Feature interview: DSA brake light benefit at the Summit

Joel Oliphint
[Photo by Rob Hardin]

Last summer, the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) came up with an idea for an event: Volunteers will replace your broken brake lights for free.

The thought was, since a car's broken brake lights can lead to unwanted interactions with police, fixing the lights could lead to fewer police encounters for community members. Philando Castile, for instance, was allegedly pulled over for a broken tail light minutes before a Minnesota police officer shot and killed him in July of 2016.

The brake light clinic idea resonated as a simple way to address a thorny issue. And thanks to aVice story that gained traction on social media, thousands of people heard about the event, including Ohio State student Angela Brekalo. “The brake light clinic was one of the things I saw where I said, ‘Yes, this is something I want to be involved with. This is for me,'” said Brekalo, who's now a co-chair of the OSU chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). “There are multiple members of YDSA who joined after the first brake light clinic that was put on by New Orleans.”

A little over a year after the New Orleans event, the Columbus DSA and YDSA at OSU are hosting their own brake light clinic on Saturday, Oct. 6, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. in the parking lot of St. Stephens Community House in South Linden. To help raise funds for the event, local bands Pink Reason, Northern Widows, Marvin the Robot, Verbz Vegas, Sunrise Reset and Gown are playing a benefit show at the Summit on Friday, Sept. 21.

While fixing tail lights isn't itself controversial, there's a larger reason behind the clinic. “We don't think of this as charity work. We call it agitational service,” said Jeremy Weiss,chair of Columbus DSA's community committee.“The point isn't just to provide a service and then leave, but to raise awareness of this issue.”

“If you get pulled over, you may not have had the time to replace the brake light or even known it was out,” Brekalo said. “You may not have the funds or knowledge of how to do that. So it's a way that a lot of people interact with police, and if you are in a marginalized community, you may not be able to afford the fine that comes out of that. Some people might be at risk for incarceration or deportation out of that interaction. … A lot of police shootings have started with a broken tail light. The idea is to minimize those interactions through replacing people's brake lights, and also showing them how to do that, but doing it without any conditions, like, ‘Sit here and listen to us talk about socialism for five minutes.'”

For Michael Miller, a DSA member and singer/guitarist in local act Pale Grey Lore who helped organize the fundraising show at the Summit, that non-transactional aspect of the clinic is crucial. “There are no strings attached,” Miller said. “The point is community outreach and community solidarity with people who are marginalized, at-risk or low-income, because if you're a wealthy person, it's a minor inconvenience [to get pulled over and ticketed for a brake light]. But if you are someone who is low income or a person of color, this can become a huge problem in your life.”

The clinic and fundraiser also come at a time when the DSA — a political activist group, not a political party — is growing faster than ever. According to Weiss, the DSA went from several thousand members to 50,000 members in the last two years. “The first big spike was the Bernie Sanders campaign, and the second big spike was Donald Trump's election. And then this summer has been the third spike with the election of [democratic socialist] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York,” Weiss said.

While the “socialist” label can be contentious, Weiss, Miller and Brekalo all said the brake light clinic isn't meant to be a flashpoint. “It's hard to object to this. We're looking to raise awareness in a way that's not going to generate controversy for the sake of it. We want to actually reach the community,” Miller said. “It won't end the systematic problems, but it is a way of doing something. We all have to start somewhere.”

The Summit

7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21

2210 Summit St., North Campus


If you go