A Short but Shining Path

Notes from a Socialist walking tour

Adams Morgan Metro Station / Getty Images

Beast Mode Omar reads the caption over the portrait of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) pasted to the electrical box on a street just outside Washington, D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood. There are more like it posted throughout Adams Morgan, as well as portraits of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) with a similar message: Beast Mode AOC.

Across the street from the signs, a group of people is gathering in Rabaut Park around an elderly man wearing a faded Democratic Socialists of America t-shirt. This is Bill Mosley, an amateur historian who's about to lead today's DSA-sponsored event, "Radicals in the Hood," a walking tour of socialist activity in D.C.'s most famous historically black neighborhood.

"This was the character of Adams Morgan: activism, taking charge of your own destiny," he says as the last stragglers approach him. "There's still some of that character today, even though all these neighborhoods are undergoing rapid gentrification."

There are about 20 people circled around Mosely, and most look to be at least a generation younger than him. No wonder. Since the DSA ballooned in size following the 2016 election, it now boasts about 50,000 dues paying members, way up from the roughly 6,000 filling its ranks in 2015. And they're young, too: The DSA's median age was 33 in 2017, down from 68 in 2013. Long gone are the '90s, when Mosely and some friends kept the fire burning at a "DSA commune" in a derelict apartment building across from Meridian Hill Park.

Of course, some growing pains have accompanied the DSA’s sudden success. Despite its flagship members of Congress—representatives Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) and Ocasio-Cortez—the organization still struggles to appeal to minorities and women.

"DSA is still a heavily white and heavily cis male organization, as have been most socialist groups in the history of the United States. That has not really improved," Jared Abbott, a member of DSA's national steering committee, told Vox in 2017. "We're taking proactive steps to deal with it and do the kinds of work we need to be strong partners and work in solidarity with all underrepresented and oppressed communities. But we have real challenges here."

Improvement has been slow. Purges, meltdowns, and general discontent have whiplashed DSA chapters around the country attempting to adapt to their newfound prominence in the era of pop socialism. Members in the Philadelphia chapter revolted in late 2018 when leadership suspended a book group focused on educating members in the identity politics of the Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian militant group. After several weeks of in-fighting (much of which played out publicly in the pages of Jacobin and long screeds on Medium), Philadelphia leadership made itself clear: Either ditch identity politics or leave the DSA.

Similarly, the group's San Francisco East Bay chapter came under fire when it refused to support Cat Brooks, a black activist running for Oakland mayor, because she supported charter school initiatives. After she failed to receive the group’s endorsement, Brooks laid into the East Bay DSA, accusing its members in a speech of being nothing more than white "gentrifiers." DSA National Political Committee member Jeremy Gong shot back in a Medium post, saying that Brooks was weaponizing the DSA with "race reductionism and liberal guilt politics."

But internal strife is not the order of today. Mosely is of the DSA's old guard, more concerned with holding onto the left's glory days—when "white flight" hollowed out the cities in the late 1960s—than discussing how to unleash socialism onto the 21st century.

His audience is a bit different. In a word, gentrifiers. They're mostly a group of well-dressed young men (although one wears a t-shirt proclaiming his support of Medicare-for-All). But it's not entirely Bernie Bros. There are a number of women, and yes, even left-wing parents—pushing their two children in strollers. One of the kids wears a beret.

"But now Adams Morgan is becoming very gentrified," Mosely says as he starts leading the group down the street. "Housing prices have really skyrocketed in the past few years."

He pauses for questions. A woman standing directly behind him asks if he'll be covering the #unmute D.C. crisis. She's referring to a spat that occurred just south of Meridian Hill Park a few weeks ago. A resident living in a brand new apartment complex called the police after getting annoyed at black employees blasting go-go onto the street down at the local Metro PCS. For the newcomer, it was a disturbance. For the locals, this was a Friday night tradition. The next week, black activists staged a protest in the streets around Adams Morgan, playing go-go as loudly as possible in an anti-gentrification rallying cry.

Mosely tells her that sort of thing is not on the list for today: "We're only going to take a slice of Adams Morgan," he says. "We won't go over the whole neighborhood, but we’re going to try to take a look at some of the more significant left monuments."

Those monuments turn out to be a series of row houses in which anti-Vietnam protesters and Nixon-era anarchists shacked up. Mosely points out the temporary dacha of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the first Roman Catholic priests to appear on the FBI's "most wanted" list (they were Jesuits). He also invites his gaggle to reflect upon the apartment building, in which rests the room where Carl Bernstein lived while he was writing All the President's Men. He then stands for a long time in front of the row house wherein the Mayday Tribe plotted the overthrow of the federal government in 1971.

As he walks toward the Mayday Tribe house, Mosely casts a sidelong glance at the Adam's Inn bed and breakfast across the street.

"Another indication of the gentrification here: Take a look at the row houses over there. See that bed and breakfast, with all those flags," he says. Some of the crew looks over at the house flying the American flag right alongside the TripAdvisor flag. It's an old D.C. community fixture, serving Adams Morgan since the late 1980s. Mosely nearly steps in a pile of dog crap.

About a block later, a young man holding a baby walks down the street toward Mosely. He stops and addresses the group.

"That bed and breakfast has been there for over 30 years," he says. "I heard you back there, and just thought you should know."

"Thirty years?" Mosely says. "Well, I've never seen it before, not since I've lived here."

"Just wanted you to know," the man says.

"Huh, 30 years," Mosely says as he turns back toward his audience. "Well, uh, thank you, I didn't know that."

And then Mosely's off, further into Adams Morgan—mindful not to step in any more dog crap.