaints even led to an investigation by the federal prosecutor and a settlement against the owners because of excessive water bills for tenants. The president of the tenant organization tried to acknowledge these developments and SOS eventually withdrew the platform by ensuring that its members in the tenant organization vote in favor of the dissolution.
When SOS tried to found a new tenants’ organization, power struggles broke out again. The elections went poorly and the use of an undeclared list of candidates for office alienated tenants, who postponed the elections. As a result, another left-wing organization intervened, with a net loss of power for the SOS. Her greatest victories were followed by several steps backwards.
Until 2019, SOS organizers were working on a political indoctrination curriculum. They were active in eight houses and tried to organize more. Often times they found people who were already trying to take action and helping them coordinate. Their acquisition was even more limited than before and was mainly used to find leads and train new organizers. They helped organize a rent strike to urge landlords to make repairs. This has been a particular challenge – a proper rent strike requires tenants to keep paying rent in escrow, and that’s not something poor tenants like to do. It took very strong relationships to do this, and many one-on-one interviews were especially important.
On a broader front, the D.C. Tenants Union (DCTU) founded, led by militants with charitable support. It had a board of 15, two of whom were SOS. However, the SOS socialists had ideological and tactical concerns about the DCTU. The SOS regards non-profit organizations as too forgiving and fears that member organizations will be taken over by the middle class and thus not lead to the building of socialism.
But at this point the SOS was a bit at a loss. The solicitation they had put so much trust in hadn’t achieved their goal. They had achieved some real victories on a property but failed to translate that into lasting profits. They had not been lucky enough to turn SOS or the DSA into a real center of the tenant organization – the tenants were skeptical of both. Most worryingly, poor blacks weren’t automatically socialists. When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, the response from SOS was shocked and meandering, murmuring about eviction laws for a just cause, guarantees of the habitability of a home, free legal representation for tenants, rent caps and a five-year rent freeze, but they have plans to implement those initiatives were missing.
Objectively speaking, the four years of work hadn’t done the stomp out slumlords much. Her original plan had been a concept failure. Every victory was followed by setbacks. They failed to capitalize on the successes and they failed when it came to mobilizing their people to actually run and control the tenants’ organization that Stomp Out Slumlords founded. And give them credit: they openly admit these problems.
When reading their progress reports, it becomes clear that there are three main reasons Stomp Out Slumlords fought for four years.
The first is that they had trouble getting in touch with the people they were trying to organize because they came from different worlds and cared about different things – poor black tenants in shitty neighborhoods had no reason, well-off white socialists to trust gentrified neighborhoods.
The second is that their people didn’t have much experience as organizers.
The third is that the experience they had as organizers was Experience in the wrong thing.
The first two reasons are explicitly mentioned by Stamp Out Slumlords in their progress reports. It’s not the third one, but it might explain their main problem.
From the outset, Stamp Out Slumlords ruled out a number of tactics and decided to promote a mass movement through advertising, which was an inappropriate tactic for the purpose. It’s ineffective, slowly scalable, and with their small numbers they couldn’t hope to reach enough people. Why did you hold onto it for so long?
The reason for this isn’t really in their progress reports, but rather in their progress reports. Stomp Out Slumlords is open that it is them: mostly young white socialist guys from gentrified neighborhoods who are members of the DSA.
There is a shorter way of saying this: “Bernie Sanders Pendant”. And if you don’t have a lot of organizational experience but were a foot soldier in the campaign to make Bernie Sanders President of the United States, what much have you done? Acquisition.
Left-wing extremist grassroots campaigns spawn people who build their identities around things like canvassing, phone calls, and the like. The people at Stomp Out Slumlords did not have much experience in other forms of organization. When you started a new group to change the world, what were your priorities? The stuff they already knew.
When a tactic is part of your identity, it is hard to change the tactic if it doesn’t work. And the tactics of stomp out slumlords didn’t work. They tried to use rational arguments that had worked for them to convince people who weren’t like them. They tried to use election-winning techniques to win in a situation that was not an election. And they did this because they knew rational arguments and choices. Rational arguments and choices were key. Rational arguments and choices were everything.
In short, the reason they were ineffective was because they acted like us.
The next part is about how Stomp Out Slumlords turned things around, and there are probably some lessons that we right-handed people can learn.
David Hines has a background in international human rights work with an emphasis on post-disappearance recovery and mass murder. He lives in Los Angeles.