At their national conference in Chicago in early August, the Democratic Socialists of America – the largest socialist organization in the country – elected longtime Austin activist Danny Fetonte to their National Political Committee. The leadership spot at the burgeoning DSA, an organization (not a political party) that’s risen to 25,000 members following both the ascent of self-avowed socialist Bernie Sanders and the Trump election, was a feat for Fetonte and a win for the growing local chapter. Fetonte is credited with spurring growth at the Austin DSA, which after years of dormancy gained a resurgence in 2014, ballooning from 17 members to more than 700 today. Fetonte was also instrumental in pumping up the Sanders campaign in Texas; his 30-plus years of union and political organizing had hit a zenith, it appeared.
But a few weeks later, Fetonte abruptly resigned from his position at DSA, and encouraged others to question their membership with the group. It had come to light that Fetonte, amid his years of organizing, had worked as an organizer for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the state’s most influential and powerful law enforcement union. That didn’t sit well with a group who, during the same conference, passed a resolution that called for the “abolition of prisons and the police,” saying they pose an “existential threat” to socialism and social justice movements. The attacks, circulating on social media, began on Fetonte’s flight home from Chicago, beginning with the false rumor Fetonte was himself a cop.
Local DSA chapters, including those in San Francisco and New York City, were quick to condemn Fetonte’s past employment, and asked him to resign. “Mr. Fetonte’s continued presence on the NPC has the potential to do significant damage to DSA’s organizational efficacy,” wrote the NYC Steering Committee. “It has already created a considerable amount of intra-organizational discord.” The DSA Veterans Working Group hosted an online petition crafted by some DSA members that threatened to withhold membership dues until Fetonte resigned, charging that his presence on NPC would harm DSA’s partnerships with allies like Black Lives Matter and the overall fight against racist oppression. Amid the “unprecedented” problem, the National DSA officially censured Fetonte for “uncomradely and misleading behaviour,” though a majority failed to vote him off of the committee. (The National DSA declined an interview request for this story.)
“He was a nice man, but his focus was running counter to where I wanted to take the organization.” – Charley Wilkison, CLEAT Executive Director
The criticism against Fetonte is three-pronged: It’s not merely that he worked for CLEAT, it’s his alleged concealment of that involvement. And, as some explain, it’s Fetonte’s behavior following the fiasco, including his failure to disavow the police organizing work specifically – even if those attacking that work may not know what it entailed specifically. Moreover, the controversy has now left the local chapter – as well as the national organization – grappling with an equally controversial and complex consideration moving forward: Within their struggle to win rights for workers, will social justice movements include or leave behind those who have at one point aligned with police unions, which can easily count themselves among the most powerful labor bodies in the country?
Guilty By Association
Austin DSA co-chair Châu Ngô shared her leadership role with Fetonte before he made his departure, and says it was never any secret that her former colleague worked for CLEAT. In fact, it was widely known and when he campaigned for the same national post in 2015 Fetonte’s election materials directly referenced that work. Yet this year, those materials “glossed over” that history, said Ngô, leading some to believe the omission was a calculated move designed to increase his chances of winning over the police-leery crowd. “He didn’t explicitly say he had worked for CLEAT at the convention – that’s true – but having known Danny I can confidently say he didn’t intentionally leave it out or try to mislead anyone,” Ngô said. Fetonte’s resignation came as a “surprise” to her. She believes it will be “difficult to fill the void.”
Jim Tourtelott, a three-year member of Austin DSA, is among those who recently left the organization as a result of the Fetonte flare-up. He stresses that Fetonte was upfront about his time with CLEAT. “The first thing Danny will tell almost anyone is that he organized for CLEAT,” said Tourtelott. “He didn’t deceive people or try to cover anything up.” Tourtelott says he’s “sickened and saddened” by the Fetonte fallout, and feels like the Austin DSA family has “shattered”: “We didn’t want him to leave but understood why he felt compelled to. I mean, would you like a bucket of shit poured over you for six weeks?”
Tourtelott continued: “We’ve got a terrible police culture that largely inflicts harm on communities of color and it needs radical change. Saying that is not the same as saying every single person who wears a police uniform is a racist or that anyone who organizes a police union is personally responsible for that culture of brutality.”
