outside to the inside
Jabari Brisport and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Are Looking to Make All Kinds of Trouble
By Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Photography Menelik Puryear
Stylist Alexa Lanza
Published September 1, 2020
Jabari Brisport has done the math, and it doesn’t add up. In the richest country in the world, nurses fundraise for PPE, teachers pay for crayons, and billionaires get tax breaks. Growing up in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, the 33-year-old public school math teacher has seen firsthand the struggles of the working class, and he’s not satisfied with the way things have gone. After a 2017 run for city council, the Democratic Socialist led this year’s 25th district primary for the New York State Senate with over half the vote. With a Yale School of Drama degree and a Bernie Sanders endorsement under his belt, Brisport has declared victory as New York’s first openly gay Black state legislator.
As part of a new wave of Democratic Socialists heading to state office, including Marcela Mitaynes, Phara Souffrant Forrest, and Zohran Mamdani, Brisport represents values that many Americans were introduced to as recently as 2018, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated a ten-term incumbent in the Bronx to become the youngest congresswoman in the country. It only made sense, then, for the bartender-turned-politician to give Brisport a few tips on how to navigate the journey from the outside to the inside, while making sure it’s the outside that still matters most. —SARAH NECHAMKIN
JABARI BRISPORT: Oh my god, Alex!
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Hey, how’s it going? Congratulations again.
BRISPORT: Thanks! We’re just waiting on the mail-ins, but we feel good. Congrats to you on just whooping [Michelle] Caruso[-Cabrera]’s butt.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Thank you so much. There’s so much relief in just getting past that day. I’m sure you feel the same way. A lot of people don’t know that you were actually one of my entry points into the Democratic Socialists of America. I had gone to meetings before very casually, but I had kind of fallen off the wagon a bit. I remember having a conversation with you, after I started running, about a DSA endorsement. I was very intimidated at the time.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Not of you, but of approaching DSA about the endorsement. You encouraged me to just go for it.
BRISPORT: I knew you’d be a shoo-in. I was like, “She’s too perfect. She’s got the ‘it’ factor.”
OCASIO-CORTEZ: This is your second time running for office—you ran for city council in 2017. A lot of people still don’t know what to make of this wave of Democratic Socialism in New York City, but also across the country. We’re seeing the numbers spike. What do you want people to know about your beliefs and this movement? What do you think people get wrong about it?
BRISPORT: People hear “socialism,” and they think that it’ll be an end to all the good stuff they like, that somebody is going to swoop in and steal everything from them. That they’ll have to have a breadline and a can of tomato soup, and that’ll be it. But for me, it’s really about getting people out from underneath the thumb of capitalism, and freeing them from the very small group of people that manage—or I should say mismanage—our economy and our society for their own wealth and benefit. It’s about freeing up people to truly experience all the joys in life by making sure they don’t have to worry about whether or not they’ll be able to keep their home from month to month, or whether or not they’ll be able to pay for health care when they get sick. It’s about freeing people from all the existential havoc that capitalism wreaks on us, and allowing them to truly thrive.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think even within activist movements, there’s the cynical end of things, too, where people feel like our electoral system is beyond repair. Why did you decide to run for office?
BRISPORT: You know, one of the most heartbreaking things happened to me when I ran for city council. I was talking to this young Black guy the week before the election. I was letting him know about the race, and he kind of waved me off and said, “I’m not even voting, man. Politics—that’s a white man’s game.” It was so frustrating because so many people in our communities have been left out and left behind to the point where they really feel that politics is a white man’s game. I ran because I was so frustrated with what was going on in my community—seeing people being pushed out of their homes, seeing our schools being underfunded. When I ran in 2017, there was this nasty redevelopment called the Bedford Union Armory, where they were going to take a huge city block of land and build a community center, which people wanted, but they were also going to build all these condos and luxury housing developments that people didn’t want. I really felt that with Trump in the White House, there was a lot of power that could be won locally, and we could really fight for our communities in our own backyard. So I decided to step up and do that.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: And how does it feel right now? We’re just on the other side of this election, and you’re going from tutoring and working as a normal person to being on the cusp of going to Albany, and shaping a lot of our state laws. As someone who’s gone through this journey, I’m curious how it’s been for you.
