Shining a Brake Light on Basebuilding

A diversity of tactics is most effective (and perhaps only effective) when each tactic/front has the capacity to aid the efforts and organizers of other tactics/fronts. It is good to march in the streets when fascists come to your city; it is better when the people who live on those streets come out of their houses not for the spectacle, but because they recognize you as comrades they can count on for safety and solidarity.

In 2017, New Orleans DSA began holding brake light clinics where volunteers would replace burned out brake light bulbs to minimize their communities’ exposure to the police. In theory, this prevents non-functioning brake lights from serving as pretense for police to assault, kidnap, or murder our neighbors. Repairing brake lights removes this pretense, providing a small measure of protection to our neighbors while also tangibly demonstrating the moral illegitimacy of the police.

The adoption of brake light clinics by DSA chapters throughout the country can be attributed in part to the tactical versatility of such an event. Typical canvassing models involve approaching strangers, ultimately interrupting their day. With the canvassing model, you will always have people who won’t answer or talk to you, even if they would benefit from what you’re canvassing for, because the promise of eventual change later is not worth the imposition.

Brake light clinics (and other mutual aid projects) present our neighbors the opportunity to approach us. For lack of a better term, it’s a “buy-in” — we are demonstrating an understanding of the struggles of our communities and willingness to remedy those material conditions without the expectation of recruitment.

This dynamic has, in my experience organizing the brake light clinic in Deep East Oakland, allowed for transformative interactions between DSA members and those who have experienced police violence but haven’t, as of yet, organized politically around it. These clinics can provide our neighbors with opportunities to provide substantive contributions to campaigns in the time it takes for a team of volunteers to replace their brake light. In this way,brake light clinics present our neighbors with the opportunity to exercise their voice and power within an organized effort in ways that might not have been available before.

Brake light clinics in themselves do not provide the mechanism to build the power necessary to abolish police. Yet this is what makes them so useful for our movement; they’re flexible, they’re easy to build on, and they create the connections we will need in the days to come.

A frequent critique of brake light clinics is that they are not useful in the construction of mass movements; helping the most vulnerable of our communities survive capitalism and white supremacy while we organize for revolution should be left to churches and charities. This analysis, I feel, is class reductionist, limited in imagination, and callous to those struggling under the weight of white supremacy.

In the spirit of providing a vision of brake light clinics that goes beyond “it’s something you can do if you don’t want to canvas,” I have, upon consulting with other local organizers working around prison abolition, come up with a small list of proposals for low resource-intensive means by which DSA-sponsored brake light clinics can augment other campaigns, internally and elsewhere, to build the mass power necessary for revolution.

Proposal: Escalate our resistance to the blight of police presence (and the municipal expenditure required to sustain it) by inviting visitors to share their experiences of police harassment/brutality (either on video, on a voice recording, or on paper) and asking them what they think the municipal funds which are largely wasted on police would be better spent on.

We cannot expect meaningful reforms in housing, transit, county welfare programs (which includes healthcare), or public sector union job equity while Bay Area police departments maintain their stranglehold on our municipal budgets. The money that goes towards sending police departments to war games or purchasing tactical vehicles comes at the cost of public programs.

When DSBay to Brakelights held its first clinic in Oakland, we received an abundance of testimony from our neighbors telling us about the brutality they’ve experienced from the police. The communities we serve with these clinics have the most experience in dealing with police aggression — as such, they have a particular insight on what their community has been deprived of and how we can better use the money that goes to fund the six-figure salaries of officers who pull over and harass Black and Brown drivers.

I propose we provide cameras, voice recorders, or a dedicated note taker to record testimony of the ways in which our neighbors have been harassed by police, how police interactions have impacted their lives, and hear their thoughts on where they would want to reallocate police funding.

We have already done this for those who support SB562; in doing so, we allowed people who would otherwise fall outside the scope of mainstream healthcare politics to express their self-determination. It is necessary that we do this for those who have experienced police violence and make available another channel for our neighbors to speak truth to power.

Proposal: Enhance the capacity of organizers within DSA and in other abolition projects (such as Project Open Oversight) to better redress police behavior by presenting visitors the names, pictures, and other identifying aspects of police in their municipality and asking them to identify which officers with whom they have had predatory interactions.

The police will abuse every mechanism by which we task them to monitor themselves; badges and nametags get removed before suppressing demonstrators, body cameras are turned off before murdering a Black person, time cards are kept in such disarray so as to prevent the efficacy of FOIA public record requests.

Accountability of the police will not exist within institutions. It will be realized by communities organizing. To that end, we need names, badge numbers, testimonies of their incidents, and the capacity to make concrete links between repeat offenders and their impact on our and our neighbors’ communities. This information can provide a pivotal lever with which escalate pressure on City and County agencies to defund and disown their police departments.

