Meet the socialist city council candidate who is fighting for economic justice

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BY PAUL SLIKER | SATURDAY, OCTOBER 28 

Less than two week's out from NYC's local 2017 elections, Jabari Brisport — a DSA-endorsed, Green Party candidate for Brooklyn's 35th District — has a real shot to become the only socialist on New York's City Council.

I caught up with Jabari to discuss his bold ideas for the city, why he wants a "worker-owned economy," and much more.

Paul Sliker: You're a 30-year old millennial that's been more involved in radical, non-electoral politics up to this point. I think it'll be interesting for our readers to learn more about your background and how you ended up in this situation running for office. Can you shed some light?

Jabari Brisport: I come from a theatrical background, but politics has always worked its way into whatever I was doing. At NYU, my anti-gentrification theater group used street performance to collect signatures and fight rezoning in the East Village. While at Yale, I used a piece on income inequality to sign up over 100 people to the website KIVA, where they could send microloans to small business owners in developing countries. Aside from theater for social change, I engaged with politics from the activism side: rallies, marches, petitions, phone calls, etc. Last year, I got frustrated with the political situation and decided to engage with politics in a more traditional route, and run for office.

You supported and campaigned for Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential run. I think a fair analysis of Bernie's success is that he resonated with voters because he ran on a platform of economic justice made up of unapologetic, left-wing proposals--and helped people understand the importance of challenging Wall Street and the corporate takeover of our political system. But it's also probably safe to say he fell short in terms of rhetoric and policy that addressed the country's most marginalized communities. Do you agree with that assessment? Also, what have you learned from Bernie's campaign and why is that important to your politics?

His rhetoric fell short, but his policies did not. A single-payer system helps marginalized communities the most, as we are disproportionately uninsured. Tuition-free public college helps marginalized communities more. So does a living wage. So does legalization of marijuana.

He had some major gaffes, like saying “when you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor” at a debate. You don’t need to be poor to experience racism, and that comment made him seem a little tone deaf on race, which was unfortunate, because his policies were the best for black people. But as politicians, our job doesn’t stop at having the best ideas. We have to make sure we communicate them effectively to voters.

That’s a big lesson: meeting people where they are. It’s a fact that landlords and developers are making record profits in this city while tens of thousands of people (predominantly of color) are going homeless. It’s a fact that the net worth of the top 10 landlords in this city could fund the needs of NYCHA (public housing) twice over. But if someone’s getting evicted, they don’t want to hear you wax poetic about the macro issues. They want legal assistance to stay in their home.

In cities and local communities across the country, organizers have been helping launch worker-owned cooperatives, community land-trusts and cooperative banking institutions. At Democracy at Work, we advocate for democratic workplaces and worker-owned and self-directed cooperatives as a key part of a transition to a better economic system. We find more and more evidence that worker-owned cooperatives are helping low income New Yorkers find well-paying, stable employment in better, more inclusive work environments. Right here in New York City we have America's largest worker-owned cooperative with 2,300 members that is over 90 percent owned by women of color. I know you've voiced support for the worker cooperative model. In your estimation, how would the advancement of more worker coops impact not only your local community in District 35, but more broadly in New York City?

As a Democratic Socialist, I want a worker-owned economy. I’m lucky to have a very politically active district, with many residents in the Park Slope Food Coop. It might be great to start a branch of the coop in this district, to increase accessibility for people in Crown Heights and/or Clinton Hill. I can imagine that being very popular, especially given that accessibility to healthy food is always a concern in the poorer parts of my district.

Thinking long term, if we want a worker-owned economy, we’ll need to start with making New York affordable for workers. This means we have to advocate together for universal healthcare in the state of New York so that small, worker-owned companies are not bankrupted by high health insurance costs. We need to make college truly free so that workers can get the training they need to participate in tomorrow’s economy. Co-ops require a lot of work and as a candidate for local office, it’s my job to think about how city-wide policy can create an environment most hospitable to their cultivation and development.

In 2014, the New York City Council passed a $1.2 million budget for the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative (WCBDI), which increased to 2.1$ million in 2015 after a successful start, and they've added another $2.2 million to the budget for 2017. Since 2016 WCBDI has assisted in creating a total of 114 business entities, of which 49 were worker cooperatives. Will more funding for this initiative be a top priority if you're elected?

Yes, of course. I want to invest in more worker coops. There’s a strong push for more MWBE’s, and I see no reason we can’t go further and push for MWBE coops. Those would ultimately keep more wealth in marginalized communities.

As New Yorkers struggle to pay rent and continue to get priced out of their communities due to rapid luxury development, it's becoming more and more apparent that we are, as the geographer David Harvey would say, "building a city for people to invest in, not to live in." This is obviously not just a New York City problem but a global phenomenon of how capital works. Leaving aside the larger economic issue at hand, what sort of legislative and policymaking solutions do you propose for helping buck this trend in NYC given the limited powers that are vested in the city council?

Investors lobby city officials to see housing and real estate as commodities. But a city can never operate this way. A city is a living, breathing entity where families educate their children, people practice hundreds of religions, and artists of every kind bring beauty into the world. It’s crucial that City Council members recognize that city planning optimized solely for real estate investment is a city bound for failure. People want to be in New York City because of the human--not market--opportunity. And as potentially the only socialist candidate in City Council, I will see it as my role to remind my fellow assembly members that our first and foremost concern must be the needs of the people who live here, not the bankers who would profit from their need.

