Why fix brake lights? Consider what can happen in a traffic stop: a driver is pulled over for a broken tail light. Maybe they didn’t know it was out; maybe they did. Maybe they don’t have time or money to take it into a shop. Maybe they’re on the way to work. Maybe they’re thinking, when the cruiser pulls up behind them, “Am I supposed to walk around my car every day to make sure all the lights are working,” and “Oh, what if mine is out?” Or, “Oh, mine is definitely out.”
That stop ends with a ticket, or a warrant search finding other unpaid tickets, or a car search, or an arrest, putting them into a tailspin within the criminal justice system, whether it’s for the first or another costly ticket, then possible court costs, or jail time.
More than 50,000 drivers are pulled over in a traffic stop every day in the U.S., according to the Stanford Open Policing Project, which collected reports that found police disproportionately stop black drivers at a higher rate compared to white drivers, and black drivers are 20 percent more likely to get a ticket than white drivers, underlining the stark racial disparities within the criminal justice system.
In August 2017, the Democratic Socialists of America’s New Orleans chapter hosted its first brake light clinic, where organizers and volunteers helped replace brake lights on 50 cars, for free, while reframing a debate over policing as one in which a mechanical failure shouldn’t be a death sentence.
One year later, the chapter has replaced broken brake lights on dozens of cars and inspired 45 other chapters nationwide to host their own clinics.
Its no-cost pop-up clinic returns to North Dorgenois Street at Bayou Road at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 25.
“The goal is to hear people out, and to hear what people have to say about policing and what they have to say about New Orleans in general,” says DSA organizer Kaitlin Marone. “We’re not trying to make everyone a socialist but we are trying to make it more common for people to spend time imagining a world where policing is different, or nonexistent in the way we see it now.”
The success of the brake light clinics has sort of grown in tandem with the chapter, which has grown to nearly 200 members within a year; the national organization has nearly 50,000 members, up from 25,000 at the same time last year.
"When we announced we were going to do it, other chapters were really impressed just by the idea of it," Marone says. "It started getting passed around online, and people immediately started asking us questions about how we did it, before we had even done it."
Now with several clinics behind them and plans to help other chapters get their own clinics off the ground, organizers say they’re getting better at it. The clinics have also served as a point of entry not only for DSA’s politics and its support for prison abolition but also for the chapter itself — skeptics and volunteers at previous clinics now are members or leaders within the chapter.
The chapter also is helping support the launch of brake light clinics at the Baton Rouge and Lafayette chapters.
“What we wanted to do was something that was different than direct action, but maybe helped engage people in a longer-term struggle to fight over-policing, while also allowing us as an organization to do actual, hands-on work, engage our membership, and make better connections with the people around us and in our neighborhoods, and have longer, more-sustained conversations with the people at them,” Marone says.
Those conversations often start with stories about being arrested during a traffic stop, the nervousness people feel when they get behind the wheel, and how a broken tail light led to an arrest without that person telling their family.
That’s less of a conversation that starts with “‘police hassle us, right?’ to ‘police hassle us because of this one very small thing,’ which is something we can’t control, a broken piece of your car you might not even notice, especially if you work a lot,” Marone says. “We don’t want to push a, ‘Hey, you get hassled by cops? Let’s get rid of all of them.’ Our thing is, ‘Imagine if it was different.’”
Benjamin Hoffman argues if even the base reason for pulling someone over for a broken tail light is its threat to public safety, “if that’s the problem, then rather than giving someone a several hundred dollar ticket or searching their car or killing them, hassling them, whatever happens in that police stop, we prove that it’s easy to just change the bulb.”
After the chapter’s first clinic, it published a manual explaining how they did it, and it was picked up by chapters nationwide. They’re working on another edition for this year’s anniversary, amended by a year's worth of experience running the clinic and refining its politics. The clinic also sparked some division among DSA groups who argued that the project potentially takes time and resources from other efforts, or conflates the work with charity rather than it being seen as a mutual aid project, Hoffman says.
A clinic and health fair designed to help people deal with medical and other debt, particularly debt that has gone into collections, returns t…
But the clinics’ growing popularity among chapters has helped them focus energy around a tangible project and gives members “concrete work, which is demonstrably good and people are grateful for,” Marone says. “DSA is of course not a political party. It’s a political organization. We don’t bring candidates into our line though we do endorse them. What it shows is we’re a political group that goes beyond electoralism and we also care about the people we organize alongside.”
The chapter also is organizing around tenants’ rights, workplace organizing, canvassing for support around a Medicare for All campaign, and supporting other clinics — the New Orleans chapter helped launch a debt clinic to help people dispute their debts, take on collectors, or leverage debt as a bargaining tool rather than a burden. Marone says the group and the working class are able to build considerable power through that kind of organizing outside a political party infrastructure.
“We don’t have to be doing work to get someone elected, we don’t have to be doing work to get somebody to vote a certain way in Congress, we don’t have to just call our senators,” she says. “What we can do is establish institutions like the brake light clinic where we help each other, give each other a place to develop ideas and everything on our own and make our own decisions and on our own terms.”