Not Even the Dead Can Rest While the Living Remain Oppressed: Against Jamaal Bowman and His Apologists

Date: 2022-01-19T23:27:56+00:00


Myra Glass argues that the debate over Jamaal Bowman in the DSA represents a broader fight between those who wish for the organization to take a genuine anti-imperialist and Internationalist direction and those who are still clinging to the organization’s Harringtonian origins. 

On July 28th, in the West Bank of Palestine, a boy was shot. 11-year-old Mohammad Ayyad Bahjat Abu Sara was riding home with his father when six Israeli security forces soldiers ordered them to stop. In a panicked state, Abu Sara’s father attempted to ride away. The Israeli soldiers responded by firing upon the vehicle. Thirteen bullets ripped through the car, piercing Abu Sara’s chest. His father rushed him to the hospital where he was operated upon, and despite the best efforts of the doctors Abu was pronounced dead at 8 p.m. that evening. (1)

According to international law, lethal force is only justified in situations where one is threatened with bodily harm. Based on the security footage of the incident, the car that Abu Sara was in was dozens of meters away from the soldiers and driving in the opposite direction when the incident happened, so it is fair to say they were not in any danger. The excuse that the soldiers gave for firing upon the vehicle was that they suspected that Abu and his father were coming from a graveyard where they saw “suspicious activity”. In fact, what the soldiers saw was Ali Anwar Zaaqiq, the mayor of Beit Ummar, burying his infant daughter in the children’s wing of the Cemetery The “brave men” of Israel’s security force took some time out of their industrious schedule of harassing, evicting and torturing living Palestinians to molest their dead, as it was reported that the soldiers dug up Zaaqiq’s daughter and desecrated her grave. (2

Flash forward to September 23rd: the U.S. House of Representatives votes to send an additional $1 billion to Israel, tacked onto the short-term government spending bill to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program, adding to the $3.3 billion dollars of military aid that the U.S. already sent to Israel. The motion passed almost unanimously. The final vote was 420-9 with two “present” votes. Among the “yes” votes was a young representative from New York’s 16th congressional district, Jamaal Bowman. Bowman is not only a “progressive Democrat” but an active member of Democratic Socialists of America, who has claimed in the past (and continues to claim) that he supports the rights of Palestinians. This has not stopped him from voting to give Israel ever more money used to bolster an ongoing genocide of historic proportions, meeting up with the vocal Zionist Yaacov Behrman for a selfie, as well as participating in a J Street propaganda tour of Israel that included a photo op with far-right Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett just before the critical vote on the added military spending bill took place. (3) (4

To rub salt in the wound, Bowman tried to claim that his “yes” vote was the fault of Palestinian rights activists for not being as organized as their well-funded Zionist rivals, adding that foreign policy issues are less important to him than domestic ones. (5) Yet if foreign policy issues are not important to Bowman, then why didn’t he take the coward’s way out and simply vote “present” like AOC did? The answer is simple: Bowman is a soft Zionist. It does not matter how many Palestinians are murdered, raped, and discriminated against because they cannot afford the price of Bowman’s compassion. 

Despite It being known that Bowman met with Zionist lobbyists, several members of DSA rushed to his defense. Some went as far as to say that to even consider kicking Bowman out of DSA, an organization that according to its platform is anti-imperialist and opposes Isreal’s apartheid regime, is beyond the pale of democratic norms or is somehow “weakening” DSA. None of the said people would admit that they approve of Zionism. Every one of them claims to want to stop what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people. Yet when you ask them to stand for something that they supposedly believe in, they whine in the tone of a brat spoiled rotten “Bowman is a person of color! The petition to discipline him is sidestepping the democratic process of the DSA! We cannot afford to chase away an elected socialist representative like this—basically, that it’s just too divisive of an issue!”. Such arguments are so weak and delivered half-heartedly that one must conclude that even Bowman’s apologists don’t believe them. Rather their defense of Bowman is done to keep the DSA subservient to the Democratic Party by shutting down any critics of an opportunist electoral strategy  

