Let Us Now Praise the Radical Women of New York

It has been six weeks since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in the Democratic Primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ever since, the nation’s thinkpiece writers have been working overtime, spilling untold barrels of ink in the pursuit of explicating, denigrating, or emblematizing her. Just this week, a piece at CNN seemed to lay blame at her feet alone for the failure of several progressive candidates in Tuesday’s special and legislative elections. The extraordinary focus on a neophyte nominee is in part due to the unusual circumstance of an incumbent being dislodged at all in America’s top-heavy system, much less by a very young woman of color. But critics keep returning to just one way in which Ocasio-Cortez has distinguished herself from the multitude of Democratic candidates this cycle: She identifies as a socialist. 

The word has been tossed around for decades as a slur against even the most bloodless, corporate Democrat; it was used so liberally on Fox News in the Obama years as to render the term totally hollow. Seizing the chance to fill this vacuum of meaning, Ocasio-Cortez — along with Cynthia Nixon, candidate for New York’s governorship; Julia Salazar, a candidate for New York State Senate; and the man who popularized the term with his 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders — has reclaimed the label, affixing it to a slate of policies that make eminent sense to many Americans: socialized medicine, free college tuition, an end to cash bail.

Throughout her still-brief political career, Ocasio-Cortez has been dogged by a slate of tsk-ing pundits muttering about her policies being too far to the left — and potentially a liability for the entire Democratic party in the crucial November elections. But those who seek to paint a young woman drawing on the legacy of FDR’s social policies as a wild and dangerous radical ought to look just a bit further back. In all the multitudinous pieces seeking to understand the phenomenon of her candidacy, few have looked at the history of the city Ocasio-Cortez is from. New York has a long history of radical women who have stood at the helm of social movements, often in times of great social ferment. Is it such a surprise that again, on these steaming streets, in the second decade of a young century, women tired of a grift-raddled and regressive status quo have chosen again to take up the banner of progress?

A century ago, New York City was the primary residence of “the most dangerous woman in America”: a firebrand who preached a line far more volatile than free college. Behind her tiny wire-rimmed spectacles, her seething mind drew hordes into the streets. Down on the Lower East Side, at the turn of the last century, a woman came to this country and made an indelible mark on it. Her name was Emma Goldman, and exactly one hundred years ago, she was in prison for preaching anarchy in the streets of New York.

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In 1885, at the age of sixteen, Emma Goldman stepped off a boat in New York Harbor, fleeing a father in St. Petersburg who had told her she had little more to learn than how to make gefilte fish.

She departed the city not long after, for Rochester, where she worked in a factory; but after the Haymarket riots and the subsequent execution of four anarchists, she fled the factory and her then-husband and returned to the city. There, in a tenement house, she fell in love; defended gay rights; published the radical magazine Mother Earth; and advocated for every woman’s right “to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases.”

She possibly inspired the mad Leon Czolgosz to assassinate President William McKinley. She certainly did plot with her lover Alexander Berkman to shoot and wound Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick during a spate of brutally repressed steel strikes.

She stumped so proudly against the First World War that a young J. Edgar Hoover had her deported to the Soviet Union. There she confronted Lenin about his censorship of the press; she left the Soviet Union brokenhearted, and traveled about the world for the rest of her life, never finding a settling-place. She returned just once to New York, in 1934, on a speaking tour. On the umber brick of the narrow building on East 13th Street where she once lived hangs a placard lauding her as an “anarchist and orator.” New York, after all, was the city in which she stood before a jury at her trial and said: “The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside of the law.”  

