- Interview by
- Hadas Thier
On January 6, Jabari Brisport, a public school teacher and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), assumed office as New York State Senator in District 25, which covers several neighborhoods of Brooklyn. He joined incumbent state senator Julia Salazar, along with four new state assembly members, to form the first socialist caucus in Albany in a century.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Brisport has been an activist at his school, in the Black Lives Matter movement, in the gay rights movement, and is now playing a leading role in DSA’s statewide campaign to tax the rich.
He spoke to Jacobin’s Hadas Thier about how he came to democratic socialism, the priorities of the new socialist caucus, and the power of an inside-outside strategy to make fundamental change for working people.
Joe Biden’s inauguration just took place. How are you feeling?
I’m definitely relieved that we don’t have four more years of Trump. But I do have anxiety about leftist movements and progressive movements going back to sleep. We saw the fire die down when Obama got elected. And I would hate for that to happen, because the Biden agenda is very far from what progressives and socialists are demanding.
First and foremost, on health care, Medicare For All would be a top concern. We’re still in a pandemic, but even without a pandemic, it’s health care. It’s life or death for so many people. And medical debt is just astronomical in this country. It’s mind boggling to me how anyone can go through this moment, and see the precedent of making testing for COVID and the vaccine available for free, but not understand how that concept translates to health care at large.
There are other things as well: much more progressive taxation, which Biden is not a proponent of, and for people that are still struggling with student debt, full cancellation.
To move toward local politics, there are now more socialists in Albany than at any time in over a century. Why do you think you and other socialists have been able to win a small but growing number of local elections?
I think it’s twofold. You have progressive politics being much more popular now, especially in New York State, and people also being much more attuned to local politics. The other prong is the growing capacity and finesse of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). We’ve been running elections for the past few years and getting better and better at them: starting from a couple of city council races in 2017, which we lost, to running five state campaigns and winning all of them last year.
You’ve been a member of DSA for years. Why did you become a democratic socialist?
I started looking at democratic socialism because of Bernie Sanders. Around the question of Medicare For All, I did not know single-payer health care was a thing until Bernie Sanders was campaigning on it in 2015. I didn’t know it was actually quite popular all around the world. And I started looking more into his policies. I found out that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was a democratic socialist, and that spoke to me.
I think the moment I realized I was a socialist I was actually in the shower, when I realized that slavery was a form of capitalism, where black people were literally slapped with price tags and treated as collateral. And I realized that black liberation could not be separated from the abolition of capitalism.
We’re a couple weeks into you being as state senator. While there are more socialists in Albany than at any time in a century, socialists are still very much a minority. What kind of role do you think socialists can play within that?
The New York State government manages a budget close to $200 billion, overseeing infrastructure, from roads and bridges and energy, to the banking system, to education, to our health care system. It is a massive budget and a massively consequential political arena.
Socialists can operate in it by continuing to push the needle forward for working-class people, whether that’s advocating for tenants’ rights with the horizon of eventually decommodifying housing, or advocating for deeper wins for criminal justice reform, with the goal of building a world where police and prisons aren’t necessary.
We can agitate to really shift things away from the power of capital. So one campaign I’m working on with other legislators is a public bank in New York State. We also have a public power campaign to shift the control and distribution of energy away from private companies into something that’s state-owned.
Among the group of democratic socialists in Albany, do you have a sense of what the legislative priority or priorities should be?
Yes, we strategize every week together. Our top priority right now is a campaign to tax the rich, because a lot of our other priorities hinge upon being able to increase funding. And we’re also very scared that the governor will implement an austerity budget, where he uses the shortfall in revenue — because fewer taxes are being collected during the pandemic — to make cuts to social services, just when we should be expanding them.
Right now New York State is the most unequal state in the country in terms of income. That is counter to any sense of equity or justice in New York.
So we have three major buckets of taxes we’re looking at. One is taxing high income, another is taxing wealth, and another is taxing big business. We have six bills spread across the three areas.
When it comes to taxing income, the one that will be most familiar to everyone is a much more progressive income tax. And then one will be a tax on capital gains, since wealthy people make a lot of their income through investments that increase in value but don’t get taxed. It’s technically income, so we want to tax it like an income.
For wealth, we are pushing for a constitutional amendment to expand what types of wealth we can tax. There is a property tax, but for wealthy people, the bulk of their wealth is not necessarily in their home, it’s in other investments and items that are not getting taxed. And another wealth tax that I’m working on with Senator [James] Sanders is an inheritance tax on large estates and large inheritances that get passed from generation to generation.
For taxing big business, we have a stock transfer tax for the financial sector. It’s not like when you and I buy a soda or a shoe and we have to pay tax on it. Wealthy people buy stock or buy a bond and pay no tax on that.
And the last one is offsetting Trump’s corporate tax cuts. We would be raising the corporate tax rate in New York to match where it was, before Trump cut taxes.
The amount of wealth that exists in New York is astronomical. If any of these bills were to pass, what would that allow for?
If they all pass, it should raise $50 to $75 billion in additional revenue, which would allow us to hasten onward to clean energy in a Green New Deal format. It will allow us to fully fund our public school system. It will allow us to fully fund our transportation and the MTA system. It will allow us to stop any hospital closures and to begin transitioning to a single-payer health care system in New York. It will allow us to more deeply invest in affordable housing, rehabilitate our public housing, and invest in new social housing.
What do you think are the prospects for these bills? Are they winnable, or do they serve as organizing tools, or both?