Identity politics, often shortened to “IDpol”, was a term commonly used around the 2016 presidential election and describes a kind of opportunistic use of identitarian issues’ (race, gender, sexuality, neurodivergence, etc.) and one’s own identity in politics. The crude critique of such politics was that it distracted from the material issues of class. Whole communities, such as the infamous subreddit r/stupidpol, began to form around countering “IDpol” and the discourse pitting class against identity became hot for the longest time. However, the events of the 2020 election have made such debates less relevant in mainstream politics since both sides suffered losses. The anti-IDpol “class first” social democrats who pinned their hopes on the Bernie Sanders campaign were disappointed with Bernie’s defeat in the Democratic primaries, and the centrists who made intersectionality a major part of their rhetoric have been forced to adjust to the fact that their president is an ancient white man who struggles to be politically correct by the standards of the 1980s, let alone the standards of liberalism in the 2010s. Many in the DSA are slow on the uptake, so we still see some forms of the debate between identity opportunism and class reductionism (i.e. economism) in the internal debates of the DSA. 

The debate surrounding Bowman has brought out the most egregious examples of identity opportunism, with the preamble of the For Unity, not Unanimity petition against expelling Bowman from the DSA claiming that:

“Most calls for expulsion have come without any discussion or even acknowledgment of any path that could lead to reconciliation or to healing the harm caused by Bowman’s actions. As members of an abolitionist organization, we find this troubling. Holding someone accountable in this organization should not mean writing them off forever”  (6)

To begin, no one was talking about removing Bowman without offering him “reconciliation or healing”. If Bowman were to acknowledge that what he’s done on the issue was wrong and publicly endorse BDS most of the people involved in the efforts to remove him from the DSA would probably have backed down. It’s possible that Bowman could do that. He seems to understand on some level that his vote and trip to Israel look bad since he met up with the DSA National Political Committee to discuss it. That said, it is not likely he will have a genuine change of heart any time soon, as during said meeting he repeated the same dismissive sentiments that he’s already put out in all his interviews. 

Second, to compare a democratically run non-governmental political organization holding a politician accountable for things that he has done to the kind of systemic racism that Black men all across the country face within the American prison industrial complex is insulting. Bowman is not facing a prison sentence. He’s not so poor as to be incapable of defending himself from the accusations being leveled at him, and if the DSA does expel him the only thing he would lose is the free labor that he gets from organizers within the DSA and the ability to say that he’s a member. This comparison only works if one ignores almost every detail of the situation other than Bowman’s race. Are the Palestinian people not oppressed enough to be seen as people of color by Bowman’s apologists, living in the Global South under an apartheid regime where they are systematically discriminated against and murdered? Perhaps if Abu Sara was an NGO activist hack with a promising political career in the Democratic Party his death would have mattered. 

The people who were defending Bowman the hardest come from the same sort of background as him, and perhaps see their work in the DSA as merely a stepping stone for a career in the Democratic Party-activist-NGO complex. Their identities are just something to be listed off in their resumes, eventually to be tokenized by the political machinery of the Party and weaponized when threatened with legitimate criticism of their opportunism. Of course, this identity opportunism is beyond hollow at this point. The Democratic Party has repeatedly demonstrated that not only does it not care about Palestinians but also every other oppressed group that they take advantage of. An example of this is the fact that Biden was a vocal supporter of the controversial anti-crime bill of 1994 which lead to a spike in the mass incarceration of poor POC populations and has continued his “Tough on Crime” legacy with a new crime bill despite the demands for dealing with the systematic discrimination that police engage in (7). Black lives don’t seem to matter when the crime statistics conveniently worsen after the months of anti-police protests, statistics that are still seen as 100% trustworthy given the police’s track record when it comes to honesty (8). 

