Of Sects and Sexual Misconduct: The Story of the ISO Renewal Faction Fight (Part I)

by Brandy Baker on May 27, 2014

Preface

My original goals in writing about the now-expelled ISO Renewal Faction were to:

  • defend Renewal against the allegations that the ISO National and Steering Committees made against the faction in the statement, “A Response to Slander” that was published in socialistworker.org after the weekend of the most recent ISO convention, February 15-17, 2014
  • to argue for an open culture on the revolutionary left that prioritizes mutual cooperation and the open sharing of complaints of sexual misconduct amongst organizations without violating the confidentiality of any survivors.
  • to defend the rights of members in any organization to ask questions and raise concerns about the handling of complaints of sexual misconduct without enduring vicious attacks, ostracism, or expulsion that Renewal faced within the ISO.

As I was working on this article in late February, I began to realize that it was not sufficient to analyze the expulsions and the events preceding them as an outsider who has not been a member of the ISO for more than 15 years, but I had to talk to those who had been though these battles as well as those who are still inside the organization.

This article turned into a series of four articles and they are written based on the accounts of many former and some current members. Some interviewees are identified, some did not want to use their last names, others would not talk to me unless it was guaranteed that their identities or identifying details about them would not be exposed. Obviously, those who are going on record are no longer in the organization. Many, but not all, former members are part of the Renewal Faction. The first article details the contrasting conditions under which each of the two of the New England branches, Providence and Boston, were operating. The second article tells of the formation of Renewal Faction and goes into the “Comrade Daniel” case, as well as allegations of “snitch-jacketing”. The third piece goes into the Saturday morning of the convention. The final piece will give readers a view of the Sunday morning and Monday morning of the convention where the Renewal Faction was expelled.

I will allow readers to come to their own conclusions, but for me, I saw that the former members with whom I spoke to in early March were exhausted, demoralized, pained, and yes, in a few cases, it is not hyperbolic to say that they were traumatized. And for me, their stories perfectly explain why.

Events Leading to the Formation of the Renewal Faction

The ISO Renewal Faction formed on November 26, 2013. Renewal consisted of members mostly from the New England area of the United States: Providence, Rhode Island; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and a few from the Boston branch. A member each from New York City, Washington DC, and Atlanta were involved with Renewal as well. Some members of the faction quit in the beginning because they saw a fight with ISO leadership as one that could not be won. Perusing pre-convention bulletins, the reader can see that the ISO Steering Committee used these departures against the Renewal Faction in an attempt, among many other attempts, to discredit the faction.

It is important to understand the dynamics in the New England branches that helped to birth the Renewal Faction, and those include the tensions in the ISO Boston branch between the branch leadership and one its members, Shaun Joseph. Before coming to Boston, Shaun Joseph was an ISO organizer in Providence, Rhode Island from September 1998, when he joined as an 18 year old student at Brown University, until he left Providence to move to Boston in May of 2011.

The Culture of the ISO-Providence Branch

By all accounts, Providence as a branch was a less stressful environment thanks to less national  leadership and regional organizer interference: “There were good, serious people in Providence. Providence was open to debate. They didn’t pounce on people. This was not the case in the larger branches and on the national level,” notes Renewal Faction member Chris M. (Providence, 2011-2014). “We tended to develop a freer, somewhat healthier atmosphere within the branch – we didn’t have a paid organizer coming in on a regular basis telling us what the ‘right’ line was all the time on every issue. I think that’s probably part of the reason Shaun became Shaun – he was trained in our marginal little city, after all, where we were used to arguing things out quite a bit.”

