Slant

An Interview with Jabari Brisport

This interview was conducted before the insurgency in New York City that began on May 28; in a brief update on June 4, Jabari added: “This is the city of Amadou Diallo, the city of Sean Bell, the city of Eric Garner. We’ve been pushing to defund the NYPD by $1 billion over four years, out of their total budget of $6 billion, but the situation is now moving so fast that it feels like maybe we should go further than that. I saw the proposal to dismantle the police department in Minneapolis; why not in New York?”



ABOUT A THOUSAND YEARS AGO in experiential time, Bernie Sanders ended his bid for the Democrat presidential nomination, centered around universal healthcare. This was just before the coronavirus deepened the massive inadequacies of the US healthcare system, resulting in (at the time of writing) 114,148 deaths. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it in The New Yorker: “Reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders.” More recently, Sanders has failed to endorse reality, refusing to support even reformist demands to defund the police in the wake of the recent US uprisings.

The sphere of the political has lately moved to the riot, which makes everything else look irrelevant. But the New York primary is coming up on June 23. If socialist and radical left candidates can win power at state and local levels, they would be in a position to convey the demands of grassroots solidarity movements. These are the politicians most likely to feel accountable to the streets. The political power of the police also needs to be tackled, especially in New York, where the police union runs the mayor and governor. Radical local politicians could take up the torch of street movements and help to transform baggy buzzwords like “defund” and “dismantle” into real gains for the people and reductions of police power. 

The pandemic makes its own case for universal healthcare, and a pathway to this still remains at state level. The New York Health Act passed the state assembly four times only to be struck down by the state senate. The state senate’s new Democratic majority—which includes democratic socialist Brooklyn senator Julia Salazar—gives it a new chance of passing there. This would be a huge achievement in itself, and some are even cautiously optimistic that winning single-payer in one state could be the first step to nationwide free-at-point-of-service healthcare. 

Jabari Brisport is hoping to join Salazar in fighting for this and other progressive legislation. The thirty-two-year-old middle-school teacher and former actor is running for New York State Senate in District 25, which comprises a big chunk of Brooklyn, including the neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, Red Hook, Bed–Stuy, Sunset Park, Gowanus, and Park Slope. His campaign, endorsed by Sanders himself and supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, has had a lot to contend with in the coronatime. Not least, there’s been confusing back-and-forth around how to conduct elections without risking new infections. The city’s initial plan to send absentee ballots automatically to all voters ahead of the election on June 23 was nixed, but if you live in New York you can order yours online here by June 16. Jabari has been campaigning over video and phone calls from his apartment in Prospect Heights, where he lives with two roommates and a dog. With the pandemic constantly producing new emergencies, Jabari has been delivering groceries via a local mutual aid network alongside his election campaign, and his volunteer phone bankers spend many of their calls just checking in on people’s immediate needs.


The June 23 New York primary alone won’t decide our fate. But in pandemic times, fate expands its terrain. If socialist and radical left activists can win power at state and local levels, they would be in a position to convey the demands of grassroots solidarity movements and to cushion the impacts of what looks likely to be a very difficult near future, both economically and spiritually. No matter what happens in the national election in November, a major recession looks unavoidable and the eldritch white-power energies channeled by Trump are not going anywhere. Money will have to be found somehow, whether through taxation or expropriation. Or else we will see death and suffering on an even more massive scale.

I recently spoke with Brisport about the New York Health Act’s chances, the future of New York City, and why governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2 percent spending cap is the reason hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers waited weeks for their unemployment check. As with my recent interview with economist Philippe van Parijs on Universal Basic Income, I remain ambivalent about both reformist strategies and our medium-term chances of collective survival. But I’m open to hearing about any direction away from this latest abyss.

HB: How did you start out in politics?

Jabari Brisport: I never planned to run for office. I got into politics fighting for same-sex marriage in New York in 2009. I was just twenty-two, and I was like, We can make this win! And then we lost. I felt really shitty about it, like a second-class citizen. It came up for a vote again two years later and I just redoubled my efforts. I was organizing friends, doing phone banks, making calls to state senators, and we won!