In the century since Goldman’s deportation, New York — with its welter of cultures, its bright slashes of art amid gray avenues, its ability to encompass great wealth and abject poverty — has played host to innumerable radical women. Anita Block, editor of the women’s page of the socialist New York Call, was the first editor in America to print Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of birth control, in 1911. Block was a theater critic at a time when, her instructors said, “no nice girl would dream of reading Ibsen.” It was Theresa Malkiel’s chronicle of her experience working in textile sweatshops, 1910’s Diary of a Shirtwaist Maker, that helped fuel public support for workplace reforms; she later became the first female factory worker to ascend to leadership in the U.S. Socialist Party, where she bristled at the sexist myopia of male socialists. After fleeing the Holocaust, the Yiddish socialist poet Sophia Dubnow-Ehrlich made her name in the United States as an aggressive agitator against the Vietnam War.

In 2018, amazingly, there are still female firsts to be had. The recently elected socialist Rashida Tlaib may be the first Muslim woman in Congress. Sharice Davids, squaring off against Kansas’ Kevin Yoder in the fall, may be the first Native American woman in the national legislature — a lesbian, former MMA fighter, and radical departure from the Kansas norm by any measure, if not a socialist. But a trailblazer that preceded them by decades was born and bred in Brooklyn — the remarkable, indomitable Shirley Chisholm.

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Chisholm, whose parents were immigrants from the Caribbean, began her career as an early-childhood educator, then ran — and won — as the second-ever African American elected to the New York State legislature.  She was the first black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, while the country was convulsed with heated protest against racism. Conducting her primary against a male state senator, William Thompson, Chisholm made inroads not just in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a majority-black neighborhood deeply desirous of a black representative. Thanks to a recent redrawing of the Congressional district, she had to conquer the hearts and minds of the white and Puerto Rican residents of Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Her slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” signaled her independence from the formidable — and sclerotic — Brooklyn political machine. She conducted swathes of her Bushwick campaign in Spanish, distinguishing herself from predecessors, who hadn’t bothered.   

In the end, it was that grassroots organizing — and the support of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s black women — that allowed her to triumph over Thompson and make history. “She can pick up the phone and call 200 women and they’ll be here in an hour,” her husband, Conrad Chisholm, said of her electoral army.

“I went out on the trucks, told the people we could all be liberated from the machine,” Chisholm said, describing her hard-fought primary campaign. She went on to serve seven terms in office.

Half a century later, Ocasio-Cortez faced a similar circumstance: a long-shot campaign against an establishmentarian with an iron-clad lock on the local Democratic Party and a full-throated endorsement from the Democratic machine. Crowley declined to debate her, instead racking up reams of endorsements from some two dozen labor unions and women’s organizations.

After her stunning upset, Ocasio-Cortez told off critics who dismissed the painstaking electoral effort she had mounted. “Some folks are saying I won for ‘demographic’ reasons,” she tweeted, affixing photos of a pair of ruined sneakers. “Here’s my first pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles. Respect the hustle.”

For New Yorkers, living in a city of corruption and patronage, idealism and protest, activism and regression, hustle might just be the only thing we all respect. One hundred years ago, Emma Goldman hustled across states and counties and cities across America to spread her message of labor and love; Shirley Chisholm hit the pavement to sell herself as the pioneer she was. Ocasio-Cortez, despite the sweeping scale of her platform, draws from a rich and variegated history of women who dared to dream big in this city — and who walked the long rough walk, in brogues and heels and sneakers and boots, on streets and avenues, in every borough — to make it work.


How Julia Salazar Is Trying to Become the Next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

On a recent sticky Saturday afternoon in Williamsburg, a group of volunteer canvassers for Democratic state senate challenger Julia Salazar discussed door-knocking strategy. With all the publicity around the June congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — like Salazar, a young avowed Democratic Socialist — would it be prudent to warm up potential voters with an anecdote about Ocasio-Cortez’s establishment-quaking defeat of Queens machine incumbent Joe Crowley?

“If you see a New York Times, yeah, go for it,” advised canvass organizer Wess Higgins. “Yesterday I was at this loft in East Williamsburg. I saw a Times and some guitars on the wall. I mentioned her and the couple was like, ‘Oh, you mean AOC?’ and then they invited me in for pineapple juice.”