Another Austin DSA member, who wishes to retain anonymity, said that during meetings Fetonte became increasingly “angry and paranoid,” even toward other members. “His response was really poor. He routinely rejected our help on messaging and attempts to rehab his image,” he said. The behavior capped off with a Sept. 8 letter announcing his resignation and urging other members to take a hard look at the local chapter. “I can’t express how hurtful that letter was for those who were proud to have worked with him for so long.” In it, Fetonte alleged that the national DSA has been overtaken by “extremists and factionalists” who now want to infiltrate the local chapter by secretly taping and editing meetings. “The lack of ethics and simply not knowing right from wrong dominate at the national level and has now crept into Austin,” he wrote.
Fetonte refused an interview request, telling the Chronicle he doesn’t “want to talk about it anymore,” but has spoken publicly and written about the issue. In a defensive response posted to the online publishing platform Medium, he chastised the national DSA for lacking “moral courage,” and refuted accusations of deception about CLEAT. Fetonte openly details his involvement with the umbrella union, which provides legal representation, labor negotiation assistance, and lobbying for some 20,000 members across Texas: He started working with CLEAT while organizing for the Communication Workers of America. After retiring from CWA in 2008, he started helping CLEAT train law enforcement officers to become organizers. He highlights his work helping an “almost all-white” association begin organizing people of color, women, and LGBT officers, and coordinating an immigrant rights contingent for a Brownsville march. Beyond the four to six years he spent at CLEAT, Fetonte cites his 34 years of activism stretching from time spent in high school with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to an arrest this summer at the governor’s office during a sit-in against anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4. “My activities in solving problems never changed my opposition to white supremacy or homophobia,” he wrote. “I supported the proposal abolishing prisons and police at the convention. Both systems are thoroughly broken and we have to take a new approach to working out those problems in society.”
So why strengthen police power if the system is broken? According to an audio recording of the Austin DSA’s meeting on Aug. 17, Fetonte thinks “it’s important that all people get collective bargaining and due process.”
Workers or Oppressors?
However, for many advocates of racial and social justice, organizations like CLEAT don’t represent just any workers’ rights union; they help fight for the protections of Texas police officers, seen as violent oppressors of the working class and American minorities, making any support of a police union antithetical to the mission and purpose of the DSA’s progressive movement.
CLEAT “definitely have a very pro-cop, ‘my way or the highway’ mentality that’s dangerous in my view,” said Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Chas Moore, who sought (somewhat unsuccessfully) to work with the group on legislative issues this past session. CLEAT lobbyists famously helped water down the Sandra Bland Act from one focused on racial profiling to one focused on mental health for those in custody. Locally, the group has been just as influential; just see the ongoing stalemate over the inclusion of police oversight in the Austin Police Association’s negotiations with the city over a new contract. More famously, their outsized role in the case of Geoffrey Freeman, who shot and killed 17-year-old African-American David Joseph in 2016 – accusing Mayor Steve Adler of interfering with due process – likely resulted in the officer’s settlement and $35,000 payout. CLEAT celebrated that success by publicly dinging Adler for mentioning the Freeman case and the violent arrest of Breaion King as reasons for creating an anti-racism task force. Former CLEAT president and current special counsel Ron DeLord, who’s been busy this summer representing the Austin Police Association in negotiations, literally wrote the book on how police unions should handle media when it comes to racially charged police shootings (Law Enforcement, Police Unions, and the Future: Educating Police Management and Unions About the Challenges Ahead). In one chapter he writes, “If the incident has racial undertones make the message that the debate is about criminals and not race.”
“When we talk about organizing cops we aren’t just talking about getting health care, we’re talking about putting policies in place that make it harder for cops to be fired, and harder for the community to hold them accountable when they victimize minorities.” – Pam Starsia
Amid the string of unarmed black men and women throughout the country being shot and killed at the hands of law enforcement, and the subsequent inequitable punishments, police unions and contracts often exacerbate institutional problems by shielding officers from discipline. A January investigation by Reuters found that the majority of examined police union contracts provide a “pattern of protections” for officers, including scrubbing disciplinary records, which makes it difficult to fire officers with a history of abuse. Austin’s own police contract has long been under scrutiny for its lack of transparency and accountability. “After years of misconduct and deadly force against mostly black and brown people they have the audacity to want more money to be held less accountable,” charges Moore.
Moore recognizes the nuance necessary to wade through the Fetonte backlash. “We can’t just hit Danny with a scarlet letter because of his work with CLEAT,” he said. “We need to be really careful about putting people in the margins within the margins. I mean, we can’t talk about better policing if we can’t include the police in those possibly difficult conversations.”