I started getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement a few years later. Just seeing those images of people getting gunned down in the street . . . I began to help organize rallies and protests. We did a lot of know-your-rights training: talking to protestors and letting them know what to do if they get stopped or harassed by the police.

Around 2016, I got into the Bernie Sanders campaign. It was the first time I saw a politician who made me think I would have to protest a lot less if they got elected. I fell in love with that campaign. I had never canvassed for a candidate, but I ended up knocking on doors for Bernie and exploring what it meant to be a democratic socialist.

I realized I was a socialist in mid-2016. After the Sanders campaign folded, I was thinking about the intersections of race and capitalism and it dawned on me that slavery was an example of capitalism, it was black people slapped with price tags and brought over as commodities and traded in literal markets, and that’s what capitalism is—price tags on things that shouldn’t have price tags. Why are we putting a price tag on people, why are we putting a price tag on healthcare, on the land itself?

Some people saw the Bernie and Corbyn defeats in the US and UK as proof that the radical left has been misled into getting involved in electoral campaigning. What do you see as the role or promise of electoral politics right now, especially at state level?

I think if anything we are closer than ever to the change we want. I saw Bernie Sanders opening up the floodgates for a ton more candidates. His campaigns gave us the tools to organize a campaign. Bernie was not just running to win the presidency for himself. When he says, “Not me, us,” that’s what it’s about—making sure that he has helped prepare the next generation of political leaders to carry that torch.

The Democrat Party is institutionally very regressive and reactionary, and there’s obvious pushback to serious change. As you say, treating every aspect of life as a commodity is fundamental to capitalism and there are deeply entrenched interests against changing that. What are your thoughts on this problem?

I was frustrated to see Bernie suspend his campaign. But the Democratic Party had to throw the kitchen sink and everything they had at Bernie to stop him. Obama was making calls behind the scenes just to get people to drop out and endorse Biden. It was a concerted effort: I wish I had seen them apply the same pressure to stop kids being detained at the border in cages. And they barely succeeded in stopping Bernie Sanders this time. I can only imagine what would happen if another strong progressive ran in 2024.

So you see the defeat as a proof of concept—people like the policies and that’s why they have to be directly repressed.

Yes.

In my experience of phone banking and canvassing for the Sanders campaign, voters only wanted to talk about Medicare For All. Occasionally other things would come up, like student debt cancellation, but M4A was what people could really relate to. So I’m interested to know if you still see a path for M4A at a national level. I also want to hear whether the New York Health Act could be a path to universal healthcare. There’s an idea that if one state can win it, that could unfold from there: In Canada, single-payer began in one province.

Medicare For All is not happening at a national level. Biden does not support it. Trump does not support it. And one of them will be president. That’s not to say it’s never happening, but it’s not going to happen in that way. The state level is where we can go. The New York Health Act has a lot of momentum. It has passed the State Assembly multiple times. It didn’t pass the State Senate because it was controlled by Republicans until 2018, but now we have a Democratic majority and we are electing more socialists to state legislature. We could make New York the leader in the nation. California almost was. It tried to pass its own single-payer bill, but Assembly speaker Anthony Rendon voted it down. New York could show that it works. It would save money by reducing administrative costs and allowing us to bulk purchase drugs and medical supplies. All workers deserve healthcare and paid sick leave.

What does that look like given that Cuomo is big on austerity and so popular right now? The perception is that it will be hard to get the NY Health Act through because it’s seen as expensive, even though, as you say, there’s an argument that single-payer is in fact far less expensive. How do you see that fight playing out, the nuts and bolts of trying to get this legislation through in a hostile situation?

It’s gonna be hard. Cuomo has an artificial spending cap: You can’t raise spending on any state program by more than 2 percent a year, and that keeps us from increasing funding for things that we need. We have to fight against that. He refuses to tax the wealthy. It’s not even in his orbit. During budget negotiations in early April, he said, “We can’t spend what we don’t have,” as if we couldn’t expand the pool of money we have by raising taxes on the wealthy. That’s where the money is right now. They need to step up and give their fair share.

