After thirty-five years with Michigan AFSCME as a rank and filer, local union president and staff representative, I opted for retirement in 2001. The decision to retire came easily. My pension benefits were generous and would allow me to live comfortably during my retirement years. Linda and I could move to Atlanta and be near her two sons who had recently married and would be raising their families there. We would then take on the proper role of grandparents. In addition, we could trade in Detroit's winter weather for the mild weather of the south. In our first year in Atlanta, we rented an apartment. The plan was to first scout out the Atlanta area before buying a home. A year later we found a lovely home in Dunwoody located just outside Atlanta's perimeter. What I could not anticipate was how the move to Atlanta would take me on a democratic socialist adventure, as exciting and rewarding as any experience I ever had as a movement activist.
Exploring and learning about the city of Atlanta's geography was both interesting and challenging. I originally thought that my labor education experience would hold me in good stead. I was prepared to teach classes in steward training, collective bargaining and labor history at a college or union on a paid or unpaid basis. No such opportunities, though, became available. However, by attending the Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council I was able to develop relationships with Council President Charlie Flemming and several other labor leaders.
I took advantage of the leisure time afforded me by working out at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center and entering table tennis tournaments- winning some trophies and securing a rating among Georgia table tennis players. I still, though, was looking for an activist outlet. That search led me to the Howard Dean campaign and a Brit Tzededk Vshalom meeting where I met Norm Markel. We became fast friends and comrades. We shared a common history. Norm had lived in Detroit and was active in the New left during the 60s. As a psychology professor, he led a statewide American Federation of Teachers (AFT) organizing campaign at the University of Florida.
Starting Up Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America (MADSA)
In 2005, I decided to attend the Democratic Socialists of America convention in Los Angeles. My two sons, Alex and Jonah, were living in the LA area and I could then visit them as well. My participation in Detroit DSA's past activities had made it possible for me to be chosen as a Detroit delegate to the convention. I had just written an article for the Detroit DSA newsletter detailing the recent splitting of the AFL-CIO into two competing labor federations. I had also spoken to the membership at a public forum on labor's socialist heritage. While in Detroit I provided continued support for their annual Douglass Debs Dinner.
At the convention, much of the discussion focused on DSA's main project for the coming year. DSA chapters publicly committed to organizing fundraising parties for Bernie Sanders and his senatorial campaign in Vermont. Since there was no DSA presence in the South, I felt compelled to volunteer my efforts to organize a fundraiser in Atlanta. That announcement was greeted with much enthusiasm by the delegates. By becoming familiar with a broad range of progressive organizations- Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council, Jobs with Justice, 9 to 5 and Nation discussion group- I felt confident that interest existed in the progressive community for such an event to take place. I was learning how to navigate Atlanta's progressive community finding it to be compact, connected and manageable. I decided first to use the list provided me by the national DSA office of members in the Atlanta area and reach out to them by phone. I would gauge their interest in forming a DSA chapter and organizing a Sanders fundraiser. I asked Norm to join me in this project. His enthusiastic and positive response energized me. The responses to the phone calls were mixed. Some were already engaged in single issue political work. Others were limited by age and health issues. But enough interest was expressed so that a mailing was sent out announcing a meeting in January 2006 at Norm's condo club room in Decatur. Ten people showed up and most signed a petition requesting that the DSA National Political Committee grant us a charter. Since fifteen signatures were required, we had to await a follow up meeting before completing the petition.
A steering committee was then formed. Bylaws were drafted using model language provided by the national office. Those bylaws were approved at a membership meeting and submitted to the national office. We would now become an official DSA chapter. The next task was to find volunteers to fill the four executive officer positions. I agreed to act as chair and Norm would serve as membership secretary. Austin Wattles, who had been active with the Atlanta DSA chapter in the 1980s before it disbanded, took the position of treasurer. From the Nation discussion group, I was able to recruit Barbara Joye to DSA. With her long history in Atlanta and many contacts in the progressive community, Barbara would become a valuable organizer. Barbara agreed to be the chapter's recording secretary. She would subsequently be elected to the National Political Committee, edit our newsletter and blog on our website. Barbara and Reid's home would later serve as a meeting place for our officers. With our newly elected officers and contributions from members we opened up a bank account and moved to a bigger meeting venue at the Friends Community House in Decatur.
Bernie For Senator
As a newly formed chapter we were able to latch on to several pre-planned activities- public forums featuring Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West. We also joined the April 1 Southeast March against the War in Iraq. At our monthly meetings speakers addressed such issues as single payer health care, environmental justice and immigrant rights. We still needed to take on a project that would bring us to the attention of Atlanta's progressive community. A Sanders fundraiser offered us just such an opportunity. Organizing kits from the national office were made available as were sample invitations and contribution forms. John Sweet, labor attorney and former city council member, agreed to host the party with his wife Midge at their home- a regular gathering place for progressive activists. Two other community leaders agreed to co-host the event as well: Henry Kahn, a faculty member at the Emory School of Medicine and Charlie Flemming, president of the Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council. Letter were sent out announcing the June 26, 2006 party. The original list of 125 names that John Sweet helped furnish was quickly expanded after we were able to to secure from the Sanders campaign a list of 500 Georgia contributors- two thirds living in the Atlanta area. We followed up the mailing with phone calls.
