Building Metro Atlanta DSA

From MADSA founder Milt Tambor’s memoir, “A Democratic Socialist’s 50-Year Adventure”

After 35 years with Michigan AFSCME, I retired in 2001, a decision that came easily. My wife, Linda Lieberman, and I could move to Atlanta and be near her two sons, who were raising their families there. What I could not anticipate was how the move to Atlanta would take me on a democratic socialist path, as exciting and rewarding as any experience I ever had as a movement activist. . . .

My search for an activist community in Atlanta led me to the Howard Dean campaign and a Brit Tzedek  Vshalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) meeting where I met retired psychology professor and activist Norm Markel at a coffee shop in downtown Decatur. We became fast friends and comrades and shared a common history. Norm had grown up in Detroit and was active in the New left during the 60s. As a psychology professor, he had 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 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, DSA chapters publicly committed to organizing fundraising parties for Bernie Sanders’ 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.

As I had become familiar with a broad range of progressive organizations–Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council, Jobs with Justice, 9 to 5, and the magazine Nation discussion group–I felt confident that interest existed in the progressive community for such an event to take place.

For the Bernie Sanders fundraiser, 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 additionally organizing a fundraiser, and I asked Norm Markel to join me in this project. His enthusiastic and positive response energized me. We generated enough interest to schedule a meeting in January 2006. 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 meet again before completing the petition.)

We formed a steering committee, drafted bylaws and submitted them to the national office. MADSA—Metro Atlanta DSA—became 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 Markel, membership secretary. Austin Wattles, who had been active with the previous Atlanta DSA chapter in the 1980s before it disbanded, took the position of treasurer. From the Nation discussion group, I recruited long-time Atlanta activist Barbara Joye to serve as recording secretary.  Bob Wohlhueter volunteered to set up our website and serve as our webmaster.

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, topics included single payer health care, environmental justice and immigrant rights. But we still needed to take on a project that would bring us to the attention of Atlanta’s progressive community, and a Bernie Sanders fundraiser offered us just such an opportunity.

John Sweet, labor attorney and former city council member, agreed to host the fundraising 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. We were able to secure from the Sanders campaign a list of 500 Georgians who had contributed to the Sanders’ campaign–two thirds living in the Atlanta area.

The program for that day was a great success, despite a thunderstorm.Fifty people showed up. Frank Hamilton, formerly of the Weavers, along with his wife Mary provided the entertainment, including a sing-along. Bernie Sanders called in during the party, and spoke passionately about providing universal health care and a living wage for everyone. When asked if he would come to Atlanta after his projected victory, he said he would.

The fundraiser netted $5,200 toward Bernie’s campaign. We followed up with thank-you letters announcing MADSA’s upcoming projects: planning for the upcoming Georgia Progressive Summit (GPS) and our chapter’s hosting of the national DSA convention in Atlanta in November. As well as raising money for the campaign, the event attracted many people who would become core members of MADSA in the future.

Coalition Activity

In the same year, MADSA chapter members became actively involved with the Georgia Progressive Summit. The goal of the summit was to build a broad statewide movement for progressive values and actions. MADSA members led workshops on community organizing, gentrification, single-payer health care, and reducing economic inequality.

The next major event held in Atlanta was the U.S. Social Forum, in June 2007, and  MADSA members participated in the planning and organizing committees.1 Alice Lovelace, national lead staff organizer for the forum, spoke at a chapter meeting. DSA’s national staff promoted the event and led several workshops. I was on a panel that examined the U.S. working class from differing socialist perspectives.2

Thousands of people participated in events held in the Atlanta Civic Center, downtown hotels and cultural centers throughout the city, and MADSA hosted a reception for DSA members at my wife Linda’s son and daughter-in-law’s home in Midtown.

MADSA also supported the work of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition in opposing the war in Iraq, and joined the Coalition for a Peoples’ Agenda and the Grady Hospital Coalition.