With the coronavirus crisis, more people are crying out to tax the wealthy. People are talking about debt cancellation and Universal Basic Income. I’ve seen other politicians in the state legislature saying, “Let’s pass this multimillionaire tax, let’s pass this pied-à-terre tax. Let’s get money from the ultra-wealthy in our state to fund the social services that we need.” I was at a candidate forum last night and every other candidate was also saying, “Tax the rich.” It’s on everyone’s mind, but it’s not on Cuomo’s mind. He’s out of touch with New York.

What’s your theory on why Cuomo is so popular? He has presided over so much death and suffering.

It’s a masterclass in marketing. If any other governor had the most deaths by far in their state, the press would say they were doing a terrible job. But Cuomo is somehow seen as the leader in the crisis, such a great contrast to Trump, despite all the deaths.

He is a Machiavellian genius. He knows how to be feared. We’ve seen what he’s done to the Working Families Party: He gutted their union support and funding because they didn’t endorse him in 2018. He’s a bully and politicians are scared of him. At the same time, he gets on his press conference at 11 AM every morning and makes sure people know that he has a plan for everything. And so he’s seen as Trump’s antithesis.

But similar to Trump he seems to prove that, in a patriarchal society, people are trained to like vindictive bullies. Maybe that’s working in his favor.

Maybe, yeah.

Do you worry about capital flight? There’s worry about the reliability of the tax base if property values tank and a long pandemic compels rich people to leave the city.

Taxes used to be higher and the rich didn’t leave. They always threaten that if we raise taxes, they’re out. But where are they going to go? If all the billionaires move out of New York, who’s going to buy their $10 million home?

I do think there might be flight, but I don’t know if it’s the wealthiest who will leave. I am worried about the middle class who are squeezed out and don’t see any reason to stay in an overpriced city that was also the epicenter of a pandemic. I am worried about losing those people. And I’m worried about small businesses that are shuttered and may not reopen. I don’t know if this counts as capital flight, but I’m worried about having a New York of just big box retailers and department stores and chains because we had a mass extinction of mom-and-pop shops during this crisis.

Do you have policies in place to help small businesses, such as galleries?

Yes, two things. Commercial rent control would help stabilize their costs. It helps if the landlord for a small business can’t just jack up the rent from $5,000 to $10,000 or $20,000 or $40,000 a month. And also, there is the NY Health Act. If every single person in New York has access to healthcare, small employers don’t have to worry about providing it to their workers because it’s already handled through the state and through taxation, rather than payroll. That alleviates the burden on them too.

Covid-19 has seen an increase in mutual aid and tenant organizing. What’s your take on that?

What’s really awesome is we’re seeing alternatives to capitalism bubble up. My campaign has partnered with a mutual aid network called Bed-Stuy Strong, which is located in the biggest neighborhood in my district and makes sure we can get food and medicine and supplies to people in the community. I’ve been doing drop-offs for elderly people who are not able to get to the supermarket. It’s been incredible to watch people figure out that there are alternatives to the way we live now, founded in solidarity. That’s also true of the rent strikes: We’re in the biggest wave of rent strikes since the 1930s; those earlier rent strikes helped win rent control and rent stabilization in New York City. We’ve been in a housing crisis for a long time. About half of New Yorkers are severely rent burdened, paying way too much of their income in rent. Rent strikes are one way to say that this is unsustainable.

It’s funny, the wealthiest people are always the first to complain—“We’ll leave if the taxes are too high!”—but no one seems to worry about renters leaving if the rents are too high. It’s always, Let’s keep jacking up the price and someone will pay for that apartment. But in the end, here we are, with rent strikes around the city and across the country.

I wondered if you had any thoughts about the relationship between this type of organizing and what you are able to do at State Senate level? 

