Saint Louis DSA

Brake-Light Socialism

Written by Pannill Camp

“What’s the DSA?”

Like most of us, I’ve answered this question several times since joining the Democratic Socialists of America, usually in response to friends, colleagues, and family members. But the most memorable time I’ve been asked happened on April 28, during the brake- light clinic. It stood out in part because the person asking me was a city bus driver who had pulled his bus over next to my sign-waving post so that he could ask me directly.

In retrospect, much of the pride I feel about our brake-light clinic stems from this encounter, and the many similar moments that must have happened all around the city on April 28. Hundreds of people who likely knew nothing about the DSA first learned about us as part of a well-planned, genuinely helpful volunteer action that perfectly reflected our values and capabilities as a socialist organization. Thanks to great organizing by Andrew Sorrells and generous contributions of time and talent by many more comrades in the chapter before and during the event, we fixed two dozen cars, fed scores of people, and registered some to vote. We presented a very compelling answer to the question, “What is the DSA?”

What the bus driver wanted to know, he made clear, was “Who is doing this?” and “Why?” He was naturally skeptical. Why would someone put their time and money into helping people who needed a simple but very important car repair? What do they want in return? He was not the only person who initially took this view. One journalist I spoke to as part of my publicity efforts explained it to a friend as a “publicity stunt.” This comment, I think, reflected pessimism about the greater project of leftist organizing more than cynicism about what we were doing. And the most uplifting thing that I took away from the brake light clinic is how powerful it was in dispelling pessimism and cynicism.

I explained to the bus driver that we are a socialist organization, and that we wanted to help people avoid unnecessary stops by the police. He got it immediately and said he would spread the word. His reaction must have been like many others. Once Real STL News posted an interview with one of our volunteers, we saw a surge in people seeking assistance. The help we were offering people was needed, understood, and welcome.


Before the event, my greatest worry was that we might fail to reach the people who needed this very specific kind of help. We not only reached people and learned a lot in the process about how to reach them; we also sent a clear and bright signal to the people of St. Louis about our values and goals.

The next day, the St. Louis Post Dispatch printed a photo of one of our mechanics fixing a light on a van, with a caption. The biggest mainstream newspaper in the city gave highly positive coverage to a socialist organization. I am amazed that we pulled that off.

I hope that we will repeat the brake light clinic soon. We invested considerable resources, overcame some obstacles, and saw immediate positive responses. Like many others, I was moved by the evident gratitude of those we helped on that day. By providing much-needed aid and assistance, we can make a positive change in the lives of our fellow human beings. While serving others, we shine a light on systematic injustice and demonstrate our commitment to fighting it.

Our next brake light clinic will be Saturday, August 4, at Greater St. Mark’s Family Church (9950 Glen Owen Dr, Ferguson, MO, 63136). We’ll be there from 1-5pm as a part of Greater St. Mark’s Community Day event! (click attending on our Facebook event here!)


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