FRANCISCO FORTUÑO BERNIER
A little before noon on 12 September, on the steps of Tweed Courthouse in Lower Manhattan, Brian P. Jones – a third year doctoral student in the Urban Education Program at the Graduate Center – declared his candidacy for Lieutenant Governor of New York. Running alongside Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins, their campaign platform is articulated as a “Green New Deal for New York” with many attendant concerns, including those relating to: education, economic democracy, sustainable agriculture, criminal justice reform, women’s, worker, immigrant, and LGBT rights as well as civil rights and racial justice. A longtime member of the International Socialist Organization, Jones is running as an independent with the Green Party of New York State. Jones taught elementary school in New York City public schools for nine years prior to pursuing his PhD and has been active in the struggle against the privatization of education, budget cuts, and school closures. He is one of the founding members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators and co-narrated the film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. His current research focuses on the history and politics of the black struggle for education in the United States. Francisco Fortuño Bernier conducted this interview on 18 September, 2014.
Francisco Fortuño Bernier (FF): You have been a teacher, an actor, a union activist, and presently are a doctoral student here in the Graduate Center. And now also a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of New York State together with Howie Hawkins for the Green Party. Could you describe briefly your careers as politically active and conscious people? In your own case, how would you say you gained awareness of the problems that have led you to political and union activism?
Brian P. Jones (BJ): I decided I was a socialist many years ago as an undergraduate student. I joined a huge movement on my campus to increase financial aid and minority admissions — something that directly affected me— and that was my first time participating in a mass action. Soon afterwards, when I met socialists, their basic ideas made sense to me. They said progress was about people in large numbers uniting and fighting in their own interest — that resonated with my experience. About ten years later I became a teacher, and tried to apply those ideas to the struggle to defend and improve public schools. I helped to found a new caucus in the teacher’s union because it seemed to many of us that the union needs to be democratized and needs to wage a more aggressive fight against what many call corporate education reform.
FF: In general terms, how do you describe the social and political situation of the United States and the State of New York in particular?
BJ: We’re facing several crises — a jobs crisis, a housing crisis, a criminal justice crisis, a health crisis, and, on top of them all, an ecological crisis. The mainstream politicians have no solutions because they won’t listen to the majority. A majority of the population supports building renewable energy infrastructure, supports single-payer healthcare, supports raising the minimum wage, supports feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless. The Democratic and Republican parties have no intention of doing those things. They are both neoliberal parties, which is to say that they are committed to a bipartisan consensus about restoring profitability through privatization, union busting, deregulation, and tax cuts for the elite. Their answer to the dire circumstances some communities are facing is more police — which never solves the underlying problems. The Democrats are committed to making the United States “energy independent” which means more fossil fuels, with a sprinkling of “green” projects on the side for show. We’ve heard some politicians make promises to the Left, but they end up governing [as centrists] or to the Right, not because we want them to, but because their funders — the 1% — demand it. It seems to me that’s why most people don’t bother to vote.
FF: What would you say are, presently, the issues that make a vote for Hawkins and Jones so imperative?
BJ: We have to stop pulling carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the atmosphere as matter of human survival. We have to stop immediately. Governor Cuomo has already received millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry and plans to continue hydrofracking. By contrast, Howie Hawkins and I are pledging to ban fracking immediately, and to begin the work of making New York a 100% renewable energy state by 2030. That would take an enormous amount of labor, which is why this plan would simultaneously solve our unemployment crisis by creating roughly 4.5 million jobs. We have had the technology to do this for some time, it’s just a matter of the political will to confront the wealth and power of the fossil fuel industry. If we want to keep breathing air and drinking water, it’s the only sane thing to do. In many other ways, our campaign is about making New York livable for the working majority. We are calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage, single-payer health care, the legalization of marijuana, fully funded schools, and free tuition at CUNY and SUNY. If we returned to a more progressive tax structure (taxing the rich for example) we could generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue to pay for all of these initiatives and more.