You can definitely support that at the state level. Any legislator can support organizing in their district. If there is a strike, you can be on the picket lines with them. You can help build union density by compelling projects to use union labor. In terms of tenants’ rights, you can support people who are organizing inside their building and trying to build a tenant union. You can be there with legal support if they’re harassed by their landlord. We don’t have grants yet for mutual aid networks but maybe that’s something that could happen.

There have been attempts in art institutions, for example at the New Museum, to block workers from forming a union, bringing in union-busting firms. Now that everyone is furloughed, it’s hard to know what’s going on. But are there ways that, at state level, you can help people in their efforts to form unions?

There are a few ways to make it easier to unionize. One way is to prevent management from holding closed-door meetings. This is where they hold a meeting on company time to tell the workers why unions are terrible and will make them lose their jobs and why they should be scared of unionizing. We can ban those types of meetings.

Also, this isn’t really a union thing, but a worker co-op thing: If a small- or medium-sized business is closing, we can give first right of refusal to the people who work there. Giving employees the chance to collectively own the business will build more worker co-ops, which I think is great.

It’s fun to imagine blue-chip galleries becoming worker co-ops. Could you explain the impact of having one democratic socialist in the State Senate already, and what that’s made possible? I think it would be helpful to understand the potential impact of having leftist politicians in power at state level.

In 2018, we succeeded in electing Julia Salazar to the State Senate. Even though she’s the lone democratic socialist, she’s been very effective. She was crucial to passing eight incredible pro-renter housing reform bills. She’s been great on decriminalizing sex work and increasing labor rights. My election would double the number of socialist state senators. And we have three or four more at state assembly level, making a socialist bloc. So we can advocate for more. We can advocate for the New York Health Act. We’re all on board with the Public Power Campaign to bring energy under public control, to get it out of the hands of private companies and, in that way, help shape New York’s Green New Deal as it’s implemented. Can I talk about the DSA slate? 



If you want to. 



I do want to! Phara Souffrant Forrest, a union nurse from Crown Heights, is running for state assembly. Housing organizer Marcela Mitaynes is on the ballot in Sunset Park, and Zohran Mamdani, who is a foreclosure prevention counselor, is campaigning in Queens. Salazar is part of the slate. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is part of the slate. And Samelys López up in the Bronx running for congress. It’s an incredible group, all people of color, many of us immigrants or the children of immigrants and all deeply rooted in our communities. We’ve collaborated in an unprecedented way. We released a joint platform on decarceration and housing. We print out joint literature, we do joint phone banking and joint fundraising. It’s all deeply interwoven. That’s what socialism is to me. It’s solidarity and working together, it’s not just about one person. That’s what we’re gonna take to Albany.

Are you in a group chat with AOC?

No, but I would love to be.

Can you speak a bit about the violent racism and classism in how social distancing is policed?

It has been distressing to watch. Whenever the state ramps up enforcement of anything it’s black and brown people who get harmed. That’s what happened with the war on drugs—white people do tons of drugs, but the people who are impacted by these laws are predominantly black and brown. We see police walking through parks in wealthy neighborhoods giving out masks and making sure people are OK. And then we have videos from other places of officers stepping on somebody’s neck with their knee after a scuffle over social distancing. The summonses are going to black and brown people. The enforcement is uneven, and it’s disconcerting.

Could you tell me about the criminal justice reforms you’re supporting?

The rest of the DSA slate and I released a joint platform in January with the goal of radically decarcerating New York. We want to establish a committee that would look into best practices to reduce incarceration in New York down to 1950 levels, back before the war on drugs—a 75 percent reduction in people in cages. There are bills we’re supporting that are already in the state legislation, such as decriminalizing marijuana, decriminalizing sex work, and enacting something called elder parole—letting people over the age of fifty-five out of jail, especially right now, when keeping older people locked up, where they’re very likely to contract the virus, is a potential death sentence. Then we pushed beyond things already in the legislature, such as repealing mandatory minimum sentences and decriminalizing all simple drug possession. Drug use should be addressed by social workers and counselors, not police.

