On (not) expelling Jamaal Bowman: The conclusion of the Bowman Crisis in DSA

Following weeks of public calls for censure and expulsion, the crisis in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) over the actions of DSA member and congressional representative Jamaal Bowman has come to a close. Bowman will not be expelled.

Beginning with the Madison, Wisconsin chapter on October 30, 28 DSA chapters and 11 Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapters issued open letters or signed onto statements calling for disciplinary action on Bowman. These cited his votes enabling $4 billion in direct military aid to the state of Israel, repeated attacks on boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) tactics and the Palestinian solidarity movement, and a propaganda tour to Israel with liberal Zionist organization J-Street.

As momentum built, DSA’s BDS and Palestine Working Group (BDSWG) issued their first statement on November 17, 2021 demanding that DSA’s leadership, the National Political Committee (NPC), expel Bowman unless he agreed to three demands (honor BDS; vote against any legislation that would harm Palestine; and observe the travel boycott). BDSWG had been speaking with Bowman for months following his vote for the Iron Dome missile defense system, trying to move him on his positions on Israel to no avail. On November 18, opponents of disciplining Bowman issued their own statement (“For Unity, Not Unanimity”). No chapters voted to endorse the For Unity statement, though it did include high profile elected officials, such as Jabari Brisport and Julia Salazar, amidst its supporters.

The NPC and BDSWG met with Bowman on November 19, who, according to The Nation, refused to accept the demands but pledged some desire to continue working for a resolution. However, on November 29 (International Day of Palestinian Solidarity), Bowman went through with his scheduled J-Street town hall, prompting a second statement from BDSWG demanding expulsion. The NPC reportedly held a private meeting with Bowman and announced a statement would be made on December 2.

In the lead-up to the NPC statement, Jacobin magazine published an editorial against expulsion and refused to publish a response. Soon after, Electronic Intifada notes,

several Palestinians and Arab Americans stepped in to shield the New York Democrat from growing grassroots anger over his support for Israel…They included James Zogby, longtime Democratic Party stalwart and president of the Arab American Institute, and his former deputy Omar Baddar…Waleed Shahid, a senior Democratic Party strategist, touted Zaknoen DeReus [director of the Institute for Middle East Understanding]’s intervention as a reason to oppose the expulsion of Bowman from DSA.

On December 2, BDS National Committee appeared to adjust their position, moving from describing BDS as a picket line not to be crossed to a “context specific” tactic, just in time to be cited in the statement delivered that day by the NPC, declaring that they had “decided not to expel Bowman.” The NPC used the interventions as justification of a “both sides” narrative to ultimately reject expulsion.

On Not Expelling Bowman

It should be clear that the Palestinian solidarity movement was largely in favor of the calls for expulsion. The organization BDS Boston (not affiliated to DSA) wrote a public letter to Boston DSA warning them that language in the For Unity document that many in Boston DSA had signed “mirrors Zionist talking points which aim to drive a wedge between the demands of the Palestinian people (for BDS) and organizers internationally who want to act in solidarity.” Organizations such as the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), Falastiniyat, National Students for Justice in Palestine, Jews for Right of Palestinian Return, Palestinian Youth Movement, and Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network all signed BDSWG’s letter calling for expulsion.

The NPC gives no indication of this. Their statement, “On the Question of Expelling Congressman Bowman”, buries the lede that they are not expelling Bowman beneath 500 words that state that Bowman’s actions are inexcusable, immediately followed by excuses that negate the sentiment. The statement continues in evasive Human Resources-parlance, without recognition of the groundswell of chapters discussing, voting, and calling for discipline, nor the weight of the movement behind separating Bowman’s membership in DSA. There is no mention of the months of conversation between BDSWG and Bowman nor that their decision to call for expulsion was the result of no movement on his part, and in fact further provocation from Bowman.

Writer and Palestinian Solidarity Activist Steven Salaita has been a vocal critic of DSA’s handling of the Bowman affair.

The NPC did not direct chapters to discuss the question and report votes, nor did they issue a poll on the question (as they have the power to do in the existing bylaws). The discussion was considered off the table, and the statement is instruction that the question for them is now closed. While an unprecedented movement of chapters calling for action suggested a growing consensus, we cannot in fact know what the majority position was among members, because there was no interest in finding out. The NPC’s vote is not shared, though HuffPost reported that “none [of the NPC] voted against the statement that the body ultimately issued”, and no dissenting position is expressed.

To explain their decision, the NPC stated, “we have seen considerable movement from Representative Bowman”. There is no explanation of what this movement was, and the claim is dubious considering Bowman ignored BDSWG’s explicit request that he forgo participation in the J Street Town Hall just days before. The statement promises the formation of a committee to deal with accountability for elected officials as standard HR disarmament. Though the NPC “strongly condemn[ed]” Bowman’s actions, he remains a member. The work of the statement is in trying to mitigate the conflict and deliver the news that it’s going to be status quo without incurring too much pushback.

The forces at play

Within DSA, Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus (Afrosoc), DSA Muslim caucus, and of course BDSWG all supported expulsion. Following their first statement, BDSWG became a kind of alternate political center, broadcasting updates and sharing chapter statements as they came out. The NPC acknowledged the call for expulsion on November 16 but did not give any political guidance or public comment until the time of their statement two weeks later, on December 2. BDSWG, by merit of their position, had legitimacy to speak on the issue and were invited to participate in the meeting with Bowman, but they were public about their positions and thus filled the vacuum.

