- Interview by
- Nick Conder
Two of the most important developments in American politics in recent years have been the Bernie Sanders campaign and the teachers’ strike wave. The former reinjected left politics into American life, not just through Sanders’s shot at the presidency itself but also through the explosion of grassroots energy it produced, like the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The latter put workplace militancy back on the map, sparking the largest strike wave we’ve seen in years (with hopefully more to come).
Robert LeVertis Bell has been at the center of both. He’s a public school teacher and DSA activist in Louisville, Kentucky. In an interview with Jacobin, Bell talked about how the political upheavals of the last few years led him to run for Louisville’s city council.
Why are you running for the Louisville Metro Council? What made you decide to jump into politics?
I’m from Louisville, have lived here my whole life and love the place. I’ve been an activist in the city for over two decades, and I’ve seen over time how, like so many American cities, our city has been eroded by neoliberalism. Developers and corporations have an outsize voice in government. They get to decide not just what the city looks like but who it’s for.
Recently, for example, we had a budget shortfall and the immediate response from some elements in city government, including our Democratic mayor, was to start talking about closing libraries, taking ambulances off the street, and cutting what remains of our social services.
I was always someone who worked in the movement, from neighborhood organizing to teacher activism to antiracist work. I never really thought of trying to change things through participating in electoral politics. I voted, but I saw it as “harm reduction.” That all really changed with the Bernie campaign in 2016 and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. With all these DSA members and socialists being elected to public office and local campaigns that I worked on, I started to think that someone like me could actually make real change in elected office — not only to reduce harm or occupy power so that some slimy developer stooge isn’t in the office, but to be bold and advance real politics and real policies for everyone.
What shaped your politics to get to this point?
I am thirty-nine years old and a teacher. I’ve been involved for the past several years as a schoolteacher in rank-and-file teacher activism. I teach English at a really challenged public middle school. We’ve had some work stoppages here in Louisville and throughout Kentucky that got a lot of attention.
I’ve been an activist and organizer for a very long time, since I was a teenager. I was involved in anti–police brutality organizations as a young person, various antifascist organizations. I’ve been vice president of my neighborhood association for the past few years. I grew up in a movement household. My grandmother is a local activist that everyone knows — a stalwart of the black community, of the civil rights tradition.
And then being involved in my neighborhood as it gentrifies and being involved as a teacher at a rank-and-file level, planning and advocating for our work stoppages, or “sick-outs,” in response to being attacked by our governor and the Republicans in the state legislature.
What are some of the most pressing issues in District 4?
First of all, people don’t think of themselves as living in District 4. Nobody says, outside of election season, “I live in District 4.” They live in Louisville. I will be a rep for District 4, but I believe Metro Council members should be thinking about the entire city.
People throughout the city that I talk to mostly talk about two things: housing and schools. This particular district is home to nearly all of the most acutely gentrifying areas in Louisville. People want to stop it, and they want somebody to stand up to the runaway developer-centric politics in the city.
And they talk a lot about schools, especially when they realize I’m a teacher. My position doesn’t involve total control over the schools, because the school board is a special election and they have a lot of power. But people still talk to me about schools, about segregation in the schools, the teacher strikes, police in schools. These things animate people.
That’s something your neighborhood has faced, right?
Yes. I live in a neighborhood called Shelby Park, which has rapidly gentrified in a very predictable way. I served as vice president of our neighborhood association for the past three years. It’s a historically mixed-race, mixed-income neighborhood, but that’s been changing a lot over the past few years. I have neighbors who have lived in this area for over thirty years who are receiving the tax assessment of their homes and are shocked because they can no longer even afford to pay the tax bill, because the property values have risen so high and they’re on fixed incomes.
One of the things I really want to do is expand the programs that assist people like my neighbors. And in general, we have to start thinking about housing as a human right, not as a commodity. It’s hard to do that at the municipal level because real estate developers have such a stranglehold on our city governments.
The other thing people are concerned about is austerity. Last year, there was a budget shortfall, and the mayor, Greg Fischer, who is a typical liberal rich guy, started instituting some draconian cuts to city services. Actually, our mayor is a former co-chair of Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, which should tell you everything you need to know about him.
