Can ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ Be Salvaged?

12 min read

The left has a problem: reactionary and neoliberal forces have been working together for decades to infiltrate elected government and prop-up capitalist institutions. They have co-opted the major political parties, non-profits, unions, and even control oversight and regulatory agencies. They then act as gatekeepers to any meaningful activism or social change, pushing socialists out of organizations with vague concern trolling and discourse policing. Where is the opposition to this conglomeration of social and political power?

Many are turning to DSA: the Democratic Socialists of America, but you won’t find any socialist opposition there. The Olympia branch of DSA deeply entrenches itself in the neoliberal takeover of our democracy. Whether their general membership knows it or not, they’re actively thwarting and sabotaging worker empowerment and class consciousness by focusing on the agendas of individuals with specific intersectional identities, regardless of their ideological views.

Watch highlights of the 2019 DSA convention in Atlanta.

Since formal recognition just before the 2017 election season, the leaders of Olympia DSA, Riley Woodward-Pratt and Deb Pattin, have personally spent hundreds of dollars and months of their time systematically targeting, stalking, and attacking socialist candidates, workers, area leftists, environmental activists, and their fellow DSA members. Their tactics include threats, blackmail, vocal opposition, and physical violence.

Co-chairs Woodward-Pratt and Pattin, who brag of union membership, court conservatives, corporatists, and fascists, all while labeling the leftist opposition as “anti-union.” They often discount and belittle the suggestions of their fellow members. They insist that the group doesn’t have the time or resources to promote socialist ideas or politics or be actively involved in anything beyond idealistic navel-gazing and empty gestures.

Physical Violence

Earlier in the summer of the 2018 election, according to Tumwater Police records, DSA co-chair Deb Pattin and her husband physically attacked, harassed, and stalked Socialist Party candidate for County Public Utilities Commissioner, Andrew Saturn, and his campaign team during a Thurston County Democratic Party event. At the time, Saturn’s campaign was invited and was even endorsed by the Democrats, while his opponent was not.

The Pattins, wearing DSA buttons, knocked over a table of Saturn campaign materials, repeatedly shoved Saturn and his campaign staffers and even slapped a phone to the ground when a staffer attempted to record their actions. They only backed off when bystanders at the park started to step in and question their aggressive behavior but continued to stalk and harass Saturn and his campaign team, even attempting to prevent them from leaving the event.

Olympia DSA’s leadership was made aware of evidence of this brutal and unprovoked public attack, but they were dismissive and even accused the victims of exaggerating and “weaponizing the police”—an attempt at gaslighting and a clear example of a bad-faith argument. They were quite blatantly co-opting the language of survivors of police abuse to justify their violence. Olympia DSA told victims that exposing Olympia DSA’s involvement in the assault would be “bad for the movement,” implying that Olympia DSA plays a crucial role in socialist politics in the region.

Demands were made by Olympia DSA leadership to remove video and photo evidence of the attack from social media. DSA silenced members who voiced concern, and many have resigned. The police report states that Saturn declined to press assault charges, and only wanted an official record of the incident.

Threatening Members

One way in which Olympia DSA’s co-chairs often silence dissenting voices in their chapter is to threaten them with attacks on their reputations. According to an Olympia DSA member who wanted to remain anonymous, Riley Woodward-Pratt threatened them in this manner after they suggested that the group consider backing a Green Party candidate in the local Port of Olympia Commissioner race. Rather than the idealism of being involved in a national or congressional race, supporting a local race could directly lead to improved material conditions for people in Olympia—something any socialist could get behind.

According to the member, Olympia DSA co-chair Woodward-Pratt went on a strange rant about the member’s credibility as a socialist, accusing them of being a “professional-managerial NIMBY, ugly, toxic, paranoid, hostile, middle-class liberal.” The co-chair went on to suggest that the member keep these ideas to themselves, but if not, he added, the group would have to discuss this member’s “uncomradely behavior.” Woodward-Pratt made these threats to the member via Olympia DSA’s official email address. Current and former Olympia DSA members have shared similar accounts of being threatened with exposure as “uncomradely.”

