Open Leftism in Northern Nevada
“We don’t want vacation homes and a garage for every car. You’ve planted seeds in the desert, you stole your water from afar. Now, Southern California, stay where you are.” – Cobra Skullifornia, Cobra Skulls.
I was humbled when we were asked to write about our experience building a chapter in Northern Nevada. I’m a longtime leftist, long searching for a supportive community where I could work against the destructive systems of capitalism and ableism. Though I’m aligned with anarchist ideologies, the message of building a left front for a democratic and participatory socialism resonates with me. Since our organizing committee’s inception, I’ve worked alongside so many great organizers to create our chapter, and I’m keen to speak about leftism in Northern Nevada.
It’s unfortunate that mentioning “Nevada” to many conjures images of casinos and neon in Las Vegas. People rarely think of our staggering snow-capped mountains shining blue against painted sunsets, our wild horses and Basque heritage, or our communities in the Great Basin. Still, socialism in Northern Nevada must take on that local spirit and speak to our local conditions.
The most notable of these conditions is the intimacy of communities. Reno may be known as the “biggest little city,” but the nickname doesn’t just describe the city itself. In much of Northern Nevada, knowing one person often means you’re only a few degrees of connection from someone else. For organizing, this intimacy enables us to develop connections and mobilize people for events through a small social network. It becomes easier to answer answer a call from a friend of a friend who is a comrade.
We also have a strong history of activism in our community: from the IWW unionization and push for labor agitation in Goldfield, to our own counterculture movements with the sixties. Our home is also one of the birthplaces of straight edge punk and a center of alternative art and burning man. We had our own occupy movements and the activist community which came out of that. In short, there’s fertile ground for left organizing here.
Despite this intimacy and history of political realization, we’ve also had fewer successful left movements cohere. This weakness stems from our culture of socialization.
While I would pour my heart into seeing the desert blossom into self-providing community, I also recognize that Reno’s intimacy is owed to its long history of cliques and in-groups. Even well-meaning and earnest socialists have fallen for the trap of building around their preferred popularity groups. This not only builds exclusionary movements, but also carries a more dangerous undertone – toxicity.
This accommodation of predators, misogynists, racists, and abusers was especially manifest with our local Occupy movement. The clique structure provided more secure and limited access for too many who were already known to be toxic, eventually pushing too many allies, too many voices, too many potential blooms in this desert out of left organizing spaces. Minding this history, we are resolutely organizing to avoid repeating past mistakes and recognize the beauty in our shared culture here in Northern Nevada. We are adamant about including the rural voices, otherised voices, disabled voices, women’s voices, nonbinary voices, LGBTQIA+ voices, and BIPoC voices so often marginalized in left spaces. And this is really where we begin to build ourselves.
Like many, I was terrified with Trump’s election. Certainly the imperialist and capitalist engines of our electoral system would never allow ethical governance, but Trump’s presidency empowered and amplified white nationalism and an accompanying aura of fear. Our systems that were already designed to break down marginalized communities crystalized into a sense of dread hanging on every breath. While Bush and Obama constructed a mass deportation machine, Trump could now turn the force of this machine loose on communities without even the pretense of legal restraint limiting their terror.
Though long alienated from local socialist groups, I felt compelled to build a shared politics that might combat this empowered fascism. To that end, and motivated by a very dear friend, I met with a former member of Reno’s Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) branch, who I’ll call “the Wob” to avoid too many details. A kind and wickedly smart trade unionist, we discussed how we could work together in solidarity. This meeting turned out to be quite fortunate, as the Wob had a myriad of connections in Reno and Sparks. They also had substantial experience with many left movements in American history, including the original incarnation of DSA, which motivated them to contact the national organization about finding other members in the area. After we decided to begin outreach to form something, we could begin building a core group of organizers. As part of this outreach, we contacted another member, E, who later proved critical to our efforts.
I should also note we weren’t the first DSA group to begin organizing locally. Our local YDS chapter at the University of Nevada, Reno cohered quickly in the fall of 2017, well before our group started coming together.
Through our myriad connections, we assembled an assortment of committed and radical folk to discuss what should be done. Reno is a smaller town, so we had that connection of intimacy and every ability to punch above our weight even with a smaller group. Surely we could actually do something wonderful!
The Wob largely rallied to set times and discussion for us, patching in E, myself, the YDS group, and a few other committed activists. At our first meetings (at a café in the spirit of every true leftist movement), we discussed how best to approach this. Do we build something new? Do we start a nonprofit? Do we stage a mass protest like Occupy?
We considered several options. Reforming the local IWW branch was a good idea, but we felt it would be too focused on a mission of unionizing, which would exclude some who could not participate. We also discussed the Democratic party, but members pointed out their frustrations with the democratic party as the “graveyard of mass movements.” E informed us that they were in touch with national DSA regarding forming a chapter, and shared the information they had received. The appeal of a mass organization with a stronger national current while still empowering local chapters to push for a democratic and inclusive message resonated with us.
With some enamored with the idea of being part of a mass organization, and others seeing the practicality of building within a national movement already successfully growing its membership, we agreed to pursue membership with National DSA. Our goal was to build an organization and culture capable of providing an answer to fascism and creating community where we could find something new and powerful.