The city is underfunded. The Republican-led state legislature really hamstrings the ability of the city to raise revenue through taxes. We only have so many options when there’s a shortfall. But there are still ways we can raise revenue.
We left a lot of revenue on the table — again like a lot of American cities — through massive tax breaks and incentives to large corporations. The evidence shows these tax incentives don’t trickle down. And I say, when there are cuts to be made in the budget, perhaps instead of closing community centers and libraries and fire stations, taking ambulances off the street, which is what the mayor and others in government proposed, maybe we can look at ending these giveaways to corporations, think about cutting our runaway and bloated police budget, which is almost a third of the city budget.
People are seeing an assault on the services that make for a decent life. You want to know that there’s an ambulance coming if you need one. You want to know that your kids can go to the library, that you can go to the library. You want kids to be able to swim and not that all the public pools are closed. You want some semblance of a good life.
Our city government sold so many of these things out because politicians are afraid to say no to the police department, to stand up to the state legislature, or because we’ve given tax incentives to build luxury hotels. I think people are starting to realize the kind of city we can have if we fight for it. I think that’s why a lot of people all over the city are really excited about my campaign.
You’re a member of DSA. What does democratic socialism mean to you?
I want to expand and intensify democracy. Number one, expand. Where there are not existing democratic structures, I want to make more of them.
For example, there’s not much democracy in our communities or our neighborhoods. There are several public housing complexes in my district. The people who live in some of them have done some organizing. I want to do whatever I can to assist them so that they can more effectively advocate for their needs. I want there to be more community councils, more equitable participation in community groups and neighborhood associations. I want there to be more tenants’ councils. That’s expanding democracy.
And then we talk about intensifying democracy: building union density, making our existing democratic structures stronger, making voting more accessible and fairer. And we want to expand democratic control further into the economy. We should be exploring public ownership of energy utilities and more democratic control of the economic institutions in public life.
How has DSA shaped your politics and your campaign?
It took me a while to join DSA. I saw people nationally and locally in DSA doing great work around Medicare for All and other campaigns. But I had to sort of be convinced that electoral politics and campaigning could be an effective vehicle for meaningful change, especially for building socialism.
But as I became more familiar with the work that was being done, nationally and locally, and of course with the DSA for Bernie campaign, seeing in real time how people were deepening their political understanding, how people were becoming strong organizers, how people were and still are building something that is approaching a robust movement against capitalism in part (but not exclusively) through electoral campaigns in the United States context — it all really changed my perspective, in a few years, on what we could do if we truly build this organization into a multipronged mass movement for socialism and democracy in the United States.
You’ve been endorsed by your local chapter and you were a delegate to the 2019 DSA Convention. Do you think that building upon a national movement like that is helpful for your campaign?
Yeah, absolutely. There are people supporting my campaign from all over the world, for a city council race in this midsize city in Kentucky. I’ve gotten a lot of donations from people who know me from working through DSA. The reach of DSA into local campaigns like mine has been a game changer, especially when I’m fighting tooth and nail against other candidates, my opponents, who are funded by megachurches, developers.
Right. So on the level of national politics, what’s your take on the 2020 Democratic presidential primary? That’s something DSA has been very involved with.
I support Bernie Sanders. I supported Bernie Sanders in 2016. I support him now. I am extremely supportive of Bernie Sanders.
What is it about Bernie that appeals to you as a candidate?
Bernie, first off, represents a different concept of how to change things. Like I mentioned, I used to be skeptical of the capacity of electoral politics to change the world. And one of the reasons that I was skeptical is that I always saw people who were running for office who might have good ideas or might even secretly harbor some socialist politics, but they get swept into accommodating the capitalist class.
One of the things that I have always admired about Bernie Sanders is that that’s not his approach. So when we talk about his theory of change as not accommodating to the way things have always been and actually advocating for an entirely different politics of changing things by building a mass movement, that opens a world of possibilities.
Bernie Sanders says he’s going to be an organizer in chief, the idea that he is going to mobilize the power of mass movements as a movement guy in order to break through the barriers to social change that exist in the political system, to me, that is a game changer. That is something that actually provides some sort of semblance of hope, of getting through in this stifling and conservative political system.