Partnering with Anti-Union Organizations and Police

While the close relationships between Olympia’s Port Commissioners and The Freedom Foundation and connections to fossil fuel lobbyists at Rainbow Ceramics and Weyerhaeuser were already known, disclosed emails show one Republican commissioner, Joe Downing, directly communicating with Olympia Police and the Thurston County Sheriff. In disclosed emails, Downing is quoted urging police to violently attack and arrest activists who were peacefully demonstrating against the Port’s involvement in fracking. He even praised the police in a public meeting for “teaching us how you do it.”

Joe Downing collaborated with police to remove peaceful protesters and force a shipment of fracking sands through Olympia after the city voted to ban them. Since 2017, Olympia DSA co-chairs have helped re-elect conservatives Downing and McGregor by attacking their environmentalist opponents as “anti-union.”

Wouldn’t Olympia DSA want to speak out against this brutality, and join in solidarity with local workers, especially the marginalized members of the protest, like LGBTQIA individuals, Natives, and people of color? After all, these activists are doing something that physically halts local involvement in the harmful and abusive fracking industry. Studies show the camps which house fracking workers bring an increase in rape, sex trafficking, kidnapping, and murder.

If we know too much, it could be dangerous. People are afraid because the Port is doing risky business.

EJ Zita (GP), Commissioner, Port of Olympia

Olympia DSA’s co-chairs instead chose to spend their time attacking the Democratic Party challenger to the Republican incumbent, Bill Fishburn, as “anti-union” in a tacit endorsement of the violent state-sponsored attacks against the fracking protesters.

Working Against Labor Solidarity

In 2017, Deb Pattin was even the subject of a public statement released by the Thurston County Democrats, where they made it clear that she does not speak for the party or labor. It includes real-world examples of why candidates EJ Zita and Bill Fishburn are the best choices, while the attacks leveled against them from the DSA co-chairs remained vague and unsubstantiated.

For her part in smearing Bill Fishburn as “anti-union” (and in turn re-electing conservative Port Commissioner Bill McGregor), the commissioners voted to appoint Deb Pattin to the Port’s Citizen Advisory Committee, alongside anti-LGBTQIA and actual anti-union activists associated with The Freedom Foundation.

A billboard from “Opt Out Today,” an actual anti-union campaign from the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation. The Freedom Foundation has close ties to the campaigns supported by Olympia DSA’s leadership.

Riley and Deb have a habit of co-opting language and implying that they alone know what real socialism entails, and what will and won’t “build working-class power.” Their deceptive behavior includes demonizing any use of the law, even for protecting at-risk individuals. But as you may have guessed, they have no problem weaponizing the legal system and police for their own goals of directly attacking socialist activists and candidates.

Attacking and Sabotaging Socialist Activists and Candidates

In May 2018, Riley Woodward-Pratt filed a public records request for the audio of a court hearing where Socialist Party candidate for Public Utilities Commissioner, Andrew Saturn, was requesting a protection order against individuals accused of stalking and attacking him. Saturn was starting a campaign focused on pushing for electrical power and high-speed internet as local public utility alternatives to Puget Sound Energy and Comcast. With billions of dollars at stake, Saturn and his family faced all of the threats that come with standing up to big-money interests.

The audio recording had to be transcribed into text, as it is multiple hours long. Under Washington state law, transcription services have to put their name on the transcript and keep records of who requested the transcript. Records show Woodward-Pratt’s fellow Olympia DSA co-chair, Deb Pattin, paid at least $325.00 to have the audio transcribed by Talk to Type Transcription in Tacoma, WA. That’s half a week’s wages for a typical worker.

The resulting transcription somehow made it into the hands of Danielle Westbrook, who according to her company’s website, is one of the principals at Percival Consulting, a campaign management firm hired by Linda Oosterman. Oosterman was the Republican opponent to Socialist Party candidate Andrew Saturn.