Chris, a full-time volunteer organizer with the ISO during the Occupy Movement, describes a branch where a few out of many are doing the heavy work of paper sales and meetings. Though there were occasional calls from the regional organizer encouraging the branch to do more paper sales and meetings, the heat was not on Providence the way it was on the larger branches of Boston, New York, the Bay Area, and especially Chicago, the home of the national ISO headquarters. Chris attended the annual ISO national convention three times and witnessed how Chicago ran the organization’s affairs. He soon realized that “it was never the highly-democratic, organized experience that it should be. A person at Convention can ask a question that can seem fairly innocuous and get pounced on.” He recalls the first convention that he attended in 2011 and the topic was Occupy, which soon “devolved into a hatefest for anarchists.” A second branch in Providence, the Brown University branch, describe similar dynamics at the national ISO conventions: “All of the Steering Committee’s proposals were voted for unanimously or almost unanimously…this has been the case at every other convention that we have been to. These undemocratic elements would have been acceptable if they could be changed.” The Brown chapter of the ISO expressed this sentiment in a resignation letter that they collectively penned. After Renewal was expelled, the Brown members all resigned from the ISO as did some of the Cambridge members. Today, no branches exist in either of these locales, just a few at-large members.

Branches were required to bring a certain number of people to the ISO’s summer Socialism conferences, told to put on public meetings regardless of whether or not they attracted new people, and to continue the frantic pace of recruitment, paper sales, and meetings regardless of life circumstances that inhibited some, especially those with children who were also trying to be active socialists.  Chris tells me that part of the frustration Providence had was with ISO’s paper, Socialist Worker (www.socialistworker.org). It came from Chicago, editorial decisions came solely from Chicago and it was not a publication that local people cared about, as there was nothing about local issues. He notes that he and others began to see the “futility of what we were doing and that it was not an indictment of our branch, but an indictment of the organization’s methods.”

Shaun Joseph (Providence 1998-2011; Boston 2011-2013) himself speaks about the culture of Providence vs. the political climate of Boston. “After September 11 [2001], we had to build the Providence branch from the ground up. There were many disagreements, it wasn’t always nice, but it was not considered a big crisis. In Boston, the climate is more cliquish.” Shaun reiterates the point that there was not much focus on the Providence branch from the ISO leadership nor the ISO’s regional organizer. “Providence was not considered important. Some branches in the ISO get left alone, and this was the case with Providence.”

So Providence, a branch that was not much on the radar of the ISO leadership, was a culture where Shaun Joseph co-existed with his comrades for 13 years apparently with no problems, or at least there were no problems significant enough to impede Providence’s organizing activities or drive anyone out of the ISO.

Behold, the United Front!

Shaun says that he raised disagreements at the 2010 ISO convention, “that were taken in a hostile way. I later found out years later that the regional organizer was trashing me behind my back. As a result, I came into the Boston branch as having a rep for being ‘ultra-left’.”

Being labeled “ultra-left” is the quickest way to become marginalized within the ISO; members who are loyal to the leadership (which is most members in the organization, those who are not do not last in the ISO) take a step back from anyone who is slapped with this label. The views of anyone labeled ‘ultra-left’ by the leadership are usually ignored, no matter how valid any of them may be. This was the case when I was a member in the late 90s, and according to those interviewed for this article, nothing has changed on that front.

“Taking a minority perspective and fighting for it at Convention led to indifference [from Boston] about my trial.”  Four months after he had arrived at the Boston branch, Shaun was arrested on September 26, 2011 at an event protesting Donald Rumsfeld’s book signing. Initially, the Boston branch helped out by protesting outside the jail and bailing him out that same night, but they later showed a seeming lack of enthusiasm, despite pleas from his attorney, at having a few of the branch’s members take off from a scheduled Haymarket book event in order to testify on Shaun’s behalf at his trial.

Renewal Faction member Neil P., (University of Pennsylvania, 2006-2010; Boston/Cambridge, 2010-2014) does confirm that “Shaun was treated poorly. He was doing everything right and getting shit for it. I didn’t see him as being obstinate. Boston had a problem with persistent disagreement even in the context of being principled and going along with the decisions of the majority.”

Neil also notes that, “a better political space can resolve debates, and Boston had a lot of problems, so these debates were not resolved. People in Boston felt the need to come down against Shaun’s arguments, but they were not even addressing what he was saying.”

After Occupy, the Boston branch lost at least eight people, about a quarter of its membership. The activist work withered. This was not unique to Boston. While Providence stayed stable, and the Brown chapter grew, it was reported at this year’s ISO Convention from numerous delegates throughout the country that branches were “in crisis” and many had lost its members who had signed up during Occupy and the Arab Spring movements. Many of the college branches were “falling apart”.