BRISPORT: It feels surreal. It’s been a few weeks since the election, and people are already reaching out with constituent service requests. I’m sure the same thing happened to you. You run for office, and you see how much your community is hurting. But then you win an office, and you really see how the community is hurting. They need help.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: How has this journey been for your family? How do they engage you on the substance of what you’re talking about?
BRISPORT: Oh, wow. I don’t know if everyone in my family is a socialist. [Laughs.] One of the emails from my campaign went out saying, “Defund the police,” and one of my siblings, who is not a socialist, was like, “Defund the police? What? The mafia is going to take over.” It was a great chance to actually talk through it with somebody who doesn’t already share my beliefs. What does it mean to actually invest in things that make a community stable? It’s not necessarily a guy with a badge and a gun. But regardless of their ideology, everyone is very, very excited. Everyone’s in for a wild ride, I think.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: After I won in 2018, probably the trippiest part of it was this transition time. You’re still a normal person, but one day you’re just a normal working-class person, and while it takes months and months of work, the election is only one day. Literally overnight, you’re pivoting to operate from this whole different place. One of those transformations is moving from the outside to the inside. As activists and advocates, so much of our work and investment has gone toward pressuring the inside, and organizing to exert pressure on the inside. Just yesterday, I was reminded of this chapter in The Odyssey, when the protagonist ties himself to the front of the boat as all these Sirens are coming through to prevent him from changing the direction of the ship. There’s a similar kind of dynamic when you’re an activist or when you come from community organizing, and you’re not climbing the ranks to get to where you are in the traditional way. You’re going straight from the street to Albany. What are you doing to keep yourself focused?
BRISPORT: It’s really about remembering your roots. I never want to forget that I’m a teacher. When I started building the spreadsheet of people I’m going to reach out to in the district to introduce myself as a senator-elect, the first group I started gathering were principals. I’m a public school teacher when I’m in office, and education is a high, high priority. But beyond that, I’m just trying to make sure I’m meeting on the ground with community groups as much as possible and making sure they’re still leading the charge. It’s funny, I kind of see myself as, like, a mole on the inside.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: I felt the same way! I’m a mole. A man on the inside.
BRISPORT: Right? You can just be like, “Yo, there’s this vote happening. We need you there. We need your activism. We need the squad coming out to picket and protest, or to make some phone calls or emails.” You’re one of the first people to get the dirt on what’s happening. Now I get to help all these organizations in a way that I have never been able to before.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: It’s remarkable how, in such little time, we’re really starting to grow this movement on a city, state, and federal level. You’re going to be joining other DSA candidates, other people with the principles of Democratic Socialism. What do you think that means for the state, and how do you see this trajectory playing out?
BRISPORT: I really think we’re about to see a sea change. When you got elected, when Julia Salazar got elected, you were definitely targets for the establishment, and it was easy for them to target you because—
OCASIO-CORTEZ: There were so few of us.
BRISPORT: Exactly. And now, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to adjust. We are a movement. We’ve always been a movement, but now, with growing power, it’s going to be interesting. One way I saw them rile up against me during the election was by branding DSA as an outside national movement coming to attack local community groups. And yes, we are part of a national movement of progressives and socialists rising and taking power, but we’re also all deeply rooted in our communities. I got really good at debate. I was like, “I have 900 people from the district who donated. You have 50. How can you say that I’m the outside candidate?” It can be inspiring for everyday working-class people to know that there are people now running for office and winning office who look like them and represent them.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: I’m interested in digging into the identity piece a bit because, when it comes to politics, people talk about it in a very superficial way. I think that there’s more depth to this conversation than people usually give it. You’d be the first Black gay state legislator in the entire history of the state of New York, which is a big deal.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: But also, I feel like it’s not a coincidence that virtually every DSA candidate has been a person of color. I don’t think that’s an accident. Do you see the intersections of your identity with your politics? I’m interested in how you connect identity to the progressive movements happening in the state and city.
BRISPORT: I consider being a socialist a part of my identity, too. I realized I was a socialist because of identity and race. I was actually in the shower—
OCASIO-CORTEZ: [Laughs] How long ago was this?