You and Bernie are both running in Democratic primaries. How do you feel about the Democratic Party and its viability for socialists trying to make change in our country?
The vision of democratic socialism is equity and empowerment, and there are a great many people who identify with the Democratic Party and share those values. Don’t get me wrong: I know that the capitalists have built this party to effectively see to its own interests. And they’ve been successful: the Democratic Party has been built to be an effective tool for the enrichment of capitalists and the suppression of the working class for seventy-plus years.
But I encounter people every day who identify with the Democratic Party but don’t identify with the capitalist class behind it. They see the party as the only place they could go to vote for candidates they do relate to, the ones who are identifying the problems that are facing the working class in this country and trying to solve those problems. Some of these people already call themselves socialists and more will in the coming years. I run in the Democratic primary because that’s where most of those people are registered to vote. Even if I don’t share their sense of identification with the party, I share a lot of the same values as many of those people, and, in the short term at least, the Democratic primary is where they vote and how to reach them.
That’s the short term. Is the long term maybe different? There’s been a lot of talk recently about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s statement, that in another country she and Joe Biden wouldn’t be in the same party. Do you think there’s an opportunity in the future for a different kind of party for socialists?
To go back to what she said about the Democratic Party, it is a party that is run by the center right. But for a lot of people in this country, I wouldn’t put their politics in that particular “center” or “center-right” space. A lot of people in this country don’t actually have an authentic political home. I would include Representative Ocasio-Cortez in that group and echo her concerns. But with the Democratic Party, they can at least get a foot into the door.
The capitalist class has put a lot of money and time into building the Democratic Party into what it is today. They’re not going to just let us have it, even if we have the people and the demand. And, at some point, whether they force us to or kick us out or we have the will and ability to, there’s probably going to be some kind of split between the capitalists who own and run the Democratic Party and those of us who want a way out of capitalism.
You’re a teacher in a state where there was a large-scale teacher uprising — one of what Eric Blanc called the “red state revolts,” where thousands upon thousands of teachers across the state walked out and went to the state capitol and protested. How does that influence your campaign? And do you see what you’re doing as sort of an extension of that movement in some way?
Being a teacher, and being in Frankfort at the capitol during our sick-outs, I saw and spoke to the teachers from around the state. There’s been a lot of money and political power put in this state specifically, but also all over the country, into formulating and exacerbating an urban-rural divide: people in the rest of the state are skeptical and sometimes hostile to Louisville and Lexington and vice versa. So getting a chance to speak with teachers from rural areas and watching the urban and rural teachers quickly go through this crash course in class consciousness and solidarity was incredible. We could see in real time how tenuous the things that divide us can actually be.
It just shows that, when solidarity is a viable option, people tend to take it. At one point, the legislators were trying to divide us — they would propose specifically racist bills that exclusively targeted Louisville and Lexington and expected the rural teachers to fall back. Rural and suburban area teachers would lobby them about these bills, and the legislators would ask, “Why would you care about this?” And the teachers, our comrades, held strong. The whole thing withered away some of my cynicism about the possibilities for our future as a state and as a city. Being a teacher in this movement gave me a different view of what was possible.
Socialists have really had a tough time figuring out lately what it looks like for an elected official to be an instrument of our movement. If you were to win and be on the Louisville Metro Council, how would you see your relationship to the socialist movement playing out?
I will continue as an organizer, just in a different way. I’ll stay active in my DSA chapter.
Beyond that, one of the things that I’m kind of obsessed with is there’s a very large city public housing complex in my district called Dosker Manor. The people who live there are really getting the short end of the stick. The buildings are in bad shape, with bedbugs, etc. And one of things I’m going to do when I win this race is foment democracy in a place like Dosker Manor. I want to use the capacity in the position as a Metro Council person, the pulpit and the resources, to encourage and build neighborhood and tenants’ councils in Dosker Manor and elsewhere in the district so we can leverage people power when it’s time to make decisions that are going to affect peoples’ lives.
I want to use whatever tools I have from that position to foment more democracy, to foment more participation throughout my district. And that, to me, is how we’re going to build socialism, through continuing to organize from these elected positions. And outside of electoral work, the struggle will continue, and I’ll be there for it forever, wherever I am.