Douglass-Debs Dinner

At the same time, following a visit by National Director Frank Llewellyn, DSA’s National Political Committee decided to hold the organization’s November 2007 biennial convention in Atlanta. MADSA was proud to host the first DSA convention ever held in the south. Activities in addition to the convention included a walking tour for delegates in downtown Atlanta commemorating the 1906 race riot, and a rally on economic justice featuring a presentation by labor activist and author Bill Fletcher.

Our chapter’s main responsibility, however, would be to plan the Friday, November 7 dinner program. Bernie Sanders had already agreed to be the keynote speaker, and with Bernie as a draw, we decided to make the event a fundraiser for MADSA as well: the first Atlanta Douglass-Debs dinner. We formed a dinner committee and contacted potential patrons.

The first Douglass-Debs dinner recognized North Georgia Labor Council President Charlie Flemming and U.S. Social Forum organizer Alice Lovelace for their progressive community activism.

The dinner was a major success: more than 250 people attended, including the convention delegates, and Bernie Sanders delivered a rousing speech challenging activists to combat the attacks being waged against the middle and working class. This address, focusing on economic inequality and calling for single- payer health care, prefigured Occupy Wall Street and Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

The first Douglass-Debs dinner secured a special niche in Atlanta’s progressive community. We therefore planned to hold this event annually as our major fundraiser, but also provided tickets for low-income people and students so nobody would be turned away.

For these events, we sought out keynote speakers with labor backgrounds, solidifying our relationships with labor. Labor, in turn, supported MADSA by buying ads in our program book and booking tables for the dinner. The UAW, SEIU, CWA, Teamsters, Painters Union, Georgia State AFL-CIO and Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council were reliable and generous patrons. Keynote speakers over the years have 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 of Michigan.

Activists honored reflected the full spectrum of Atlanta’s progressive community, including pastors Reverend Timothy McDonald (First Iconium Baptist church) and Reverend Anthony Motley (Lindsey Street Baptist church) and state representatives Nan Orrock, Vincent Fort and Tyrone Brooks. Also honored were leaders from 9 to 5, Rainbow Push, Teamsters union, Communications Workers of America, Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, Task Force for the Homeless, Coalition for a People’s Agenda, Open Door Community, School of the Americas Watch, Occupy Atlanta and the Grandmothers for Peace.

As chair, I arranged for the keynote speakers, reported on the year’s activities, received the money for tickets and advertisements in our program book, and emceed the evening’s program. Entertainment included musical performance, sing-alongs, and skits. The fundraisers generally netted $5,000-$6,000. Funds were used throughout the year for various educational programs, support of coalition partners, and promotion of progressive causes, in addition to our modest operational expenses.

Public Forums and Membership Meetings

Each month, MADSA presented a public forum or educational program. Topics were broad in scope, covering local, national and international issues. Speakers visiting the Middle East, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba provided both political and personal perspectives. The larger issues of militarism, drone warfare, the failed war on drugs, capitalism vs. democracy and U.S. imperialism were also discussed. Wide-ranging issues included environmental justice, climate change, human rights, immigrant rights and labor law reform. Local issues impacting Atlanta and Georgia focused on homelessness, minimum wage, the death penalty, the LGBTQ community, healthcare, education and electoral politics. In one popular forum, labor activist Gary Washington and Grandmother for Peace Minnie Ruffin recounted their experiences with the Black Panther Party in the 60’s.

Our membership meetings were held in various facilities around Atlanta, and for five years we met at the Open Door Community on Ponce de Leon. Eduard Loring and Murphy Davis, founders of this residential community (which provided food, shelter, healthcare, and spiritual support to the homeless), invited us to make their facility our meeting home. In addition, they contributed generously to our annual dinner and enthusiastically supported our chapter’s projects. At several of our Douglass-Debs Dinners, Ed delivered rousing invocations. At one of our last and most memorable meetings at the Open door, 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 Atlanta’s abandoned Imperial Hotel by 300 homeless people, orchestrated by the Open Door community, in the summer of 1990. Ed and Murphy and other veterans of the occupation added their perspectives on the occupation and its legacy. I was privileged to write a review of the book for the Open Door newsletter Hospitality.

