Debs Dinner 2018: A Speech by Alderman Dylan Parker

The following is a transcript of a speech given by Rock Island alderman and DSA member Dylan Parker at Chicago DSA’s Debs-Parsons-Randolph Dinner fundraiser on May 18, 2018. This speech has been edited for length and clarity.

My name is Dylan Parker and I am honored to stand before you today. In April of last year, I became one of a handful of DSA members that are also privileged to represent our communities with elected office. I am proud to represent Rock Island’s 5th Ward—a ward of diverse and organized neighborhoods—on City Council.

While socialism admittedly did not come up much during my election, my campaigning on municipal broadband internet, resident-focused development, and neighborhood organizing won me two votes for every one that my opponent received. However, I feel I should fill you in on a conversation I had recently with a local business owner. He informed me that he had heard I was one of these “socialists” and that I was going to take all the money hard working folks had earned and give it to people that didn’t work. By the end of our conversation, he told me that I was a fine individual and that he would, should I ever desire, support me in running for higher office. I thanked him for his words and left it at that—but between you and me, we all know what he was describing is actually capitalism.

Let me offer a little backstory for the 2017 Rock Island municipal elections. For several years prior to the election, the previous council and city staff, recognizing the need for more retail sales tax revenue to support city functions, engaged in a multi-year $25 million dollar bonding campaign to bulldoze a derelict strip mall in an economically depressed part of town in hopes to secure a new Walmart. It was massively unpopular with residents and when Walmart finally rescinded their proposal to build in Rock Island, the city was left holding the multi-million-dollar debt bag. Money that historically had been used for street repair was shuffled to finance debt payments and we still, to this day, have a massive empty lot waiting for development. Understanding this climate, it didn’t take ardent socialists to respond to my campaign mailers renouncing “corporate welfare.” However, what was most incredible, upon being sworn in as alderman, was the council’s complete lack of ideas for what to do next.

So, I pounced on the opportunity and used the citizen backlash against city-funded speculative development agreements to fuel support for programs that benefit ordinary residents: neighborhood empowerment, open government, urban gardens, and welcoming policies for immigrants and refugees. As our council is revving up for this year’s strategic goal setting session, I’m confident that we’ll pass policies that clamp down on landlords and vacant property owners, increase our city’s commitment to environmental sustainability, and explore ideas like participatory budgeting.

None of this, mind you, is under the banner of Socialist Alderman Parker. I recently had a conversation with our mayor, who is likely the most opposite from me regarding the political spectrum, about our city’s problem of local small businesses failing to have succession plans. When the owner is ready to retire, they simply close shop, resulting in job loss and tax revenue loss for the city. I recently proposed that our city create a worker-buyout program to assist workers to collectively buy their places of work from their ready-to-retire bosses. It’s 100 percent within the motto of socialism’s “workers owning the means of production,” but it’s also a realistic proposal to resolve an issue we have in our business community. I’m often asked what it’s like being a DSA elected official, implying that every day is some Bernie Sanders-style battle with “the establishment,” but in many of our cities and smaller communities around the country, people are simply looking for ways to alleviate the devastation that capitalism has wrought. I pride myself on the fact that my constituents—if they’re paying attention—will easily state that their elected representative is a socialist, but it’s often made matter-of-factly and without drama. That’s where we should aim to be: recognized as responsible members of society and government that offer realistic solutions to the problems that regular working people face.

I don’t mean to make this sound easy. By proposing realistic solutions, we, in turn, threaten the ruling class’s wealth and ability to control. Local internet companies haven’t started a smear campaign against our city-owned ISP proposal, but it may very well be coming. I don’t think I’m the only one in this room that recognizes the naivete of walking up to the Democratic Party and asking if they’ve simply ever heard of cooperative-based economies. But, the way that we defeat the rhetoric-laced red-scare attacks on socialism is by advocating politics and policies that clearly benefit most of humanity: workers.

So, where do we go from here? In the words of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., what is the “real and genuine alternative providing the same living standards and opportunities which were swept away by a force called progress?” All of us in this room know the answer: democratic socialism. The threat of automation is not a threat of liberating the working class from repetitive menial labor, but rather a threat of further ownership consolidation by the capitalists. As socialists, we should advocate for replacing human-machines with mechanical-machines. As humans, our days should be spent in recreation or the humanities—outdoorsmanship, music, family, or creative ambitions—not tied to an assembly line for hours on end.

No, the threat of automation is the same threat of capitalism: that the individual with private property rights to the means of production deserves all wealth generated from said system. Just as the very 35,000 workers that assembled here in Chicago back in 1884 knew, so do we know today: the private property rights that allowed man to enslave man, king to conscript serf, and boss to employ child are corrupt, arbitrary, and immoral. So, too, is a system that “snuffs out the hopes and lives of the people by whom the industry was built.”

Therefore, we offer an alternative to massive unemployment or meritocratic job-readiness training programs: that each cabbie replaced by an autonomous vehicle be part-owner of their replacement; That social safety nets are sufficient to alleviate the suffering of unemployment; That the basic necessities of life be ripped from commodification and privatization and rather offered to and provided by all.

This is our charge—from the smallest of cities to the largest of metropolises, from rural farmland to concrete jungles—the needs of all shall not be subservient to the desires of a few. It is a simple message, but it is a deep-rooted and powerful message, one that resonates in the quiet chambers of Rock Island’s City Hall and through the boundless neighborhoods of Chicago.

It is a brand-new day in America, comrades. The crimes against our communities by the Walmarts of the world are becoming more and more apparent. The truth of wealth inequality, racial inequality, sex inequality, class inequality, and all the other ways in which humanity subverts the autonomy of another is rising. The truth of liberty, justice and equality is still climbing the scaffold. With your help, it shall be overcome.

Solidarity Forever. Thank you.