Baton Rouge is a city under siege.
Whether it’s tax policy that throws away public resources, a carceral system that steals years of labor from citizens or demagogues aiming to divide with extremist right-wing rhetoric, the residents of the state capital face a constant barrage of reactionary politics.
In that environment, a new DSA chapter is working to bring socialist ideas to the fore.
“We’re people doing what we can to change Baton Rouge for the better and promote a vision of politics that you just don’t get anywhere else,” said Billy S., treasurer and former co-chair of the Baton Rouge DSA.
The chapter, born out of a reading group in 2017, engages in a mix of mutual aid, direct action and canvassing to further that vision.
The canvassing program will be familiar to New Orleans DSA members. The state has highly gerrymandered districts that aim to concentrate minority votes in one district and deny disadvantaged groups representation. Because of that, Baton Rouge shares Rep. Cedric Richmond with New Orleans. That means the DSA chapters in both cities have been able to coordinate a petition campaign for Medicare for All, with Baton Rouge contributing dozens of signatures to the effort.
The group also mobilizes to feed the hungry with Famine is the Enemy, and coordinated with LSU’s YDSA to counter events by TPUSA, a group that sponsors ultra-conservative speakers on campuses in the hopes of generating publicity for their causes.
Baton Rouge DSA’s growth comes amid a campaign by capitalists to raid the public coffers and imprison the working class, Billy said.
Giveaways to the Rich
Baton Rouge has been the center of a statewide debate over the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP), Billy said. The program allows businesses to avoid paying property taxes at the expense of public programs that rely on property taxes: schools and other local services. The program is a huge handout to the richest in Louisiana.
A study by Together Baton Rouge shows the ITEP cost East Baton Rouge Parish entities $770 million from 1998-2017. In that time, the top ITEP recipients cut 2,263 jobs in the parish. In a time where the parish schools are strapped for funds, East Baton Rouge Parish schools faced numerous cutbacks and budget crunches over that period.
A coalition of Baton Rouge groups have risen up to oppose these gifts to those who need them the least, and in 2018, the program was reformed to at least give local governments a veto over the state’s ITEP decisions.
Another area of concern for Baton Rouge leftists have been the conditions at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, Billy said.
The infamous prison has been called “deplorable” and “inhumane” by a Baton Rouge city councilor. Most prisoners live in a unit built in the ‘60s, and the “new” unit is 30 years old, according to the Advocate. Since 2000, the prison’s population has doubled. Thousands of the city’s poor have been held because of lack of bail money, losing jobs, housing and opportunities even though they had yet to be convicted. The prison has a death rate 2.5 times higher than the national average.
Amid these injustices, the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition has formed to agitate for change.
Looking to the Future
The city struggles with the malfeasances of the capitalist class, but Baton Rouge DSA hopes to join the growing leftist movement toward justice, Billy said.
“We have a voice ready and a space for alternatives,” he said.
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