By Derek Robertson
Ryan Heaney lingered on the edge of the crowd at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial near the National Mall the morning after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The first of over 500,000 marchers were streaming down Capitol Hill toward the Mall for the Women’s March on Washington, some of them preparing to protest for the first time in their lives.
That contingent included Heaney himself, so incensed by Trump’s inauguration speech that he immediately registered with the country’s fastest-growing socialist group – the Democratic Socialists of America.
“I always had believed in socialist ideals, but I’d never acted,” said Heaney, 24, while waiting for the crowd to assemble that morning. “Last night after watching Trump get sworn in it hit me that this starts now. I have to do something, and the DSA seemed like the best vehicle to do that.”
The group, which swelled to a record 14,000 members over the weekend, has seen membership skyrocket since the Democratic primary campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the avowed socialist from Vermont whom the DSA endorsed fervently. It planned a schedule of inauguration weekend activities, including participating in the Women’s March, to demonstrate its commitment to opposing Trump’s agenda.
The DSA describes its platform as committed to both labor issues and racial and gender equality, and the organization believes the policies it advocates are authentically popular in a way Trump’s never could be. Members emphasized repeatedly through the weekend their belief that it’s now more important than ever to provide voters with a distinct alternative to the policies put forward by centrist Democrats in recent years.
David Duhalde, the group’s deputy director, described the way that dynamic has fed into the organization’s recent growth.
“Folks who want to resist Trump and are looking for new avenues to do so see DSA as a great vehicle to build progressive and radical and democratic — with a small ‘d’ — alternatives to Trump,” Duhalde said.
“These people supported an economic message that represented racial justice, feminism, and fighting for LGBTQ rights, and they know that kind of social and economic vision with a socialist worldview can defeat the right.”
The first item on their agenda for the weekend was joining the #DisruptJ20 protests Friday, the day of Trump’s inauguration. Organizers from several groups assembled on McPherson Square that morning just blocks from the White House, where the DSA set up a merchandise and recruiting table that was doing brisk business.
Most of the media attention that day focused not on them, however, but a “black bloc” of anarchists who committed property damage throughout downtown, leading to 217 arrests , according to a D.C. CBS affiliate.
Duhalde distanced the DSA from the bloc’s actions, but expressed sympathy for who he viewed as the victims of an overreaction from the city’s police.
“We’re a nonviolent organization and we interact with politics through civil disobedience and other forms of political protest,” Duhalde said, “but we think the riot charges against the protesters are a miscarriage of justice and an abuse of power.”
DSA members mainly got their post-inauguration catharsis not through shattering windows or clashing with riot police, but later that night at D.C.’s Lincoln Theatre – where an “Anti-Inauguration” was held featuring remarks from leftist luminaries like Naomi Klein and Jacobin Magazine publisher Bhaskar Sunkara.
Ajmal Alami, 21, a member of the DSA’s D.C chapter, described it as a welcome respite from what he and most leftists viewed as a dark day in the country’s history.
“I personally thought the event was very well done, and was pleasantly surprised that it was more of energetic speeches [sic] than a traditional teach-in or panel style event,” Alami said in an e-mail the week after the inauguration. “We can’t take this sitting down.”
The audience was raucous, but the most rapturous applause was reserved for the frequent and scathing criticisms of the Democratic party. Klein’s assertion from the podium that it “either needs to be decisively wrestled from corporate neoliberals, or it needs to be abandoned” drove this point home, and was echoed earlier that day by Colin Hernandez, 26, another D.C. chapter member.
“It’s been becoming clearer and clearer that Democrats wouldn’t give up corporatism,” Hernandez said. “I think so many new people have joined [the DSA] in the last year because they were so disheartened over Bernie losing in the primary. There needs to be a third party, a party of minorities and workers.”
The DSA is not a political party, but it has endorsed several Democratic politicians including Sanders — an independent member of Congress who ran in the Democratic primary — and Mike Sylvester, a member of the Maine House of Representatives who ran openly as a democratic socialist and whom Duhalde held up as an exemplar of the DSA’s electoral strategy.
Duhalde emphasized, however, that the DSA is open to endorsing any candidate it thinks represents the mission of democratic socialism, and that the group is primarily focused at this moment on adapting to the explosive growth it has experienced and protecting communities it views as immediately threatened by Trump’s administration.
Sammy Almashat, the chair of the inauguration committee that planned the weekend’s activities, echoed that sentiment while describing the group’s participation in the Women’s March.
“As of now, Donald Trump is the number one target for the DSA,” Almashat said. “The policies he is going to enact are our sole concern and we want to make sure we defeat those initiatives.”
A D.C. chapter meeting capped the weekend’s activities in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. With nearly 150 in attendance, Duhalde described the scene as roughly six times the size of an average meeting. During the #DisruptJ20 events and the Women’s March alone 642 new members joined.
Almashat said the DSA plans on participating in several other major protests this year, and that the impact of newer members had already paid off.
“Twelve or thirteen active members [of the inauguration committee] were completely new. Almost all of them had joined since November… we are thrilled that all of these new members have completely taken the initiative, and you can just feel the energy they have to make sure that this is a success,” he said.
One of those members was Mary Petrovic, 29, who introduced herself for the first time at that meeting. Members expressed anxiety, joy, righteous anger, enthusiasm, and wariness all in turn throughout the weekend. The urgency they see in the current political moment, however – and the growth they hope will continue to power them through it – was summed up in just one sentence during her introduction.
“I’m not a joiner,” Petrovic said. “But now’s the time to join.”