The program for that day came off well. Despite a thunderstorm, fifty people showed up. Frank Hamilton, formerly of the Weavers, and Mary Hamilton provided the entertainment with folk music and a sing-along. Bernie called in and spoke passionately about universal health care and a living wage as basic economic justice issues. When asked if he would come to Atlanta after his projected victory, he said he would. The money raised at the party and the checks received in the mail from seventy individual donors totaled $5200. Thank-you letters were sent out to all the contributors. In the letter we announced our upcoming projects- conference planning for the Georgia Progressive Summit (GPS) and our chapter's hosting of the national DSA convention in Atlanta in November. Through our outreach to Bernie supporters in Georgia, Paul and Barbara Segal joined DSA. Barbara would later serve as membership secretary but would also contribute her graphic designing skills toward our newsletter and Douglass-Debs program booklet.
In the same year, MADSA chapter members became actively involved with the Georgia Progressive Summit. The goal of GPS was to build a broad statewide movement for progressive values and actions. MADSA members led workshops on community organizing, gentrification and single payer health care. I led one workshop on reducing economic inequality.
The next major event held in Atlanta was the June US Social Forum. MADSA members participated in the planning and organizing committees. I met Ray Miklethun at one of the meetings and was impressed as he recounted his visit to Venezuela. Ray would join DSA and help organize education programs including a powerpoint presentation on inequality. Alice Lovelace, national lead staff organizer, also spoke at a chapter meeting. DSA's national staff promoted the USSF and led several workshops. I was on a panel that examined the US working class from differing socialist perspectives. My presentation was printed up as an article in Against the Current entitled “Vision: Economic Justice.” I wrote a piece for Labor Notes stressing the Forum's goal of forging international links among organizations, individuals and social movements that share a vision- a grassroots alternative to the business-oriented World Economic Forum. The chapter also hosted a reception for DSA members at Linda's son and daughter-in-law's home in Midtown. Thousands of people participated in events held in the Atlanta Civic Center, downtown hotels and cultural centers throughout the city. Atlanta DSA also supported the work of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition to end the war in Iraq and joined the Georgia Coalition for a People's' Agenda, Atlanta Jobs with Justice and the Grady Hospital Coalition.
Douglass Debs Dinner
At the same time, following a visit by Frank Llewellyn, DSA national director, the National Political Committee decided to hold the November 2007 biennial convention in Atlanta. Our chapter officers were proud to to be be a host chapter of the DSA convention- the first one ever held in the south. We arranged a walking tour for delegates in downtown Atlanta commemorating the 1906 race riot. We organized a rally on economic justice that included a presentation by Bill Fletcher followed by discussion. Our main responsibility, though. would be to plan the Friday, November 7 dinner program. Bernie Sanders had already agreed to be the keynote speaker. With Bernie as a draw, we decided to make the event a fundraiser for the chapter as well. The rent for the IBEW hall had already been paid by the national office. All we needed to do was to expand upon the program and promote it. To attract labor and progressive folks we gave awards to Charlie Flemming and Alice Lovelace for their activism in the Atlanta community. Mailings were sent out and ads were solicited for the program book. An honorary dinner committee was formed and potential patrons were contacted. The dinner was a major success-with more than 250 people in attendance. Bernie delivered a rousing speech challenging activists to combat the attacks being waged against the middle and working class. His address, focusing on economic inequality and calling for single payer health care, prefigured Occupy Wall Street and his 2016 presidential campaign.
With the dinner's success our chapter had secured a special niche in Atlanta's progressive community. We therefore decided to hold the Douglass-Debs Dinner on an annual basis following the same program format as the first. The location for the dinner was later moved from historic Paschal's Restaurant to the Loft at Castleberry Hill. Tickets for the buffet dinner had to be raised to $50 to cover costs. We do provide scholarships for low income and students so nobody is turned away.
Keynote speakers with labor backgrounds were specifically sought out. Building relationships with labor would solidify our organizing credentials. Labor, in turn, would support the dinner by buying ads and tables. The UAW, SEIU, CWA, Teamsters, Painters Union, Georgia State AFL-CIO and Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council were the most reliable patrons. Keynote speakers included Bill Lucy (CBTU), Jose La Luz (AFSCME), Stewart Acuff (AFL-CIO), Larry Cohen (CWA), Bob King (UAW and Stephen Lerner (SEIU). Other speakers included Elaine Bernard (Harvard Trade Union Program), Kim Bobo ( Interfaith Worker Justice), Sarah Jaffe ( labor journalist) and Congressman John Conyers. In 2011 we also organized a fundraiser for the Conyers reelection campaign.
Activists honored reflected the full spectrum of Atlanta's progressive community. They included pastors Rev McDonald and Rev Motley and elected public officials State Senator Nan Orrock, State Senator Vincent Fort and State Representative Tyrone Brooks. Activists in such organizations as 9 to 5 Rainbow Push, Teamsters, CWA, Peace and Justice Coalition, Task Force for the Homeless Coalition for a People's' Agenda, Open Door Community, School of America Watch, Occupy Atlanta and Grandmothers for Peace were also recognized.
