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SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Four years ago, Willie Burnley Jr. was forced to move out of his rapidly gentrifying city after a layoff, followed by a steep rent increase. Two years later he had saved enough to return to the city where he’d built his post-college life.
In summer 2020, Burnley helped found the group Defund Somerville Police (Defund SPD) to combat the city’s plan to protect the police budget and cut social services — including the Office of Housing Stability, established the year after Burnley’s displacement to help priced-out renters like him. Pressure from Defund SPD, including a bike caravan to the homes of city councilmembers, pushed through a 7.7% decrease in the city’s 2021 police budget, freeing up hundreds of thousands of dollars for housing and food aid.
On Nov. 2, Burnley, now 27, won a seat on Somerville City Council with a platform focused on housing and public safety beyond policing. Burnley is no stranger to electoral politics, having worked as a field organizer to re-elect Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, but his own campaign deviated from the standard protocol. It was jointly run with two other first-time candidates — Charlotte Kelly, a longtime education organizer and co-founder of Defund SPD, and Eve Seitchik, a former co-chair of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which Burnley joined in 2018. The three shared campaign staff and a platform to create a DSA slate for at-large council seats.
“Working in collaboration” was the “embodiment of the politics that we wanted to bring to the city council,” Burnley says.
Burnley, Kelly and Seitchik placed second, third and fifth (respectively) among eight at-large candidates, with just the top four candidates winning seats. But come January, Burnley and Kelly will join two DSA-backed incumbents on Somerville’s 11-person council, with plans to push a pragmatic agenda they’ve dubbed “sidewalk socialism” — an homage to the “sewer socialists” who held office in Milwaukee a century ago.
On the campaign trail, they connected big-picture priorities with the daily facts of life — like how a Green New Deal might expedite sewer upgrades and alleviate flooding. Canvassers also hammered on what Spencer Brown, co-chair of Boston DSA, calls “the two Rs” — rats and rent control. Housing affordability is a perpetual issue, but after hearing complaint after rodent complaint from renters, Kelly’s campaign released a “rat white paper” with solutions from experts and community members, such as a free municipal compost program and the expansion of existing rat mitigation programs to include renters.
Kelly cites that process as an example of how she plans to govern as a “movement elected official,” to allow “people to take ownership over the direction of the policies and structural changes that we need to see,” she says.
Boston-area socialists and progressives also see an opening after the upset victory of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who ran on fare-free transit and a local Green New Deal. She was the sole mayoral candidate to endorse rent control.
To pave the way for sidewalk socialism in Somerville, Boston DSA had hoped to clinch a total of seven at-large and ward seats — a would-be “socialist takeover” in the city of 80,000, per a spring 2021 Politico headline. The group also made endorsements in Boston, Cambridge and Medford, deploying some 500 canvassers to knock more than 100,000 doors in four cities. Of 12 endorsed candidates, seven won, most of whom had backing from progressive groups like Our Revolution or Run for Something — including Kendra Hicks, a first-generation Afro-Latina and self-described socialist who overcame redbaiting and racist attacks to represent Boston’s 6th District.
The losses sting, but Brown puts them in context: “A few years ago, just getting anyone on a city council would have been a dream.”
That’s a broad theme for the Left coming out of Election Day, where perhaps the biggest news was insurgent mayoral candidate India Walton’s loss in Buffalo, N.Y. But socialists won in at least 23 of the 30 local races where DSA’s national organization made endorsements, clinching unlikely victories in cities like St. Petersburg, Fla., and sending multiple members into office in New York City, Ithaca and Rochester, N.Y., and Minneapolis.
Minneapolis also voted down a high-profile ballot question that would have allowed the city to replace its police force with a department of public safety — though support was highest in the three wards where socialist city council candidates campaigned. But Burnley rejects the narrative that these results represent a referendum on last summer’s uprising. He cites a Tufts University survey showing a majority of Somerville residents think police aren’t needed in situations involving mental health crises.
“People know something needs to change. There’s not necessarily a clear consensus on what that [change] needs to be,” Burnley says. “But that’s what organizing is about.”
Burnley adds he didn’t shy away from the “defund” slogan but took the time to talk through a different plan for community safety — including a new civilian crisis response system.
“I can’t say I changed everyone’s mind,” he says, “but that’s not the job of a campaign cycle. That’s lifelong work.”
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Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.