If anything, Bowman being a Black man makes his callous dismissal of Palestinian liberation far worse, because both the Palestinian people and the Black population of the United States are engaged in a struggle against colonialism. The Black population exists within an internal colony due to the purposeful underdevelopment of their communities, and the police that patrol through their neighborhoods exist as an occupying force in the same way that the Israeli security forces do in Palestine. Black radicals have often recognized the connection between their liberation and the liberation of Palestine. In 1970 the Black Panthers released an official statement stating:

“We support the Palestinian’s just struggle for liberation one hundred percent.  We will go on doing this, and we would like for all of the progressive people of the world to join in our ranks to make a world in which all people can live.” (9)

The Palestinian national liberation movement has also tried to build on this relationship between their struggle and the Black liberation movement in the U.S. Ahmed Shukeiri, the first Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization had this to say about the relationship between Zionism and colonialism:  

“The modern 20th-century weapon of neo-imperialism is ‘dollars,’ he wrote: ‘The Zionists have mastered the science of dollars….  The ever-scheming European imperialists wisely placed Israel where she could geographically divide the Arab world, infiltrate and sow the seed of dissension among African leaders and also divide the Africans against the Asians.’” (10

Israel also understood the relationship between the colonial oppression of Black populations and its own regime. While often publicly opposing Apartheid South Africa, Isreal sold weapons to the South African government, courted economic relations during the international boycott, and helped train South African security forces. What Bowman is doing is denying this relationship between internal colonialism of America and the colonial regimes America supports abroad (i.e. Israel). In doing so, he defends not only the settler-colonialism of Israel but by extension the oppression of his own people, defending a white supremacist state that keeps Black people under its thumb globally while feeding his base the slop of pork chop nationalism with his references to “political hip-hop” and superficial signaling toward the Black liberal political class. (12) 

What happened in the DSA around Bowman was not a fight between class-reductionist social democrats and liberals deploying identity politics, but a real struggle between pro-Zionist Democrats and genuine anti-imperialist socialists who understand the connection between national liberation struggles. 

Democracy is a kind of linguistic obsession for the DSA, as everything from the name of the organization to the little pins they hand out at college campuses must be stamped with the word. But few in the organization seem to understand what democracy means. This is the only explanation for how Bowman’s apologists can claim that a petition, a document which attempts to show that the majority or at least a large number of people support/oppose something, violated the “democratic norms” of the DSA. Here “democratic norms” seems to mean that an organization cannot change its mind on what was voted on at the last convention, where the DSA rejected the idea of disciplining their candidates/elected officials that went against the platform. For many this was justified with the argument expecting members of DSA to adhere to the platform of the organization that they willingly joined is democratic centralism, and that democratic centralism is Leninism which is basically Stalinism! This might seem like a strawman argument but the worst of Bowman’s fans are beyond parody. Take for example the folks of DSA’s North Star Caucus, who in their little victory lap of a blog post congratulated the National Political Committee’s cowardly decision to not expel Bowman. They speak of DSA’s commitment to pluralism, dismiss the idea that there should be any kind of accountability for DSA members, and even indulge Cold War hawkish bullshit about Leninism. Given the way these people dogmatically repeat the Harringtonite line on Leninism, one would think that Michael Harrington’s corpse is lying in a glass casket in Moscow.

What makes this rhetoric so ironic is that Democratic Socialists like Michael Harrington have been some of the most aggressive enemies of socialist democracy on the American Left. Going back to Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party of America, Michael Harrington was a member of the party’s youth wing and joined the party as a committed follower of Max Schatman. Norman Thomas participated in the American Friends of Vietnam, a CIA front group created to spread propaganda for the US-sponsored South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. The American Friends of Vietnam was a part of a much larger effort to lobby the Eisenhower administration to back Diem and send troops. Norman would participate in another anti-communist organization, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an international grouping of artists and writers whose purpose was to wage a global culture war for America against the aesthetics of “totalitarianism”. In a 1966 New York Times article it was revealed that the ACFC, among many others, had been receiving CIA funding for years and that Norman Thomas had been the one who arranged this deal through his friend CIA Chief Allen Dulles. 

