Lessons in Liberalism

As the Spring 2020 semester begins, Georgia Tech’s YDSA chapter is about a hundred members strong, with multiple active committees and campaigns. There’s a strong case to be made that we are the vanguard of the GT student movement. But before us, GT had been a complacent, apolitical campus — until Trump’s 2016 election victory sparked an explosion of left-wing student organizing. Still, it took years for the nascent student movement to develop into a real political force on campus. Based on my years of organizing at GT, I believe the primary factors in this long development were the inexperience of our student organizers, the early fear of the “S” word among us, the lack of leftist organizations to support our emerging movement, and the misdirection of student energy into reactionary liberal institutions. Eventually we found our way to YDSA, which provided us with critical organizing skills, infrastructure for mass democracy, and a class conscious political vision. But at first, the GT student movement was stuck stumbling in the dark.

On February 2nd, 2017, I found myself, essentially by chance, organizing a spontaneous “Student Solidarity Rally” against Trump’s Muslim ban. Since no leftist or activist organizations existed at the time, the rally fell to an ad-hoc group of graduate and undergraduate students with mostly no organizing experience, who turned out nearly 1000 people. We got around 250 email signups, and it looked like the beginning of an anti-Trump student movement. But after the ban was temporarily halted, the main graduate student organizers decided to call it quits. Knowing that we needed a lasting organization, not spontaneous mobilization, a few
others and I decided to keep organizing.

I had initially tried to join the College Democrats, which was extremely difficult to even find and sign up for. But after joining, it became immediately obvious that the club was powerless and ineffective. Those of us who had been energized by the rally correctly decided to organize outside of the Democratic Party.

I met two students who were DSA members, and we attended the Metro Atlanta DSA’s February 2017 meeting where we discussed starting a YDSA chapter. Shortly after, we held an organizing meeting of about a dozen students on campus. Despite our support for YDSA, the progressive liberals in the meeting pushed back on the use of the “S” word because of its supposed baggage. They insisted that we form a big-tent “progressive” organization with a political line so vague it was barely political. YDSA’s mission statement was plagiarized, the term “democratic socialism” was struck, and the Georgia Tech Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) was founded.

PSA went on to launch some highly visible campaigns throughout 2017, but the organization was plagued by ambiguity and structurelessness. When it came to organizing, PSA opted to reinvent the wheel rather than learn from socialists who had been doing it for decades. PSA was highly undemocratic, with an unelected self-selected “core” leadership, and members divided into highly siloed working-groups called “pods.” I and two others, a majority of the original core membership, were actually pushed out of leadership by a two-person minority, who declared themselves co-chairs. Our monthly general meetings (with an attendance of 15-30) did facilitate discussion, but never had a democratic framework for members to propose or debate a course of action. We had no bylaws or constitution, and I don’t recall ever holding a membership vote.

Most importantly, PSA lacked a class analysis of our campus. We developed a liberal theory of change, which focused on swaying administrators, legislators, and donors. While PSA had some successes, we had difficulty building power because we prioritized visibility and the appearance of activism (with rallies and marches, lobby days, and media publicity) over meaningful organization-building and membership development. Without a socialist understanding of the world, without viewing the working class as the primary agent of change for political revolution, our campaigns were ineffective. PSA’s final campaign came in September 2017, when PSA & YDSA member, anarchist, and queer activist Scout Schultz was murdered by campus police, sparking a new wave of student agitation. I will primarily discuss PSA’s role in an ensuing reform campaign, but I am including footnotes with additional coverage of these events.

Just a few days after the shooting, we called an emergency mass meeting where we decided to launch a publicity campaign for campus reforms around three planks: LGBTQIA+ rights, mental health resources, and policing reform. Our members went on to plaster our demands all across campus, and PSA released a widely-covered statement that threatened a “die-in” in the university president’s office. Unfortunately, PSA was not organized or disciplined enough to follow through, and reactionary forces used tactics against us that I later learned were universal in student organizing. A vigil for Scout that PSA and GT Pride Alliance organized was co-opted by administrators with a damage-control agenda, who involved themselves in planning and pressured student organizers to bar some of Scouts’ friends from speaking to prevent any blame from being directed at the administration. PSA’s demands were adopted into an initiative of the president, Path Forward, and student energy was misdirected into powerless show committees that spent a year developing meager policy recommendations and waiting out student energy. Our bureaucratic student government was manipulated by administrators into re-allocating $500,000 of student fee dollars away from student clubs and towards conciliatory mental health initiatives (like swing sets and “nap pods”) in a literal austerity scheme.

In response to this resistance, PSA put out a statement thanking the university for the creation of the action teams, retracted the “die-in” threat, and began talking with administrators and anointed “student leaders.” GT has a class of student bureaucrats or “administration collaborators.” They are leaders in student organizations, often stipended, who are cultivated by GT’s student life programs to play a conciliatory role between university staff and the student-worker class and manufacture student consent for campus capitalism. Some of PSA’s leaders were soon convinced that they weren’t utilizing the “proper channels” for social change, and that they had to defer to the leadership of student bureaucrats, for example those in our student government, or the so-called Mental Health Student Coalition.

A conflict around strategy developed between PSA’s conciliatory leadership and more militant membership. The dissenting membership was mostly comprised of a group of radical queer activists, who were organizing to defend people arrested at a protest after the PSA-organized vigil. With no confidence from the membership, and dwindling activity both due to finals week and the complacency with the administration’s response, the co-chairs decided to resign in early December. The radical queer group, and others, continued to organize around the arrestees’ defense, however nobody stepped up to lead PSA, so the organization effectively collapsed. Some DSA members and I had already started organizing a YDSA chapter as a subgroup within PSA at the start of the fall semester, so by the time of this collapse, YDSA had grown to a decent size (about 10 people at biweekly meetings), with two committees and a functioning internal democracy. When classes resumed in January 2018, YDSA began recruiting PSA’s most active members, including the majority of the radical queer group. PSA never had another meeting, and in the spring, the remaining “leadership,” all YDSA members now, decided to officially merge PSA into YDSA.

Since then, YDSA has become the primary manifestation of the student movement at Georgia Tech. After a training with a DSA staff organizer in April, we were able to carry forward some of PSA’s reform demands with a petition campaign, and we ended up winning a large counseling center staff increase and reduced psychiatry fees in Fall 2018. Through mass-action campaigns, we’ve grown to about a hundred local-dues-paying members, with healthy committees meeting weekly and organizing independent campaigns around immigration, climate change, Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, and more. We’ve developed relationships with our local DSA chapter and have helped YDSAs start up at nearby campuses. And, most importantly, we’ve connected our local community to a nationwide struggle for the liberation of the working class, and we’ve learned from comrades across the country, just as you, dear reader, are hopefully doing now.

PSA was at its best when it harnessed the energy of an agitated, militant membership, but without a class-conscious socialist strategy, the organization was easily beaten back and tricked into effective self-destruction by capitalist forces. As the year-long history of GT PSA shows, our initial decision to form an amorphous local “progressive” organization instead of a YDSA chapter was a mistake, and it’s one I hope new student organizers avoid. Affiliating with YDSA was critical to developing our nascent student movement into an organized political force. Another wave of student agitation is sure to follow Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist campaign for President, and, win or lose, there will soon be socialist students across the country itching to get organized. So, my message to all student organizers is this: Unite with YDSA under a clear mission and strategy! Fight back against the parasitic capitalist class! Win democratic socialism for the many, not the few!

Footnotes / See Also:
“The Trigger Effect” by Hallie Lieberman in the Atavist Magazine
“Scout Set That Fire,” student-made documentary film

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