In 2015, we were saddened to hear that Ed and Murphy were relocating the Open Door Community to Baltimore. With assistance from Helen Butler, director of The Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda and Heather Gray, a host on the alternative radio station WRFG, we organized a fond and moving farewell lunch held at the Wheat Street Baptist Church. Ed and Murphy’s  message in Hospitality summed up 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.”

Educational Programs

Many of MADSA’s activities centered on education. These programs–Socialist Education Circles (later renamed Socialist Dialogues)–were usually held on alternating months with membership meetings. For members, these study sessions would analyze capitalism’s contradictions through a Marxist/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 later Ray Miklethun took the helm. 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 analyzed with readings from Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. To better understand the speculative and capricious capitalist system we read Foster and Madoff’s The Great Financial Crisis, David Schweickart’s After Capitalism, and Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right. A 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 through 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 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign afforded us an examination of Bernie’s political perspective in a session entitled “Democratic Socialism and the Bernie Sanders Campaign,” which I led. In addition, in 2015-2017 “Slavery and the New Jim Crow” and “Climate Change and Alternatives to Capitalism” were presented by members using texts by Michelle Alexander and Naomi Klein, respectively. Other Socialist Dialogues addressed the changing nature of work–precarious jobs with no security–and how race, class, gender and sexual oppression intersect under capitalism.

After a presentation in 2015 by Bhaskar Sunkara, editor and publisher of Jacobin Magazine, we decided to provide a primer of democratic socialism for our many new members.  A five-week study group based on a Jacobin booklet, The ABCs of Socialism, was popular, and many new members acted as facilitators.

Feminist history was featured in a documentary about the 1960s women’s liberation movement “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.” Additionally, the film “Shift Change: Putting Democracy to Work.” showcased worker co-ops in Spain and the U.S.. Another popular documentary was “Michael Harrington and Today’s Other America,” presented by Harlon Joye, a local civil rights and labor activist, who provided a valuable historical perspective.

Thomas Jackson’s book From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice, provided a forum for State Representative Senator Fort to recount his experiences in the civil rights movement.

Another education program included young activists from the Movement for Black Lives discussing strategies for resisting the Trump/Republican agenda. And historian Ian Fletcher expanded our knowledge of events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and their connection to current issues, with an interactive program relating 1917 to 2017.

For me, the education programs constituted the core of what MADSA was about, with the education committee being the most active of our planning groups. These programs consistently drew non-members who we had not met before. As attendance grew to about 50 people 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.

Ray Miklethun, at a membership meeting, created a powerful PowerPoint analysis “Democratic Socialism: Equality and Democracy” which detailed the rise of the right. I asked him if he could incorporate economic inequality into the analysis, and his revised version included discussion of income disparity and proffered democratic socialism as an alternative to corporate capitalism. The presentation was screened before DSA members, shown at the Lindsay Baptist Church, Clayton County NAACP, the Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council, and community meetings.  It was also presented at a Georgia Coalition for a People’s Agenda meeting that MADSA hosted, where it 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 M.L. King and A. Philip Randolph. I considered “Democratic Socialism: Equality and Democracy” the best educational tool that the chapter had developed. Ray Mikelthun joined DSA and became the chair of the education committee.

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, who led Atlanta Legal Aid’s “Home Defense” program, was asked to present an analysis of the subprime lending meltdown. Bill described abusive loan practices in which predatory products were 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 financial meltdown.

The presentation prompted GRUS and MADSA to convene a “Fighting Foreclosure Forum” designed to educate, provide services, and issue a call to action. To build support for the forum, endorsements were secured from 40 organizations, including labor unions, civil rights groups, peace and justice advocates, local homeless shelters,  and faith-based groups. I co-chaired the April 4, 2009 forum with Larry Pellegrini of GRUS at First Iconium Baptist Church, which endorsed the formation of the Atlanta Fighting Foreclosures Coalition (AFFC). Senator Fort provided a historical perspective at the meeting as he recounted how Georgia’s 2002 predatory lending bill that he authored had been quickly scuttled under pressure from the banks and the U.S. Treasury Department.

