Her Group Rallied Behind the Historic Union Drive At Burgerville. Can Olivia Katbi Smith Harness Portland’s Left To Make an Even Bigger Impact?

"Victories don’t happen within the parameters of what society deems appropriate. You’re not going to have radical wins by asking nicely.”

(Walker Stockly)

Olivia Katbi Smith went to Burgerville last month to celebrate. But she wasn't there to get a Tillamook cheeseburger basket.

Or to buy anything.

For two years, workers at the fast-food franchise at Southeast Powell Boulevard and 92nd Avenue had been agitating for a union.

Katbi Smith, 26, had persuaded dozens of her fellow Portland socialists to picket outside the restaurant in a show of support for employees and the Industrial Workers of the World, the union organizing the campaign.

Burgerville, the Vancouver, Wash.-based fast-food chain famed for its Walla Walla onion rings and marionberry milkshakes, agreed to recognize the results of a unionization vote. On April 23, the 22 employees at the Powell store voted to form the first fast-food union in the United States.

An employee at the Southeast Portland Burgerville (Daniel Stindt)

"This is rare and historic," says Bob Bussel, director of the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center. "I don't know of any other fast-food restaurants to have successfully unionized."

Three days after the union victory, more than 50 picketers jammed the store's parking lot at dusk. The crowd irritated patrons—two of whom got out of their car, fists raised and cursing. The picketers wore party hats and ate cupcakes, but also pledged they wouldn't stop blocking Burgerville entrances until the union got a new contract, with a $5-an-hour pay hike.

Some supporters, like Katbi Smith, were members of the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. It's a political movement that barely existed in this city two years ago, but is now impossible to miss at city budget hearings and street protests and in fast-food drive-thru lanes.

Southeast Portland Burgerville (Daniel Stindt)

The Democratic Socialists of America are looking for a fight. They see themselves on a collision course with capitalism.

"A society that is run for profit is destined to fail," says Katbi Smith, co-chairwoman of the Portland DSA chapter.

Across the country, the movement that coalesced around U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has turned into the Tea Party of the left, aggressively pushing the Democratic Party toward more radical economic ideas. Its single guiding tenet: to smash capitalism.

"Capitalism has mostly brought people misery," says Katbi Smith's co-chairwoman, Emily Golden-Fields, 40. "People are having a really hard time, and that's the capitalist dream at play."

In Portland, the group has seen soaring growth, and achieved political gains unprecedented among Portland's far-left activist community.

The Portland DSA chapter has 800 dues-paying members—160 times the five people it started with in November 2016. That's as many members as the DSA chapter in Seattle, and more than in San Francisco.

In fact, the Rose City's chapter of the DSA is second only to Boston's for the largest per capita in the nation's major cities.

"I went to a meeting last year expecting to see 10 old people," says Mike Edera, a longtime Portland activist. "Instead, there were over 100 young people, who've shown up to every monthly meeting since. I've never seen a group accomplish that, and I've been organizing movements for almost 30 years."

(Sam Gehrke)

The DSA's rise is opportune. Thanks to the state's automatic voter registration law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2016, record numbers of Oregonians are signed up to vote. They just aren't joining a political party.

Between January 2016 and today, the number of Oregonians who checked a "not a member of a party" box when registering to vote increased by 58 percent, while the number of Democrats has increased just 15 percent.

That's a telling mark of how young voters view state politics. They're looking for something new. Something like the DSA.

The Democratic Socialists of America is not a recognized political party. Yet its meetings now regularly attract as many as 200 people a month.

Democratic Party meetings in Portland, by comparison, draw 100 people, usually retirees. The Republican Party of Portland pulls in around 15.

"We would like to see more youth engagement," says Ami Fox, spokeswoman for the Multnomah County Democrats, "but organizing young people is more difficult."

DSA members celebrating Karl Marx’s 200th birthday. May 6, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

Not for the socialists.

"People in their early- to mid-20s don't have preconceived notions about the word 'socialism,'" Katbi Smith says. "It's an alternative to the way things work now, and that's appealing to a lot of people."