At the 2013 ISO Convention, Shaun felt that both the local and national leaderships did not either seek to engage him or to visibly mistreat him, but they sought to discredit him behind the scenes after the Convention. However, a few people I talked to who were present at the 2013 Convention say that Shaun was treated harshly at the convention, with one saying that he was “pilloried”. Shaun had begun to argue that the organization had an over-optimistic perspective on the revolutions in the Arab world. And he feels that it was becoming clear that he was on the outs with both the national leadership and with the Boston branch before the 2013 Socialism conference. He was ready to resign from the organization after the 2013 Socialism convention, but allies in the organization talked him out of it.

Shaun apparently did not have problems with others before Boston, but did Boston have problems with other members before Shaun Joseph came to their branch?

It has been pointed out that “a group of people were pushed out of Boston in 2005 or 2006.” Are there  others who felt that their time spent in the ISO Boston branch was problematic?

“[M]y constant raising of new perspectives, dissident ideas, and proposals that weren’t ‘pre-approved’ led to a personalistic campaign of persecution against me by the branch committee. It got really ugly and I began to feel uncomfortable in branch meetings,” said not Shaun Joseph in March of 2014, but Brian Kwoba in August of 2010.

Brian Kwoba was a member of the ISO for 6 years (Ithaca, 2004-2006; Boston, 2006-2010). In his four years as a member in Boston, according to his on-line account, the Boston branch sabotaged his organizing efforts in Cambridge, rejected his proposal on new strategies that he had spent five months preparing, and the regional organizer on behalf of the Steering Committee forced him out of the ISO.

The last argument Shaun had with both the Boston branch and the national leadership was over the August 24th March on Washington called by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. On his blog, Shaun cites the criticism of Cornel West on DemocracyNow! and wonders why the ISO doesn’t have as strong criticisms as West. After the march, he challenges some in the ISO who claim: “George Zimmerman’s acquittal…has awakened a new movement for civil rights and brought the issue of racial injustice to the forefront of mainstream politics.”

“A ‘new movement’ has not been awakened,” Shaun writes. “It does not exist, except perhaps as ‘movement elements’ of purely local, ungeneralized, and mutually disconnected efforts. The Zimmerman acquittal was not a turning point or ‘political earthquake’ as claimed in ISO Notes…” In other writings, he cites the MOW organizers’ watering down of demands so that they will not politically embarrass Obama. He also challenged the idea that the Boston branch ‘established relations’ with the NAACP on the thread that led to his resignation.

“Aggressive argumentation is not at all uncommon in the ISO – particularly among the leadership, who make a habit of springing up at conferences and conventions to denounce, at the top of their lungs and in the most uncharitable terms, anything perceived as a deviation from orthodoxy,” says Chris M. “ As much as Shaun has been called a ‘bully’ and an ‘asshole’ over the last several months, the heavyweights in that category have always been in leadership.”

Chris. M. goes on to cite the behavior of his own regional organizer in the aggressive and callous department. In the spirit of “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, I feel the need to disclose that I too had the same regional organizer (who we then called “the East Coast organizer”) when I was trying to build a branch in Baltimore in the fall of 1998 and I do feel that based on my own experiences, Chris M.’s observations are on the mark. Keep in mind, Chris M.’s tenure in the ISO: 2011-2014 not only ended 16 years after my brief stint, but Chris M. is probably young enough to be my son: “The most consistently aggressive and bullying personality I had to personally deal with in the ISO was probably my own regional organizer, Ashley Smith, whose conference calls were conducted in a style halfway between an interrogation and a corporate performance review – although even Ashley pales in comparison to the kinds of performances we saw from Ahmed over the course of the pre-convention period, when he would swerve from the affably avuncular to the madly apoplectic within minutes, going from chuckling jokes about his days of student organizing to thundering threats at the top of his lungs.” I was not in long enough to encounter Ahmed, but others have, and their accounts are in later articles in this series. And of course, time will tell if 16 years from now, Chris M. will be hearing about Ashley Smith’s re-recycled antics from burned-out ISO members who will be young enough to be my grandchildren.