About 150 people attended the first AFFC event, and two weeks later, a diverse crowd of more that 100 picketed the Wells Fargo (formerly Wachovia) Midtown Atlanta office. The coalition presented a letter to Wells Fargo demanding a moratorium on foreclosures and an end to predatory lending. The letter also requested a meeting between Wells Fargo principals and coalition leaders to negotiate a loan modification process that would reduce loan payments and allow Atlantans to remain in their homes.

On August 31, 2009, activists occupied a Wells Fargo branch office in East Point, GA, demanding that bank officials meet with the AFFC and hear their demands. Subsequently, five were arrested:  former Atlanta Police Commissioner Reginald Eaves, Atlanta North Georgia AFL-CIO President Charlie Flemming, State Senator Vincent Fort, long-time local activist Dianne Mathiowitz, and myself. With people’s lawyer Brian Spears as our defense attorney, the criminal trespass charges were dropped in exchange for twenty hours of community service. (Fittingly, I chose Atlanta Jobs with Justice for my community service, since the organization participated in and supported anti-foreclosure actions.)

In July, 2010, AFFC co-sponsored a hearing and rally with the national AFL-CIO.[1] Following testimony by homeowners facing foreclosures, we boarded buses and picketed in front of the Wells Fargo office at Atlantic Station, in midtown Atlanta. Initially, the bank officials refused to meet with our delegation if Senator Fort was present–apparently, Fort’s reputation as an agitator must have made the bank officials uncomfortable–a condition we rejected as totally unacceptable. Instead, we all marched into the bank’s conference room where they eventually agreed to meet with all of us. In addition to Senator Fort, our group included AFL-CIO Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, First Iconium’s Reverend Tim McDonald, Barbara Eastman, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans, and myself. Ultimately, they agreed to provide us with information about their loan modification process.

At a subsequent meeting with AFFC later that summer, the bank officials indicated that they had pulled 1,000 homes off the current auction list. Settlements were also reached with ten clients of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, ending months of stonewalling on the part of the banks. However, the bank officials refused to agree upon a protocol that would limit foreclosures, but conceded to review cases on an individual basis.

In November 2009, AFFC’s mission was highlighted by Senator Fort’s and Bill Brennan’s testimony at a hearing held at the Georgia State Capitol by the U.S. House of Representative’s Domestic Policy Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee, chaired by Representative Dennis Kucinich.

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 a co-chair and one of the prime movers of the coalition,  I was amazed by how just a few activists could ignite a movement. Working with Bill Brennan and Senator Fort I also began to understand 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 frustrating, and this intransigence underscored why major changes beyond what the current capitalist system allowed are absolutely essential. The chant “Banks got bailed out and homeowners thrown out” seemed to say it all.

Atlanta Jobs with Justice

As the foreclosure coalition’s momentum began to ebb, I contacted the national Jobs with Justice office. I had heard that JwJ and its affiliates had organized successful actions to fight foreclosures in cities across the U.S., and wanted to know whether those strategies could be applied in Atlanta. Erica Smiley, national JwJ staffer, called me and we arranged to meet. 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 agreed to convene a meeting, reasoning that a viable JwJ in Atlanta that could defend workers and elicit community support was a high priority. Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council President Charlie Flemming agreed to host a meeting with Erica Smiley at his office, and member organizations of AFFC and local unions were invited to attend. Eventually, a clear consensus for restarting JwJ was evident.

We met at the Teamsters hall, and discussed a proposed structure and initial action plans. 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,” took place on April 2, 2011 at Trinity Methodist Church, drawing over 200 participants and volunteers. Thirty-eight organizations, including MADSA, sponsored the event. Speakout participants testified to the hardships they faced when seeking a job at a living wage and the struggle of the working poor, and State Senators Vincent Fort and Nan Orrock responded to the issues raised. Box lunches were provided, and volunteers from 22 organizations offered haircuts, massages, legal advice, resumé assistance, and housing counseling. 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 mock trial of Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler. Butler had decided to deny unemployment benefits to 64,000 school workers who had been laid off over the summer. During the “trial,” school workers provided moving testimony on the negative economic impact they would experience if denied those benefits. Nine judges, including two state senators and leaders from civil rights, women’s rights and immigrant rights organizations, declared Butler “guilty.”[2]

Atlanta JwJ was a prime mover in the Fight for 15 and in organizing rallies and demonstrations beginning in 2013. MADSA joined Atlanta Raise Up and Atlanta JwJ at a demonstration in midtown Atlanta 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, we have joined with Atlanta JwJ in celebrating May Day/International Workers Day, twice contributing a dramatic presentation with members acting the roles of historic U.S. labor leaders. In 2017, MADSA participated in a 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 with JwJ so memorable for me was 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, and as such, the organization has the legs to be a long distance runner for worker’s justice  in the Atlanta area.