As chair, I arranged for the keynote speakers, reported on the year's activities, received the monies for tickets and ads and emceed the evening's program. Barbara Joye filled the program with bios of the keynote speakers and honorees and memorial tributes. Barbara Segal took on the graphics design and photos for the booklet. Entertainment would include music and skits. For the 2016 dinner Daniel Hanley did a polished impersonation of Bernie Sanders. We usually raised $5,000-$6,000 at the dinner.
Public Forums and Membership Meetings
Each month a public forum or educational program was planned. Topics for the public forums were broad in scope- covering local, national and international issues. Speakers visiting the Middle East, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba provided both a political and personal perspective. The larger issues of militarism, drone warfare, failed war on drugs, capitalism vs democracy and U.S. imperialism were also addressed. Subjects with national import included environmental justice, climate change, human rights, immigrant rights and labor law reform. Local issues impacting Atlanta and Georgia focused on homelessness, minimum wage, death penalty, LGBTQ community, health care, education and electoral politics. In one popular forum, Gary Washington and Minnie Ruffin recounted their experiences with the Black Panther Party in the 60s. A brief business meeting with reports and announcements would follow the presentations. Several speakers, by being invited to our meeting and learning about our activities, joined DSA.
These membership meetings/public forums were held on Saturday mornings from 11am to 1pm. For five years we met at the Open Door Community (ODC) building. Ed Loring and Murphy Davis, founders of this residential community providing food, shelter, health care and prison ministry to the homeless, invited us to make their facility our meeting home. In addition, they contributed generously to our annual dinner and our chapter's projects. At several of our Douglass Debs Dinners, Ed delivered rousing invocations. At one of our last and memorable meetings at ODC Terry Easton, author of “Raising Our Voices, Breaking the Chains: The Imperial Hotel as Prophetic Politics” told the dramatic story of the 16-day occupation of the abandoned Imperial Hotel by 300 homeless people in 1990. Ed and Murphy and other veterans of the occupation added their perspectives. I was privileged to write a review of the book for the ODC newsletter “Hospitality.”
We were saddened to hear that the ODC had to close and Ed and Murphy would be moving to Baltimore. With assistance from Helen Butler, director of Peoples' Agenda and Heather Gray, a host on the alternative radio station WRFG, a fond and moving farewell lunch was organized at the Wheat Street Baptist Church. Their message in “Hospitality” said much about their life's work, “We are people of engaged hope: everywhere that sisters and brothers join together to agitate for justice and in service to the poor and exploited, the light of hope shines in our path to lead us to the Beloved Community.”
Many of MADSA's activities have centered on education. These programs-first called Socialist Education Circle and later Socialist Dialogue-were usually held on Sunday afternoons in Decatur during months when no membership meetings were scheduled. For members, these study sessions would analyze capitalism's contradictions thru a Marxist or leftist critique. For non-members- independent leftists or activists- these programs served as an introduction to democratic socialism. The education committee was initially chaired by Norm Markel and more recently by Ray Miklethun. The earliest selected books and readings included “Socialism Past and Future” by Michael Harrington, “Value, Price and Profit” by Karl Marx, “Challenging Authority” by Frances Fox Piven. “ From the Folks who brought you the Weekend” by Munoli and Chiti, and “ The Future of Democratic Equality: Rebuilding Social Solidarity in a Fragmented America” by Joseph Schwartz.
The populist currents in Latin America were discussed in Eduardo Galeano's “ Open Veins of Latin America” and Paulo Freire's “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” To better understand our wildly speculative system we focused on Foster and Madoff's “The Great Financial Crisis,”David Schweickart's “ After Capitalism,” and Terry Eagleton's “ Why Marx Was Right.” The presentation by DSA panelists of Thomas Piketty's best seller, “Capital in the 21st Century” described how capitalism in the current period will continue to promote increasing inequality thru the growing power of inherited wealth. Digging deeper into a class analysis and learning about socialism's history, we read and discussed Michael Zweig's “The Working Class Majority”, John Nichols “ The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition” and “They're Bankrupting Us” by Bill Fletcher Jr.
The Sanders presidential campaign allowed us to compare and contrast Bernie's political perspective in a session entitled “ Democratic Socialism and the Bernie Sanders Campaign.” which I led. Other stimulating and relevant subjects in 2015-2017 included: “ Slavery and the New Jim Crow” and “Climate Change and Alternatives to Capitalism.”After a presentation in 2015 by Bhaskar Sunkara, editor and publisher of Jacobin Magazine, the decision was made to provide the many new members a basic understanding of democratic socialism. So, a five-week study group based on a Jacobin magazine booklet, “ The ABCs of socialism” was conducted with many new members acting as facilitators. Other Dialogues addressed the changing nature of work-precarious jobs with no security- and how race, class, gender and sexual oppression intersect under capitalism.