Salazar’s team understands the significance of the Ocasio-Cortez signal boost. Both candidates are working-class women in working-class districts eschewing corporate donations and demanding Medicare for All and the abolition of ICE. Martin Malavé Dilan, the incumbent in Salazar’s race for the 18th District state senate seat, is, like Crowley, seen as a machine relic, for his longtime alliance with the late Brooklyn political boss Vito Lopez. Both women consider themselves community organizers first and foremost, and have pledged deference to their voters. (During a primary debate, Ocasio-Cortez refused to commit to endorsing Crowley in the general election, saying, “I would be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote.”) Ocasio-Cortez joined the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America when seeking their endorsement; though the Daily News recently found that 27-year-old Salazar was a registered Republican in her teens, she has been rank-and-file DSA for two years, focusing on police reform.

Julia Salazar at a fundraiser in Boerum Hill on July 17. The state senate candidate has brought in more than double the donations of incumbent Martin Malavé Dilan so far.

Before Ocasio-Cortez’s win, none of this was the stuff of national headlines. When Salazar endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in June, her field manager Isabel Anreus recalls, it was inside a mostly empty quinceañera hall in the Bronx, before a crowd of “only about a dozen folks.” In the week after Crowley’s loss, though, Salazar received more than $15,000 in individual donations, boosting her war chest by a third in a single week. According to Higgins, the canvass organizer, “A typical Saturday before the AOC victory I’d have about five or six people [canvassing]. Then the Saturday after her victory we had fifty people. It was mostly people who felt like they had missed their shot.”

Anreus says she’s sent out more than 2,000 volunteers, 500 of whom have picked up multiple canvassing shifts. She coaches each volunteer to secure three “yes” votes — if they’re successful, that would be more than the number of votes Dilan collected last election, the second of his two narrow primary victories over Debbie Medina, another socialist and community activist.

“There are these media moments and narratives about who has momentum,” says Michael Kinnucan, Salazar’s deputy campaign manager. “But if you’re running a campaign, there’s nothing but talking to voters. Everything is around talking to voters. You get some more donations? That’s great. You can pour it into talking to more voters.”


Shortly after her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez broke down her strategy on the Jacobin magazine podcast The Dig. Early on, she explained, she met with small groups of potential supporters at their apartments.

“I would take the train to that person’s living room, and I would talk to people ten at a time for eight months,” she said. Many of these people eventually became committed volunteers for her campaign. While Crowley shelled out for expensive mailers and television spots, Ocasio-Cortez focused on door-knocking and social media, with its cheaper, more precise viewership metrics.

A dozen of Ocasio-Cortez’s paid canvassers, all Latina college students, came directly over to Salazar’s team after the congressional primary win in June. (A 2012 lawsuit compelled New York to move its federal primary to June; New York’s Republican-led senate blocked efforts to move the state primary into alignment.) “I heard about [Ocasio-Cortez] from my college friend and thought her ideas were good for the district,” explained 21-year-old Rael. “It really did inspire me to join Salazar’s campaign.”

Over a few shifts in July, Salazar canvassers swapped strategies for how to get into large apartment buildings: ring multiple buzzers until someone responds, or hang around outside until someone opens the door and then slip through. Once inside, use a trilly, musical knock, “so you don’t sound like a cop”; when someone comes to the door, ask them what issues matter most to them, and listen. Never cross your arms. Spanish speakers should buddy up with non-Spanish speakers.

Salazar is also following the Ocasio-Cortez playbook when it comes to fundraising, refusing to accept corporate donations. Her goal is $150,000, $118,415.43 of which had been raised by mid-July. Kinnucan recently wrote about Ocasio-Cortez’s victory for Jacobin, extolling how much a campaign can do with “your first $100,000.”

“You need things like campaign lit, and a couple of staff organizers who can make sure that the volunteers are trained and know where to go,” Kinnucan tells the Voice. “So the first $100,000 is absolutely essential, and the second $100,000 is really, really helpful.”

