On January 6th, Americans watched violent mobs storm the Capitol building in real time on cable news — bringing a terrifying conclusion to months of misinformation spewed from craven Trump loyalists. The ordeal marked an unprecedented attempt to circumvent the election results by disrupting America’s democratic process.
The affair is likely a preview of the turbulent political violence we can expect from conservatives going forward. Their ability to collectively lay siege to the heart of the American political system — even temporarily — is the precursor to a daunting future. It is no secret that this bloc is ready to exact violence upon anybody who does not align with them, but the risk is especially high for minorities and the activist left.
The time to act is now. It is incumbent upon activists and DSA chapters nationwide to start taking security precautions more seriously. Socialists have historically been at the forefront of the fight against fascism, and now is no different.
Moreover, protecting sensitive member data must take precedence for chapter leaders. The threat of malicious infiltrators or a leak of sensitive information is ever-present at any time for chapters across the country; but, as clashes between opposing ideological groups and the police escalate, protecting our comrades physically, socially and digitally must be top of mind. Metro DC DSA, being at the nexus of capitalist empire and potential right-wing insurgency, has rightfully established a Security Department to defend against these threats.
I sat down with the leaders of the newly advanced Security Department to get their perspective on how its expansion will play a crucial role in protecting our comrades. The intention is to envelop the new Security Department under the Administrative Committee (AdCom) so that chapter leaders and members alike can have access to pooled resources and utilize them across all chapter campaigns, committees and functions.
“AdCom pools sophisticated tools and skilled members in one place for any member, branch, section, working group or committee to use without bias. Adding security to that portfolio ensures our chapter will achieve adequate and shared digital security chapter-wide,” says AdCom’s Steward, Brendan.
In order for the Security Department to be successful, it will need to implement necessary centralized and decentralized approaches to security. “One of the goals is to develop a culture of security that is naturally baked into everything we do as a chapter while simultaneously ensuring these new measures are as unobtrusive as possible,” one Security Department leader, who preferred not to be named, affirmed.
Prior to the genesis of this department, there were already security measures in place. For example, auditing of AdCom teams and member vetting take place on a regular basis. Additionally, the security team tries to implement the “least privilege” principle to ensure AdCom members only have access to resources and documents that they need to sufficiently fulfill their role. This principle is universally used by organizations worldwide to help reduce the possibility and impact of a breach. In the event that someone were to be compromised, the infiltrator would, ideally, only have a limited amount of access to services or data — effectively mitigating damage that less-intentional security programs would allow for. Sensitive information is only available to those who are privy to the inner workings of the chapter. However, even with these enforced protocols, there are some practical issues that prevent the security team from achieving a desired level of productivity; namely, the lack of members involved.
“We shouldn’t expect one person to handle too much — we need more hands in the pot to be more efficient,” Stephanie G, a Metro DC DSA member who was instrumental in the development of the Security Department, asserts. Stephanie has been conducting the interviews of new AdCom members as part of the vetting process. This process is required for those in contact with member data and access to other sensitive information. “We want to create a barrier to ensure any potential infiltrators don’t rise to positions of power,” she explains. When asked about what strategies she uses to suss out red flags, Stephanie elaborates, “If you take a quantitative approach to intelligence, you’re going to fail. The goal should be a qualitative approach because it’s more conducive to human nature. All members should be treated as comrades until proven otherwise.”
This is certainly a more humanized approach to intelligence gathering; but, that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. When asked pointed questions about the interview process, Stephanie replied that parts of the methods used or questions asked will not be disclosed.
When asked about how the Security Department should evolve and what DSA should be doing to defend its members against fascist actors, Stephanie does not mince her words: “Comrades of color and marginalized groups need protection now. They are the target of hate crimes and we need to develop security in their interest. It must be digital and physical — and we must try to remove ourselves from corporate-owned platforms such as Zoom and Slack. If those sites get shut down we must have infrastructure to organize that is entirely our own,” she says. “Another important reason we are moving away from for-profit services and hosting our own solutions is for end-to-end encryption of our communications and to better secure our data.”
Emily, another Security Department member, suggests that “human error” is the easiest way to bring about a security breach. “The biggest threat to security is somebody accidentally sending something to the wrong person or group. Having stronger security entails having processes in place and resources available to people so that we can minimize accidents,” she stresses. Formalizing how we securely delete and dispose of data and anything with contact information is critical. Needless to say, there are many moving pieces to intelligence gathering that must be improved if we want to assure members of their digital and social safety.
Physical security is a bit more precarious, as many on the left oppose any association with violence or firearms. However, it is impossible to ignore the reality that right-wingers have been organizing militantly. “It’s hard to justify putting our comrades out in the streets to counter protest when our opposition is dangerous and armed,” Stephanie suggests. It would behoove our chapter to develop relationships with external groups that have expertise in self-defense — violent or not — that can help protect comrades during counter-protests. Having a working knowledge of defensive tactics is imperative for all comrades who plan to participate in direct actions — especially when faced up against the brutality of the police and fascist gangs.
Luckily, we already have a group that is dedicated to protecting members’ physical security when demonstrating in the streets. The Red Rabbits are a new working group that specializes in on-the-ground protection tactics during counter-protests. Red Rabbits provide direct action marshal support for our chapter and any partner organizations DSA collaborates with. So far, they have trained about 50 different members in marshalling de-escalation strategies and police liaison work.
Direct action can be particularly risky; folks who aren’t willing to hit the streets, but want to help from a distance, can assist with the Red Rabbits’ Eye in the Sky program. This team is a joint project between the Tech Committee and Red Rabbits which utilizes infosec to keep an eye on the streets remotely, implements a virtual buddy system and creates organizing strategies to keep comrades safe while in the streets. They can then communicate pertinent information to members on the ground to give them physical advantage.
“The bigger concern in DC is the police,” Raegan, a leader of the Red Rabbits, explains. “In the past, fascists are normally outnumbered when they show up in the city. Our main purpose is usually to prevent comrades from getting tear-gassed and arrested. However, we recognize this won’t be our only problem going forward.” With the violence displayed by the police over the summer, and by fascist gangs between November and January, the direct-action marshal group plans on holding shield training for future demonstrations. This will teach members how to maneuver with the shields, how to stay in a shield formation, how to identify when it's necessary to use them and how to take a hit with them. “Later, when it comes time to actually need shields, they’ll be ready with the practice,” Raegan resolves.
These are huge developments, considering these groups didn’t exist until a few months ago, and they’re already experiencing major success. However, Raegan admits, “The biggest setback right now is trying to get folks who need to get trained to show up. The need for recruitment is outweighing the need to stay low.” Hopefully, with the Security Department being enveloped under the AdCom umbrella, the Red Rabbits can benefit from the pooled resources and specialties that will allow them to mobilize members and bolster their power in the streets.
It is unclear how the next four years will unravel, yet one thing is certain: As capitalism continues to crack, and right-wing violence escalates, socialists and activists alike will need to treat security as paramount. Metro DC DSA is on the right track by implementing imperative measures like a Security Department, infosec and direct-action working groups.
However, there are other necessary steps to be satisfied before members can be completely assured of their security within the chapter — for starters, getting more folks involved in the vetting process, hosting our own solutions, formalizing how we handle data and reinforcing our physical security. As membership is at an all-time high, protecting comrades has never been more important. If we are serious about installing a socialist dual power operation and combating the force of fascism, we must also be serious about security.