Feminist history was featured in a documentary about the 1960s women's liberation movement “She's Beautiful When She's Angry” and worker co-ops in Spain and the US in the film “ Shift Change:Putting Democracy to Work.” Another film that drew a large turnout was “Michael Harrington and Today's Other America.” Harlon Joye, a civil rights activist in the 50s and 60s, provided a valuable historical perspective. In discussing Thomas Jackson's book “From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr and the Struggle for Economic Justice,” Senator Fort recounted his experiences in the civil rights movement as well. In more recent education programs we heard from young activists from Movement for Black Lives on a panel discussing strategies for resisting the Trump/Republican Agenda. A new format was introduced by historian Ian Fletcher. Participants in small groups read short stories about events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and discussed their connection to current issues.
For me, education programs constituted the bread and butter of what MADSA was about. The most active of our planning groups was the education committee. Non-members were turning out who we had not met before and expressing interest in DSA. As attendance grew to 50 at each program, I could not help but be continually surprised by folks choosing to attend a radical political discussion on Sunday afternoons. MADSA, I concluded, had good reason to be proud of the work it had been doing.
After viewing Ray Miklethun's powerpoint presentation on the rise of the right at a membership meeting I asked him if he could incorporate economic inequality in the analysis. In a revised version, economic inequality was examined while offering democratic socialism as an alternative to corporate capitalism. The power point was screened before DSA members and then shown at a Georgia Coalition for a People's' Agenda meeting that MADSA hosted. The program was well received and demonstrated MADSA's credibility as effective educators. That credibility would contribute to my being invited to make presentations at Agenda meetings on the democratic socialist beliefs of ML King and A. Philip Randolph. The power point was also shown at the Lindsay Baptist Church, Clayton County NAACP and Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council and community meeting. I considered the powerpoint “Democratic Socialism: Equality and Democracy” the best educational tool that the chapter had developed.
Atlanta Fighting Foreclosures Coalition
In 2009, at the height of the financial and foreclosure crisis, MADSA reached out to the Georgia Rural Urban Summit (GRUS) to explore doing joint work on economic justice issues. Bill Brennan, head of Atlanta Legal Aid's Home Defense Program, was asked to present an analysis of the subprime lending meltdown. Bill described how the cost of abusive loan products was being marketed disproportionately to elderly, minority and low and moderate income communities. He showed how the securitization process and a packaging of subprime loans contributed directly to the finance meltdown.
The presentation prompted GRUS and MADSA to convene a “fighting foreclosure forum” with a call to action. To build support for the forum, endorsements were secured from 40 organizations: labor unions, civil rights, civil liberties, human rights, peace/justice,homeless shelters and faith-based groups. At the April 4, 2009 forum at First Iconium Baptist Church, which I co-chaired with Larry Pellegrini, the 150 people in attendance endorsed the formation of the Atlanta Fighting Foreclosures Coalition (AFFC). Senator Fort provided a historical perspective at the meeting as he recounted how the 2002 predatory lending bill that he authored had been quickly scuttled under pressure from the banks and US Treasury Department.
Two weeks later, a diverse crowd of more that 100 picketed the Wachovia's midtown office. The coalition presented a letter to Wells Fargo/Wachovia demanding a moratorium on foreclosures, an end to predatory lending, and a meeting with AFFC to negotiate a loan modification process that would reduce loan payments and allow Atlantans to remain in their homes.
On August 31, five activists were arrested for refusing to leave a Wells Fargo branch office in East Point until a bank official would meet with AFFC representatives and hear their demands. Those arrested included Reginald Eaves, Atlanta North Georgia AFL-CIO president Charlie Flemming, State Senator Vincent Fort, Dianne Mathiowitz and myself. With Brian Spears as our defense attorney the criminal trespass charges were dropped in exchange for a commitment to twenty hours of community service. It was only fitting that I chose Atlanta Jobs with Justice for my community service since the organization participated in anti-foreclosure actions.
In July, 2010 AFFC co-sponsored a hearing and rally with the national AFL-CIO. Atlanta was the first of among five cities chosen by AFL-CIO for public events dramatizing the fight against foreclosures and demanding investments in communities and jobs. Following testimony by homeowners facing foreclosures, we boarded buses and picketed in front the Wells Fargo office at Atlanta Station. I was part of a delegation that met with bank representatives during the rally. Our delegation included AFL-CIO Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, Senator Fort, Rev Tim
McDonald and Barbara Eastman, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans. Initially, the bank officials refused to meet with us if Senator Fort would be present- a condition that was totally unacceptable. Instead, we all marched into the bank's conference room where they agreed to meet with all of us. In the meeting they agreed to provide us with information about their loan modification process. At a follow-up meeting with AFFC the bank officials indicated that they had pulled 1,000 homes off the auction list. Settlements were also reached with ten clients of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society after months of stonewalling. However, they refused to agree upon a protocol that would limit foreclosures but were open to dealing with cases on an individual basis. The presence of AFFC was also felt thru testimony of Senator Fort and Bill Brennan at a hearing held by the Domestic Policy Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee chaired by Dennis Kucinich at the State Capitol.
As a co-chair and one of the prime movers of the coalition I was amazed by what a few activists could do in starting a movement. In my work with Bill Brennan and Senator Fort I also came to know how commitment, knowledge and access to political power can make so much happen. I found the failure at a national level to address the foreclosure crisis most frustrating, but proving again that major changes beyond what this capitalist system would allow were absolutely necessary. The chant “Banks got bailed out and homeowners thrown out” seemed to say it all. As a result of this campaign MADSA's credibility grew. We received calls from homeowners facing foreclosures and activists wanting to know more about DSA. In an email sent to MADSA, an early endorser simply stated, “You rock.”
