St. Louis' Socialists Want to Teach You to Fix Brake Lights


DSA members repair a brake light on April 28. - COURTESY OF DSA
  • DSA members repair a brake light on April 28.

For some, a busted brake light is a minor nuisance solved with a trip to an auto repair shop. But with the right tools and a bit of know-how, fixing that light can be even easier and cheaper — and more than that, a protection against a life-altering interaction with law enforcement.

"If someone has a broken brake light, that's one of the leading causes for them getting a traffic stop," explains Andrew Sorrells, a member of the St. Louis chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is hosting its second free training clinic for brake light repair this Saturday.

So, what's socialism got to do with auto repair? Superficially, nothing — Saturday's event isn't a protest against, say, the capitalistic pigs of Big Brake Light.

Rather, what is at stake, says Sorrells, is the safety of motorists, particularly minorities and those living in poverty who don't have the $50 to $100 it usually takes to pay for labor and parts at the local auto repair business.

"A lot of time, the people who get pulled over the most have the least ability to pay for them," Sorrells says. "It goes into a downward spiral; some of them even wind up in jail. All because all because of a simple brake light that only costs a few dollars for a bulb and maybe 30 minutes of work to replace."

That downward spiral has hit a disproportionate number of black motorists in Missouri, particularly in the patchwork of revenue-hungry municipalities that were exposed by journalists in the wake of the Ferguson protests in 2014. While recent reforms to those municipal court systems encourage judges to consider alternatives to monetary fines, that still doesn't solve the underlying issue for the individual motorist — that pesky broken brake light.

The DSA chapter in New Orleans pioneered the idea to train others in brake light repair, and it's since spread to other leftist groups. Last week, a free brake light repair event was hosted by the Mid-Missouri John Brown Gun Club, a leftist, anti-fascist, pro-gun group based in Columbia.

At the St. Louis DSA's first repair clinic in April, Sorrells says the group trained about 30 people in the art of repair, and during a subsequent event later that month, those people set up shop in the parking lot of Trinity Episcopal Church in the Central West End. On that day, Sorrells says the group fixed about two-dozen brake lights — for free. He hopes they can double that number this time around.

This Saturday, the DSA is returning to Trinity Episcopal. Details on the training clinic can be found here. Next month, on August 4, the DSA will offer free brake light repairs at Greater St. Mark Family Church in Ferguson.

To be clear, you don't have to identify with DSA or socialism to attend either event or to get your brake light fixed.

"We are making a direct impact on one or more individuals' lives, which is just an objectively good thing," Sorrells says, though he also notes that the event fits within socialism's more general framework: resisting capitalism's disproportionate concentrations of wealth.

"In a capitalist system you allow this vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots, and so inevitably that prevents any kind of civic government from operating fairly," Sorrells says. Ideally, he hopes that events like this can "shame" cities like St. Louis to end predatory ticketing practices or, at least, to motivate them to provide brake light repair as a service to residents.

"If you ask a city, why do you have these stringent ticketing process, they'll say, 'Well, we're concerned about traffic safety,'" Sorrells says. "Maybe they are, but then if a tiny organization like ours can fix cars, then the city of St. Louis or Ferguson or St. Louis County could easily be providing this service on a massive scale, and could greatly improve traffic safety without ruining people's lives."

See also: Black Drivers Stopped in Missouri at a Rate 85 Percent Higher Than Whites

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at

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