United Fronts

During the 2011 session of the Georgia General Assembly, MADSA joined Atlanta JwJ, Occupy Atlanta 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 died on the floor, with no vote.

In 2012, MADSA members joined Occupy Atlanta 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 Occupy 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, eliciting cheers from the crowd of supporters. I was seriously concerned for our folks since criminal trespass with a conviction could mean prison time, and was relieved when the mistrial decision was announced.

In collaboration with Occupy Atlanta, we participated in demonstrations protesting AT&T’s plans for mass 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 the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) in a huge rally in support of immigration reform. And each year on M.L.K. Day, we have marched with labor, Black Lives Matter and other peace and justice groups in solidarity through downtown Atlanta. We also annually staff a table at the AFL-CIO’s Labor Day picnic.

Inspired by the North Carolina Moral Monday Movement led by Reverend William Barber, Georgia activists organized rallies for two years at the Capitol under the “Moral Monday Georgia” banner. The rallies in 2014 called for Medicaid expansion, 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. At MADSA’s booth, we passed out literature and circulated a petition to repeal a provision in the state constitution outlawing same sex marriage. In 2016, we collected petition signatures supporting Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for president, and in 2017, MADSA members gave away 2,000 buttons with the messages, “Black Lives Matter,” “Metro Atlanta DSA,” and “LGBTQ Liberation, not Rainbow Capitalism.”  MADSA members Dave Hayward and Lorraine Fontana both served as Pride Grand Marshals.

Protesting racist police brutality and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, DSA members called attention to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson by joining a march from Five Points to the Fox Theater and staging a “die-in.” The “die-in” at the Fox was duplicated at Perimeter Mall in North Atlanta, where we found many people interested in and supportive of what we were doing. At another demonstration, business as usual was halted by the shutting down of Peachtree at Lenox Road and the arrests of 13 demonstrators.

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 (administered by the Task Force for the Homeless, whose director was a DSA member) and turn it into a police facility. When the city of Atlanta threatened the Task Force with eviction for failure to pay its water bill, the shelter responded with lawsuits contending ownership of the property. The city and the business community had long complained that the men gathering  downtown constituted a nuisance by loitering. The city had also threatened to cut the shelter’s water off for failure to pay their water bills. After years of of legal battle to keep the shelter open, a settlement was reached resulting in the sale of the facility to Central Atlanta Progress, a nonprofit organization funded through business investments.

Opposing Gentrification

Georgia Tech professor Larry Keating’s book Atlanta: 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, Keating described how development decisions made by business leaders and public officials in Atlanta adversely impacted low-income communities. In the 60s, when urban renewal programs demolished homes and businesses, promises were made to provide low-income housing and jobs. Those promises were not kept. Instead, the Olympic Park and Turner Field developments near downtown Atlanta 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 areas.

Beginning with the 2011 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 the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation (PRC) and the English Avenue Neighborhood Association. In 2012, as Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA, later known as the Housing Justice League [HJL]) focused on rental housing issues and tenant vulnerabilities, OOHA became a co-sponsor and participant in subsequent tours as well. PRC President Columbus Ward, who received an award at our 2016 Douglass-Debs Dinner, and Tim Franzen of OOHA and HJL provided background information and guided the bus tours to meetings with neighborhood activists. 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 those homes had never flooded).[3]

Before an Atlanta Falcons football game, a contingent of MADSA members joined with Common Cause, Move On, Senator Vincent Fort and other groups in a press conference and demonstration protesting the use of public funds to build a new stadium. The Falcons ownership and Georgia World Congress Authority (GWCCA) were intending to use $350 million in taxpayers’ dollars for the project. The press conference  demanded that the Falcons and GWCCA hold public hearings and conduct a study demonstrating how the use of public monies would benefit the people of this city, and that any dispensing of those funds 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 press release. The Atlanta City Council susquently adopted a land use plan which provided for community input. Residents expressed deep concerns about the project’s density and inadequate provision for affordable housing. Final approval by the Atlanta Regional Commission is pending at this writing.

