The Democratic Socialists of America is quickly becoming a force in New York politics. Over the past two years, the group’s robust field operation has helped to elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the U.S. Congress and Julia Salazar to the New York State Senate. This year, NYC DSA is running a slate of six candidates for New York state legislature. Jabari Brisport is one of them. A member of the DSA and the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus, Brisport is running for New York State Senate in Central Brooklyn’s District 25. Before COVID, Brisport and his campaign manager, Fainan Lakha, built an impressive field operation, with over 300 volunteers knocking 25,000 doors. Brisport and Lakha sat down with The Forge to talk about the DSA’s electoral strategy, how the campaign is pivoting in response to COVID, and what would be possible with more socialists in the state legislature. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 


Tell me about your political biographies and what led you to this campaign.

JB: I got my start in organizing around same-sex marriage in college. There was a bill going through the State Senate, which I'm running for right now, to legalize same-sex marriage at the state level. And I started organizing my friends from high school to call their state senators and rally and ask them to vote. And then we lost. In 2009, we lost. The Senate voted no on it, and I was so sad and upset, really bummed. But decided to keep on fighting, keep on fighting. In 2011, it came up for the State Senate again. I rallied again, did phone banks and everything like that, and we won that time. I got more involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in the years afterwards, 2014-2015. Helped organize rallies and marches and Know Your Rights trainings and policy demands.

Then, in 2016, the Bernie Sanders candidacy came, and it was the first time I saw a candidate that made me realize that, if they got elected, I would have to protest a lot less because they agreed with so much of what I was standing for. I was like, "Well, that would be so much easier if we just got him elected." So I went all in on that campaign, realized I was a democratic socialist in the process, and ran for City Council in 2017. Lost that election, but I'm running again for State Senate now in 2020.

FL: My active political life began in high school. I got involved in a campaign to end the death penalty in Washington State, which was basically successful and was very exciting. But, in that time, I also met organized socialists. And, that same group, which doesn't exist anymore, but was the International Socialist Organization, was present at my college. So I got involved with the ISO and I also got involved with the fight against the expansion of my university into West Harlem.

Around that time, the Black Lives Matter marches began exploding, and that combination of a sense of collective power and also that vision that there is a way to fight back — it just requires having a strategy and a sense of how we can build power that will last — was really solidified for me in that time. After that, I spent many years organizing as a socialist. I joined DSA last year, and I got involved in the Healthcare Working Group's campaign to get Hakeem Jeffries to co-sponsor Medicare for All. Which was somewhat successful in that Jeffries did co-sponsor the bill after a summer-long campaign, mostly canvassing people in Bed-Stuy, which is the heart of this district. Jeffries did co-sponsor the bill, but he also co-sponsored some other alternatives that are not single payer.

I've been a socialist for a long time, my entire adult life. My ideas and politics really changed after I saw Julia Salazar and AOC get elected. It's very exciting for me to be able to continue that work with this campaign.

Why do you believe that electoral politics is one significant means of advancing democratic socialism in the U.S.?

JB: The realization for me was that I had been interacting with politics pretty much exclusively through protests and through pressure with different officials. And when I saw the Bernie Sanders campaign, I realized that I could connect my energies so much more efficiently if I had a politician that was on my side, agreed with me on X, Y, Z, and I just had to fight for one or two more things that I wanted to see. It would just make things so much easier. It would open up the realm of possibilities so much more. The more I've dived into electoral politics, I've seen that electing socialist politicians expands what is possible by leaps and bounds. Just look at what electing Julia Salazar did for New York. Look at what electing AOC did for America.

FL: I really agree with what Jabari said. Socialist ideas have been so outside of the mainstream and so outside of any kind of consciousness for so long, and Bernie's campaign has really changed that. But I think that the thing that really will win people over in the long term is being able to prove that we can win and also having strength and an ongoing presence. Nothing can do that the way that winning a campaign, being able to pass socialist legislation, or very, very progressive legislation, and engage with the district in an ongoing way can do. I think that's a key strategic point for us.

JB: Once you win, you get a validation of your ideas. You'll have lots of other people come through and say, "You know what? I kind of agree with it." Or, "I can come out as a socialist, too."

This is your second campaign, Jabari, but you’ve both been involved in multiple campaigns through the DSA. What have you learned from your past campaigns, both the ones that you've won and the ones that you've lost? How are you bringing those lessons into this campaign?

JB: Start talking to people as early as possible. In my City [Council] campaign, we had a field operation for like seven weeks, that was it. And I ran as an independent, so as soon as the Democratic primary [was over], I also did the Green Party primary. After that was done and I won the Green Party primary, we had a full general election operation for about seven weeks. And in that time, I managed to secure 30 percent of the vote from knocking doors. Rather than starting seven weeks out, this year, we started seven months out in knocking on doors. In November, we started going around [on the] doors,  knocking on public housing, everywhere. Knocking on thousands [of doors]. And, obviously, because of COVID, we switched to making phone calls. But we started contact much earlier so that people could just see you again and again and again, which I think was critical.