As momentum began to ebb with AFFC I contacted the national JwJ office. I had heard that JwJ and its affiliates had organized successful actions to fight foreclosures in cities across the US and wanted to know whether those strategies might be applied in Atlanta. Erica Smiley, national JwJ staffer, called me and we arranged to meet up in her upcoming visit to Atlanta. Erica explained that the current Atlanta JwJ had shifted its focus and was no longer a part of the national structure. She wanted to find out whether sufficient interest existed in Atlanta to restart JwJ. I was asked to convene a meeting for that purpose and I agreed. Having a viable JwJ in Atlanta that would defend workers and elicit community support seemed to me to be of the highest priority. Charlie Flemming agreed to host a meeting with Erica at the Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council office. Member organizations of AFFC and local unions were invited to attend. Following several meetings, a clear consensus for restarting JwJ was evident.
A proposed structure and initial action plans were discussed at meetings held at the Teamsters hall. Besides myself and Barbara Joye, core members of the transition planning committee included Tony Romano ( Rights to the City), Roger Sikes ( Emory Students and Workers in Solidarity) and Ben Speight ( Teamsters Local 728). The kickoff event, “A Speak Out for Jobs Now,” was held on April 2, 2011 at Trinity Methodist Church, drawing over 200 participants and volunteers. Thirty-eight organizations, including MADSA, sponsored the event. Speak out participants testified to the hardships they faced when seeking a job at a living wage. State Senators Vincent Fort and Nan Orrock responded to the key issues raised in their testimonies. After box lunches were passed out, a variety of services were made available: haircuts, massages, legal advice and housing counseling. Volunteers from twenty two organizations offered these services as well as child care. That event put a reborn Atlanta JwJ squarely back on Atlanta's map.
Another major event organized by Atlanta JwJ was the 2012 Workers Rights Board hearing and trial of Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler for his decision to deny unemployment benefits to 64,000 school workers laid off over the summer. School workers provided moving testimony on the economic loss they would experience. Nine judges, including two state senators and leaders from civil rights, women's rights and immigrant rights organizations, declared Butler guilty. In 2013, this rule change was overturned and more than eight million dollars in unemployment benefits was paid back to school workers.
With these organizing successes and the assistance of national JwJ the Atlanta chapter was able to secure grants from several foundations. Roger Sikes, who had mobilized students at Emory demanding that food workers be treated with respect and be allowed to form a union free from intimidation, was hired as Atlanta JwJ organizer. Shortly afterwards, Neil Sardana came on board as an organizer, as well. Neil led our picketing of Walmart on Black Friday to protest the low wages and unfair treatment of workers, I took on the position of treasurer for a two year period. Ben Speight and Charmaine Davis (9 to 5) served as co-chairs.
Atlanta JwJ has been prime mover in the Fight for 15 and the organizing of rallies and demos beginning in 2013. MADSA joined Atlanta Raise Up and Atlanta JwJ at a demo in midtown with more than 150 fast food workers demanding $15 and a right to unionize. Ten workers were arrested for blocking traffic on Ponce de Leon in front of McDonald.'s. As a member organization of Atlanta JwJ we have joined together in celebrating May Day/ International Workers Day. Barbara Joye has contributed to the celebration by organizing a presentation featuring members and friends portraying such labor icons as Mother Jones and A. Philip Randolph. In 2017 MADSA joined a JwJ rally on May 2 at Atlanta City Hall where the city council voted to raise the minimum salary of its employees to $15.
What has made this experience so memorable for me is to witness and be an active agent in a process where an activist group succeeds in developing strong roots in the labor and progressive communities. Atlanta JwJ is well funded and staffed. As such, the organization has the legs to be a long distance runner in the Atlanta area.
Atlanta DSA: Organization and Structure
Beyond the four elected officers, an informal steering committee played an important role during MADSA's early years when I saw the need to broaden the leadership base. Members of the committee who planned chapter activities with officers included: Kempton Haynes, Barbara and Paul Segal, Minnie Ruffin,Carol and Kriston Coney, Robert Caine, Larry Keating, Barbara Landay, Jim Skillman, Henry Kahn, Adam Shapiro,Jorge Lawton and Robert Wohlhueter. In 2009, the by laws were amended to include three board members elected at large. Elections were held annually. I was glad to continue as chair since members of the board were committed and worked well together. The challenge at each election was to make sure that the positions would all be filled. Turnover was rather minimal. Marcia Borowski and Travis Reid took over as treasurers and Barbara Segal filled in as membership secretary. Robert Wohlhueter set up our website, serving as our webmaster. Barbara Joye and Barbara Segal assumed responsibility for issuing a newsletter at least three times a year. With the website and newsletters I was now convinced that we were a serious organization.