Small, informal house parties have been a major source of funding for Salazar. She attends, gives a brief stump speech, and answers questions. The campaign doesn’t have to pay to rent out a venue. A recent house party in Boerum Hill drew dozens of young New Yorkers in their twenties and thirties, only one of whom lives in the 18th District, which includes parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Cypress Hills. The event brought in at least $2,500, according to hosts Matt Karp and Katherine Hill, who met Salazar through DSA.

Karp and Hill said their friends are excited about Salazar as just one of several progressive senate challengers, many of whom are hoping to unseat centrist Democrats who for years caucused with Republicans as part of the recently dissolved Independent Democratic Conference. “I know she’s keen on representing north Brooklyn, but the fact is she’s going to be involved in a chamber that does a lot of statewide stuff,” Karp told the Voice. “I feel very invested in the race.”

Standing by the fruit and cheese platters, Salazar assured the Boerum Hill crowd that “I am very proud to be part of this blue wave of challengers to senators who have betrayed their constituents.”

Introverted by nature, she drew laughs from the guests excited to support an outsider candidate. When friends urged Salazar to run earlier this year, she recalled wryly, “I said no. Hard no. Hard no. But I was sold on the race. We need a community leader who can finally bring the voices of Brooklynites to Albany.”


The Salazar campaign’s door-knocking is currently focused on Bushwick, where the candidate lives, and Williamsburg. Canvassing in Cypress Hills, which has a higher concentration of likely Dilan voters, will ramp up in the early fall. “Our goal is by first week of September we’re talking to pro-Dilan people, and people who don’t know about socialism,” says Anreus.

Salazar’s team has identified roughly 800 DSA members who live in, or directly adjacent to, the district. But canvassers are not coached to talk about socialism explicitly. In Williamsburg last month, lead canvasser Julian Graham, a DSA member, offered a possible talking point. “She’s the only one not taking money from corporations or landlords,” he said. “She’s fighting for affordable housing.” He then ticked off campaign priorities: “We all need access to healthcare. We all need stronger rent laws. We all want to end these insane and evil policies like cash bail.”

Especially in neighborhoods ravaged by gentrification, there seems to be real interest in Salazar’s affordable housing platform, which calls for lease renewal guarantees for all tenants and statewide controls on how much landlords can increase rents. “Whether people want to use the ‘s’ word or not,” Kinnucan tells the Voice, “there seems to be a real movement for decommodifying housing.”

Dilan has in recent years supported pro-tenant legislation, though Salazar often points out that he voted in favor of vacancy decontrol while on the City Council in 1994, helping secure a major tool for tenant displacement. “Every inch of this district is affected by the affordable housing crisis,” Salazar told me this spring. “Dilan has had a lot of time, over fifteen years, to correct his course.”

Graham Parker, a spokesperson for Dilan, tells the Voice that Salazar’s priorities are “identical” to his: “The senator has a clear record on his support for unions, women’s rights, and healthcare access.” And now that the IDC has dissolved, Parker says, Dilan is “looking forward to having a [senate Democratic] majority where he can start delivering on these progressive issues.”

DSA, Parker adds, is an organization with “a national message” swooping into Dilan’s district, and that Salazar’s identification as a Democratic Socialist is an opportunistic effort to capitalize on a trend: “It has to do more with an opportunity than a policy.”

Parker declined to discuss Dilan’s campaign strategy with the Voice, but on July 26 Dilan filed a lawsuit seeking to strike Salazar from the ballot on the grounds that she hasn’t lived in New York for five straight years as required, a move her campaign dismissed as “frivolous” and “aimed at political insiders and the press.” As of this writing, Dilan has raised just over half as much as Salazar in contributions.

Anreus, Salazar’s field manager and herself a DSA veteran, remembers attending a Young Democratic Socialists of America conference in 2010 and being the only Latina. At 28, she’s just a year older than Salazar. Last month she sounded proud, addressing a packed room of north Brooklyn DSA members. “This is about building a real socialist movement that continues after September 13,” Anreus said. “I’ve been a DSA member for a long time. Ten years. But this is the most exciting it’s been.”


