Could a Democratic Socialist Actually Win a Spot on City Council?

Jabari Brisport in front of his campaign office in Brooklyn. Photo: Twitter

“If the rich can’t play nice, we take away their toys.”

It’s the last day in September and Jabari Brisport — an affable 29-year-old actor and part-time activist — is five weeks out from Election Day with his campaign to be the first eco-socialist ever elected to City Council. He’s not doing it to set a record, though. “I don’t want to win just because it would be really cool to get a socialist and Green on the City Council,” he tells me over coffee in Fort Greene Park. “I want to win because I’m not seeing the results. I’m hearing people talk the talk of being progressive, but it’s not enough to be progressive. You’ve got to be revolutionary, you’ve got to be socialist, you have to want to change society, and that means going on the offense.”

Bold words from a candidate — and, if you believe him, a generation. Brisport forms part of the leading edge of a millennial cohort who, coming of age in an era of high rents, low wages, persistent discrimination, and rampant economic inequality, are turning to the left for political solutions. According to a recent survey from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, 44 percent of millennials would prefer to live in a socialist country, compared to 42 percent who’d prefer to live in a capitalist country; a Harvard survey last year found that 51 percent of millennials do not support capitalism. Long scorned and viewed as defunct, particularly by older generations, the American left, broadly conceived, has witnessed a small but growing revival whose most visible manifestation was the strong performance of Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign. The election of a far-right president has, if anything, accelerated the drive left among the young, broke, and educated. And the rising socialist — as opposed to merely progressive — tendency can be seen most clearly in the booming membership of the Democratic Socialists of America, a broad-based organization that has quadrupled over the past year to over 30,000 members nationwide. The DSA surge has been especially pronounced in Brooklyn, allowing Brisport to tap a large pool of young (and predominantly white) campaign volunteers.

Though it’s yet to make an impact at the state level and has been overshadowed by the Trump election and presidency, the left’s resurgence has already made itself felt in the nation’s cities. Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, have recently elected staunchly progressive mayors — Randall Woodfin and Chokwe Antar Lumumba, respectively. A stunning primary upset in Philadelphia has all but ensured that the city’s next district attorney will be the Black Lives Matter–endorsed Larry Krasner. Assiduous activism by the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) has mobilized working-class voters of color in Houston to the point where the city government is uniformly Democratic and primarily progressive. If Brisport wins in Brooklyn, he’ll join Kshama Sawant in Seattle, Khalid Kamau in Atlanta, and Carlos Rosa in Chicago among the ranks of City Council members elected on an unambiguously leftist platform. Though Sanders himself remains committed to working to reform the Democratic Party from within, the list of addresses and donors compiled by his campaign serves as the foundation for Our Revolution, an organization independent of the DNC that supports progressive candidates with labor and funding. And, contrary to the stereotype of the Bernie voter, most of these Sanders-friendly leftists (Krasner is the exception) and their voters are people of color, as is the head of Our Revolution, Ohio state senator Nina Turner. Media coverage of the new New Left has tended to view predominantly white cultural types — scabrous podcast hosts, brittle little magazines — as its vanguard. But ultimately, its influence will amount to little if it’s not felt first at the ballot box.

Inflaming that feeling is why Brisport is here. On the evening of November 9, marching through the cold, rainy streets protesting the president-elect, Brisport was struck by a powerful sense of inadequacy. As an actor, he had always gravitated toward roles and productions focused on social and historical affairs. He had matched his acting onstage with activism off of it: street performances, gathering signatures to fight gentrification-friendly re-zonings, among other things. But faced with the spectre of the new administration, he couldn’t help but feel that it hadn’t added up to much. “The activism, the marching, the phone calls, the letter writing, the petitions, all of it, it stopped feeling like enough,” he explains to me. “It all just clicked after Trump got elected. I thought, let me try entering politics from the more traditional route.”