But the issues with ISO organizers are not about one person. There are reports of abusive behavior from organizers from other areas of the country, especially New York City and Chicago, the two most closely-monitored branches in the ISO. Organizers from these cities, like Ashley Smith, were re-elected to the ISO Steering Committee according to the organization’s Post-Convention Bulletin released on February 27th. And these organizers are not elected to their organizing positions by the membership, but by the Steering Committee, on which the organizers themselves are seated.

The best political organizers get to know the people that they work with, their strengths, and they do the best that they can to put members’ strengths to good use. They also encourage members to be creative, innovative. Sadly, ISO organizers do not know nor care to know their members well enough to do this. All members are to sell papers, recruit, hold meetings. The good part is that many members who join may have been previously too shy to stand in front of an audience do learn to publicly speak, they do learn to argue effectively and confidentally, but since they are not dealt with sensitively or humanistically by ISO leadership or the organization’s long-term members, many do not possess the people skills needed to negotiate with others both inside and outside of their group. Rank and filers are chess pieces for the leadership ready to move on their own whims. So truly, ISO organizers are not organizers. They do not negotiate, ever. They do not bring people in their branches together, they divide. They demonize anyone who is not marching lockstep with the wishes of leadership and seek to turn the rest of the branch against any dissenters. They do not get to know their members and care nothing for any of their wishes or ideas that they bring to the table. Members are to be blank canvases, but they are never to hold the brush. ISO organizers are enforcers. They ensure that the members do the bidding of leadership, with no consideration for members as individuals, their life circumstances, or their ideas. And no consideration for locations where members reside. ISO organizers are management. Is there any wonder in a violatile environment like this, those with the sharpest arguments at times may not deal in a most sensitive fashion with others?

Maybe some of these “organizers” should start talking to their people instead of at their people. Maybe they should take a break from all of the commanding, backstabbing, guilt-tripping, and ratting out to management and sit their asses down and re-read the 2013 Pre-Convention document #3, “Throwing out ‘Personal v. Political': Why Personal Experiences are political”.

In this document, a female ISO member recalls that she “had a meeting with the branch leadership about recruiting a friend of mine who was an activist. I thought this might be a good opportunity to ask how I could balance friendships and politics. When I found tears welling up in my eyes as I explained about how I’d lost my mother because of my politics and my friends from the organization… I was unceremoniously told to ‘just get over it’. Then I shifted to explaining how this was impacting my ability to win my friends to socialism. I was then told to not ‘get in the way of recruiting’ my friend. This was defeating, alienating and just not helpful for me at all.”

She also points out that: “There are ways of interacting with people that are helpful and there are ways of interacting with people that are alienating and defeating. For example, I used to be someone that would get frustrated with people for being late to a paper sale. I would snap at people. Thing is when people were snappish at me for things like putting the wrong date on a flyer, I felt like shit. There is no reason to make people feel like shit for simple mistakes and being late. If we are to understand that capitalism sucks and that people have all sorts of pressures on them in their lives then we cannot be a source of stress and guilt for people. Patience is the key.”

This writer was brave to pen a document like this in an organization that is known for treating its own own people pretty horribly when they start to deviate from acceptable actions and speech, or if they start writing documents such as this one. Shaun Joseph does respond to the document in a later bulletin calling “Personal v Political, “subpolitical”and saying that it should not have been in the pre-convention bulletin. Ouch.

There may have been other occasions, like this instance (though I did not ask him about the “Personal v. Political” document)  where Shaun could have had a better approach, and he admits as much: “There were instances where I was difficult. There are things that I regret, instances where I should not have been provocative.” But he does reiterate that these problems did not begin until he arrived at Boston.

Two branches. Geographically, they are 55 minutes apart. One small and out of the sight of the ISO brass that would never reach its full potential because some of the members would go on to be expelled at this past February’s convention; the other branch is quite large and under the constant watch of a regional organizer who is also parked on the Steering Committee.

Brandy Baker is a writer and artist living in Baltimore and completing a MA in Theatre Studies at the University of Gueph and has a new blog, Two Planks and a Passion (http://brandybaker.org/), on theatre and radical left politics. Brandy can be reached at: [email protected]

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