Organizing Is More than Campaigning
Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.
One of the more interesting contrasts between Lefties and Righties is that while Righties vocally support and admire the military, it’s Lefties, who run it down, who are better at emulating the really important aspects of military organization. Righties may buy combat uniforms and plate carriers, tote black rifles, and drink coffee named after black rifles, but Lefties like to write after-action and progress reports that frankly assess their own successes and failures in order to improve performance in the future and achieve objectives in the long run. Plenty of those reports are available, if you look.
Today we’ll be taking a look at the learning experiences of Stomp Out Slumlords (SOS), an ongoing radical tenant organizing project from the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. The group’s initial goal was to force reform by making the status quo untenable for landlords. It didn’t work out as they planned, but they learned quite a bit from successes and failures along the way. And we can, too.
Leftist campaigns begin with an analysis of the situation. In this case, two questions: What are the mechanics of the system behind evictions in D.C., and what are its strategic chokepoints? SOS believed they had found one in landlord-tenant court. Because most tenants don’t bother to show up, landlords usually get default judgments. So eviction is cheap, costing the landlord a few hundred dollars in fees. But if the tenant does go to court and drags the process on—requesting a continuance, challenging the eviction, or requesting mitigation of unpaid rent based on the conditions of the property—landlords’ legal costs rise dramatically and potentially unsustainably.
That’s bad for an individual landlord. But if landlord-tenant court has too many cases, it gets worse: the whole system gets jammed and landlords can’t evict anybody. The status quo goes from being good for landlords to being terrible for landlords. The crisis makes landlords—and local government—willing to accept organizers’ demands.
The SOS crew considered and rejected some tactics popular among leftists, such as organizing tenants at the building level (they felt they lacked the resources), organizing rent strikes (ditto), and assembling mobs to stop evictions (some of them had tried this, and had been disappointed to learn they “just got beat up by U.S. Marshals and the people got evicted anyway”). Instead, they decided, they would plug DSA members into door-to-door canvassing. They would monitor public records to identify people in danger of being evicted and then canvass them at home to try to get them to fight eviction, with the goal of gumming up landlord-tenant court.
Beginning in 2017, SOS set up weekly canvassing crews of 10 to 20 people. They distributed literature, advised tenants to go to court, and collected contact information to identify potential cadre leaders in poor black neighborhoods (“cadre” is what lefties call the most committed and gifted organizers, for whom the work is a true calling). By April 2018, they had 50 regular participants, monthly business meetings, teams to divide the labor of finding leads, canvassing, making follow-ups, and maintaining their database. These efforts resulted in a noticeable uptick in the number of people going to court, but did not achieve the desired result of breaking the system. They had knocked on 2,500 doors, and a good week would see them knocking on 200 more. The problem was that in just one year, landlord-tenant courts saw around 30,000 cases. They couldn’t make a dent.
Worse, when they held a workshop with tenants’ rights lawyers, they had knocked on 300 doors within a mile radius of the meeting, followed up on initial interest, got people’s firm commitments to attend, but only eight people actually showed up. These eight people weren’t interested in radicals’ strategies. They wanted advice on their own actual problems and they were profoundly unwoke about what the solutions were. Some of them actively wanted to get people evicted for causing problems in their buildings. Fear of violence and desire for more policing were common issues. This made the socialists profoundly uncomfortable. As SOS put it:
Like DSA as a whole, our group is mostly white, almost all the tenants are black, and a few of them are prone to make sweeping pronouncements about what’s wrong with black people and what black people ought to be doing. These themes obviously put us in an uncomfortable position: we aren’t interested in setting up an organization that represses tenants and we aren’t going to endorse statements that would sound frankly racist in our mouths, but we also can’t dismiss the concerns people have about their immediate safety.
On the bright side, their ongoing exposure to actual tenants meant that SOS was learning more and more about how evictions actually worked. It turned out that most eviction suits ended because the tenant either paid up or moved out, and the landlord dropped the case. Tenants who did go to court usually tried to negotiate with the landlord’s attorneys rather than making a case to the judge. This worked very well for the landlords, because tenants mostly didn’t know their rights or understand the process.
By February 2019, SOS had realized that their initial goal was impossible. They had built a training program; they were getting referrals from legal service lawyers and nonprofit staff members who believed in their mission. But no matter what they did, they couldn’t hope to canvas enough people to overwhelm the system. They’d also talked to enough tenants to learn that most people facing eviction are just temporarily short of money. It’s hard to do collective organizing around individual issues. Tenants were more likely to come together over housing quality issues, which affected everyone in the building.
So SOS pivoted to organizing buildings, dropping their canvassing to every other week, hitting 300 to 500 doors in order to find leads. Having failed at getting tenants to join the DSA or come to DSA events, they started to focus on capacity-building for the tenants in their own right, with the goal of someday getting a city-wide tenants union going. They were actively organizing in a grand total of four buildings.
