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Left of center, east of Slater: R.I. Socialists meet in Wilson

At 7 p.m. on Thursday nights, Wilson 301 transforms from a classroom into a hotbed of radical political activism. Bed sheets adorned with black, stenciled letters drape from the chalkboards, reading "Fight for Civil Rights," "Stop Israel's Slaughter in Gaza: Cut off U.S. Aid!" and "Tax the Rich, Stop the Racism, Stop the War." An array of books set up like a buffet lines a slim table along one wall, covering topics from the Iraq war to Mexican immigration.

Hanging from the classroom's open door is a red flag emblazoned with a black fist and the letters "I.S.O.," proclaiming this a meeting of the Rhode Island Chapter of the International Socialist Organization.

This semester, the ISO is revitalizing its presence on campus. While the organization has existed at Brown periodically since the late 1970s, the group's numbers have swelled in attendance this fall, attracting nearly 50 attendees to an Oct. 14 discussion on Islamophobia.

Why, with Democratic control of in both houses of Congress and the White House, is socialism gaining popularity?

 "It's the curse of getting exactly what we want," explains Josh Kilby, a self described "community agitator" from Providence and ISO party member. Disillusioned with President Obama who, in Kilby's words, "has performed staggeringly well for the ruling class," the group is hoping to "build a political alternative to the left of the Democratic Party."

A diverse membership

Kilby, like many of the ISO's newest recruits, is not a Brown student. The group estimates that about 30 percent of its membership is local residents or students with no affiliation to the University. Of the members present Oct. 14, older attendees included Brian Chidester, a schoolteacher from Bristol, and Shaun Joseph '05, now pursuing a doctorate in computer science at the University of Rhode Island.

Prospective student Aaron Plave and his mother saw posters advertising the meeting while touring campus and decided to visit. "You probably wouldn't see this kind of discussion at other schools," Plave said, before his mother added, "Well, maybe at Wesleyan." Plave said political activism and intellectual freedom attracted him to apply, although he said he finds the socialist group "hard to judge."

The recent resurgence of the ISO is led by Paige Sarlin GS, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in modern culture and media who also received a master of fine arts in filmmaking from the Art Institute in Chicago and considers herself "thoroughly overeducated."

 "I think what we suffer from at Brown is status quo — the assumption that we all agree," Sarlin said. Students refrain from honest political discussions and are "wary to ask what people really think," she said.

Sarlin said she believes that Brown students "are quite different, and we should take a stand and disagree." In the spirit of the Marxist tradition, the ISO believes that "dialogue is the most democratic process," she said.

 Unlike socialist reincarnations of past decades, the Rhode Island ISO is concerned with a variety of current political and social agendas. Kilby found the ISO through his involvement with the LGBT movement and the National Equality March. His partner is a Dominican immigrant, and the two became interested in immigrant rights and labor issues together.

"All LGBT aren't all flabby old white people," Kilby said. "Some of us are immigrants, and all of us are workers. The oppression of one group is directly tied to the oppression of another, and I'm here to tear down the whole damn system."

‘Tax the rich, end the wars'

The presentation on Islamophobia was delivered by Lindsay Goss GS, a second-year doctoral candidate in theater and performance studies. Goss passionately read from her laptop computer for nearly half an hour, accusing a variety of politicians of "whipping up racism against Islam and Arabs," decrying President Bush's "open-ended project of imperialism in the oil-rich Middle East," and criticizing Obama's weak-kneed response to Florida pastor Terry Jones' threat to burn a Quran. The crowd chuckled sardonically when Goss quoted Bush or conservative pundit Ann Coulter.

Towards the end of her speech, Goss compared modern Islamophobia to Richard Nixon's use of the "dog whistle of racism" to rally Southern voters for his presidential bids. As if by command, Krupskaya — Sarlin's dog, the group's unofficial mascot, named for Vladimir Lenin's wife — sprung to life from the floor and wandered happily through the rows of attendees, provoking laughter.

During the question-and-debate portion, an attendee dressed in a black hat covered in rows of buttons with a matching, spray-painted coat wondered, "What about capitalism causes Islamophobia?" Another man with a long beard discussed the possibility of undercover FBI informants penetrating the group's meetings.  

Meanwhile, the group passed around a bag collecting contributions to fund its activities and provide childcare for members during events. "It costs money to host these meetings," one member said.

Sarlin's response to one concern was cut short when her allotted time elapsed and the moderator promptly rapped the table with a closed fist, moving the meeting to its next topic. The group uses this method to maintain order during often-passionate discussions.

‘Some kind of communists?'

The ISO does not currently support any political candidates, and is unaffiliated with any parties running for office this fall.

Kilby emphasized that the group does not subscribe to the "watered down" socialism practiced in some European states. Rather, the ISO advocates for the complete "overturning of the capitalist system."

But Sarlin said the group does not currently advocate violence.

"Who has the monopoly on violence?" she asked. "The state."

Sarlin said the ISO boasts a mere 1,100 members nationwide and works solely for the "emancipation of the working class."

A political party "should be the expression of the people," she said. "Right now, we are not an expression of the people." Violence cannot be a strategy while the ISO is small, she said.

But, "at some point in the future, when the numbers are big enough," Sarlin said, the people will have to "defend themselves against the state."

The ISO stands simply for the belief that "people don't want a small group to make decisions for the majority," she said. Instead, " the majority should make a system for the majority."

Sarlin pointed to the French workers commune of revolutionary France as an example of workers' councils elected from the people. "We don't have a concrete plan," she said. "But we have some models to go by."

At the end of the meeting, the group invited its members to continue their discussion at the Trinity Brewhouse downtown. ISO members eagerly discussed political matters as they hurried out the door, packing up the flags and books that decorated the classroom. One student called out, "Comrades, let us go!" as he headed out the door.

 "Comrades?" joked another member. "What are you guys, some kind of communists?"


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