Political formations Tempest, Marxist Unity Group, and Libertarian Socialist Caucus were the groups in support of discipline. Socialist Majority Caucus (SMC) and North Star formed the main opposition to discipline, having authored and circulated the For Unity letter. Emerge and Red Star took no position, nor did Reform & Revolution. The former members of the Collective Power Network (CPN) were split, with one section supporting expulsion and another firmly against. Bread & Roses, too, was split, with members signing the For Unity statement and their website publishing two opposing views of the situation.

In recent years the Palestine Solidarity movement has grown rapidly. This summer witnessed large protests against the siege of Sheikh Jarrah all over the world. Photo by Tim Dennell.

These groups fell where they did because the underlying tension in this situation was regarding DSA’s electoralist orientation. Not to be confused with elections as a tactic, electoralism is a commitment to elections as the force that will make change, where proximity to elected officials is used as the measure of “power.” The Bowman affair is not the first time there have been tensions around electoralism, and it won’t be the last. What made this especially sharp is that 1) Bowman’s offenses were clear and repeated; 2) there was no excuse as there had been for AOC in voting for a package deal — Bowman voted on these as standalone items; 3) it was over Palestine, which is not only a central anti-imperialist struggle, but important in the political shift of “new DSA” in 2017.

The issues were never in question: Bowman’s actions are clear, and many Palestinian/BDS movement groups made strong statements for separation of membership. The opposition to discipline was entirely about the premium placed on elected officials, and so opponents tried to shift away from the politics into the domain of “membership norms”, obscuring the situation and flattening out the role politicians play.

The former CPN people and others were politically divided because they had just argued vociferously for a position they represented as an anti-imperialist orientation for DSA at the convention in August, while also being committed electoralists. Bread & Roses also styled themselves as internationalists, though they’ve embraced electoralism to such an extent that B&R members were instrumental in defeating the caucus’s own “dirty break” policy at this year’s convention. In holding a contradictory position that claims to be internationalist while having a primarily electoralist perspective, the crisis split loyalties and saw fighters on both sides of the expulsion question from these groups. This helps understand how Hadas Thier could be an ardent defender of Palestine in Jacobin this summer, and then shift entirely to defending Bowman four months later. When push comes to shove, the “relationship with the electeds” is just more important.

SMC and North Star have neither principles nor any misgivings about electoralism’s insistence that it comes first. They were able to anchor the DSA right’s opposition to expulsion through the For Unity letter, pulling along the B&R right and others. Their strategy was to accumulate the names of well-known figures in DSA, elected officials, and organizational leaders as signatories, while simultaneously attempting to undermine the chapters who made calls for expulsion by naming out opponents to their chapters’ decisions. As noted above, no chapters endorsed their statement, but that was never the point. The message was clear, however, that these figures with clout were putting their fingers on the scale and elected officials were declaring that they did not want any expectations of them either.

Tempest, LSC, and Marxist Unity were the organized groups on the side for discipline, engaging in the debates, chronicling the chapter calls for expulsion, and participating as members in chapter discussions where they existed. The inverse of the SMC-bloc, these groups were not invested in electoralism and could dive in collectively. The activity in DSA pushing for discipline was far beyond the reach of any of these groups and was largely unexpected — no group can claim that they “made this happen”.

Results

Where does this leave us? In the immediate aftermath, the decision not to expel Bowman has tarnished DSA’s reputation as a principled ally of the Palestinian struggle. Undoubtedly, Bowman’s Green New Deal in Schools legislation that DSA is prioritizing played a significant role in the leadership’s calculations.

In the moment of truth, the NPC decided it to place the needs of a politician above the organization’s principles–in this case saying that you cannot continue to be a member if you actively vote for $4 billion for ethnic cleansing, participate in a propaganda tour, then, while there’s outrage in your socialist organization, go do a town hall with the very same Zionist PR firm. Words have no meaning if this is what “unwavering support” for the Palestinian solidarity movement looks like.

The NPC’s statement is as much an assurance to other “DSA electeds” as it is a message to the membership. The irony is that this will permanently relegate DSA to the position of junior partner in the eyes of these politicians — there is no reason to take any demand from DSA seriously if you can depend on the organization’s support as you flagrantly violate its positions.

In the process, there’s a shift in what it means to be a member. Bowman can be “in DSA” despite actively working against DSA’s stated values because he is a star member. Any public official, trade union leader, or high-profile commentator in DSA’s orbit have a different set of standards applied to them because of the perceived benefit they have for the organization. It is OK for Bowman to vote for arming an apartheid state, or for AOC to increase border militarization, because they are important. When criticism is levied, that same understanding of their unequal weight is not applied, and they’re simply “members”. (Bowman of course never addressed his fellow DSA members throughout the crisis — he worked through private meetings with leaders and depended on them to handle the situation on his behalf.)

For all the discussion of people being against expulsion as a political “purge”, many of these same people who cried bloody murder over the notion of removing Bowman from DSA demanded that Socialist Alternative members be expelled from DSA. It’s not a categorical rejection of expulsions (DSA expels people all the time), but the parameters of who is a valuable member is slanted towards “important people” and away from those deemed too far left.

The NPC has spoken and they will not expel Bowman. There is no other mechanism to force this issue. But let’s be real: the only reason there was discussion and debate is because it was forced by a wide layer of members who said this is too far. That is an important development in the life of DSA. We can register our dissent on the NPC’s decision and point out the democratic issues, but this episode is now over. Rather than continuing to litigate expulsion, we should not lose focus on what matters here: Palestine. Let this be an opportunity to fuel solidarity and BDS, and to focus that effort on the state.

This article originally appeared at Tempest.

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Socialist and labor activist in Wisconsin.

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Andrew Sernatinger

Andrew Sernatinger

Socialist and labor activist in Wisconsin.

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