Soon after, Westbrook was sharing this transcript—completely unsolicited—to Saturn’s supporters, unions, and area organizations, in what appears to be an attempt to smear him. Westbrook was misrepresenting it as a “criminal case” against the candidate, even though it was a civil case, and he was the individual named as the plaintiff.

While we could not locate a single criminal record for Saturn, his detractors seem to have a long list of past criminal history. And unlike his opponent, Saturn’s support was wide-ranging, including endorsements from the Green Party and the Democrats, along with many other left-leaning groups and organizations across the state.

This party also endorsed Saturn, and he ultimately received 42% of the vote—a record for a Socialist Party candidate in a county-wide race in Washington, and significantly more support (both percentage-wise and in total votes) than previous PUD and Public Power campaigns.

Saturn’s campaign was funded entirely on small contributions and spent under $10,000 in total. Had it not been for Olympia DSA’s involvement in smearing Saturn, he would have won. Could Olympia DSA’s support for Linda Oosterman be an honest mistake? Or are they operating in bad faith? Let’s take a look.

Tacitly Supporting Millionaires, Republicans, and Fossil Fuel Lobbyists

State campaign disclosure records show Republican candidate Oosterman received tens of thousands of dollars in direct support from Puget Sound Energy, a foreign-owned fossil fuel conglomerate that is currently the monopoly for electricity in most of Washington State. This same agency also shows dozens of complaints against Oosterman from multiple individuals alleging campaign finance violations, including illegal coordination and concealing contributions, spending, and banking records.

Our digging during the 2018 campaign season found that Oosterman was spouting corporate talking points and only targeting “very conservative” voters on Facebook. Her Twitter is full of strange rants, including posts where the candidate claims she is pro-life. She even attended a Republican Party picnic, where she attacked state workers and echoed the talking points of developers and lobbyists. Oosterman also claimed to be endorsed by “the entire 22nd Legislative District Delegation,” which was misleading at best: she held only a few endorsements from a few individuals, not the backing of an entire party.

Throughout the 2018 election, Oosterman appeared to be woefully unprepared for debates and forums, and often showed up late or did not attend at all. Oosterman’s candidacy was quite obviously just invented to keep a seat warm for Puget Sound Energy and prevent a socialist campaign from empowering working-class control over the utilities in Thurston County. Oosterman was not a serious candidate or interested in using the Public Utility District to help empower working-class families, let alone a candidate worthy of leftist support.

Oosterman, laughing at Saturn’s statement about climate change.
PFLAG Forum, October 20th, 2018.

Puget Sound Energy has spent millions protecting their monopoly throughout Oosterman’s career as a Public Utilities Commissioner. And in 2012, PSE ran an astroturf campaign to defeat a Public Power Initiative in Thurston County. Oosterman’s then-opponent supported the initiative, while Oosterman was vocally against public power, and on the side of PSE.

PSE gets the majority of its electricity by burning fossil fuels. Conversely, a public power utility would naturally get the majority of its power from renewable sources, such as hydroelectric, solar, and wind. Green energy aside, public power is also half as expensive, which means more money kept in the pockets of working-class families.

Why would Riley Woodward-Pratt and Deb Pattin say they “don’t have time” to promote a leftist campaign for the Port of Olympia while spending a significant amount of their time and money supporting a fossil fuel-backed anti-union establishment corporatist candidate like Oosterman? Most people would say this looks a lot like sabotage, and they would be right.

Olympia DSA has a tough decision to make: is it a socialist organization, or not?

Will Olympia DSA’s leadership continue down this road of cognitive dissonance, offering tacit material support for fossil fuel companies, sexists, fascists, bigots, and anti-worker candidates while cloaking themselves under the false veneer of working-class appeal?

Will Olympia DSA’s membership distance themselves from the endless sabotage, weaponization, and violence perpetrated by co-chairs Riley and Deb?

Or is all of this toxic behavior just a symptom of a deeper problem endemic to the Democratic Socialists of America as a whole: they’re just another organization in search of a purpose.

Phase 1: Steal underpants. Phase 2: ??? Phase 3: Profit.