To that end, I propose we present visitors to the clinics printouts of the police in their jurisdiction — a carceral “lookbook,” if you will — and allow them to identify perpetrators of violence against them. This data would be forwarded to projects like Open Oversight, Berkeley Copwatch, and the Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy to allow them to develop detailed dossiers on these police officers, their violations, and how many public resources have been squandered on securing a career for society’s most uncontrollably violent.

Proposal: Increase our electoral capacity by inviting participants to register to vote and provide materials relating to upcoming ballot measures and State, County, and/or City legislative body meetings that impact issues around which we are currently organizing.

Electoral campaigns that don’t contain a component to enfranchise those who have been deprived of voting power (either because they aren’t yet registered or are disallowed by circumstances) ultimately end up replicating neoliberal ideas of “compassionate, educated” white voters speaking on behalf of poor people of color.

We don’t have to agree on the efficacy of government elections for achieving socialism; we can agree that if such a tactic is undertaken, it should be done well.

To that end, I would propose we register visitors to the brake light clinics to vote within their district, if they aren’t already. I would also propose that we provide materials to clinic visitors on City, County, and State measures that could impact them, and which would benefit from their voices as constituents (and potentially organizers). This makes the clinic a place of empowerment, not merely survival.

Proposal: Encourage conscientious political engagement by issuing visitors a zine or reader containing writings that both lay out SF DSA/DSBay to Brakelights broader goals while illustrating the diversity of our projects and tendencies, enabling readers to decide the best way for them to participate in our movement.

Many of those coming to organize with SF DSA一and DSA as a whole一are new to socialism, something that has proved a double-edged sword for us as a multi-tendency organization. On the one hand, it allows people to participate based on their own political inclinations, growing our capacity. On the other, it’s facilitated factional conflict — there is, I think, an unspoken imperative among organizers who hold firm to their ideological tendencies to make sure incoming comrades are educated on “the right sort of socialism (or communism, or anarchism)”.

This isn’t inherently a net negative; a culture of robust and transparent dissent can be an asset. A multi-tendency character emboldens members to look within the organization for answers to their questions rather than outside of it.

The brake light clinics can and should be a venue for cooperation between tendencies; to that end, I propose that, as individual chapters involved through DSBay to Brakelights or DSBay to Brakelights itself, create a “reader” with contributions submitted by members of DSA’s caucuses, working groups, committees, and elected leadership, in order to provide visitors of our clinics an optimistic, holistic overview of our organizations’ ideological diversity. A further benefit would be that exposure to the diversity within DSA’s multiple tendencies would allow visitors the opportunity to plug into our organization in the ways that resonate with their own personal tactics and ideology, all while bolstering our broader organizational capacity.

Proposal: Demonstrate solidarity for incarcerated comrades and integrate them into larger Bay Area political networks by inviting visitors to fill out postcards/letters to comrades/friends/family incarcerated at Santa Rita, San Quentin, or other Bay Area jails and prisons.

We can’t have transformative revolution without abolishing the police state, and we can’t abolish the police state without organizing with the people who have been the most impacted by the prison industrial complex.

Receiving mail is one of the few dignities afforded to incarcerated people; it enables them to retain connections with the outside that allow them to reintegrate into their communities when they’re released. Sending letters to incarcerated people is one of the most critical forms of solidarity with those oppressed by the police and prison system. Providing letter-writing materials (and/or an address list of incarcerated people to write to provided by organizations such as Black & Pink) would also be less resource-intensive for organizers and invites visitors to participate in our campaigns while limiting their public exposure to retribution from police.

This work not only strengthens our bonds with the communities in which we live and organize, but also fosters a closer working relationship with our comrades across a socially, geographically, and ideologically diverse Bay Area.

While I kept these suggestions within the realm of prison abolition, their usefulness as a tactic extends beyond direct political opposition to local police departments. For instance, a chapter could combine a brake light clinic with providing hot food or groceries to visitors to help alleviate the poverty that leads to the brake light not getting fixed in the first place. Even if this doesn’t lead to a swell in membership numbers for that chapter, I feel such organizing is good and necessary for our organization. Limiting ourselves to projects that can yield petition signatures or a higher membership roster is neither pragmatic or liberatory.

If you’re still not convinced on the efficacy of this tactic, or you are and are free this weekend, you should come check out DSBay to Brakelights’s upcoming brake light clinic in San Jose, this Saturday, February 24th, at Sacred Heart Community Service, from 10am to 4pm. You can learn more at the Facebook event.


Jetta Rae is a co-founder of the DSBay to Brakelights coalition and currently training to be a pro wrestler.