“I don’t know much about cars, but I know a ton about changing brake lights,” says Benjamin Hoffman, 30, a stand-up comic, food-service worker and co-chair of the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. In 2017, the chapter organized its first free brake-light-fixing clinic after a member had a traumatic experience with police officers who pulled her over for having a broken one. Since then, the group has run dozens of clinics, replicated by other chapters in cities across the country. “Any encounter with the cops in America is serious,” Hoffman says. Avoid an expensive ticket by immediately replacing bulbs that are out, which is often easy for older cars.
“You’ll want some screwdrivers and a socket set,” Hoffman says. Needle-nose pliers can come in handy, too. Open your trunk or hatch and look for bolts, screws or clips holding the light fixture in place from the inside. Some cars make this tricky, and on occasion Hoffman and his colleagues have had to climb into people’s trunks to access them. (Look under the trunk’s upholstery. The fasteners are often hidden under plastic covers, which you can pop off with a flathead screwdriver.) Once you’ve unscrewed these, grab the light casing from the outside and tug until it comes off. Remove and replace the faulty bulb (bulbs are imprinted with their model numbers). If you can’t figure out how to get the brake light cover off, search YouTube with the car’s make and model. “It’s always the same archetypical old dudes walking you through how to do every car going back to the ’80s,” Hoffman says.
Over the years, brake-light volunteers have collected all the discarded bulbs in a giant sack; they joke about building a bulb sculpture and calling it Karl Sparks. Hoffman says it’s mostly working-class people who come to the clinics, often driving rickety cars. Volunteers keep packing tape on hand, just in case, and try to engage drivers in conversation about issues like criminal justice and policing. They pass out fliers and bumper stickers that read, “A socialist fixed my brake light.” “Sometimes rich people pull over,” Hoffman says. “We even had an off-duty cop one time.”