Portland's left wing is notoriously fractious—whether it's black-clad anarchists or social justice marchers who historically are better at making television news than sparking real change. But the DSA says it is focused on achieving tangible results.

The Burgerville union victory is merely one check mark on the DSA's list. Since the start of April, it has been disrupting every city budget hearing with a demand for higher tax rates for Portland's richest residents. And this November, it's poised to deliver something no other radical leftist group in this city has in decades: a substantive ballot measure.

Portland DSA plans to provide ground troops—as many as 370 volunteers—for a city ballot measure that would levy a 1 percent tax on the profits of big companies like Walmart and Amazon to fund renewable energy projects.

(Sam Gehrke)

Nationally, mainstream Democrats and the army of Sanders supporters are still navigating their often adversarial relationship. It's far from clear how that relationship will play out in Oregon, where the chief opposition to DSA is not Republicans, as it is in many states, but others who consider themselves progressive.

Some observers remain skeptical the socialists can shift Oregon Democrats leftward.

"The DSA has a rap that they have to address," says Barbara Dudley, 72, founder of the Oregon Working Families Party, "which is that they are white, college-educated urbanites. Their biggest hurdle is going to be staying power. And that's hard for any organization."

Katbi Smith says the DSA will endure.

"There are people that call us crazy protesters," she says, "and yet you have Burgerville making history. I think that shows that these victories don't happen within the parameters of what society deems appropriate. You're not going to have radical wins by asking nicely."

(Walker Stockly)

The morning of April 21, a crisp Saturday, brought representatives of Oregon's political ruling class to the Portland waterfront to dedicate a Navy warship. Gov. Kate Brown and Mayor Ted Wheeler were on hand to christen the USS Portland, a 684-foot amphibious transport dock ship moored next to the Steel Bridge.

Less than a mile away, Katbi Smith was rallying troops to march against the $1.6 billion behemoth.

In a grungy parking lot on Northwest 21st Avenue, she was dressed in black with a red and white keffiyeh—a symbol of Palestinian solidarity that she wears at every protest—wrapped around her neck.

Katbi Smith looked the part of socialist revolutionary—donning military boots and a smear of red lipstick that looked more like war paint than fashion statement. Armed with a megaphone, she took huge strides that belied her small frame as she exhorted her comrades with cries of "Smash the U.S. war machine!" (In private, she's more soft-spoken, enjoys playing with her dogs, Moon and Orleg, and surfing Twitter—the platform where she met her husband.)

(Walker Stockly)

Her rallying speech was brief: critical of Brown and Wheeler, whom she denounced as imperialists, and centered on her Jordanian heritage. As she spoke against President Donald Trump's recent airstrike on Syria, and of her fear for her grandmother who lives in Damascus, the 50-strong crowd offered sympathetic hums and gentle snaps of their fingers.

"The U.S. doesn't give a fuck about Syrian lives," she said, as the group erupted into whistles and claps. "Fuck your war. Fuck your warship," she ended her speech.

Katbi Smith says if she often seems angry, it's because there's a lot to be angry about.

She has dual Jordanian and American citizenship. In 1985, her father immigrated from Jordan to rural Ohio, where Katbi Smith was raised. In fourth grade, she remembers watching the twin towers collapse on TV. She says the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric that followed 9/11 pushed her into political conversations at a young age.

(Sam Gehrke)

"Just growing up Arab in that environment while the drums of war were beating in Afghanistan and Iraq made me realize that politics were important," she says. "And politics made me an outlier compared to the people I grew up with."

At 18, as a senior in high school, she signed up for a political fellowship program through Ohio State University, where she interned briefly for Republican offices in the state senate.

"I realized quickly it was not where I belong," Katbi Smith says. "I was surrounded by white men who always said things that were sexist or racist."

She moved to Chicago, where she interned for nine months with Chicago Forward, a liberal political action committee.

Yet to her surprise, she was no more impressed with Democrats.

