Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Part of the Tompkins Democratic Socialists of America chapter's work has been with Ithaca's weekly Black Lives Matter protests — but protesting is not all the organization does.

November 3, 2020

During Polarizing Protests, Tompkins County DSA Symbolizes Left-Wing Opposition in Ithaca

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“We don’t prefer to live in a climate where we’re always acting defensively.”

This is the sentiment David Foote, the chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Socialists of America, expresses when the group finds itself counterprotesting right-wing rallies in Ithaca.

Instead of counterprotesting, Foote said the group would rather focus on its advocacy work — working with the Ithaca Tenants Union, looking to implement a Green New Deal in the city or even hosting a weekly socialist reading club to educate other residents and members.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Foote has been at the helm of the Tompkins County DSA. After moving to Washington, D.C. during the height of the Iraq War for college, Foote was surrounded by weekly protests and demonstrations.

These protests, coupled with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, only fueled Foote’s conviction that there needed to be grassroots change. Yet during these movements, Foote was only a bystander, unsure how to get involved.

“In 2016, I started to see the name of this organization pop up online, the Democratic Socialists of America,” Foote said. “So I started looking around and found that there was a chapter locally and started going to meetings.”

The Tompkins County DSA is a rather small organization — most of its advocacy work doesn’t make headlines in local newspapers. Currently, the organization boasts approximately 100 to 150 members and around 25 active members, according to Foote.

Despite existing in Ithaca for nearly 40 years, the recent spate of protests has catapulted this small, relatively quiet organization into the limelight, as the Tompkins County DSA became one of the leaders of the opposition to recent right-wing protests.

In the weeks preceding Election Day, polarization and protests have engulfed Ithaca. One of the first Back the Blue rallies ended in violence as protesters and counterprotesters engaged in flag-burning and physical altercations. The counterprotest to a Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) graffiti clean-up event resulted in nine arrests and the Ithaca Police Department deployed pepper spray on multiple protesters. 

City officials like IPD chief Dennis Nayor and Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 swiftly rebuked both sides for the resulting hostility of the protests, imploring the opposing sides to protest peacefully. 

Although counterprotesting isn’t the work the Tompkins County DSA envisioned itself doing, Aurora Rojer ’17, vice chair of the chapter, said she felt as if the group managed to ward off the right-wing protesters.

“I think that our organizing has really made them less comfortable protesting,” Rojer said. “I think that if we hadn’t been organizing counter-rallies then I think every protest that they would have would have been bigger and more people would come out.”

The chapter is also one of the oldest in the nation — it first existed as a local Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee chapter before the national group merged with the New American Movement to form the DSA in 1982. 

“We have some ability to provide the structure and coordination and volunteers to make sure that things stay focused and stay on a political message instead of devolving into personal shouting matches,” Foote said. “But this isn’t the work that we prefer to do and it’s certainly not the work that we focus all our attention on.”

Stephanie Heslop, a DSA organizer, said counterprotesting right-wing protests can feel like a daunting task.

“Personally, I really don’t like going to these kinds of rallies and confronting right-wingers because sometimes it feels very unsafe,” Heslop said.

Beyond the protests, one of the major local campaigns the Tompkins County DSA has worked on is tenants’ rights. The group’s housing committee has worked closely with the Ithaca Tenants Union to advocate for affordable housing in Ithaca through lobbying for a rent freeze, which passed the Common Council in the summer.

The group hopes to continue its work — regardless of the results of Election Day. So far, the Tompkins County DSA anticipates former Vice President Joe Biden will win the election: Nationally, multiple polls project Biden to be ahead of President Donald Trump. 

But if Trump wins, then the Tompkins County DSA will work with its national chapter to oppose his administration. If Biden wins, then the organization hopes it can push him more to the left on issues like enacting universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage and implementing progressive climate proposals like the Green New Deal.

And in the event Biden clinches 270 electoral votes, Foote said he hopes people don’t become complacent.

“We are worried about a mass demobilization — and a sigh of relief — if Biden wins and people feel like things are going to go back to normal,” Foote said. “I think we saw a sign in the protests when Trump was first elected that said, ‘If Hillary had won we’d be at brunch right now.’ Well that outlook is just unacceptable.”

But now on the eve of Election Day, the Tompkins County DSA is preparing itself for any outcome. Rojer said she was nervous about the election, expressing fears that there could be “civil unrest” over the results.

“DSA is prepared to mobilize a bunch of people to chant,” Rojer said. “We’re not prepared to fight as a war at all.”