And then the other thing I learned was finding ways to meet people where they are more. I remember my first campaign, I was so head-in-the-clouds. Someone was talking about getting evicted and I was like, "You know and the housing lobby and all this stuff. All the money in Albany. And the corruption." And she was like, "Yeah, I hear you, but I'm worried about getting evicted." Because I hadn't addressed her immediate material needs; that brought me down to earth a little bit more. Being able to meet people's basic needs first so that they're more willing to hear about what the horizon is and what the vision is later on.

FL: I think that the thing about starting sooner is really right. We started working with AOC like two months before the campaign. With Tiffany [Cabán], similar. And a lot of people who voted for Tiffany were talked to in the three days before Election Day. We've had a plan and a sense of what we're doing in this district for a very long time. And that has shaped our campaign and will hopefully strengthen it a lot.

I think there's a lesson from Jabari's campaign also in terms of committing to running on the Democratic Party ballot line, even as we build our own organization. And try to build a party surrogate structure that enfranchises people democratically and allows us to shape our overall work as socialists as we do electoral work. But not seeing the Democratic Party ballot line as an obstacle to being able to do that. It's key for allowing us to win.

Can you talk more about the structures that you've built for this campaign? 

FL: The idea that it matters to me which way our organization is going to go, and I can fight and organize other people to make that the case is quite powerful and creates a great amount of investment in the work that we're doing. In terms of what kind of structure New York City DSA is trying to build ... The slate [of candidates the DSA is running this election cycle] contains a lot of it. We want to be able to run people who are members of DSA, who are committed socialists, whose orientation is not just on passing good legislation or making deals, but is about building the movement, building class struggle. And who have zero accountability to the corporate interests or even the interests of compromise in Albany.

DSA candidates are candidates who are elected because of the field operation and the movement. And so that's the thing that they're accountable to. And being able to elect a bunch of people who have that straightforward — that their being in office is a consequence of a movement — means that they're going to be able to operate collectively as a bloc without a need to constantly try to cut a deal or compromise in places that are unnecessary. An important step for us is, we have this electoral apparatus, we have our candidates, we have our electoral working group, which is very robust and has a lot of people with a lot of different skills who are all working together on doing this. And then we have our New York City DSA chapter.

The thing to do is win these campaigns and start to build a real ongoing presence in our districts through the offices. Doing that, combining it with our pressure campaigns, which we're usually running off cycle, those kinds of things will help to solidify that there is a base, an organization, and representatives all in the same place. And that will represent a very powerful bloc. We talk about it as a party surrogate. Something that can represent people even though it's not a formal ballot line party. That's the ultimate ambition.

JB: This experiment with running a slate of candidates was very ambitious and we started to see the formings of how we could operate as a caucus, which is exciting. We don't have everything figured out by any means, but in the course of our campaigns, we have released joint platforms, done joint policy videos, and signed on to joint statements. And we're starting to see how that's going to work. For example, right now, Julia Salazar is the only state senator I know who is calling for defunding the NYPD. And there's an amount of legitimacy you gain when an elected official says it. When several elected officials say it, it is a thing. It is a thing that is being advocated for. And we're starting to see how that goes. I'm excited to be building on that because it was a struggle to figure out how to get everything to work together. But as you start to build a slate of people in the City Council, the next step is, we build collaboration not only amongst members of a voting body, but also across parts of government. 

FL: I would just add two things. One, I think Jabari's right. This is a problem that's going to show up for us with the City Council too. Because the demands are different. It's actually showing up right now with the NYPD. This isn't a demand that Albany would enact, it's one that would be done at the City Council level. There are things that are related, but we've had to send emails being like, "Call people on the City Council to get this done." And then, the other thing is, electing the slate in the future is driving a wedge in the Democratic Party that's going to be very significant. And one can see this already, there are some progressives who have meaningful primary challenges right now. And, I think, drawing lines and saying, "There are two sides in this. There is a corporate side and there is a side that stands for the working class." That's an effect that we want to see happen, and I think it would transform politics in New York quite deeply were that process to develop.

How do you think a more progressive State Senate could respond to the demand to defund the police? 

