By: Sam Mellins
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.Jabari Brisport is a third-generation Caribbean-American, a New York City public school teacher, and a Democratic candidate for the New York State Senate running against Tremaine Wright and Jason Salmon.
Brisport is on the ballot for District 25, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sunset Park, Gowanus, and Park Slope in Brooklyn.
The candidate identifies as a Democratic Socialist running on a progressive platform. He supports ending mass incarceration, expanding labor unions, healthcare as a human right, and a strong animal rights agenda. I recently spoke with Brisport about his support for animal rights and how it relates to the rest of his platform. Brisport is advocating for several specific animal welfare policies and is clear on how, if elected, he would successfully enact those policies in Albany.
Sam Mellins: Jabari, thanks so much for talking to me today. Before we discuss animal rights specifically, can you tell me in general terms what your campaign is about and why you’re running?
Jabari Brisport: Yeah, no problem. So there is deep disinvestment in my community—people are getting pushed out rapidly because we don’t invest in truly affordable housing; our schools are disinvested in, overcrowded and underfunded; our healthcare system is disinvested in, there’s not enough money and enough hospital beds, not enough treatment, or safe staffing ratios. And across the board, there’s disinvestment in transportation, in clean energy, and in our social service system—it’s all lacking investment. I hate to keep saying “investment” so much because it makes me sound like a capitalist, but it truly is [lack of investment], because we have politicians that cater to the wealthy and wealthy donors, especially the real estate lobby. And it’s frustrating, because ultimately [underinvestment] harms working people. So really I’m frustrated that I’m not seeing my community get what it deserves.
SM: You’re one of a number of progressive candidates running for office in New York City. But your platform has one unusual feature, even among progressive candidates, which is your animal rights plank. I’m curious why it is important to you specifically to include animal rights policies as part of your platform. Is animal welfare something you’ve always believed in, or something that you’ve come to believe in? What’s the story there?
JB: Yeah, I’m a vegan and an animal rights activist. I was a vegan only in terms of diet for some years, but I had a fellow vegan invite me to this animal rights activism symposium with a bunch of activists that really got me inspired. We went to a Canada Goose protest together because Canada Goose is really terrible on animal rights. And the fur industry in general is just really awful. And it really got me inspired to fight for animals. After my [first] City Council run [in 2017], I joined the Board of a group called Voters for Animal Rights, which sought to combine animal activism and political action, get pro-animal people elected into office, and help fight for pro-animal legislation. I stepped down from that Board to run for [the New York State Senate]. But I can’t have been doing all this work for the animals and not include that in my platform. I was active in fighting to pass a ban on the sale of fur in New York City; I was fighting for a ban on the sale of foie gras in New York City. So I’m [advocating to] get [these bans] passed into law. That’s really important if we are going to do justice by animals.
SM: What would you say are the essential elements of your animal rights program in this campaign? And how did you come to promote those specific policies?
JB: I would say that one of the biggest policies is banning the sale of furs statewide. It’s just such an awful industry that involves electrocution in some cases; leaving animals in traps for hours, sometimes days on end—really inhumane treatments. [The industry] is also not really sustainable. I’m very pissed that we weren’t able to pass [a fur ban] at the city level, but I’m fired up, ready to just pass it across the entirety of New York State. And also [I support] a ban on wet markets, like live wet markets.
SM: Yeah, wet markets are certainly a hot-button issue at the moment.
JB: [Wet markets] have definitely been pushed to the top of the issues because of COVID-19. But it is [mainly important] among the people who see that a lot of animal agriculture involves not only inhumane practices for the animals themselves, but [also] things that are really not good for the public health of humans. And in addition to [wet markets], [I support] discussion of how the dairy industry [treats] cows, while at the same time acknowledging that dairy is in freefall as an industry and dairy farmers are committing suicide. So we’re trying to give [dairy farmers] a just transition into plant-based farming. There’s some [farmers] already doing this—they’re going into plant-based milk, oat milk, almond milk. So let’s set up a program—rather than having subsidies to keep them afloat in an industry that’s dying, [let’s] redirect them into plant-based [farming] or however else they want to use their land.
SM: I guess you were sort of alluding to that just now, but what do you think a just transition for dairy farmers, for animal agriculture, could look like in New York State?