National DSA and MADSA
With our chapter hosting the 2007 DSA convention, our connections with the national office would grow closer. Barbara Joye would serve on the National Political Committee (NPC) until 2015. Brandon Payton-Carillo and Hope Adair would then serve in that capacity until they moved to Chicago. Maria Svart, DSA Executive Director would speak at at our Douglass Debs Dinner. At a May Day program in 2010, NPC Vice Chair Joe Schwartz would keynote the Summit, “Towards an Economic Bill of Rights.” In 2011, Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA chair and NPC member headlined our May Day program, “Responding to the Jobs Crisis: How to Generate Millions of Jobs Now.” MADSA chapter members participated in the 2010 One Nation march and joined in the reception sponsored by the national office. MADSA has sent its full complement of delegates to all of the national DSA conventions. MADSA members Daniel Hanley,Barbara Joye and myself also led convention workshops. At one convention our chapter was recognized for our success in organizing new members.
Many members joined on the internet at the national DSA site. The national office then sends us their contact information and we then send them email announcements of our upcoming activities. Other members may join up thru one-on-one contacts or thru a MADSA Open House. At the open house a basic introduction to DSA is provided in a folder with written material covering DSA's principles and its history. Individual stories are shared that explain how people were drawn to left politics and why they joined DSA. The venue for the open house has varied- a member's home or a recreation center or a tavern- usually held on a Sunday afternoon with a lunch included. A lot of time is made available for questions, socializing and exploring activist areas of common interest.
Our chapter has also sent representatives to Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) conferences. In 2015, MADSA hosted a two day YDS Southern Regional Conference that brought young socialists from all over the country to workshops centered on organizing in the South. At conferences and conventions the opportunity to meet members from other chapters is stimulating and energizing. Chapter projects are shared. Individual relationships are developed - or put it another way: This is what a movement looks like.
During the 2011 session of the Georgia General Assembly, MADSA joined Atlanta JwJ, Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA) and 37 other organizations to oppose SB 469, the right wing's attack on labor unions and peaceful protests. The mobilization did make a difference. The bill was allowed to die with no vote.
In 2012, MADSA members joined with (OOHA) to protest the eviction of Mark Harris, a Gulf War veteran and former Teamster, from his home of 18 years after Fanny Mae refused to negotiate a reasonable loan modification. Mark, along with OOHA member Mariam Asad and DSA members Daniel Hanley and Tim Franzen, were arrested for peacefully resisting the eviction and charged with criminal trespassing. A trial was held two years later. Although the judge refused to hear relevant arguments from the defense attorneys and denied expert witness testimony, the jury could reach no verdict and a mistrial was declared. Being present at the trial I was seriously concerned that just the act of criminal trespass with a conviction could mean prison time. Our crowd of supporters in the courtroom cheered when the mistrial decision was announced.
In collaboration with OOHA, demonstrations were held to protest AT&T layoffs of Communication Workers of America (CWA) members. Four MADSA activists were among those arrested at the 2012 sit-in. That action resulted in the company sharply reducing the number of layoffs. In 2013 we marched with Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) in a huge rally in support of immigration reform. At the annual MLK Day March we have joined with labor, Black Lives Matter and other peace an justice groups in solidarity. We also staff a table at the AFL-CIO's Labor Day picnic. Inspired by the North Carolina Moral Monday Movement led by Rev William Barber, Georgia activists organized rallies at the Capitol under the Moral Monday Georgia banner. The rallies in 2014 called for repealing the “ Stand your Ground” law, reversing cuts in public education, restoring voting rights, defending worker rights and unemployment benefits, supporting women's reproductive rights and rescinding policies restricting college education for undocumented students. Among the 61 activists arrested during these protests, 10 were DSA members. I was privileged to co-chair a dinner honoring the arrestees.
In October 2013, MADSA for the first time participated in the annual Atlanta Pride Parade festival and march for LGBTQ rights. Our members marched behind our MADSA banner, staffed a booth, passed out literature and circulated a petition that would repeal a provision in the constitution outlawing same sex marriage. At the 2017 Pride festival , MADSA members gave away 2,000 buttons with the messages, “ Black Lives Matter,” “Metro Atlanta DSA,” and “LGBTQ Liberation, not Rainbow Capitalism.” Member Dave Hayward, who had led DSAers on a tour of the LGBTQ oral history project at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, was a grand marshal.
To protest police racist brutality and support the Black Lives Matter movement, DSA members called attention to the fatal shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson by marching from Five Points to the Fox Theater and staging a “die-in.” I joined the“die-in” at the Fox and at the Perimeter Mall.. In the mall, we commanded a lot of attention and found many people interested in and supportive of what we were doing. At another demo business as usual was halted by the shutting down of Peachtree at Lenox Road and the arrests of 13 demonstrators including DSA members Daniel Hanley and Megan Harrison.
MADSA joined with other organizations at a rally and public hearing in 2017 to oppose City Council plans to acquire the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter and turn it into a police facility. The Task Force for the Homeless, despite their lawsuits contending ownership of the property, was forced to close. DSA member Marshal Rancifer, a fierce advocate for the homeless, has witnessed how the closing of the shelter and lack of beds for the homeless have led to deaths during cold winter nights.