JB: The slate released a decarceration platform in January and some of the claims definitely decrease the need for cops, which ties really well into defunding them. So if we say we're going to decriminalize sex work, then there's less need for cops that are on the street trying to police beats. Or if we say we're going to legalize mariajuana or decriminalize small drug offences, all of the sudden you need many fewer cops who would, under other circumstances, be prosecuting those. So it's a good addition to what the City Council would be doing with defunding cops. It'd be lessening the need for cops by shrinking the carceral state in New York. And there are also law enforcement officials run by state departments that can be defunded. So not NYPD, that's New York City, but state jails, state troopers, anyone running under the state budget.

FL: I think there are two really interrelated pieces. Decades of austerity has meant that there is a deep social crisis, especially in working-class communities of color. And policing is a response to that. And it's one that is very expensive but also cheaper than the alternative, which is fixing those social problems. I think, at the state level, we have the ability to talk about and pass legislation that would raise taxes, that would ameliorate the social crisis by building housing, by passing the New York Health Act and providing everyone with healthcare. By creating new jobs through green infrastructure projects. And, at the same time, the direct control over what the police do day-to-day is outside of the purview of the body. So, there is a division of labor, but the two pieces don't work without each other. Defunding the police should ideally come along with a major investment into communities of color and working-class communities. I think that's the strategy that will ameliorate the social crisis. Neither one without the other.

So much has happened since you launched the campaign. I imagine you launched in the context in which a lot of us were thinking, "Wow, Bernie's going to get it." And then Super Tuesday happened, and COVID-19, and now we’re in the middle of a movement against police violence. How have you been thinking about your campaign through all of these different moments of crisis and violence, as well as real hope for change.

JB: It's wild because this campaign started so far back, it was during the Warren moment, and we were like, "We're still fighting hard for Bernie." And then going through when Bernie was up and up, which seems like it was a decade ago.

This is an interesting moment that we're in now. COVID hit and then we had to completely radicalize and say, "Okay, we're going to do everything virtual." And then in the past three days, all of a sudden it's like, protests are back on the table. I was not expecting that. I was not expecting to do a single rally until Election Day. And, all of a sudden, ta da, we're back in the streets. And once you're in the streets for police violence, you can go back in the streets. So I was at a housing rally on Saturday as well. And then I went to another housing/defunding NYPD rally. Yesterday, a student union just invited me to come speak and I was like, "Just double checking, is it in person?" She was like, "Oh, it's in person." And I was like, "All right." So it looks like rallies are back on.

So I don't know what's what right now. Because we're still doing this interview virtually, and now it's this weird split screen camera thing. Where it's like half virtual and then running out in the streets to shout. And now there's a curfew. I don't know, it's all changing so fast. And it's truly hard to keep up, but thank goodness we have such an incredible machine behind us. And I guess that speaks to, when you ask about the moment, that speaks to what everyone else is feeling too, not just on this campaign. Everyone else has been like, "This keeps changing so quickly." Like, for voters, there was a primary and the presidential [primary] got canceled, then it was back on. And it's mail-in but you can go in, but it's not safe.… Well, actually, maybe it might be safe now because people are protesting so maybe you can go back outside. You know? But, if there's a curfew, the curfew's at eight, usually polls stay open until nine. I don't know. The rules keep moving for everyone.

FL: There's definitely three phases to this campaign. We were not only focused on building these campaigns, but DSA was also really seriously building a national independent expenditure around Bernie Sanders’s campaign. So all of our canvases were joint Bernie and Jabari canvases. And I think that lent it a very political and programmatic sense. But, I think, in a lot of ways, the message of the campaign was a bit different back then. Because it was like, "We're going to elect these people who are not us, going to change by building a movement kind of thing." And it felt like something we could say and win people on with Bernie's campaign because it was right next to us, because it was so central to that message and because it was something a lot of people were hearing about all the time.

In no way is movement building less important to us, but it has changed during the course of the pandemic. Pivoting suddenly to having to be indoors, having a phone bank, meant trying to figure out: What are the things being felt urgently? We'd hit on access to unemployment and ability to pay rent and healthcare and hospital funding as the things that felt urgent. But it suddenly became not, “Let's talk about what Medicare for All in a relatively socialized economy could do to transform our lives and how we could build a movement to get there." But, “Here is what ending austerity and building a new arc for everyone would be doing in this situation.” And that's much more concrete, much more policy focused. And it's been at the center of our campaign since that change happened. We can't just talk about class struggle, though, it's not what's going to make the change that we're talking about, that we're envisioning. So I think it's really powerful. One of the things I've been really excited to see is that,  right away, Jabari has been very clearly received as someone who belongs to this movement and who represents something that is very of it and of its spirit. I think that that's tremendously powerful. 

How are you thinking about your strategies between now and Election Day?

FL: In some ways, this is hitting right as we've peaked. We've grown and grown and grown our volunteer operation on the phones. We started with five people on a phone bank every day and now we have, like, 20.

What do you attribute that to? 