Ocasio-Cortez’s Win Has Right Wing Raising a New Red Scare

A specter is haunting conservatism — the specter of democratic socialism!

For decades the Right has lazily tossed off pro-forma denunciations of socialism as inimical to our wonderful capitalist system. But after years of declining wage growth and benefits, things are changing: Polls show many people, especially younger ones, think capitalism isn’t working so well for them. And the June 26 victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the charismatic young democratic socialist who beat incumbent Joe Crowley to take the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat covering parts of Queens and the Bronx, makes socialism look like more of a winner.

Conservatives now find themselves having to make more of an effort to explain what’s so bad about bread and roses, and their rustiness is embarrassingly evident.

In last year’s state and local elections, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), to which Ocasio-Cortez belongs, saw fifteen of its members elected to local office. But Ocasio-Cortez is making a bigger splash than they did because she won a primary for a U.S. congressional seat in the nation’s biggest media market, and happens to be young, attractive, Latina, and eloquent.

This last impression conservatives labored mightily to dispute, with articles like “Socialist Ocasio-Cortez Can’t Differentiate Between Socialism, Democratic Socialism” at Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire — not only an inaccurate portrayal, but one based on the assumption that anyone not bred like an orc in a right-wing think tank would give a shit about such a difference.

In fact, Ocasio-Cortez has been very successful on TV — certainly more interesting than the grey grin-flashers Democrats normally nominate — and her Twitter posts are salty and fun. Conservatives haven’t been great at countering this. For example, when Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “If you think the GOP is terrified of my politics now, just wait until they find out about public libraries,” Shapiro’s Daily Wire published a rather unfortunate collection of what they considered to be snappy right-wing comebacks, including “Have you ever been to [a library]? It’s a haven for the homeless.”

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The Daily Wire also made several references to Venezuela, a legacy dis by conservatives who believe national bankruptcy is the only possible outcome of any socialist program (Scandinavia’s Nordic social democracies notwithstanding, they usually rush to explain, because their successes prove they’re not socialist) that erupted afresh with Ocasio-Cortez’s nomination.

“Here’s a one-word piece of advice for America’s growing socialist left: Venezuela,” snarled the New York Post. “The specter of Venezuela, and its 43,000 percent inflation rate, looms over any left-wing economic message,” intoned James P. Pinkerton at the American Conservative. “The Democrats Go Full Venezuela,” cried Roger L. Simon at PJ Media. “The Democrats’ New Evita Peron Needs to Spend 3 Months in Venezuela,” wrote a geographically confused John Zmirak at the Stream.

Even when they got off Venezuela, the brethren’s explanation of socialism, democratic or otherwise, did not improve. The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft forthrightly, or I should say forthwrongly, declared, “The Democrat Socialists of America support no borders, no profit, no prisons and no cash bail.” At the New American, Selwyn Duke wrote that socialism is “precisely what most people think communism is.… Why do you think the USSR stood for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?” He’s got us there — just like with National Socialism!

Conservatives didn’t do very well attacking Ocasio-Cortez on nonideological grounds, either. At WorldNetDaily, Star Parker dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s victory because her district is “50 percent Hispanic…and 67.8 percent report that they speak a language other than English at home…a district that is so-called majority minority,” and you know how those people are. Plus Ocasio-Cortez “traces her roots” to Puerto Rico, noted Parker, and Puerto Rico is an “economic basket case,” despite all those paper towels President Trump threw at it after it was destroyed by a hurricane.

The brethren also suggested Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t authentically from the Bronx because she grew up in a modest home in nearby Yorktown Heights, a hilarious assertion in the age of Man of the People Donald Trump. Ben Shapiro even suggested that she wasn’t authentically Latina; when Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about her day “grabbing an iced cafecito, [and] chopping it up with everyone” at her local bodega, Shapiro jeered, “Hillary once ate at a Chipotle.”

