In the introduction to v2 of New Orleans DSA’s Gimme a Brake! (Light): A DIY Guide, we refer to the brake light clinic as “genius.” We should be clear the “genius” referred to herein is not ourselves, but the person who came up with the idea of these clinics, DSA organizer Kaitlin Marone. What a cool idea!
Many of us are writers, and we can tell you, a cool idea gets you pretty much nowhere. It doesn’t accomplish anything, on its own. What an idea can do is bring people together. And that’s what it did here in New Orleans. Marone took the idea to the newly-established DSA local. The brake light clinic’s success is not its idea: it is its execution, which is the work of many.
Only two people* who worked on the original version of this guide had a hand in creating v2. That’s because in the past year and a half, the brake light clinics have gone from a cool idea to an ongoing project that has helped our chapter recruit members, develop new leadership, sharpen our political education, develop better organizing skills, and record our institutional knowledge. That is the work of many.
This guide was built by consensus. We started the process by gathering information about clinics around the country and soliciting feedback from people who had built on our work. Then we met around a table in New Orleans, each of us outfitted with a printout of the old guide, plus every piece of organizing material we had developed since. And then we went, page by page, talking about whether each piece of information was necessary, clear, and accurate. Then we rewrote and came back and did it again. And again.
It is revolutionary to be more proud of a group project – of true consensus – than an individual effort.
As we release this v2 guide, we are orienting ourselves for deeper questions. How can we transform this project into a more sustained demand? In Louisiana, there is no part of life untouched by the carceral state. Should we fight to end money bail? Can we agitate to change the fee schedule for traffic violations? How can we leverage our position and build power to influence the 2020 District Attorney race in Orleans Parish?
The work of many will continue. We are overjoyed that you’re on the journey with us.
“Hey, y’all changing brake lights?” a man called out to us as we were setting up in the morning. “Yeah!” an organizer called back.
The man, sitting out on his balcony patio further down the block toward Esplanade Avenue, turned to the woman sitting next to him for a moment and then called back out again: “She didn’t believe me!”
On the first anniversary of the Brake Light Clinic, our mutual aid program has begun to become a monthly fixture in Kruttschnitt Park in the 7th Ward. People in the neighborhood know we’re here every month, plenty of people have come by because a friend or a family member told them about it, and some who’ve come back for a second time. At this particular clinic on August 25th, 19 people signed waivers, meaning we had organizers looking at least that many cars, working to solve issues from a simple broken bulb to a broken tailgate. Of those, nine signed up for more information and will be contacted by an organizer.
This speaks to the organizing power of this mutual aid program. Neighbors who’ve had in-depth conversations with our organizers instantly understand why we do this work and why it’s important work, and organizers gain experience in engaging others to want to know more about what we do and maybe even want to get involved.
This clinic had 14 volunteers, and we needed them. There were a number of times where we had up to 4 cars getting lights changed by organizers. One organizer spoke with a community member who had been stopped by the same police officer three nights in a row, on the same stretch of road. The clinic was an opportunity for our organizers to share with folks in the community about how common behavior like this from law enforcement fits into a larger pattern of harassment tactics.
On June 16, the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America put on their 6th (!) Gimme a Brake Light event. We had a dozen volunteers and 19 community members who got their brake lights changed and talked to us about their lives and experiences with police. We also partnered with a comrade from Debt Collective who was available to talk to people about how to renegotiate and resist debt.
Why do we change brake lights? By changing brake lights for free, we aim to take small but significant action to protect one another from state-sanctioned violence at the hands of the police. We want the brake light clinics to open conversations in our communities about our police and prison systems and to get us thinking and organizing together for a different kind of system.
Some of the people we spoke with had recent direct experiences with the police because of broken taillights, including one who received a full dressing down by an officer simply for having a newer car with a non-functioning light. The officer then preceded to chide the man and that he’d “better have a job” to pay the ticket.
Another attendee was a construction worker from across the river who had had a taillight out for weeks but was too busy to change it, while simultaneously saying he was frequently worried about getting stopped for it. He did not know about the event in advance but saw our sign-holders and his wife convinced him to pull in and get his light changed.
We also did one headlight change, for a participant who was on a fixed income and had the headlight but couldn’t afford to take into the shop to change it. Headlights aren’t typically our purview, but we got it done thanks to the tireless efforts of a comrade.
As we come up to the one-year anniversary of the very first brake light change event, we’ve learned a lot. It was never enough to just change brake lights. This isn’t a charity project, but a way to highlight the contradictions between the capitalist police state and socialist equity. As such, we’ve worked hard to become more intentional about the ways in which we interact with people at the events – basic stuff in terms of having real conversations, inquiring and listening to other community needs and opportunities, encouraging people to learn more about democratic socialism, and making them feel welcome at our table.
We have a long way to go, but with each clinic, we become better organizers – and perhaps more importantly – better members of our communities.