But others see his police organizing work as an obvious mistake. Pam Starsia and her husband, both members of Austin DSA, left Charlottesville for Austin just before the white supremacist-led violence erupted in August. Starsia, an attorney who assisted the anti-fascist protesters remotely, found Fetonte’s work with CLEAT “deeply problematic” and said it’s hard to believe it was simply an innocent omission. “When we talk about organizing cops we aren’t just talking about getting health care, we’re talking about putting policies in place that make it harder for cops to be fired, and harder for the community to hold them accountable when they victimize minorities,” she said. “We’ve seen all over the nation how problematic that can be.”
“Real Mainstream Texas”
CLEAT Executive Director Charley Wilkison couldn’t help but chuckle when he mentioned the activists who condemned Fetonte as some sort of double agent due to his time spent at the cop union. “I would say he wasn’t pro-police or pro-law enforcement,” he said, dismissing the censure lodged by critics. “I don’t believe Fetonte or I ever want him working back at CLEAT.”
The two didn’t see eye to eye politically, which caused friction. (Wilkison remembers Fetonte shouting at staff one time because he wanted the organization to endorse more Democrats.) Moreover, Fetonte cast a wider-than-typical net with his recruiting, lobbying for police departments’ janitors, cooks, and civilian employees to become a part of the massive union – a direction not particularly in alignment with Wilkison’s own. In fact, it was Wilkison who strongly encouraged Fetonte to retire from CLEAT in 2014.
“He was a nice man, but his focus was running counter to where I wanted to take the organization,” said Wilkison. “We endorsed [GOP gubernatorial candidates] Perry and Abbott. We wanted to go real mainstream Texas, and Danny was a leftist, an open socialist. And he was pushing for bringing people into CLEAT that just weren’t the right fit.” He said “it’s been interesting to see what folks have written and said” about Fetonte’s relationship with CLEAT. “But they don’t have the real story.”
Wilkison’s claims are echoed by Mike Sheffield, a retired APD detective and past president of the Austin Police Association, who remembers Fetonte as being more interested in workers’ rights than the promotion of a pro-cop agenda. Sheffield, who went to work full time for CLEAT upon his retirement from APD in 2006 (before being fired in 2011, a messy split that sparked an even messier lawsuit), worked with Fetonte as a recruiter. “He was very biased toward the worker, very liberal, and very pro labor rights,” said Sheffield. “He thought all individual workers should be given the right to fair treatment by employers, whether that’s the guy stacking your groceries or an electric worker or a police officer.”
Larger Questions Looming
Austin’s DSA is now tasked with sorting out how to move forward post-Fetonte. On Sunday, Oct. 8, as part of an emergency-called, members-only meeting, members spoke freely about their outgoing colleague, and expressed concern over the way he handled the situation, according to four-year member Mark McKim. (Fetonte was not present at the meeting.) While “disappointed” to learn of his work with CLEAT, McKim didn’t automatically write Fetonte off during our conversation, and made clear that he respects Fetonte’s years of activism. It was the lack of “open dialogue” about the issue immediately after the controversy hit that bothered him the most.
Similarly, despite her criticism, Starsia declined to cast Fetonte as irredeemable, saying that everyone is complicit in the system, one way or another. She pointed to Fetonte’s failure to call the CLEAT work a mistake and repair the damage he may have caused. “He doubled down and responded with defensiveness instead of humility,” she said.
The Fetonte controversy has sparked larger questions that the local – and national – bodies, as well as other social justice groups, must soon address: Is including those who organize for police unions consistent with the progressive movement? Can police officers, targeted as perpetrators of white supremacy, be truly considered in concert with the working class? Starsia notes the hypocrisy there. “If you consider yourself an anti-racist organization you have to assume you will be helping or participating in campaigns where police are the target,” she said.
McKim said Sunday’s meeting was designed to get that conversation started and put the necessary questions on the table – but the answers are far from being resolved. Ngô noted that there are active law enforcement officers who are current members of DSA. “Some organizations are very anti-cop, but we’re more open tent,” she said. “But do we as a group consider police officers ‘workers’? It’s a huge question, and we definitely need to reconcile it. But we’re not there yet. It’s hard to sit down and have a conversation when people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. It can get precarious.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 13, 2017 with the headline: Too Close for Comfort