Of course, all this had much less to do with defeating Ocasio-Cortez, who has the general election more or less in the bag, than with tarnishing the Democrats in general. Though Ocasio-Cortez’s positions — including Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, and abolition of the paramilitary brownskin-expeller unit ICE — are way more peppery than those of most of the party’s moldy figs, some of whom have tried to throw cold water on her campaign, conservatives are hoping to convince fence-straddlers that the Democrats have turned into a bunch of commies come to take away their precious free market.

The Week‘s Damon Linker  for example, claimed “socialist politicians have enjoyed so little electoral success in this country…because there’s a widespread aversion to the big-government policies they tend to favor” — like Medicare for All, which has the support of a mere 59 percent of voters, not to mention those notorious vote-losers Social Security and Medicare.

At TownHallArthur Schaper visibly recoiled from Ocasio-Cortez’s platform — “she calls housing ‘a right,’ ” gasp! — and claimed “the left tends to cannibalize itself when the younger generation demands socialist outcomes at a faster rate,” citing as examples, I shit you not, the French and Russian Revolutions, plus Walter Mondale. Schaper declared that “the Trump Administration’s regulatory rollback and tax reforms have unleashed unprecedented wealth, prosperity, and opportunity,” which he predicted would lead, despite Trump’s lousy poll numbers, to “a 49-state victory.”

If the Democrats “actually believe a far-left push is the key to winning those mid-term elections,” sputtered Scott McKay at the American Spectator, then America is set (again, against all polling evidence) for a “red wave, rather than a blue one” in November.

Where triumphalism failed, terror was tried: Sopranos extra Jeanine Pirro declared to her Fox News audience that “the rise of socialism has never been more clear…an ongoing step-by-step agenda to change our country at its very core.… We are witnessing the evolution of a socialist coup,” setting America’s rest homes ablaze with patriotic fear and fervor.

At National Review, Heather Wilhelm acknowledged that millennials are more favorable toward socialism than previous generations, but explained that this was due to their lack of childbearing, as revealed in a New York Times/Morning Consult poll; she believed the youngs are “increasingly atomized and individualist” and this — not their shitty economic prospects — make them childless and lead them to seek “forced togetherness — found in the form of socialism.” She also mentioned “Venezuela, which is a terrible, tragic mess.”

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Things reached a nadir, as they often do these days, at the New York Times, where Bret Stephens bade Democrats eschew “Democratic socialism” or “social democracy” or whatever the kids are calling it these days because “Hugo Chávez was also a democratic socialist” — yes, he got Venezuela in there without using the word Venezuela; that’s how the pros do it, folks! — and suggested they instead “try some version of Bill Clinton (minus the grossness) for a change.”

Bill Clinton minus the grossness — wasn’t that Hillary Clinton? And speaking of “grossness,” who won that year? It sounds like Stephens, like a lot of the people inexplicably holding major media real estate, are just finding new ways to tell Democrats to give up.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party has been fielding some interesting candidates of its own: In an Illinois congressional race, for example, they’re running an honest-to-God Holocaust-denying Nazi, Arthur Jones, and his fellow GOP nominees have only slowly and gingerly denounced him — just as Republican Virginia senate nominee Corey Stewart only slowly distanced himself from Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin white nationalist running to replace Paul Ryan in the House. Longtime Texas libertarian-Republican congressman Ron Paul, once known for his racist newsletters, recently returned to form with an absurdly anti-Semitic, racist illustrated tweet about “Cultural Marxism” and the racial stereotypes who support it, and Washington State Republicans elected as a local precinct committee officer one James Allsup, a white nationalist who marched with the tiki-Nazis in Charlottesville. Then there’s John Fitzgerald, the Republican House candidate in California who thinks the Holocaust was a fraud

Democrats may well ask, if Ocasio-Cortez and other DSA endorsees mean their party is turning socialist, whether these candidates mean the Republican Party is turning something considerable worse.