Larry Keating's book “Race, Class and Urban Expansion,” which was discussed at an early education forum, set the stage for our annual bus tours of the neighborhoods surrounding Atlanta's core. In his book, Larry, Georgia Tech Professor Emeritus, describes how development decisions made by business leaders and and public officials have adversely impacted low income communities. In the 60s, when urban renewal programs demolished homes and businesses, promises were made for low-income housing and jobs as replacements. Those promises were not kept. Instead, Olympic Park and Turner Field development made conditions worse for the adjoining neighborhoods of Peoplestown, Pittsburgh, Vine City and English Avenue. Residents were forced to fend off foreclosures and evictions while blocking attempts to turn their neighborhoods into parking lots and tailgating fields.
Beginning with the 2011 initial bus tour, MADSA members, friends, students and professors from five universities drew inspiration from and expressed solidarity with English Avenue neighborhood residents resisting displacement by stadium development and gentrification. These bus tours were first
co-sponsored by Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation (PRC) and the English Avenue Neighborhood Association. In 2012, as OOHA focused on rental housing issues and tenant vulnerabilities, OOHA and the Housing Justice League ( HJL) both became co-sponsors and participants in subsequent tours as well. PRC President Columbus Ward, who received an award at our 2016 Douglass Debs Dinner, and Tim Franzen with OOHA and HJL provided background information and accompanied the buses to meetings with neighborhood activists.
In one tour we met with representatives from tenant associations who described how organizing against their landlords had resulted in improvements and extensions of their HUD contracts. On another tour, we heard from three homeowners who had refused to surrender their homes under the threat of eminent domain evictions.The city wanted to replace those homes with a park and floodwater retention basin even though these homes had never flooded.
Before an Atlanta Falcons football game, a contingent of Atlanta DSAers joined with Common Cause, Move On, Senator Vincent Fort and other groups in a press conference and demonstration protesting the use of public monies for the building of a replacement stadium. The Falcons ownership and Georgia World Congress Authority (GWCCA) were intending to use $350 million in taxpayers' dollars for the project. At the press conference demands were made that the Falcons and GWCCA hold public hearings and conduct a study demonstrating how the use of public monies would benefit the public. Any dispensing of public monies would be subject to a referendum. MADSA contributed financially to an English Avenue lawsuit against the Falcons and GWCCA and supported that effort in an extensive editorial.
In 2017, MADSA marched with PRC and community residents to their tent city at Turner field. We were supporting the Turner Benefits Coalition efforts to secure a community benefits agreement with Georgia State University and Carter Development that would provide for jobs and affordable housing. Residents, along with students and allies, held the space at Turner Field for 63 days until the Georgia state police raided and destroyed the camp. This act of bad faith can not deter these neighborhoods from continuing their fight against displacement and gentrification. Being an ally in this struggle, as MADSA chair, this project made me most proud.
The 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign brought democratic socialism into the national discourse. Policy issues once considered grandiose and impractical – free public university education, universal health care, $15 minimum wage, public financing of elections, a jobs program geared to rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, fair trade, criminal justice reform and raising taxes on the 1% - were now matters to be seriously debated. As a result, much of the energy of MADSA activists was channeled into the Sanders campaign.
DSA activists played a key role in launching the Georgia for Bernie campaign in Atlanta which attracted national attention. Over 135 activists from around the state came together at Manuel's Tavern to celebrate Bernie's announcement and decide if there was interest in forming an independent grassroots campaign in Atlanta. I opened the meeting with comments on Bernie's political philosophy and his keynote address at MADSA's first Douglass-Debs Dinner. Members Daniel Hanley and Megan Harrison facilitated small group discussions on canvassing, coalition building, outreach and social media. After the meeting, an energized contingent of activists marched with signs for Bernie to a nearby neighborhood festival. I was once again impressed by how MADSA activists had entered into a political space on the left that needed to be filled.
GFBS followed up by organizing a mass meeting at the Teamsters local hall. A live video announcement from Bernie prompted discussion and a speak-out along with proposed actions. A core group of activists agreed to tour the city with large LED-illuminated “ Bernie Sanders” signs. Outreach teams distributed fliers and buttons at sports events. At a fundraiser in downtown Atlanta the 1400 people greeting Bernie were treated to buttons galore. Literature and buttons were also distributed at a full house at the Fox Theater. Waiting for Bernie to speak, I put on a Bernie mask and danced down the aisles. I soaked in the cheers and laughter.
Prior to another mass rally at Morehouse, I had the opportunity to meet Killer Mike, the rap artist, at the Atlanta Sanders campaign office. Killer Mike had electrified the the crowd at the Fox Theater and I wanted to invite him to be our guest at the next Douglass Debs Dinner. At the Morehouse Forbes Arena, our chapter's dear comrade and friend Senator Vincent Fort gave a full-throttle endorsement of Bernie. Fort's endorsement meant a lot to me and MADSA. I remember a brief conversation with Vincent about his plans to run for Mayor of Atlanta. I told him that if he endorsed Bernie, his campaign would become the highest priority for MADSA activists. MADSA members and friends did organize a van for Bernie delegates, alternates and supporters to attend the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Space for Bernie events during the campaign was also provided by member Johnny Martinez at his Joystick Game Bar and he even led a “Bar Crawl for Bernie.”
