Charlottesville: Where's the $200,000 the DSA raised?

Unite the Right rally survivors say they have not received help from funds raised by Democratic Socialists of America.

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    Activists hold a photo of Heather Heyer, the counter-protester killed in Charlottesville on August 12 [Michael Dwyer/AP Photo]
    Activists hold a photo of Heather Heyer, the counter-protester killed in Charlottesville on August 12 [Michael Dwyer/AP Photo]

    Allie was among the 19 people injured when white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr allegedly drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia in August.

    "When the car backed away, he smashed me between his car, and I got kind of hung up on the trunk of another," Allie, who asked her last name not be used, recalled.

    "He smashed my pelvis into a parked car," she told Al Jazeera.

    The attack also killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. 

    Allie suffered a crushed pelvis that left her with sizeable hospital bills.

    While she has insurance, under the US healthcare system, she still must pay "deductibles" or partial fees before the insurance fully kicks in.

    Allie's out-of-pocket limit for 2017 was between $15,000 and $16,000.

    "This is going to be a lifetime injury," Allie said. "I'm going to need physical therapy for probably the rest of my life and orthopedist for at least the next decade."

    That is why when she heard about a fund by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to support victims of the far-right attack, she thought she could find some reprieve.

    "I was hoping the DSA would be a faster route," Allie said.

    But after more than three months of searching for information, writing applications and attempting to find answers, Allie and others still have not received any financial help from the DSA, prompting questions over the DSA's handling of the money. 

    Delayed from the beginning

    The DSA, which has gained about 20,000 new members over the past year, raised more than $198,000 to help victims of the far-right attack in Charlottesville through a crowdfunding page. 

    Allie said she learned about the DSA fund "almost immediately" after her initial hospital stay, and reached out to them to apply for assistance.

    "It took me a really long time to get in touch with the DSA, locally," Allie said.

    A few weeks passed, and she was put in contact with the Richmond DSA chapter through a friend and finally received information about how to apply.

    The national DSA office told her she had to report the hospital where she received care and the police officers she spoke to regarding the attack.

    But the requirement of police involvement for Charlottesville and Richmond activists was controversial, Allie said.

    Police requirement 

    Charlottesville police have arrested left-wing, anti-racist protesters for petty offences, prompting fear among many. A grand jury related to the events of the August violence began on November 12 and activists are afraid they may be summoned.

    Activists in nearby Richmond have told Al Jazeera that they suspect police department has attempted to infiltrate their ranks.

    A 220-page review of the police's handling of the rally released on Friday said law enforcement officers on the local and state levels were not adequately prepared for the rally.

    This view was shared by counterprotesters, who have maintained that police allowed things to escalate.

    Charlottesville Police Lt Stephen Upman said at a press conference that police were planning "to determine our next steps" after the report.

    Police actions during the rally worsened the already-strained relationship between law enforcement and left-wing activists.

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    A police-related controversy had struck the DSA earlier in August when Danny Fetonte, a long-time organiser from the Austin, Texas chapter, was elected to the DSA's National Political Committee (NPC), the party's primary political leadership body.

    Fetonte, who worked with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), was involved in organising police unions, a fact with which many of the DSA's new members took issue. CLEAT, the state's largest police officer union, has been accused of working against police reform.

    Fetonte eventually stepped down after DSA chapters across the country called for his dismissal.

    Despite her concerns about police involvement, Allie still applied for the funds, submitting all the required documents.

    Survivor uncertainty over the funds' status 

    Local activists, including Allie, told Al Jazeera that the DSA initially wanted the Red Cross, an international charitable organisation that also requires police reports to verify claims, to disburse the funds. 

    After members from the DSA's Charlottesville and Richmond chapters complained about the choice, national DSA went with the National Compassion Fund (NCF), according to the DSA Deputy Director David Duhalde.

    Allie never received this news. She found it when she was looking into charitable organisations supporting victims of the October 1 Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest in modern US history, and saw a Charlottesville fund on the website of the NCF. She immediately applied again. 

    According to Allie, it was Richmond DSA chapter that confirmed that the funds had been transferred to the NCF, not the national DSA to which she had originally applied for assistance.

    Other than an automated response from NCF, Allie has not received word from the charitable organisation.

    Eve, another counterprotester and survivor of the August 12 Charlottesville attack, echoed Allie's story. 

    "I'm not sure" about the status of the money, Eve, who did not give her last name, told Al Jazeera.

    She said she hasn't heard from the NCF, though she did fill out an application for funds shortly after the attack. Eve wasn't aware that her application, or the money itself, was passed to the NCF.

    Lack of transparency

    The DSA's approach to handling the funds has been criticised by the community and some of its local chapters. 

    According to Austin Gonzales, the chair of the DSA's Richmond, Virginia chapter, the process lacked transparency and local input for a variety of reasons.

    Gonzales said the fund was first set up by members of the Anchorage, Alaska DSA chapter. After the national organisation realised it was going to be a sizable amount, it took over the funds "amicably".

    After concerns were raised about Red Cross involvement, national DSA approached the NCF on August 29 about potentially taking over the fund, according to a statement by the Richmond DSA chapter.

    The NCF "has told us that they do not work with police", Gonzalez said. Still, the Richmond DSA chair, along with other groups in the area, felt local organisers should have more say in the disbursement of funds.

    Representatives of the Richmond and Charlottesville DSA chapters and the NPC held a conference call on October 3, nearly two months after the attack, to discuss options for allocation of funds.

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    DSA Richmond submitted a proposal a week later, calling for the funds to be held by national DSA while local chapters "moderate the disbursal" by vetting applications from the injured, Gonzalez said.

    This method of distribution was designed to make the system quicker and shield local chapters from legal penalties if funds were given to the wrong people. Four days later, on October 14, national DSA informed the Richmond chapter that it had voted for the NCF.

    The NCF now controls the funds. 

    Gonzalez said he understands the reasoning behind the decision but wishes the DSA national steering committee had attempted "to entertain an alternative, which I don't think that was done."

    Regarding the decision-making process, Duhalde told Al Jazeera their "staff dedicated significant time to researching and understanding what our options were" regarding the funds.

    By the time Richmond DSA provided "options to distribute the money to local organisations, national DSA had moved forward with finding alternative plans in response to requests from Richmond DSA leaders to resolve the situation," he added.

    Local chapters were not incorporated at the time of the proposal, Duhalde said, meaning they could have faced "faced serious legal and financial consequences" if funds were inappropriately handled. "These legal and financial risks were a major factor in the NPC's decision."

    Gonzalez said that “even if they legality of it was in … a grey area, I still wish the input of the locals had been weighed a bit heavier than it was, rather than just ‘Ok, we’ll give it one lump sum to the NCF, wash our hands of it, we’re done here.” 

    Gonzales, who has been in discussions with national DSA, said February is the most recent estimate of when funds would begin to be disbursed. He said, however, that he was "encouraged" by more recent conversations with national DSA and that it is "possible" that the funds might be distributed sooner.

    Duhalde said "all 10" people who applied through the DSA had their information transferred to the NCF.

    The NCF did not return Al Jazeera's request for comment.

    For Allie, who suffered a crushed pelvis, the DSA's conduct, including the lack of transparency and public outreach regarding the fund's status, was "problematic".

    While she was "sorry" for any harm the facts about the Charlottesville fund might cause the DSA, "this is something they completely brought upon themselves with their actions", Allie said.

    Clarification Dec. 7, 2017: This article has been amended to make clear the National Compassion Fund controls and is responsible for the disbursement of funds, after concerns were raised by the DSA. The article has also been changed to reflect that applicants were not aware of the status of the funds.


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