Much like the “underpants gnomes” in the TV show South Park, organizations like DSA seem to exist to serve no real purpose, and their plan has no “middle phase.” They focus entirely on idealistic goals and building a membership base, but never on what happens mid-way. And like the South Park episode, stealing underpants isn’t enough to get to Phase 3; not declaring strong opposition to the institutions of capitalism at every opportunity puts your organization on a trajectory right back into neoliberal thought. In this, DSA does more harm than good for socialism and the material conditions of the working class.

In medicine, when you have a bacterial infection, you take antibiotics. But if you take the wrong type or too weak of a dose, you can inadvertently create a drug-resistant strain of the bacteria. Like a watered-down dose of medicine, DSA furthers capitalism by promoting “democratic socialism” as a kinder, gentler version of capitalism. But socialism—worker control of the means of production—is already inherently democratic!

What DSA promotes is what Europeans call social democracy: heavily-regulated capitalism and high taxes to fund a robust social safety net. DSA, in its current form, is not a socialist organization, and so the behavior of the leadership of the Olympia chapter is to be expected. They don’t want to achieve worker control. They want to offer base appeals to the capitalist system which exploits their labor, and celebrate any modest gains as “empowerment.” They pat themselves on the back for achieving some marginal headway for themselves and their close social circle but have no regard for the overall or long-term conditions of the masses.

An example of this is what Olympia DSA lists on their website as one of their biggest achievements: electing three Democrats to Olympia City Council in 2017. Since the election, these three council members have:

While the council members did say that capitalism was “incompatible with a just society,” they never said that establishing a just society was their goal. Olympia DSA treated their empty gestures as a success and declared mission complete. They never followed up to hold these three council members accountable for their pro-capitalist policies.

Olympia DSA’s alliance with the reactionary ILWU #47 is another excellent example of this. The local has only a handful of permanent jobs at the Port of Olympia because it is not a deepwater port and can’t handle modern-day ships. As a result, the Port of Olympia has operated in the red for nearly a decade, depending upon area property taxes to sustain operations.

Raw logs to be shipped to China, a typical load handled by ILWU #47 at the Port of Olympia.

Much like in other formal industrial towns, Olympia’s ILWU #47 is obsessed with “bringing the jobs back,” and supports candidates who make false promises of doing so while pushing policies that act against workers’ interests. The result is longshore workers who are desperate for work and forced to ship things like weapons of war and fracking sands—cargoes which the City of Olympia eventually banned after high-profile protests in the early-mid 2000s, and successful blockades in the 2010s.

Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to move towards sustainable shipping contracts and other union work at the Port, the conservative port commissioners regularly make sweetheart deals with real estate developers and the fossil fuel industry. Rather than see the apparent contradictions here, Olympia DSA stubbornly believes this is a sustainable path forward, and that supporting the current establishment’s narrative will eventually be beneficial the longshore workers.

The Olympia chapter is not alone; this sort of thing is a problem plaguing chapters across the country. Also, much like Democratic Party organizations, DSA has multiple “caucuses” of “left” and “progressive” voices that should be the mainstream within any so-called socialist organization. Unfortunately, left caucuses within DSA struggle to stay relevant in an organization full of centrists and Democrats determined to use the organization to “take back their party.” The most recent attempt to move DSA to a purely leftist ideology, the “Refoundation Caucus,” was abandoned in just one year amid accusations of being “too divisive.”

“Big tent” organizations like DSA aren’t built for genuine left opposition. Their focus on membership numbers and being inclusive to a wide range of opinions and voices—even those of reactionary saboteurs like Riley Woodward-Pratt and Deb Pattin—means they will be rife with endless internal disputes, discourse policing, and identity politics.

Organizations like DSA will never be capable of building real working-class power and solidarity in the same way as a purely socialist organization. DSA comes with pre-packaged flaws and contradictions which act as a ratchet effect, preventing any leftward momentum, and resulting in a steady march to the right.

As of the writing of this article, Deb Pattin is already busy attacking the 2019 environmentalist candidate for the Port of Olympia as “anti-union.”