BRISPORT: This was the summer of 2016 after Bernie’s campaign kind of folded. I was in the shower just thinking, “You know what? Slavery was capitalism.” Black people were capital. We were property, and we had a price. That’s what capital is. It’s a piece of property, and that’s what we were. It’s messed up that capitalism brought Black people over here. And I started looking more into socialism based on that and seeing the intersection of how so many disparities in health care, education, and housing were deeply tied to private property ownership and the pursuit of wealth. I could start to see the intersections of how identity and class really just feed off each other. We did a whole thing during the campaign where we broke down how queer people of color had been hit really, really hard from COVID-19, just from the fact that so many of us have preexisting conditions and/or live in poverty. That’s a cocktail that can hit you really hard.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think it’s funny that you say it just kind of came to you, because that’s not the popular understanding in the media. Fox News would have everyone believe that a socialist goes to college, and then some radical professor makes them read Marx and Engels, and then they’re just like, “I’m a socialist!” And then they march out into the world and try to set everything on fire.
BRISPORT: [Laughs] It’s like we’re indoctrinated into it.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think it’s a totally different reality coming from a community of color or a working-class background, at least for me. You live your life, raised by your family, and there are all of these kinds of explanations, frankly, that are excuses for whatever your family is going through, that society has put you through. Like, you don’t have a good job because you didn’t work hard enough. Or a family is in generational poverty because that’s what they deserve. That’s the ultimate implication of a given argument about it: If you just worked harder, you, too, could have riches.
BRISPORT: I’m glad that all the candidates were candidates of color or immigrants or the children of immigrants because I think being from a marginalized group allows you to fight that much harder for everyone. Why would you ever want anyone else on the planet to go through what you’ve been through? I’m proud. I am very proud to be the first openly gay Black state legislator—any color, actually.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yeah, seriously.
BRISPORT: Except for white, I guess. [Laughs] I think it’s extremely important that we elect people who are diverse, and who have diversity of thought. There really are not that many socialists in office, even after this huge wave. There are a million different ways into Democratic Socialism. My one way was through race, specifically, but I think anyone who realizes they’re hurting can start to see the cracks in the system and what’s causing their pain. I would speak with older people in my neighborhood who may not have been comfortable with the term “capitalism,” but when it came to housing, they were like, “Man, it’s all about the money,” or, “It’s all about business.” Literally every word except for capitalism. But people get it. They understand what’s at play. Whether or not they have the specific label, everyone’s aware.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: What’s something that people don’t understand about your community that you’re hoping to represent and bring to Albany?
BRISPORT: The biggest misconception is that it’s too diverse to appease everybody.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: I have heard that said about that part of Brooklyn.
BRISPORT: Racially, it’s all over the place. You have a section that’s predominantly Black, if you go to Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights. And then in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, it’s whiter. If you go to Red Hook, it’s predominantly Latinx. And then the socioeconomic range jumps from people living in NYCHA housing [public housing run by the New York City Housing Authority] to people living in multimillion-dollar brownstones. But I have found that when you really speak about universal issues and universal solutions, everybody listens. I spoke to this elderly Caribbean woman making about $30,000 a year on just her pension. She was upset about housing and worried about how she was going to buy groceries. And then I spoke to this yuppie white dude in his twenties making $80,000 a year, who was like, “I can’t pay my rent. The rent is too high.” Whether you’re an elderly Caribbean woman or a yuppie white dude, everyone is struggling to make sure there’s a roof over their head. And there’s a clear reason for that, with the never-ending donations that pour in from the real estate lobby into Albany. That’s a really clear way to unite people in a class struggle against a certain class of people that keeps trying to bend the political system to their own favor.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything that you want to ask me?
BRISPORT: I want to hear more about how you have enjoyed working with the Squad. Are you excited for the Squad to maybe grow based on this year’s results?
OCASIO-CORTEZ: It’s been so priceless and immeasurably important to have this sisterhood. It’s kind of growing into a family. Honestly, I don’t even know if I would have been able to survive my first year, politically and emotionally, without them. Those relationships for me go so far beyond politics. A lot of people call each other friends in politics, and they’re not, or it’s incredibly transactional. To have this unconditional love that we’ve had has been so important. Especially when I have to go to D.C. for votes, it’s so incredible to be able to call [Congresswoman] Ayanna [Pressley], or anyone of them, and for us to have a pizza night and just kind of vent about the unique things that we’re going through because we are targeted as people who speak up to an establishment that is calcified in both the Republican and the Democratic parties. Take full advantage of those bonds because it’s what will help you survive. It’s what will help you thrive.
Prop Stylist: Caroline Dorn
Photography Assistant: Dylan Johnston