One Year of Organizing at Watkins Mill

January 13th was the one-year anniversary of Watkins Mill YDSA’s first meeting. In a year, we have gone from Zoom meetings with no more than seven people to leading a hundred-plus person solidarity walkout with less than a day’s notice. With a year of organizing under our belts, I believe it’s important to look over both what we have done in WM YDSA and why organization within the classroom is of utmost importance to any socialist movement.

I. The New Battleground

As technological progress in the past century has skyrocketed, industrial production has naturally become more complex. In order to meet the demands of the new industrial system, in which legions of “unskilled” workers could no longer suffice, a new generation of technicians (both on the factory floor and in the office) emerged in the decades after the end of the Second World War.¹ This new middle class often drew from the same pools that had produced manual labor in the factories, with increasing educational demands in the workplace making many young people complete not just secondary school but obtain at least some level of college education. It was at this point, in the 1960s and ’70s — when workplace conditions were changing rapidly alongside massive social unrest — that groups of forward-thinking leftists looked at how to define the new industrial state and how to organize within it. One of the new targets of these groups was the university: With it now being open to a new generation of working- and middle-class students, it was to become a new place of revolutionary discontent.²

Perhaps one of the best summaries of this new plane of struggle comes from a group of dissidents at the University of Pisa, who would write their Tesi di Pisa in 1967. In it, they discussed how capital and the labor market had undergone a “radical evolution” that required detailed planning and caused a “growing average rate of qualified labor-power.” Thus, the school was “the place of production of qualified labor power,” with the student being proletarian “by nature of a subordinate location within the university division of labor.”³

In such works, the focus remained mainly on the university. It is the argument of this author, and presumably all high-school YDSA organizers, that the role of secondary education can’t be overlooked. Public education is where the earliest forms of capitalist socialization are enforced, primarily that of “motivation” via the fear of failure (low grades, not passing a class, not making honor roll, etc.). By the nature of contemporary education’s structure, more people will have passed through the doors of a high school than a college; this is the first place where managerialism and workplace obedience are taught. The anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer, in discussing the then uncommon mandatory public school system in Belgium, would state that “it is natural enough that the masters should see this kind of education given on every side. It is a means of bringing to reason those who might one day be tempted to rebel.”⁴

It was here that I was determined to organize.

II. A Year of Action

Watkins Mill High School is a minority-majority high school in Gaithersburg with one of the highest Free and Reduced Meals rates in the county. This was also the area that sent Delegate Gabriel Acevero to Annapolis. This seemed like a prime spot for organizing — but I’d always been afraid that the way I’d lead YDSA would be too wordy, too theory-driven and too cold. However, after my first meeting I knew that I had latched onto something with how I (and the DSA in general) present the current issues tied to global capitalism.

For the rest of the school year, I continued to alter and experiment with different meeting and organizing strategies: book clubs, guest speakers, etc. The moment that made me realize that something was working was when we read and discussed Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. In a previous meeting I had recommended that people read it, and I provided a free link to the book along with an audiobook version; however, no one really engaged with it. I felt that this was a shame, as I consider Fisher’s works to be some of the most important leftist literature produced since the end of the Cold War. So instead, I helped start up a more general discussion tied to the themes of Capitalist Realism, touching on mental health, hustle culture and cynicism in the modern political sphere. It was phenomenal — people discussed their own personal examples and then I’d help tie it into societal issues. This was exactly what I was looking for: that people would realize the personal cannot be separated from the societal and political, and both are intertwined in the greater matrix of how neoliberalism functions.

Another fantastic meeting was a town hall with Professor Nick Copeland of Virginia Tech, where he discussed the history of American interventionism in Central America. The town hall was scheduled for about one hour, but it ended up lasting closer to 90 minutes due to all the questions and comments people had after the presentation. It was clear that we had hit a chord with these two meetings, and they are what inspired me to keep on pushing. While attendance would wax and wane over those first several months, YDSA had gathered a niche that helped us hit the ground running when we transitioned to in-person school in August 2021.

The choice between political education and organizing over bread-and-butter issues was pretty simple during the virtual school year, especially given that we were a new and rather small club — it was easier and safer to do political education. But once we returned in person for the fall of 2021, it wasn’t nearly as easy.

We faced the same battle with every socialist group — how to strike a balance between wanting “the impossible” and fighting over (usually piecemeal) issues and conditions. A line from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle stood with me during these internal debates, that “the conditions that exist in reality must inform theory and theory must inform practice … as one guarantees the validity of the other.”⁵ Political education can’t be separated from actions, as actions will serve (at least in part) as political education. I — and I believe most other members of the club — wanted to conduct meaningful action. The months of November and December 2021 would end up being pivotal for YDSA’s first actions on campus.

In conjunction with Watkins Mill’s Muslim Student Association, we petitioned to have the Palestinian flag hung up with the rest of the flags of the world[LP2] , which was quickly accepted. From there, the MSA president reached out to other schools, and on November 29, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Watkins Mill and Richard Montgomery High School both hung up the flag. After an anti-LGBTQ incident occurred at Damascus High School, where a student made offensive and threatening comments towards members of the school’s GSA[LP3] , the YDSA organized a solidarity walkout in conjunction with Damascus High School’s students’ own walkout. With less than a day’s notice, we managed to have a large walkout with over 100 students. Finally, we hosted a meeting where we received over 40 testimonials to the administration to expand our 38-minute lunch (most schools have 45 or over).