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 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 will 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.

Electoral Work

The 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign brought democratic socialism into the national discourse. Policy issues once considered idealistic 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 went into the Sanders campaign.

DSA activists played a key role in launching the Georgia for Bernie Sanders (GFBS) campaign in Atlanta, which attracted national attention. Over 135 activists from around the state came together to celebrate Bernie’s announcement and found that 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 led the meeting and 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 a 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 and fundraisers. 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 (Michael Render), the hip-hop artist, at the Atlanta Sanders campaign office. Killer Mike had electrified the crowd at the Fox Theater and I wanted to invite him to be our guest at the next Douglass-Debs Dinner.[4]

At the Morehouse Forbes Arena, our chapter’s comrade and friend Senator Vincent Fort gave a full-throttle endorsement of Bernie. Fort’s endorsement meant a lot to me and MADSA.

MADSA members and friends organized 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 in Atlanta’s Old 4th Ward,  and he even led a “Bar Crawl for Bernie.”

In July 2017, MADSA members helped celebrate and launch State Senator Vincent 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.”

One election victory we joyfully celebrated occurred in 2016, when MADSA member khalid kamau won a council seat in the new city of South Fulton. Both the DSA national office and the Atlanta chapter made important contributions to his campaign. Running publicly as a democratic socialist, khalid‘s campaign gained national attention. [5]

For Atlanta activists, interest in entering into electoral campaigns has grown; Longtime member 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.

Comradeship

For me, MADSA constituted nothing less than a political family. As a family, building member rapport, having fun together and enjoying each other’s company added meaning to the work we did. For many years, Linda and I hosted an annual holiday party at our home for this reason. (Getting together without having to address chapter business made this event special.) After socializing over food and drink, members were encouraged to share any personal news or recall 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. Like the Douglass-Debs Dinner, the holiday party is now a MADSA tradition.

A newly organized social event that has been extremely popular is the monthly Friday night get-together at member Johnny Martinez’s Georgia Beer Garden in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. “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. During this social hour, the chapter has joined with other groups to raise funds and collect supplies for Atlanta’s  unsheltered population, and for Southerners on New Grounds’ Black Mama’s Bailout campaign.

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 700 members, tripling in size over the past two years. (The national organization has swelled from 7,000 to 55,000 members during this same period.) Some 1,000 delegates, staff and media, including thirteen delegates from the Atlanta chapter, attended the August 2017 national DSA convention. 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 MADSA membership will likely become more multiracial and gender balanced.

Immediately after the 2018 election, resistance grew against the racist, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-worker, and anti-poor policies proposed by the Trump administration. One act of resistance was a light projection on the side of the Crowne Plaza Midtown Hotel spelling out the message “Fuck Trump.” Local TV station 11 Alive covered the story, attributing the protest action to Atlanta DSA (whose members indeed participated in this creative “graffiti”). As MADSA chair I was asked to explain how the use of “profane” language could be justified. I responded unapologetically: “Sometimes you’ve got to do something shocking and startling. Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable.” I then explained that the word was not the issue; 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.

When Donald Trump attended the Georgia-Alabama college championship game in December 2018, light-projected messages appeared on the side of Mercedes-Benz Stadium just before he 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.”


Footnotes

[1]Atlanta was the first of five cities chosen by AFL-CIO for public events dramatizing the fight against foreclosures and demanding investments in communities and jobs.

[2]In 2013, this rule change was overturned and more than eight million dollars in unemployment benefits were paid  to school workers.

[3]Still in litigation as of this writing.

[4]He received the Douglass-Debs award the following year.

[5]He also received an award at the 2017 Douglass-Debs Dinner.