This is where I really came into being able to be part of something. As someone with developmental disabilities, I am usually shy (my moments of mutism and persistent stutter don’t help), and I often fail to find the exact bits of social coding that allow me to be part of something. Yet, I could still be organizationally-inclined. I took thorough notes, which I highly recommend to anyone wondering if they can be involved in building something! Take minutes! It’s helpful and will let you get involved! I pushed though my own speech issues to affirm not only the importance of our working with a broad-tent synthesis leftism, but also how we must open ourselves as leftists, unconcerned with the optics.
Having decided to form a chapter, we needed to draft our bylaws and submit them to national. These bylaws needed to be useful as a guiding model for building our movement. With my lack of experience as a professional organizer, I felt vastly out of my depth surrounded by so many who had made themselves vital community organizers. Still, I’d drafted charters and bylaws for fun before, and surely I could do this task without it taking anything from me.
The question was how best to create a synthesis movement, while keeping ourselves aligned with the ideals of the Democratic Socialists and presenting something which would establish a culture of newer and inclusive politics. I pulled from my own experiences exploring the ideas of progressive stack, what I myself needed to find voice as someone disabled, what other chapters pursued, what previous left movements had done, and what national had suggested for building a strong organization. The result stressed a participatory and empowering structure of accountability and openness to provide a space for all voices.
Beyond our own desire to empower disparate ideologies, much of the current animus towards a synthesis leftism derives from the electoral experience of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. Nevada has a duly earned reputation as a battleground state, our primary system makes it a flashpoint for any electoralist endeavor. This galvanized so many towards the camp of Bernie Sanders, which had not only destigmatized the world “socialist,” but also demonstrated the viability of an openly left-politics and the failures of the Democratic party’s machine politics.
Acting on this, we felt we could rally people to a genuine socialism and show that, especially in fighting fascism, the Democratic party’s typical approach was not the only way. People could find an answer in what democratic socialism could provide, especially with their own conceptions form the election. We just had to be sure to build something that included, with equal validity, all ideological voices. Now was the time to come together and thrive, not squabble.
One of our most difficult challenges at the start was locating a consistent space. Everywhere we sought required payment, renting rooms, or barred children. We rotated where and when we met so frequently that people would forget meetings or go to the wrong location at the wrong time. Eventually we established a regular meeting space and time at our local LGBTQIA+ community center, which has been incredible in giving us space to meet. This has allowed us to really be able to grow our membership. In addition, moving away from organizing through the university culture has allowed us to orient ourselves more towards the local working class.
Another issue has been the difficulty of breaking down the deep pervasiveness of traditional capitalist conceptions of politics and moving beyond mere appeals for left unity. Building democratic socialism from the ground up means building an organization which doesn’t operate as a socialist imitation of capitalist politics. Such imitations demand members bring something to the organization, looking at who can do political work in a way that ignores the tremendous emotional work of friends and favors those who can give more in spite of a system already demanding so much. Building such a genuinely liberating culture and a community to empower that culture wasn’t enough. Though the most critical part of our organization, it lacked the tangible experience required to make our movement feel capable of accomplishing anything. Because breaking down this political culture was taking long, and we already had an amazing activist community in Reno, we examined what we could do that wasn’t already being done.
To begin addressing the profound alienation experienced in the Great Basin, we took a hard look at our problems. We have rampant housing insecurity and treat those neighbors as invisible and worthless. We have miserable education standards, ranking 49th out of 50 states. We have abysmal labor rights, even prior to AFSCME v. Janus. We have massive gentrification and housing concerns that have pushed people into unhealthy and exploitative situations just to stay housed. How could we even begin to address and also build something from the ground up?
Though we’re educating our community and members on intersectional outreach, organizing labor, conceptualizing and expressing their own left politics, and providing a space for the community to unite, we have faced difficulties. Our lack of funding, and our membership’s experiences as disabled, working class, LGBTQIA+, or otherwise marginalized people have prevented us from rallying toward significant effective work.
Moving forward, I’m so happy to say that we’ve broken through the political culture of enough members to create a coherent internal organization. We have enough empowered folk and voices that we can begin to build something amazing. Our membership has some great plans that I hope we can assist them in developing.
The last thing I must discuss is the difficulty I have faced confronting the issues of ableism that pervade our society, including much of the left. So much of how other organizations and systems operate prevents us as disabled folk to participate. When we are accommodated, it is to allow us to be “abled,” rather recognize our validity as disabled voices. I would have never had the opportunity to meaningfully participate if I were unable to be myself among my comrades. Things such as providing space for us to freely unwind from stress, normalizing disabled movements, providing systems of support and care for a variety of needs, and recognizing the importance of that support and care are critical for the success of the socialist movement.
With luck, the national organization will soon recognize us, and we will begin receiving the funds necessary to significantly influence our community. Rather than focus on those who can lead us, we hope to lift up all voices and inspire our members with the knowledge that an open leftism is not only viable, but perhaps the only answer to barbarism.
To learn more about Northern Nevada DSA’s work, contact the chapter at NorthernNevadaDSA@gmail.com. You can also follow them on Twitter @N_NevadaDSA.