You’re also a middle-school math teacher. How does that influence your platform, especially the education aspects?

The biggest issue facing our schools is lack of funding. There was a big class-action lawsuit about fourteen years ago arguing that the public schools in New York City were owed about four billion dollars in miscalculated funds. That still hasn’t been delivered. I teach in a school where we often don’t have textbooks for the kids. I have to get my own supplies. We have four counselors for 1,400 kids. Funding schools is important but so is fighting privatization in the form of charter schools that take funding and space from the public school system. New York has one of the most segregated school districts in the country, especially in gifted and talented programs and specialized high schools. Very few black and brown people end up in those programs. 

Do you have any thoughts on the crises at New York’s public university systems, CUNY and SUNY?

It all goes back to funding. We have a stupid 2 percent cap on how much we can increase funding and meanwhile our public colleges are starving for money. They can’t hire enough teachers. Students are taking out larger loans to pay off college debts. There was a time when CUNY and SUNY were free—I believe in making them free again. A public college is a public service, like a fire department or a library. It should be subsidized through tax dollars.

People have been encouraged to accept an austerity and scarcity mindset. The question is often, How will we pay for that? As we anticipate a big economic contraction, do you imagine that attitude getting worse?

There were 112 billionaires in New York before the crisis. The wealth is still there. We’ve all been hit by the coronavirus crisis but there are still billions of dollars concentrated at the top that are being used however the wealthiest people in the state choose to use them, whether that’s buying their third or fourth or fifth home or a yacht or however they choose to amuse themselves. We could be using that money to fund a more just and robust society in our state. They need to pay their fair share. An economic contraction looks different for a billionaire than for someone making $50,000 a year. 

Lately, I think a lot of people feel hopeless when they look to the future. How do you see your platform as answering that feeling of despair?

It’s often at the darkest times that we get some of the best policies. Look at what came out of the Depression. We got the New Deal, an incredible expansion of government services and protections for working people. I think we’re about to see something similar. The longer we go without taxing the wealthiest people to fund services, the more people will rise up to say we need a radically different system. 



What’s your vision of that different system?

Let me back up. It sounds mundane, but Cuomo’s spending cap has a domino effect. A lot of people cannot get unemployment right now. The lines are jammed. I had a friend who reached out in mid-March and didn’t hear back until late April. This is a staffing issue. They should have seen this coming and hired an additional one hundred, two hundred, five hundred people to handle the influx of claims. But the state couldn’t hire that many people because we have this spending cap that says you can’t rapidly expand a social service. It’s so frustrating. That’s the microcosm of what we’re seeing now.In a just New York, spending would be based on human need, not a random 2 percent prescribed by the governor. We would have robust protections for workers, with sick leave. We would have hospitals with all the beds we needed. We would have a world where we did not use law enforcement to do the work of social workers or public health workers. I would like to see a system that is more proactive than reactive, that has a fully funded social safety net, and is decarceral in that it doesn’t equate safety with more police.

When people vote for you, they’re really voting for themselves. People imbue their own personal hopes and dreams into a candidate. That’s part of why politics gets so nasty sometimes and why people get riled up. When they’re voting for you, they’re voting for the things they believe in. You give people a chance to feel like they’re participating and have a voice in government, especially at a time like now when people feel silenced and distanced from each other and forced to be alone.

I don’t know exactly who reads Artforum, but I imagine some of them are wealthy. Maybe the rich are beyond persuasion, but just out of curiosity: What would you say to a hypothetical rich person reading this who says, “What if I want to have five houses?”

We all derive our wealth from the people around us, from working with the communities around us. That’s not a hippy-dippy thing to say; that’s just economics. Every single dollar that comes to you has been generated by someone else. It flows out. Whether you’ve amassed five thousand dollars or five billion, you have to give back in some way to the society that got you where you were. Everything comes from the interconnectedness of our lives.

The New York primary is on June 23. The application to vote by mail due on June 16; New Yorkers can order their absentee ballots here.

ALL IMAGES