To celebrate this weekend’s 2022 Maine DSA Convention, we offer this speech from last year’s Convention, lightly edited here. Delivered by Maine DSA Steering Committee member Aaron Berger on January 23, 2021, it reflects on events of 2020 while offering a message of hope and solidarity that remains relevant today.
We survived 2020 and I think we should be proud of that. Unknown to us before the year even began COVID-19 was bubbling in the background. In January, Trump risked World War III with a political assassination in Iran. We said “NO WAR BUT CLASS WAR,” and we fucking meant it. At the start of February we were ascendant after Bernie won the Nevada Caucus. News anchors across stations were breaking down over the idea of a socialist coming to power, but by the end of the month the corporate powers had united behind Biden, destroying any illusions that capitalism could be made to save itself. By March the reality of COVID-19 had finally arrived in the United States. We mobilized immediately helping people across Maine putting cash in their hand for the week or two of work they would miss. When fundraising dried up, Bre Kidman stepped in with campaign funds so we could continue to deliver groceries. We were able to pivot and react to a crisis because we were organized. We would get plenty of practice at this in 2020.
Because it wasn’t just a week or two of missed work. It wasn’t just a month or two of shutdown. April disappeared in a blink of an eye. Modern life became even more atomized. A deep pit of isolation threatened to swallow the rest of the year whole. If it’s not clear this was the lowest point of the year for me, personally. I had lost sight of the horizon we were marching towards, and I think it’s important to admit when you don’t have the answers. Which is why the George Floyd Uprisings felt like a thunderbolt coming out of nowhere, cracking open the whole wide world to new possibilities. We poured into the streets because it was worth the risk to say Black Lives Matter, to call for the defunding of the police, to demand abolition. We would not be passive as they murdered another Black man, as the police beat and abused our neighbors and friends. From every big city to small town across this country the left came roaring back to life, a powerful flame, and it was the fight for racial justice that provided the spark.
Building new relationships through trust and accountability is how we build collective power. This means we have to listen and not assume we already have the right answers, but we can’t let listening devolve into total passivity either, where we cede all responsibility of decision making or action. And it turns out that a crisis is a hard time to form new relationships. The benefit of community building only becomes clear when we’re called upon to lean on these relationships, but there is no better feeling than extending that trust and having it rewarded. BLM Portland, now known as Black POWER, returned that trust thousand fold and came through with a beautiful vision of a more just world. Eight hours in Portland’s streets. Nothing to lose but our chains.
We would find ourselves in a similar position with the encampment at Portland City Hall at the end of July. Camped out for two weeks, demanding that housing be treated as the human right it is. The City Council had nothing for us. They were stuck in the worst zoom calls of the year repeating the same old tired lines, doing their best to avoid and skirt the issue. To struggle is to demand justice and realize only you and your neighbors, co-workers, or comrades can win it by banding together. By the end of summer 2020 there were points of struggle everywhere you looked. We have been organizing in our workplaces, organizing against our landlords, organizing community care for simple survival, and we’ve been organizing around the ballot box.
In November 2020 we won an electoral victory that left every capitalist in Portland speechless. Increased minimum wage, rent control, enforcement for the ban on facial recognition, and a green new deal that brought equity to all future housing development. A culmination of every fight we’ve had this year. And I believe this was only possible in a year of widespread struggle and crisis, as the state failed to deliver any reassurances, over and over again.
And it turns out even when you follow the rules and win it doesn’t mean the state will comply. The struggle simply continues. There is no benevolent figure who’s going to come down from on high and rescue us from whatever crisis we find ourselves in next. And that is what unifies us. That we all have to struggle to survive, to prosper, and to see justice done. You can call that milieu whatever you want, but I know it as the working class. We are the ones who are going to save ourselves. Together.
The bosses, landlords, and politicians aren’t going to stand by as we try to do this. They’ll try to break up this unity. Their tools of choice are fear and doubt. You see it in politicians blaming individuals on catching COVID-19, while they leave the restaurants open. It’s the 8 out of 9 City Councilors endorsing a no vote on our referrenda. It’s your landlord saying he’s raising the rent anyway. It’s your boss saying a union is not the right fit for your workplace. Anytime someone made you feel stupid for wanting to live in a better world. It’s them denying justice, saying our plans will end in failure, and then working at every turn to ensure that failure. The barrage is constant, but it’s a struggle that we can’t run away from. And we have our own tools to fight back with.
Hope, anger, and solidarity. Together they can build a fire that can burn away all the fear and doubt. Hope is the tinder, and anger the fuel. As your boss or landlord denies your hope a spark is lit, and your anger is how you build that flame. With solidarity we bring thousands, no millions of individual flames together to build a massive bonfire. But this is not an easy thing to do.
I believe DSA is the best shelter for whatever storm may come. Because it gives us the freedom to practice building this flame. But we should also be careful not to burn down our organization as we do so. We all carry around different amounts of tinder and fuel. Hope in our heart for a better world. Anger in our gut at the injustice of it all. It’s an easy thing to start a fire where you didn’t mean to.
Let’s try a different metaphor? Another word for vaccines is inoculation. You introduce the virus in a safe environment, so your body learns to fight it. Our democratic organization is that safe environment, which is why it is so important to learn how to disagree with each other. We must learn how to hold ourselves with compassion as well as be open and accountable to others. Sensitive subjects left unaddressed will be exploited by the ruling class. They would like nothing better than to cleave our unity.
As we are building relationships with each other we should also strive to understand our relationship to the past. We are not the first to take up this struggle nor will we be the last, there is a long line of history we’re a part of. Mainers have always struggled and survived through the long winters. From the picket lines of yore, and the singing of labor songs. To losses like the KKK establishing the city manager in Portland. Or to victories like the encampment of 1984 that won the demand of shelter for all who sought it. I want to take a moment to remember some of the amazing organizers we lost this past year.
Steve Gordon was a red diaper baby out of New York. He carried the flame of scientific socialism with him into the 21st century. A rank and file member to his bones he belonged to CPUSA, ISO, SMWC, and the DSA. He attended every reading group he could find. When he picked up bike riding as a hobby, the first thing he did was find a bike club to join and start organizing around. He would be so proud to see how young people are getting organized.
Tina Malcolmson was a retired professor of poetry. Her call to passion was housing as a human right. She wrote letters to the paper and came out late to speak before City Council. She attended many meetings with many young dreamers planning for a better world. She would have been so happy to see rent control pass in Portland. She’d laugh at these developers crying.
Mark James was a man with an open heart. He found himself often caretaking for others, and knew that meant he needed to fight on their behalf when they could not. He was a powerful voice in the fight against the closure of the india street clinic. Fighting for healthcare as a human right. He would have been the loudest voice calling for abolishing the city manager.
Jesse Harvey was an inspirational figure and founder of the church of safe injections. He understood how useful having a purpose in your life was, that it is never too late to get up and try again. That, even though we have to save ourselves, companionship can make it a little bit easier.
We survived 2020, and I think we should be fucking proud of that. What is solidarity but love and empathy. As we stretch to connect ourselves to others we make ourselves vulnerable to each other’s pain, but this becomes our strength. An injury to one becomes an injury to all. No longer isolated, a thousand cuts form one gaping wound among the working class. The injustice of it becomes plain. So here’s to building burning white hot working class rage for the new year.
Let every tenant and worker know they are not alone,
every unpaid caretaker and unhoused person as well
To everyone struggling for survival and justice
Including racial justice and struggles for body autonomy
Please foster that hope in your heart for a better world
Know that you have the ability to change it
We are the only ones that can save ourselves
But we are getting organized
We feel our power
And we’re just getting started