JB: The devil’s in the details, but right now we are subsidizing dairy. We’re taking a chunk of the [New York State] budget and giving it to dairy farmers to subsidize them and keep them afloat. New York is, I think, the third-largest dairy producer in the country. So what I’m proposing is that we help with a transition away from dairy farming to other forms of farming. Now, Elmhurst 1925 did this very well. They used to be a major supplier of dairy to schools and hospitals throughout New York City. They were a huge provider of cow-based milk, and they did a full hundred-percent switch into plant-based milks; they have a full line of almond milks, and macadamia milks, and nut milks. [Elmhurst] did a full-on transition, but it doesn’t even need to be like that. [Dairy farmers] can start growing industrial hemp, they can grow other crops, they can do so many other things. Rather than giving [dairy farmers] money to keep propping up this dying industry, let’s use the money as grants for them to refit their equipment, start planting new crops, and transition out of [producing animal dairy]. It should be troubling for everyone that dairy farmers are committing suicide.
JB: I think that [dairy farmers can] get into industries that are sustainable, where they can make a living again—they just want to have a job like everyone else. So let’s make [farming] a sustainable, just job.
SM: I think you’re beginning to talk about something else that I am interested in, which is the relationship of your animal rights platform to the rest of your “human-centered” platform. I’m curious about how you view the role of animal rights in the context of progressive politics in general, and how those pieces fit together with your Democratic Socialist vision.
JB: Oh, yeah, [animal rights are] extremely connected [to progressive politics]. I mean, [animal rights] are really important now. People like to attempt to be “woke,” and they portray veganism as some elite thing for white people that is actually harming indigenous communities. But, truly, if you could see what the meat industry does, what the animal agriculture industry does, to working class people, to poor workers that work in slaughterhouses or in meat-processing plants, and how they’re treated, or the lack of safety nets that they have as workers, and their exposure to poor sanitation practices—when you think about the neighborhoods that are near some of these industrial animal agriculture centers—literally there are just entire communities in the South [located] right by massive pig processing plants. The pig farmers there just keep all the pig shit in massive stews, like shit ponds, and they just spray it out, and it builds up into clouds in the air of these low-income black and brown communities. This is the effect of animal agriculture. And it’s oppressive to people of color. When I think about fighting against animal agriculture and [for] animal rights, it’s also an attempt to uplift the human value in all this. It’s also fighting for human health, and safe living, and clean air.
SM: Absolutely. When I hear you say all this, it sounds very compelling to me. I’m curious, though: to what degree do you foreground your animal rights platform on the campaign trail, and what kind of response have you gotten from people who may not be so committed to animal rights, or may not think about animal welfare so much?
JB: I don’t know if I’ve been foregrounding [animal rights] as much as I could be. Part of that is due to a big lesson I learned with my last campaign, which is about meeting people where they are.
My last campaign, I met someone who was talking about concerns about getting evicted. I listened. And I started going off about the number of evictions in the neighborhood, and about Albany politicians taking so much money for real estate and not investing enough in us. I said that there’s no affordable housing and too many evictions. And she looked at me and brought it back to herself, and said, “But I, me. I might be getting evicted. I need help with that right now.” That really spoke to me about how sometimes people don’t see the big picture [above] other things. So what I take away from that lesson is that a lot of people are supportive of animal rights, but they don’t necessarily have it at the front of their concerns.
SM: Yes. What would you do to prevent that whole “racist fur bill” controversy from recurring, for example?
JB: One thing to do is to get ahead of [accusations of bias]. In California, the same playbook was used to start pushing a narrative that banning fur was racist, and a Black legislator in the State Assembly or the State Senate was like, “I reject that narrative; that’s stupid.” So maybe getting one person of color to speak up and say, “That’s not true.” I was doing that as an activist—I gathered other Black animal rights activists, and we started putting out op-eds, and tried to reach out to other Black elected officials to talk to them about [the proposed fur ban]. We ended up being unsuccessful because some people doubled down on the double standard of being allowed to purchase a fur hat while not being allowed to purchase a fur coat. But I think we learned a lot from that ordeal. Now I think that [a statewide fur ban] should just be a universal ban on the sale of fur, with no cut-outs.
SM: Jabari, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I wish you the best of luck.
Sam Mellins is a New York-based freelance writer working with Sentient Media and other media outlets covering history and contemporary animal agriculture. He has written for Medievalists.net about the origins of well-known modern foods and the Chicago Review about the Chicago Opera Theater.
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