FL: I think it's a combination of things. I think it's a combination of us improving our operation, just simply having better software, better ability to reach voters, better targeting in our universe. I think it's the urgency of Election Day building energy, a communications strategy built around it, organizing our more involved volunteers to reach out to people in their networks, recruiting people to commit to doing weekly phone banks. Just creating a higher engagement situation. Gameifying it. We compete all the different days of the week against each other and use the data from what we've been doing, which is fun to manipulate because it's also easy when you use predictive dialing software to play games. So we did a lot of that. And then also the mood coming out of the initial shock of those first two or three weeks and recognizing, "Okay, life can be sort of normal and so it's possible still to volunteer." And I think in that context, the political failure of the establishment, it couldn't be clearer. It's a really good reason to phone bank. 

But what's been striking is that our phone banks are actually bigger this week [since the start of the uprisings]. And people have also been donating without us asking. We raised like $2,700 yesterday without sending any kind of fundraising email. There are all kinds of ways that people want to fight back right now. It's not always being in the streets. It certainly is sometimes. But I think it's important for us to illustrate the connection and talk about building power in a lasting way. The most frustrating thing to me reflecting on 2014 and the Black Lives Matter upsurge is we didn't directly have a way to crystallize the energy in the movement and this is at least one way that we can do that. And I think being conscious of that and sort of taking that as an important responsibility to the movement beyond just trying to win this campaign is a valuable approach.

JB: We're in the midst of a pressure campaign to defund the NYPD. How do you make sure that more people are being brought into that? It's a very immediate need, people are very angry. How do you recruit more people to literally hop on their phone and call their City Council person and say, "By June 30th, we need a plan in place to defund the NYPD." How are we going to bring it up on voter education or just, you know, education about what some of the nasty cultural laws are in place that we're trying to repeal. But activating with them and steering them toward solutions that we're advocating for because, if we don't, people will steer them towards other solutions that we might not agree with. There is a vacuum of leadership right now and I just hope that socialists are able to fill that hole.

FL: I really agree with that. We're going to build something that's going to be able to push forward demands in a long-term way. If we win, Jabari will be there as a legitimate and powerful tribune for the movement. That means something. So will having the office, being able to continue to engage people around this if anything happens like this in the future, which it will. I think that it's a bigger question for the socialist movement, for DSA. In my experience, DSA hasn't had the ability to move really quickly into action or have ways to engage people who are involved in protests in the political work that we're doing or the ideas that we have. I'm also a member of the Steering Committee of the New York City chapter of DSA, and I've been actually very excited and proud to see how quickly we've been moving. We have a mass meeting that's on Zoom called for tomorrow evening. And we got the domain and are building a website around it. And we've issued our statement around getting the City Council to do this [defund the NYPD] and I hope to really draw a hard line with that.

We passed a resolution through our citywide leadership committee a couple months ago that set out our strategy for the City Council races, and the centerpiece for that was calling to defund the NYPD by one billion dollars. This was our strategy because it's one of the key redistributive ways that we can deal with the very constrained fiscal resources of the City Council. And there's a key racial justice demand. The thinking that we had was, "Look, there's going to be all these progressives running in the City Council next year, and the police are a hard line for a lot of people who say that they're progressive." And we want to be able to draw something different and say, "You can win, you can be anti-cop, and this is going to be the major fight." And our idea was to build a pressure campaign around this and school desegregation for the next year. So, in some way, I think we're well prepared because our strategy over the next year figures around exactly the same issues that are coming up right now. 

JB: It's funny, now in the midst of everything, I wonder if our defund plan for City Council is not radical enough. Because, when we proposed it, I was like, "Yes. Oh my God, there's going to be like only five people that want to say defund the NYPD," and then …

Now it's the demand.

JB: Now it's just…. Well should we say take out three billion? It's like, we got to push the horizon further.

Anything else you want to add about your strategies, this moment, or what you're looking forward to in the weeks ahead?

FL: I will say one thing. Which is that a big part of DSA's model is doing everything with volunteers or doing as much as possible with tons of volunteers. And I think that one of the really unique things about running an electoral campaign versus doing other kinds of organizing is that you have to scale up really, really fast and there's a lot of incentive and reason for people to step up and become better organizers. And I think that every single campaign we run, win or lose, really, really develops our capacity, really, really trains a bunch of people who are able to be leaders in our organization. And that's a tremendous asset.

I think electoral politics has this really big problem that it's a huge expenditure of money and energy, and then it disappears and there's nothing left. DSA came to being out of the exact opposite impulse. All of these people who left after the Bernie campaign were like, "What am I going to do?" And came to make something last. The ethic of everything we do builds us for the future and for future struggles. We don't talk about it much, but I think unconsciously it's at the center of the impulse of our organization.





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