Nearly a year later, Brisport finds himself in a difficult battle to replace Democratic incumbent Laurie Cumbo to represent Brooklyn’s 35th District on the City Council — a race in which he faces very long odds indeed. Cumbo has the inside track: While Brisport isn’t the only Green running for city office in November, the Green organization is no match in scale or reach for the Democratic machine. As he notes without bitterness, his opponent is incomparably well-financed, both through party funds and through independent expenditures, many of them provided by local real-estate developers. Still, he’s doing what he can to even the playing field. A broad base of Sanders-style small donations, magnified by the city’s generous matching-funds program, ensures he won’t lack for resources. He’s done what he can to make himself relatively well-known in the neighborhood; over the course of a 40-minute chat, we’re interrupted twice by passersby who greet him as a friend. They’re both white, incidentally. The 35th — encompassing all or parts of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant — has been and is being transformed by gentrification. Raised in Prospect Heights by parents of black Guyanese descent, Brisport has memories of a social space that has, in large part, vanished over the past decade, yet he also has cultural affinities with Brooklyn’s more recent and more privileged arrivals. He attended the prestigious Poly Prep Country Day School in Dyker Heights on scholarship; his collegiate studies in drama were conducted at NYU and Yale.

Brisport’s path to discovering socialism started in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crash: “F— the bankers: We should be in control of those banks, we need more government control,” he remembers thinking. During the Obama years, he focused on what he calls “issue-based stuff”: gay marriage, income inequality, Black Lives Matter. Only in 2016, thanks to Sanders, with his advocacy of single-payer health care, direct opposition to financial interests in politics, and open declaration of democratic socialism, was his conversion complete. He came to a realization that summer: “I had the thought that black people were brought here as capital, and that, in a sense, is what capitalism is to me: It’s putting a price tag on things that shouldn’t have a price tag. On people, on the land, on human rights.”

When I question how he plans to navigate between the potentially divergent interests of the gentrifying classes and the communities they’re displacing, he expresses confidence that there’s enough common ground to satisfy both. “When I talk about affordable housing, yes, there are poor black Caribbean people making 20 or 30 thousand dollars a year that are like, yes, we need more housing that’s affordable to us. I’ve also dealt with constituents that are making like 80 thousand a year, or more when you consider double income, and they too say that we’re being squeezed. This is something that reaches across.”

As with all local politics, a candidate’s relation with real-estate developers is a central factor. The pressing issue in the 35th concerns the Bedford Union Armory: City-owned, the Crown Heights property was slated to be sold to private developers to be transformed, mostly, into luxury condominiums; both Mayor de Blasio and Cumbo have supported the plan, though Cumbo, faced with criticism, now calls for a greater proportion of non-luxury housing. For his part, Brisport is clearly appalled by the callousness of constructing any expensive residences in a neighborhood he describes as “a hotbed of evictions”: 1,800 evictions in the past couple of years around nearby Ebbets Field while the owners make 4 million dollars a year; 30,000 eviction cases in the district at large compared to the 1,000 new units of affordable housing Cumbo claims credit for having created; landlords isolating, harassing, and litigating against poorer tenants with impunity. The whole scene is, in his own words, “terrifying.”

So what is to be done? For the Armory, a nonprofit developer and community land trust; for the district, building more housing units that its less-well-off inhabitants can afford. But he has a larger vision, too: “a fair and just society” in which “our basic human needs are met: no one’s worried about food, about water, about shelter, about health care. One where natural resources and the means of production are democratically owned and controlled. The energy industry, the metal industry, the finance sector, telecommunications, they’re all democratically controlled by the workers.” The alternative, to hear him speak, is no alternative at all.

Populations “crushed by debt” and “driven to extreme ends,” a social crisis exacerbated by ecological meltdown: It’s a vision so dire one’s tempted to view it as improbable — as improbable, perhaps, as his own candidacy. Then again, it’s been a crazy year; ever since last Election Day, few outcomes have been certain until after the fact.

Can a Democratic Socialist Actually Win a City Council Spot?