In July 2017, MADSA members helped celebrate and launch State Senator Fort's mayoral campaign. Along with twenty-four local unions, MADSA endorsed Fort. Despite considerable volunteer canvassing, phone banking and light projections , Fort did not win his bid to become the most progressive mayor in Atlanta's history. On election night, he looked toward the long term goal: “We have created a movement, a coalition, that will continue...I look forward to being engaged in the fight going forward.”
The one election victory that we did celebrate was member khalid kamau winning a council seat in the new city of South Fulton. Both the national office and the Atlanta chapter made important contributions to his campaign. Running publicly as a democratic socialist, khalid 's campaign gained national attention. He also received an award at the 2017 Douglass Debs Dinner. For Atlanta activists, interest in entering into electoral campaigns has grown; Jeff Bragg is current Dekalb County Water and Soil Conservation District Supervisor; Jim Nichols ran a strong though losing race for state representative in Henry County; Renitta Shannon won election to House District 84 after unseating an incumbent. That trend is likely to continue, since electing democratic socialists to public office is a priority for DSA at a national and local level.
For me, MADSA constituted nothing less than a political family. As a family, building member rapport, having fun together and enjoying each others company, would add even more meaning to the work we were doing. For that reason, Linda and I hosted an annual holiday party at our home. Getting together without having to address chapter business made this event special. After socializing over food and drink, members were asked to share any personal news or cite DSA activities over the past year that were especially memorable. With the surge of membership, our home could not accommodate the additional members. As a result, holiday parties for the last two years have been held in the hall of the First Existentialist Congregation.. The 2017 holiday party, planned by Barbara Joye, featured songs and music from Frank Hamilton, Veronica Jackson and DSA member Payton Scott with more than 60 members and guests in attendance. Like the Douglass Debs Dinner, the holiday party is now a MADSA tradition.
In 2016, the chapter threw a special party celebrating Cecily McMillan's recently published memoir. In the book, “The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan, an American Memoir,” she describes the difficult childhood challenges she faced, her struggle to get an education, her Occupy Wall Street activism and the three months she spent in Rikers Island Prison following an unjust police arrest. The evening proceeds went to benefit the Georgia Civil Disobedience Fund.
A newly organized social event that is extremely popular is the monthly Friday night get-together at member Johnny Martinez's Georgia Beer Garden. “Eat, Drink and be Marxist” is the apt title for this enjoyable social program that brings together DSA members, progressives and radicals for both light and heavy duty conversations. The chapter has joined with other groups to raise funds and collect supplies for the unsheltered population.
MADSA has organized social activities on a much smaller scale, as well. For core members moving out of town we have come together to bid farewell. With historian Maurice Isserman, in his visits to Atlanta, we have broken bread together to hear his perspective on developments on the Left. We have also shared movie nights together when viewing the films “Sicko” and “Snowden.”
Growth and Acts of Resistance
In response to the Sanders campaign and the election of Trump, membership in DSA has surged. MADSA has grown to more than 400 members, tripling in size over the past two years. The national organization has swelled from 7,000 to 35,000 members during this same period. At the August 2017 national DSA convention some 1,000 delegates, staff and media, including thirteen delegates from the Atlanta chapter were in attendance..The demographics of our chapter mirror DSA nationally. The median age of DSA membership is 33, down from 68 several years ago. About 75% of the new members are under 35. As to race and gender, the breakdown is 90% white and 75% male. With the recent election of a younger and a more diverse slate of officers- Jeb Boone, Adam Cardo, Michael Lavender, Anat Fintzi, Erin Parks, Eric Robertson and Brad Latham- MADSA membership will likely become more multiracial and gender balanced. Brad initiated the formation of a new branch: Northeast Georgia DSA. The branch engaged in several direct actions: protesting a “campus carry” bill at University of North Georgia and a rally demanding the removal of a Confederate statue in Gainesville. A new chapter of DSA's youth section at Georgia Tech has also been formed.
Immediately after the election, resistance was mobilized against the racist, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-worker, and anti-poor proposed policies of the Trump administration. Projected on the side of the Crowne Plaza Midtown Hotel during rush hour in November was the message “Fuck Trump.” TV 11 Alive covered the story, attributing the protest action to Atlanta DSA. As MADSA chair I was asked to explain how the use of such language could be justified. I responded by being unapologetic, “Sometimes you've got to do something shocking and startling. Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable.” I then explained that the word should not be the issue. Instead the real message was about stopping the attacks on minorities and protecting people's health care. That last part was edited out of the interview. I was not forewarned about this action so I was taken by surprise. At the same time, I was both amused and excited that MADSA was getting such coverage. I heard later on that the action attracted much interest in DSA.
MADSA members joined several thousand protesters in a quickly called action at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport over Trump's anti-Muslim executive order in January 2017. During that same month MADSA activists marched with 60,000 people in support of women and social justice. At the Georgia Alabama college championship game these messages were projected on the side of Mercedes Benz Stadium just before Trump entered the field: “Fuck Trump,” “No one is Illegal,” “Medicare for All,” and “ Dismantle White Supremacy.” In a statement MADSA expressed anger and disgust with the racist Trump administration while articulating “a vision of a more prosperous future where our bodies aren't used for profit in an unjust health care system and a future where no one has to live in fear of deportation or racist violence.”
Onward and upward!