How A Movement For A Party Of The People Has Been Anything But.
An investigation into the dysfunction and mistreatment experienced by ex-volunteers for the Movement for a People's Party.
In the days and weeks following The People’s Convention, an online event seen by thousands on August 30, 2020 featuring names like Cornel West, Marianne Williamson & Nina Turner, the Movement for a People’s Party was awash with new attention, members, and organizational challenges to adjust to.
The organization, founded by Nick Brana in 2017 (originally as “Draft Bernie for a People’s Party”) was promising big things to those exasperated by the undemocratic shenanigans of the Democratic party, especially in the wake of their treatment of Bernie Sanders. Namely, they were promising to do what the Green Party has tried to, but never really succeeded in pulling off: taking power from the Democrats and Republicans via a major new third party, or scare the political establishment so much in the process of trying that they are forced to adopt your platform. With this mammoth task at hand, Brana and the other unelected leadership of the MPP began delegating authority to various committees and subcommittees and geographically oriented “hubs” for organizing the groundwork necessary to become a real political party. What happened over the next several months includes inter-party dysfunction, disaffected volunteers who formed a petition, accusations of Democratic Party infiltration, and allegations of mistreatment and unprofessional behavior on every level.
The Vanguard spoke to 6 individuals who either left or were booted from The People’s Party after volunteering their time to the cause, both on air in a live panel for our YouTube channel, and extensively off the air. What they detailed was systemic dysfunction, a complete absence of democracy in the leadership hierarchy, little-to-no financial transparency provided, and a consistent pattern of disrespect from leadership, which manifested sometimes in ableist and racist behaviors that will be outlined in this article.
Kamilah Harris was on-boarded as a local hub coordinator in California, where she was excited to get to work on the ground advancing the goals of a major new party. She also took on the role of secretary of the Black Voters Circle, and helped orient new members into the organization. “I was really involved with the Movement for a People’s Party,” she told The Vanguard. She would later become secretary of the petitioners group which sought to rectify and bring attention to the issues she saw first-hand in the organization.
Renee Johnston got involved with the MPP after being inspired by the People’s Convention in August. “I was excited to not have to have fights about ‘voting Blue no matter who’, which I haven’t done in over a decade,” she told us candidly. This sentiment reflects a broader view expressed by most of the ex-volunteers: an optimism provoked by the People’s Party’s stated mission, and an attraction to the community of like-minded activists who were equally frustrated by the political system as represented by the Democrat-Republican duopoly. In her own words, Johnston was hoping that the MPP would be “something that would give people a third option; an alternative that was going to be run by the people, and was going to be a voice of the people. I joined in immediately after watching the Convention.” Mere months later, Brana and People’s Party leadership would accuse Johnston of being a Democratic Party infiltrator after she voiced concerns.
“I was running the New York meetings. They were happening on my husband’s Zoom, because MPP didn’t have extra Zooms for me to use,” Johnston told us, impressing the energy and time she expended organizing for the group. “I was literally on the weekly meetings cooking my family dinner, dealing with my child.” Johnston then became involved with the petitioners group and was elected to continue negotiations with leadership on behalf of the petitioners. Over the course of one night, MPP decided to cut ties with Renee Johnston and remove her access without so much as contacting her via text. She later received an email in which they cited an “abundance of caution” as the reason for cutting ties and references to “disruptive” messages in the General Slack which were never specified or pointed to.
The lack of financial transparency and democratically elected leadership were major concerns for Renee. It’s why the petition begins with the following points:
We must have a formal, horizontal organizational structure, including detailed bylaws which require:
a. A democratic decision-making process which involves volunteers at all levels in decisions about goals and how work is done
b. A national leadership circle that is non-hierarchical
c. Election of all leaders and option for recall
d. Detailed roles and responsibilities of leaders, including that the role of leaders is to listen to and serve their community
e. Formal accountability/grievance processes
f. Financial transparency with periodic, detailed financial reports published
The petitioners wanted access to “periodic, detailed information, so that people knew when they give their money, ‘this is where why money is going, this is where my money being spent.’” According to Renee, this kind of financial transparency was commonplace and considered standard at all the previous non-profits for which she had worked. The efforts of the petitioners to raise awareness about these issues were characterized by Nick Brana on a Jan. 13, 2021 Zoom call, a recording of which was shared with The Vanguard, as, “An escalating attack against MPP and against the community.” Brana then went on to say, “It's taken many forms, including what is clear infiltration.”