III. New Spirits and Looking Towards the Future

Throughout this past year, one word kept on popping up in the various theory books I read: confidence — specifically, confidence as a driver for political will. The first time I saw it was in a blog post by Mark Fisher, entitled Abandon hope (summer is coming). Interpreting Spinoza through Deleuze, he discusses how liberal “hope politics” is bound to fail. It externalizes how changes are actually made. Hope is deterministic,  as one hopes a politician or a reform will do the right thing and that the right chain of events will suddenly kick in,  to result in something better. Hope is passive, no different from fear, as there is an inability to act.

What is needed is confidence: the belief in the individual and their community to force change onto a decaying society. Although, Fisher warns, “it is very difficult, even at the best of times, for subordinated groups to have confidence, because for them / us there are few if any ‘future objects from which cause for doubting is removed.’” Thus, a group like the YDSA seeks to build up confidence.

The second place I saw this discussion of confidence was from a totally different thinker, Piero Gobetti. An eccentric radical-liberal in the early years of Mussolini, he engaged in regular discussions with Gramsci as both sought a new, anti-dogmatic form of socialism. In one 1923 article, he would recount a visit he took to the Fiat plant in Turin, where he observed the workers’ “attitude of control, their unfeigned self-possession,” which helped fuel “their courage for the fight and their instinct to defend themselves politically.”⁶ Gobetti saw Gramsci’s Turin factory councils and the well-organized Fiat workers as the solution to the ills of an Italian socialist movement that had become bogged down completely into passive, parliamentary politics and that rejected the liberation of the working class. What led to liberation was self-control and confidence. Similarly, he celebrated socialists like Giacomo Matteotti who, before his assassination by fascist thugs, was in the process of “forming the nuclei of a new society among socialists,” with the establishment of “communes, schools, cooperatives, [and] leagues” in order to teach worker and peasant alike self-administration, autonomy and confidence in their ability to lead such institutions.⁷

Gobetti’s discussions on the Italian workers movement of the 1920s, Fisher’s polemics on liberal hope politics and the powerful reflections on the worker-student action committees in Paris during 1968 have been major inspirations in my view of YDSA organizing since the fall of 2021.⁸ While by no means at the level of the great Italian strikes of 1919–22, I do believe in the establishment of a similar form of confidence via the Watkins Mill YDSA. When I spoke to that crowd of students during the Damascus solidarity walkout, I saw students (mostly underclassmen) who felt empowered, who felt like they could take part in something larger than themselves. As the YDSA goes forward in the fight for student conditions, I believe it necessary to continually foster such energy: energy that challenges opaque administrations at all levels and seeks to create new conditions of what a school can be.

However, it’s the nature of these things that such student activist groups like the YDSA can fall as quickly as they rise. They’re often personality-driven, usually started by the perfect storm of a few individuals who know each other, before collapsing after the founders graduate. The Watkins Mill YDSA is no different, and there’s no easy fix, particularly in the balance between bread-and-butter organizing and remaining a capital-S Socialist club. As the second semester of my senior year starts, such anxieties are only natural. But I can’t forget that crowd during our walkout: the groundwork has been laid, and I’m confident in the transition to those that’ll come after me.

IV. Parting Thoughts

Perhaps one of the more unique influences upon Mark Fisher is that of the French anthropologist Marc Augé, who has spent his career examining the lives of urban Parisians. In his 1992 book, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, he coined the term “non-place” to describe locations that don’t have their own unique identity: a place that, to put it simply, is just being passed through. Augé would primarily rely on examples of airports, train stations and malls, but I would like to extend the “non-place” to the school. Schools are presented as places that are temporary in one’s life, and thus not worth the investment in changing its conditions. The irony, of course, is that even though we consider the school to be transitory in many respects, students will spend more time there than at home with their own families. School is not simply a place to pass through; it’s a central locale for the struggle against capitalism.

It would be a blatant lie to bestow all of the successes of the YDSA on myself only. I am deeply grateful for my braintrust of Hasham K., my right-hand man and co-organizer, Ryleigh W., who has diligently covered all of our events, and Bidushi L., all of whom express questions, comments, and concerns about projects in frank honesty; the MDC DSA comrades who have always lent a helping hand and have shown support; Kristen B. in her fantastic role as YDSA Liaison; Mr. Samuel Lee who I’m indebted to for being my sponsor and helping guide this project through thick and thin; and of course, all of those who have attended our meetings and believe that a better world is possible.


[1] See Galbraith, J. K. The New Industrial State for an early discussion of this transformation. In particular, see Chapter 21, “The Nature of Employment and Unemployment,” and Chapter 33, “Education and Emancipation,” on the discussion of the increase of technical jobs and its relation to the education system.

[2] See Wright, S. (2017). Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (2nd ed.). Pluto Press. In particular, see Chapter 4 “New Subjects,” for an examination of how the Italian autonomists viewed and interacted with the student movement and the new technicians.

[3] Wright, p. 87-88

[4] Ferrer i Guàrdia, F. (1913). The Origin and Ideals of the Modern School, p. 23. (J. McCabe, Trans. ) The Anarchist Library. Watts & Co. Retrieved from

[5] Debord, G. (2021). The Society of the Spectacle, p. 74. (R. Adams, Ed.). Unredacted Word.

[6] Gobetti, P. (2000). On Liberal Revolution, p. 139. (W. McCuaig, Trans., N. Urbinati, Ed.). Yale University Press.

[7] Gobetti, p. 35

[8] See the aptly titled Worker-Student Action Committees: France, May ‘68 by Fredy Perlman and Roger Gregoire.

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