"The PAC was working on electing terrible people," she says, pointing to a re-election effort for Chicago Alderman Rey Colón, who was dogged by allegations of corruption and arrested for drunken driving in 2014. "Their job was just to put a rubber stamp on someone to get them in office. I saw how fucked up the Democratic machine is. They only stood for putting people in office who were the most loyal."

(Sam Gehrke)

Another, more personal wedge between Katbi Smith and the Democratic Party was lodged in 2013 when her brother, Andrew, a student at Duke University of Law, died in a car accident.

"Sallie Mae [the student loan company] came after my family to pay his student loans," she says. "I fought until the media picked it up. The Democrat's response"—referring to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)—"was to push this bill that would explain more clearly to people who took out student loans that they're going to be due upon your death.

"The problem is not that people don't understand," Katbi Smith says. "The problem is that loans are due upon your death. That really opened my eyes to the way that Democrats push these half-measures that don't actually benefit anyone except their own image."

Grasping for a different political ideology after two years in Chicago, Katbi Smith and her husband, Connor Smith, moved to Portland in September 2015.

"We had friends here," she says, "and we were cold in Chicago."

Both Katbi Smith and her husband started going to DSA meetings in Portland soon after being galvanized by the 2016 campaign rhetoric of Sanders.

"Bernie Sanders came along and was talking about all these ideas that resonated with me," she says. "Through DSA, I learned so much more about the way the system is designed to keep us alienated and divided."

Olivia Katbi Smith (Sam Gehrke)

The Democratic Socialists are not yet a political party—and say that's not their goal. Instead, they are activists gathered on a platform, mostly economic: universal health care, free college tuition and, to pay for it, massive taxes on the nation's most wealthy.

"Democratic Socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few," the movement's manifesto reads.

The group's efforts to redistribute wealth are carried out by volunteers from more than 200 chapters nationwide.

Katbi Smith says there were about 10 members present at her first Portland DSA meeting, in November 2016. In the three months it took her to decide to run for co-chair, the group grew to 200. Now, 800 people are paying the $45 annual dues.

"As someone who has tried to build grassroots movements for the past two years," says Margot Black, an organizer with Portland Tenants United, "getting that many people in a room is no small accomplishment. It's mind-bogglingly difficult."

Already, the DSA is arguably a more powerful force in Portland politics than the Republican Party.

"It is certainly depressing to hear that we have so many ignorant young people falling for the siren song of socialism," says James Buchal, chairman of the Multnomah County GOP. "[DSA is] not so much a threat to the Democratic Party as a sort of brain disease that has long afflicted it, and which is presently metastasizing."

The DSA also sets the teeth of establishment Democrats on edge.

In that sense, it has less in common with other progressive movements than with a splinter group in Republican politics: the anti-tax Tea Party movement, which has shoved the GOP rightward for the past decade.

They are both grassroots movements. Like Tea Party groups, DSA chapters function autonomously but unite for campaigns like universal health care.

Similar to the way the Tea Party opposed Republican endorsements of increased federal spending, the DSA calls out liberals for taking centrist positions on wealth redistribution programs.

"I just don't see a lot of bold, anti-capitalist stances coming from progressives," Katbi Smith says.

Katbi Smith and Golden-Fields speaking at a Pussy Riot concert at Doug Fir Lounge. March 20, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

"'Progressive' has lost all meaning," Golden-Fields adds. "Everyone wants to say that they are progressive, and that basically means you throw some bones to marginalized people."

Joe Cortright, a Portland economist who favors increasing taxes on wealthy Americans nationally, says the DSA's efforts—Portland-only taxes and labor campaigns—risk turning the city into a political island, isolated from larger debates.

"Acting locally cedes the national stage to the Trumps of the world," Cortright says. "To the extent what they're doing diverts attention from turning Republicans out of Congress, it's tragically shortsighted."

(Katbi Smith says socialists can do both: "While actions are focused locally, nationally we're articulating a larger vision.")

Fox, the Multnomah County Democrats' spokeswoman, is adamant the party is not being split.

"It's not a matter of us versus them," Fox says. "We should be door knocking together to make sure what we want to see happen becomes reality."