Brana and the People’s Party have yet to provide any evidence that there was any infiltration, or that the ex-volunteers had any ulterior motives. Nick Brana or the members of the People’s Party leadership have not responded to The Vanguard’s multiple requests for comments or interviews in the past two months.
Joe Cheray, a disability activist from Topeka, Kansas told us she got booted from the organization after repeatedly suggesting that they include subtitles and American Sign Language translation as a part of their weekly live-streamed national calls. Cheray organized MPP’s People with Disabilities Political Outreach Circle, but when she tried to use her newfound position to actually push for accommodations for the disabled, such as increased accessibility, she was told such services were unaffordable and unobtainable despite Cheray’s many suggestions of how to sanction these services.
“They had no closed captioning on the calls, and they had no ASL. For an organization with disability rights on their platform, that is something they should have been having from Day 1,” said Cheray.
MPP booted Joe Cheray and cut ties with her after she continued to bring attention to this issue and after she engaged in a Twitter spat with Thomas Royko, the National Technical Coordinator for The People’s Party. This Twitter spat precipitated her exit. “I was axed,” Cheray said.
Renee Johnston, Kamilah Harris and Steve Coleman also detailed to The Vanguard the rampant casual racism which occurred unchecked in the unmoderated People’s Party general slack. Steve Coleman described to us an instance in which participants of the Slack were debating whether or not it was acceptable for white people to use racial slurs like the “N” word. Coleman interjected that it was not acceptable, and tried to draw attention to the issue by tagging Nick Brana and other leadership in a post in which he asked, “Are you okay with this?” After, he was called a class and race traitor. “Two hours later, I went to bed, got up, go onto Slack, and I’m banned,” said Coleman. They removed all of Coleman’s access without so much as an email explaining their decision or an attempt to ameliorate the situation. Two days later, the very person whose post Coleman had tried to bring attention to was platformed on a weekly National Call.
“We had no input, absolutely nothing” said Lisa Pfeffer, a former East Coast MPP organizer when describing the role of volunteers in the MPP. An early signer of the petition of grievances, Pfeffer has been at the forefront of the effort to hold the MPP leadership accountable. However, since leaving the party she has expressed a complete lack of confidence that party leadership will resolve the grievances aired by the petitioners.”The way forward is not MPP”, she said plainly in a panel discussion with former MPP volunteers hosted by The Vanguard. “People’s Party? It does not exist, it is a clout chasing machine, Nick and Co. … They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.... They do not take constructive criticism at all,” she added.
Pfeffer herself was on-boarded to the MPP by West Coast Coordinator Jerry Perez, who she said spent “12-17 hours a day onboarding people throughout the United States for months.” Perez publicly stepped down from his role in the People’s Party, citing the organizational dysfunction and disrespect towards volunteers and organizers. In an official statement Perez expressed that he had “lost all trust and confidence in MPP and its leadership. It is clear that they are not ready to organize in a transparent, open, and respectful way with organizers across the nation.”
Despite The Vanguard’s numerous requests for comment and participation in open forums and dialogue, the Movement for a People’s Party leadership left all requests for comment and to appear on the podcast unanswered. Refusing to answer basic questions regarding leadership accountability creates an understandable amount of skepticism, especially from a movement that celebrates transparency and purports to be the antidote to the undemocratic structure of the two party duopoly.
As was mentioned by the petitioners and cited in the piece above, the MPP marketed themselves as a party with a horizontal leadership structure. At no point was one implemented, and even the most important decisions, such as policy positions, strategic priorities, and who would be placed in leadership, were decided by undemocratic means, behind closed doors, by the MPP leadership. As a result, the MPP has removed all references to horizontal leadership structures of any kind, and has announced no plans to reinstate them.
Following the avalanche of support that came their way in the wake of their massively inspirational convention — which featured a litany of the most vibrant and critical voices on the left, ranging from Chris Hedges and Cornel West to Nina Turner — the Movement for a Peoples Party had a golden opportunity to live up to their mission and their declared value set. Instead, they have seemingly chosen to walk the path of those they proclaim to be fighting.