Then there’s Michael Harrington’s mentor, Max Shachtman. Shachtman and his left over followers started as heterodox Trotskyists who broke with the Fourth International over Trotsky’s critical support of the USSR. Shachtman put forward a Third Camp position opposing the USSR and American imperialism and joining the Socialist Party of America. However Shachtman’s closeness to the vicious anti-communist head of AFL-CIO George Meany and his attempts at working within the democratic forces Shachtman to take up increasingly reactionary positions such as supporting purging Communist Party-linked unions from the CIO. Eventually, Shachtman’s politics devolved into a kind of vicious anti-communism that blindly supported everything the U.S. did in the name of containing the USSR, including the efforts to resort to the Batista dictatorship in Cuba along with sending troops to Vietnam. Shachtman would become one of the original neo-conservatives.  

Michael Harrington himself did not break with Shachtman, as his politics became increasingly right-wing through the 60’s (although he seemed to disagree with Shachtman on a personal level). Michael Harrington had become close to Democratic Party operatives and union bureaucrats through Shactman’s entryism, getting a position within the Johnson administration. Michael Harrington was never fully for the Vietnam War but his initial reservations about the war were half-hearted at best. In public interviews, he referred to the war as a “tragedy” but also denounced the protests against the war for being too pro-Viet Cong and communist. However, Michael Harrington was forced to take a stronger stance on the Vietnam war by his peers in the Socialist League, with Hal Draper and Julius Jacobson breaking with him publicly over the war and the Socialist Party of America turning on Shachtman for his hawkish support of the war. Along with this, there was growing opposition to the war within the Democratic Party that was forming without Michael Harrington, allowing him to jump ship. (13) 

The North Star Caucus DSA proudly follows in the anti-democratic tradition of “Democratic Socialism” that their ideological forefathers created with their uncritical support for Bowman. They loudly expressed their commitment to “pluralism” while backing the national provisional committee at the DSA as it puts a gag order on BDS activists within the organization and redbaits their ideological opponents out of the DSA. They support the superficial Democratic politics of Bowman while he aids the apartheid regime of Israel. What the words “democracy” and “pluralism” mean to them is not the will of the majority but anti-communism, blind loyalty to the Democratic Party and the American Empire.

We are told a lot of things about the DSA. The DSA is a big tent organization that values the diversity of tactics and opinions on the Left. It’s democratic because its National Political Committee is elected by the membership and local branches send representatives to vote/debate issues at the national conference. It’s the largest socialist organization in the US.. because its membership is over 90,000 strong and that number keeps growing as the pandemic gets worse. (14) In May of 2021, the DSA released an official statement condemning the Israel apartheid regime on paper. The DSA is an anti-Zionist organization and some members genuinely believe in the liberation of Palestine. (15)

What does pluralism in the DSA mean when members of the National Political Committee of DSA are using their power to shut down debates? What value do the formal bureaucratic mechanisms of democracy have when so many within the organization try to use this machinery to crush grassroots activism? What kind of socialist organization would waste its time and energy slobbering on the toes of a capitalist party? How could we, as members of an organization that has openly condemned Israel’s regime, allow a member who voted to give $3 billion in military aid to the state of Israel? Is the hypocrisy not disgusting enough? 

People are fighting and dying for their freedom right now, women and children are being murdered by the Israeli forces. The people of Palestine are being ethnically cleansed from their homeland. Does this all mean nothing to DSA’s Bowman fan club? How does a low-level DSA member, an ostensibly anti-Zionist socialist living in the nation that is dumping billions of dollars into Israel’s defense, justify themselves to the freedom fighters of Palestine given Bowman’s actions? What the situation with Bowman and the history of the democratic Left shows us is that if the DSA does not become independent of the Democratic Party, then it will not be able to uphold any of its values. 

The NPC may have tried to bury the issues that came out of the Bowman affair, but our bodies are restless. No force on earth is greater than the willpower of the masses, and our collective striving toward freedom can not be halted, not by death itself.

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