But the socialists have their own ideas about what should happen next.

USS Portland warship protest. April 21, 2018. (Walker Stockly)

The DSA added bodies to IWW's campaign to unionize Burgerville.

Luis Brennan, a four-year Burgerville employee at the chain's airport location, says the DSA was invaluable in "increasing the capacity to turn out numbers."

Now the chapter wants to make policy.

For now, Portland DSA is focusing on what it calls a "Tax the Rich" campaign, which it presents as an alternative to the mayor's budget proposal.

DSA's plan outlines a local income tax on the city's wealthiest residents.

The plan starts at a 2 percent tax on incomes above $250,000, and goes up to an 8 percent tax on individual incomes that exceed $1 million.

The Tax the Rich plan doesn't have the support of Mayor Ted Wheeler—or anyone else on the City Council.

"I'm not opposed to taxing the rich," Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, a vocal Sanders supporter, said at an April 17 budget forum. "However, we may be precluded from establishing a city tax at the state level."

If it wants to upend city policy, the DSA will need to appeal directly to voters.

At Karl Marx’s birthday party on May 5, Olivia Katbi Smith and others pledged to “give the boot” to capitalism. (Sam Gehrke)

That's working elsewhere. Candidates running on socialist platforms are winning elections across the U.S. Seattle has a socialist city council member, Kshama Sawant, who was elected in 2013.

During this election cycle, however, the Portland chapter chose not to endorse any local candidates.

That decision infuriated candidates who sought the chapter's endorsement.

"I am an immigrant woman," says Maria Garcia, a candidate for Multnomah County commissioner. "If they didn't think that my struggle and the struggle of the communities I work for represent their struggle too, then I don't know what they stand for. They need to do a self-assessment of their values."

Katbi Smith says campaign endorsements aren't DSA's job.

"As a socialist organization," she says, "our job is not to just put our name on the best candidate in the race. There are plenty of other progressive organizations doing that."

Katbi Smith and Golden-Fields say they would both consider running for office. And Katbi Smith says she would like to see a DSA member on ballot as soon as 2020: "I think any [offices] are fair game."

(Sam Gehrke)

But if the DSA wants to prove it's serious, the best way is by powering a tax initiative to victory this fall.

It's a different plan than the  Tax the Rich campaign—instead of an income tax, it's a tax on corporate profits.

The initiative—created by 350PDX, the Sierra Club, environmental lawyer Brent Foster and the NAACP of Portland—is about to begin gathering signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Called the Portland Clean Energy Fund, it's a tax of 1 percent on Portland revenues of businesses with more than $1 billion in annual sales nationally if they do at least $500,000 worth of business in the city. The money would go to fund renewable energy projects like solar panels and community food gardens.

The DSA has endorsed it, and could provide its 370 volunteers to knock on doors. That's a ground game of unpaid volunteers few policy initiatives in this city can boast.

"We canvassed 92 times for Measure 101," the January ballot measure that passed to uphold parts of  the Legislature's Medicaid funding package, Katbi Smith says. "We'll be a help when it comes to signature gathering."

The initiative will need 34,156 voter signatures to make it on the ballot. Campaign director Paige Richardson says the signature-gathering effort will hire a few paid canvassers, but it is mostly volunteer-driven.

A tax on corporations like Walmart, Starbucks and Amazon seems an easy sell in deep-blue Portland. But observers warn it could prove messy.

"It is unlike anything proposed before," says former City Commissioner Steve Novick. He warns that it could have less traction than Measure 97, the 2016 business tax that failed statewide but passed handily in Multnomah County. "Measure 97 was for schools, health care and social services—which might be more popular than renewable energy or energy efficiency."

What Katbi Smith likes best about the measure is the same thing she likes about fighting Burgerville execs. It's also the thing that makes mainline Democrats nervous.

Burgerville (Daniel Stindt)

It's a direct, undisguised attack on the profit margins of business.

Her co-chairwoman, Golden-Fields, is blunt. "Portland businesses do not negotiate how much they pay in taxes," she says. "We tell them and they pay. This is just the beginning."

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