In one building, SOS formed a tenant association but found it plagued first by infighting (which burned out their best volunteers) and then, to their disappointment, inactivity under a president who was conciliatory to management and hostile to the radical politics of the DSA. SOS, to their regret, had neglected to push a stooge candidate to run. Using their reliable recruits in the building to do an end-run around the organization they’d created, they made demands to the developer company that owned the building. Surprisingly, this got meaningful results: the company managing the complex was fired, and that change alone dropped eviction case filings at the property by 70 percent. Tenant complaints even led to an investigation by the office of the Attorney General and a settlement against the owners for having inflated tenants’ water bills. The president of the tenant organization tried to take credit for these developments, and SOS finally deplatformed him by arranging for their members in the tenant organization to vote to dissolve it.
When SOS tried to create a new tenant organization, infighting reared its head again. The election was poorly run, and the use of an undeclared slate of candidates for offices alienated the tenants, who postponed the election. In the aftermath, another leftist organization got involved, with the net result a loss of some power for the SOS. Their biggest victories had been followed by several steps back.
By 2019, SOS organizers were working on a political indoctrination curriculum. They were active in eight properties and trying to organize more. Often, they found people already trying to take action and helped them coordinate. Their canvassing was even more limited than before, and mostly served as a way to find leads and train new organizers. They helped organize a rent strike in order to pressure landlords for repairs. This was especially challenging—a proper rent strike requires tenants to continue paying rent to an escrow account, and that’s not something poor tenants are wild about doing. It required very strong relationships to pull this off, and lots of one-on-one meetings were especially important.
On a broader front, July 2019 saw the launch of the D.C. Tenants Union (DCTU), led by militants with nonprofit support. It had a 15-member board, two of whom were SOS. The socialists of SOS, however, had ideological and tactical concerns about the DCTU. The SOS views nonprofits as too conciliatory, and worries that membership organizations can be taken over by the middle class and so may not lead to building socialism.
But at this point, the SOS was at a bit of a loss. Canvassing, in which they’d put so much faith, hadn’t achieved their goal. They’d won some real victories at one property but hadn’t been able to translate that into lasting gains. They hadn’t had luck making SOS or the DSA a real center of tenant organizing efforts—tenants were skeptical of both. Most distressingly, poor black people weren’t automatically socialists. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, SOS’s response was shellshocked and meandering, mumbling about just-cause eviction laws, guarantees that a home will be inhabitable, free legal representation for tenants, rent control, and a five-year rent freeze, but they were devoid of plans to implement these initiatives.
Objectively, four years of work hadn’t seemed to get Stomp Out Slumlords much of anywhere. Their original plan had been a failure of conception. Every victory they had was followed by setbacks. They failed to capitalize on successes, and they fell flat when it came to mobilizing their people to actually run and control the tenants’ organization that Stomp Out Slumlords had created. And give them credit: they frankly admit these problems.
Reading their progress reports makes it clear that there are three big reasons that Stomp Out Slumlords struggled for four years.
The first is that they had issues in connecting 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 didn’t have any reason to trust well-off white socialists from gentrified neighborhoods.
The second is that their people didn’t have a lot of experience as organizers.
The third is that the experience they did have as organizers was experience in the wrong thing.
The first two reasons are explicitly stated by Stamp Out Slumlords in their progress reports. The third isn’t, but it may explain their most important problem.
Right out of the gate, Stamp Out Slumlords ruled out a number of tactics and decided they were going to build a mass movement by canvassing, which was a tactic unsuitable for the purpose. It’s ineffective, slow to scale, and with their small numbers they couldn’t hope to reach enough people. So why did they cling to it for so long?
The reason is not actually in their progress reports, but it’s totally in their progress reports. Stomp Out Slumlords is frank about they are: mostly young white socialist dudes from gentrified neighborhoods who are members of the DSA.
There’s a shorter way to say that: “Bernie Sanders supporters.” And if you don’t have a lot of organizing experience but you were a foot soldier in the campaign to get Bernie Sanders elected president of the United States, what have you done a lot of? Canvassing.
Lefty grassroots campaigns churn out people who build their identity around stuff like canvassing, making phone calls, and the like. Stomp Out Slumlords’s people didn’t have a lot of experience in other kinds of organizing. So, when they started a new group to change the world, what did they prioritize? The stuff they already knew.
When a tactic is part of your identity, it’s hard to change the tactic if it’s not working. And Stomp Out Slumlords’s tactics weren’t working. They were trying to use rational arguments that had worked on them to convince people who weren’t like them. They were trying to use techniques for winning elections to win in a situation that wasn’t an election. And they were doing so because rational arguments and elections were what they knew. Rational arguments and elections were the key. Rational arguments and elections were everything.
In short, the reason they were ineffectual was they were acting just like us.
The next installment is about how Stomp Out Slumlords turned things around, and there are probably some lessons we Righties can learn.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.