My goal is to introduce pro-social policies to disincentivize capitalist speculation. First, I want to introduce a vacancy tax, much like what Paris does for 2nd homes. Second, I want to introduce an anti-flipping tax that would tax investors more heavily for buying and selling real estate within a 12 month timeframe. This will obviously not halt the practice but it would discourage high frequency real estate transactions. Third, I want to end the capping on rent control. And lastly, with situations like the Bedford-Union Armory, I want public land to stay publicly owned. This means that I am a huge advocate for Community Land Trust projects which keep public lands out of private speculation indefinitely. If we can turn the Armory into a CLT, we can trust that it won’t lead to the development of 100 vacant luxury condos. Instead, the community will decide what is best done with the parcel, whether it’s a nonprofit-developed housing complex, recreation center, or both. But its future would be decided by the community, not the market.

Seattle's City Council recently unanimously approved a historic top tax rate on residents earning beyond $250,000 annually. It's often argued that this was only possible because Washington doesn't have a state income tax-- but can you foresee anything like that being politically feasible in New York City to help support programs for struggling families, or to fix our dilapidated subway infrastructure as Bill De Blasio has at least rhetorically proposed?

I believe taxing the wealthy to pay for the public services that run our city is imperative. I supported De Blasio’s millionaire’s tax.

What's a De Blasio policy that you think has failed, and how would you change it?

His housing plan has failed, and he’s dead wrong on the Bedford Union Armory. For a little background: The Bedford Union Armory, located in Crown Heights, is a big, empty public building on public land. The mayor and his deputy mayor of housing, Alicia Glen, formerly of Goldman Sachs, chose to partner with Goldman Sachs to develop this land. The mayor and Glen are using a private, Trump-loving developer called BFC Partners to turn the armory into a rec center and over 300 units of housing, only 18 of which will be affordable for people making the average income in Crown Heights. Many of the units will be market-rate condos owned by BFC Partners. Other units will be "affordable," but they have a loose definition of affordable-- some can be slated for people making $90,000 a year. So, this plan would be taking a public building and instead of providing the affordable housing the neighborhood needs, it would exacerbate and accelerate the gentrification and displacement taking place there. BFC would also use non-union labor to build the project and the community has been very outspoken about their opposition to the proposal.

So this is, in my opinion, a bad deal. But it's what one would expect when one hands over public goods to a private business-- they're going to be in control of the building and land and going to reap whatever profits from it that they can get. What I would propose instead is making the armory a community land trust. In a community land trust, a space is owned collectively by people from the neighborhood, and sometimes others whom the neighborhood opts to give some power. (Like elected officials, academics, and representatives from community groups.) In general, I think we should be controlling our own public goods instead of privatizing them. This is already our land-- if we want 100% affordable housing there (and that's what I've been hearing throughout the community), then that's what we should have. There's no reason to bring in a private developer and give them land that they can own forever.

Since we're talking about policy, what are a couple of your boldest ideas that stand out amongst others running in your district?

I want to see the Bedford-Union Armory converted into a Community Land Trust, and to end the use of public subsidies to for-profit developers. I’d like to bring the NYPD under community control. I want to divest our city from fossil fuels. I’m placing all of my discretionary budget into participatory budgeting, and I’m slashing my salary to the median income of Brooklyn.

Lastly, I'd like to switch gears to a more political topic since many activists and organizers are closely eyeing your campaign as a sort-of political experiment. You're running on the Green Party ticket and were endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the U.S. since World World II. Acknowledging that DSA is dealing with an upsurge of new membership since the Presidential election -- and are in the not easy process of fine tuning and coming to a consensus on their identity both structurally and ideologically -- do you think the hybrid strategy of endorsing candidates inside and outside of the Democratic Party will be effective in taking back power from both Republicans and the corporate, neoliberal majority of the Democratic Party?

I do. The Democratic machine--whether intentionally or not--in practice serves to undermine dissent within its ranks in favor of centrism. In a city like New York that is solidly blue, the lack of viable alternatives to the Democratic Party and the continual sense that no third-party candidate can compete against it means we don’t hear about policy ideas like Community Land Trusts that fall outside the accepted Democratic Party discourse. Instead, we hear over and over again how we’ll never have universal healthcare or that public housing doesn’t work. But we need universal healthcare, and every dollar invested in public housing pays huge social dividends. We hear public schools can’t be saved and so “choice” is the only answer as we’re watching our school budgets siphoned off by for-profit charter schools. We need new ideas and new solutions to public problems.

I’d like to dispel the notion that DSA needs to fine tune or come to a consensus on our identity. We know who we are: a multi-tendency political organization with the goal of overthrowing capitalism. There’s this toxic belief on the left that there’s only one right way to do things, and that groups pursuing other tactics are enemies. The left is more than one person and can do more than one thing. And major social change will only come about from all of us working together from multiple angles. This campaign has been endorsed by the Green Party, the DSA, Socialist Alternative, and Our Revolution. I’m proud of the Left Unity happening here and we’re gonna win.

Thanks Jabari. Anything else you'd like readers to know about you?

Yeah, I’m vegan. We tell everyone.


Paul Sliker is an editor and commentator at Democracy at Work, and co-host of a new podcast called "Left Out" (a d@w production) which creates in-depth conversations with the most interesting political thinkers, heterodox economists, and organizers on the left. Follow him on Twitter: @psliker

 


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