#WhyDSA: Active Socialism is Jabari Brisport's Siren Song

by Dallas G

The ebullience of Jabari Brisport is infectious. So is his commitment to Socialism:  a politics of place and people, of identity and class consciousness. In his remarkable 2017 campaign for a seat on the New York City Council for the 35th District — he lost but took a stunning 30 percent of the vote against the sitting Democrat — Brisport’s issues came from the heartbeat of Prospect Heights, the Brooklyn community where he grew up: gentrification, wages, school quality, justice. 

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 Brisport, now 31, has a litany of attributes and accomplishments. He is Black, socialist, activist, Buddhist, and a talented actor with five film credits. He’s a song-and-dance comedian, and oh, yes, a math teacher. He is also the guy who started phone-banking to Iowa for Bernie Sanders in January 2016 and ended up covering six states and co-running Sanders’ Queens operation. He attended prestigious Brooklyn Poly Prep, graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in theatre, and earned a Master’s from Yale Drama. 

 With all the promise of that privileged status, the soul of Brisport’s creativity, he notes, is sparked by flesh-and-blood politics. That’s what excites his imagination. It’s also part of what drew him to DSA: “It’s an “active socialism. . . fresh, new, and exciting. They’re always doing things and making change possible.” 

Brisport’s route to DSA took long detours. Besides running for City Council,  full-bore campaigning for Sanders in ’16 and then for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes in ’18, Brisport has made films, helped found comedy theatre groups, and gotten arrested several times in protest of NYC’s transformation of public properties to luxury housing. Still, he says, “I am constantly haunted by the question “What am I doing to help the world?”

 He continues, “I graduated in 2008 right at the start of the Recession. I had considered myself a Socialist. I saw how the banks had screwed up so much,” but with the onus of starting his acting career, “I didn’t join any organizations.” By 2014, however, “I started listening to Bernie again. He was talking about the things I was thinking about.” 

 When Sanders started to run in 2016, “I had this ‘coming out’ moment, an epiphany, as a socialist. I am queer, so I had a second coming out moment! Bernie’s campaign had folded, and I started thinking of all the links between racism and capitalism. I was thinking about slavery and how another word for property is capital. So, the black people were brought to America as capital, as slaves, and that’s what capitalism is: It’s putting a price tag on things that shouldn’t have a price tag, whether that’s health care, education, or people — it’s all the same thing. It’s immoral.

 “The things that have destroyed the Black community have been tied to white wealth — like share cropping, Jim Crow, red lining, and for-profit prisons. Black wealth has never even returned to the wealth levels of before the Great Recession. I am a Socialist because ‘How could I fight racism without fighting capitalism?’ They’re so linked.” 

Brisport’s political awareness has come in bursts, beginning in his teens.  “It is through identity that I found socialism,” he said, adding, “It’s through [their own sense of] identity that people get fired up about politics.”  Brisport’s route to socialism began evolving from his early struggles as a gay, over-achiever adolescent at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep high school. Through that struggle to be heard as his real self, Brisport saw how everyone is caught up “in their own struggles. There is suffering because we are all connected. So, it [has become] my job to meet people at their identity.” Indeed.

 For Brisport, an unusually thoughtful politician, identity and place are intimates. “Identity and suffering, that’s my Buddhism coming out!” he quips. However, “I have this theory that all deep analyses of the “isms” — nationalism, racism, capitalism, sexism — they’re all connected. They all lead back to propping up property: ‘I’m gonna take it, and you can’t have it!’ or ‘You’re different from me, and I want to keep you different, so I can maintain my own wealth and my own stuff!’”

 He says, “I tell people gentrification is not caused by white people, it’s caused by capitalism. If you de-commodify the land, and you [remove] the profit motive, then we can actually fight against this. My neighborhood, Prospect Heights, was ground zero for gentrification in the aughts, 2000–2009,” he continues. “When it was happening, it was distressing. I was going to NYU, living in the dorms. Every time I’d come home, one of my neighborhood stores was gone.”

 That experience burned such a hole in his imagination that throughout his City Council campaign, Brisport — dubbed “the crazy Green Party Socialist dude” by the New York media — focused on four bold demands: local people must have a say in the budget for the police department; public schools must get the money really necessary to educate their students; NYC’s “affordable housing” programs must be available first for the men and women who already live in those neighborhoods and at costs they can actually afford; and, spectacularly, he insisted that community land trusts be established so that locals, not politicians, are in charge of public lands, properties, and landmarks. 

 It was a brave stance, and DSA backed him and his Green Party candidacy. So did Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution. Beneath the bonhomie of the actor-comedian, a serious reformer was giving voice to the thoughts that real people say, not what political handlers craft. And, he had back up.

The effect was electric for Brooklyn’s 35th — a melting pot of 127,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, African-Americans, Spanish-, French-, and English-speaking Caribbeans, and a growing colony of gentrifying Millennials. 

 When Brisport discovered DSA, he had already been in Socialist Alternatives, but their approach was too theoretical.  He wanted an “active socialism. DSA, that’s my notion, that’s what I want to do!”  Speaking to The Intercept of his route to Democratic Socialism, Brisport noted, “DSA is multi-tendency. It’s electoral, but it’s also fighting lots of battles: housing, immigrant justice, labor rights, climate. What they’re really great at doing is joining ongoing conflicts and allying themselves with the local community . . . taking a back seat, . . . saying, ‘how can we amplify what you do?’”

 Brisport audibly grins, “We’re re-defining politics! It’s an exciting time, and it’s real. Our generation is going to change it. We’re going to change things!”