We want to win these bills. We don’t think of them as fluff, or as suggestions. These are actual demands that we want to win in the next couple of months.
We have an inside-outside strategy, with people like me and the other socialists in the state legislature talking to our colleagues and building support, and then outside the legislature, doing demonstrations in the streets and making phone calls to New Yorkers or leafletting to spread the word about the campaign and bring more people into it.
I think it’s very winnable, for a few reasons. One being that Democrats now have a super majority in both the Assembly and the State Senate. If push comes to shove and the governor wants to veto any of these bills, we can come back and override that.
We have a leadership in the State Assembly and the State Senate who are much more willing to raise taxes on the wealthy than the governor is, which leads me to believe that if he wants to veto and override, we may have them on our side. We haven’t had a robust discussion of total amounts, and I would not be able to say that everybody is on board with the bills as they exactly are, but that’s where the agitation is coming from.
We have to move fast, because this is all going to hit us faster than we’re expecting. We have until the end of March. We have barely more than two months to get this all done. So we have to be able to dramatically scale up our actions. We’ve already hit the ground running, but we all recognize we need to move faster.
Over the past few years, we’ve had State Senator Julia Salazar as the lone socialist in Albany, and we’ve seen some exciting advances around housing, climate justice, and sex work. What can we learn from the past few years of campaigns for progressive legislation?
I have even more respect for what she was able to do as one lonely socialist, because it’s hard for me and I have a whole support network of other socialists and legislators. But I did learn that even one person at the bully pulpit pushing for something radical like canceling rent or for good cause eviction can do so much to move the needle forward.
It truly is a sea change to have six socialists in the state legislature now advocating for these campaigns. It’s one thing to have advocates pushing an agenda. It’s another thing to have an actual elected official advocating for the agenda. And then it’s a whole other thing to have multiple elected officials advocating for it.
What are the implications of operating in a body where Democrats have this two-thirds veto proof majority, but most of the Democrats are probably to the right of you, although, it does seem like there are increasing numbers of progressively minded Democrats at least. And then you have a party leadership where Governor [Andrew] Cuomo plays a much different role. What is it like to kind of navigate those different forces, to try to build allies, but also maintain independence?
I’ll be totally honest, it’s really fun. I would not have expected myself to use that word. But it is exciting to meet colleagues and see if we can find points of agreement. Every time we have a conference [when the Democrats meet separately, as a caucus], I get a better sense of what my colleagues’ priorities are. I get a sense of, “I bet that person would be on board with the text for this campaign, and I just have to talk to them and we can frame it the right way.”
I also get a sense of who will probably speak out against it. But it’s always helpful to know who will be on your side and who will not. Because I’ll know how to organize around that.
In 2017 you ran on the Green Party line for city council. How is it to operate as a democratic socialist within the Democratic Party?
I don’t think a lot of people in the establishment like us or particularly want us there. I did run as a Green Party member in 2017, because I didn’t think there was a space for socialists or leftists inside of the Democratic Party.
After seeing AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] get elected, I realized that it was possible to do that and effect change. Now that I did, I’m seeing that some of the establishment definitely do not see me as a Democrat. I’ve specifically been asked by other electeds, “Why don’t the socialists go make their own party and stop trying to take over the Democrats?” I did not know that people would make those dividing lines regardless of you being in their party.
What role do you see Governor Cuomo playing in the push for more progressive policies?
I see him playing the role of an obstacle. He wants to rely solely on getting some measly bailout from the federal government, and then wipe his hands and say, “We don’t need to make any changes in New York.” That’s untenable for me, because New Yorkers were hurting even before COVID. And our budget needed to be extended before COVID.
You mentioned earlier an inside-outside strategy. Workers at Hunts Point Produce Market, located in the Bronx, recently went on strike and won. What do you think is the significance of that strike and, more broadly, what does the relationship between elected socialists like yourself and class struggle look like?
We need to continually augment each other. There’s a level of validation that we give to a struggle like the one at Hunts Point when we electeds stand side by side with strikers. I was up there Tuesday night with my colleagues Zohran Mamdani and Marcela Mitaynes. We spoke at the picket line, we bought some extra food for the workers.
It’s important that we keep highlighting these struggles, because when it comes to a power struggle like this — and a labor strike is a power struggle — workers need all the power they can get. Any validation, any media attention, any pressure you can apply on the employer, that’s welcome.
And when labor is stronger, that’s better for working-class people as a whole. The biggest driver of income inequality over the past several decades has been the weakening of labor unions.
Yeah, there’s been a lot of cheap talk around respecting essential workers and clapping our hands and so on, but then when the rubber hits the road, and they actually need a raise, where is the respect?
When Zohran was speaking at the picket line he said: “We don’t want claps, we want coins!”
Have there been inroads in working with organized labor in New York around things like the Tax the Rich campaign?
Almost every union I’ve spoken to recognizes that if we don’t fix this budget, and we don’t expand revenue, that their members will suffer. They recognize the hard truth that if we cannot ensure that these services stay open, there will be layoffs, there will be a contraction in the social safety net, their members will lose their work. And so we all kind of understand that we need to raise revenue.
Do you have any final words about the battles coming this year, and why anyone else should get involved in these campaigns?
I see us as in a once-in-a-generation moment right now, and I want to ensure that we strike while the iron is hot. For me, it feels like now or never, especially with something like health care. If we cannot pass universal health care when we’re in a pandemic, I don’t know what bigger reason we will have in the future.
So we are in a critical moment, and I just can’t stress enough how urgent this is and how important what we do now is. We can’t put it off for later.