FF: Would you say that your experience as an activist and as a school teacher in New York led you to get involved in electoral politics? Do you see a difference between being an activist and a candidate?
BJ: Yes, it was my experience as a teacher and education activist that led me here. New Yorkers are angry at Governor Cuomo for cutting school budgets and attacking teacher unions. Cuomo has been a champion of privatization — through supporting the spread of high stakes standardized testing, attacks on teacher unions, and forcing New York City to give charter schools free rent in public school buildings. So Howie asked me to join him in order to bring the energy of the education movement into the campaign. It’s true that grassroots activism and campaigning for office are not exactly the same thing. However, I don’t ever want to counterpose them. We have local activists speaking alongside me nearly everywhere I go because we want this campaign to amplify their voices, too, not just mine. I would never say to people, “vote for me, and everything will be taken care of” because it’s just not true. Even when we are elected, we will still need strong unions and strong grassroots organizations. There’s no progress without struggle. I hope this campaign makes all of the organizing work people are doing stronger.
FF: You have described the Hawkins/Jones ticket as the only progressive campaign in New York State. Progressive is sometimes used to mean a broad range of political positions, from the radical Left to more traditional liberal forces. What would you say is the meaning of the term “progressive” in the United States in 2014? Who do you think should identify in the present context with this term and why?
BJ: It’s true that in the United States “progressive” is a broad label. The fact is that the Democratic Party has run away from any promise of progressive reform — reforms that benefit ordinary people. For every crisis, the Democratic Party proposes a stingy market mechanism. They won’t entertain single-payer health care, instead there’s a mandate to purchase private health insurance. They won’t contemplate bailing out regular people like they bailed out the banks. Instead of student loan debt amnesty, there’s more information made available to students so they can be better loan shoppers. They won’t invest in public schools so that every child can have small class sizes and rich curricula and resources. Instead they pour resources into measuring schools so that they can rank them and foster competition between them. I think there’s a pretty broad group of people who are becoming fed up with this state of affairs. We want to appeal to that broad group, not just to the radicals. I want to be clear, however, that while we are appealing to a broad progressive and working-class sentiment, we are not afraid to take controversial stances that are in keeping with our principles. When Israel was bombarding Gaza this summer, our campaign released a statement in solidarity with Gaza and against the slaughter. On 4 November we will be the only politicians on the ballot who pledge to divest New York State from Israel’s murderous occupation of Palestine.
FF: How do you approach liberal voters, who may be socially committed but more used to supporting the Democratic Party, as to give them reasons to vote for your candidacy?
BJ: There are many people who are supporting us, but still support the Democratic Party. I hope this campaign increases the ranks of people who are ready to swear off the Democrats forever. But it’s hard to leave unless you have somewhere else to go. That’s why it helps to have third party campaigns based in social movements that can encourage and foster political independence. Some people are coming over to our camp out of frustration with the Democrats, but too many still don’t know that an alternative exists.
FF: Likewise, what would you say to people who do have a great sense of political or social commitment and awareness, but regard either the voting process or existing political parties (including the Green Party) as part of an unjust establishment? I have in mind activists and militants who may be sympathetic to your discourse, but may be highly skeptical of the system in which you are participating. How would you approach or convince these people?
BJ: I think those people are right to be skeptical. The electoral system is highly rigged against real change. I’m guessing Howie Hawkins and I will be the only non-millionaires on the ballot on 4 November. At the same time, I think the people who are fed up with the two-party system and with the electoral process need to understand that there are still a lot of people who look to this system for hope. The Democratic Party portrays itself as “the party of the people” and then asks our movements to modify their demands in order to not embarrass their candidates. We had a stronger anti-war movement under Bush than we have had under Obama. Meanwhile the unions waste millions of dollars on Democratic Party politicians that could be used to sponsor working class candidates and actual organizing campaigns. The whole “lesser evil” argument has the effect of narrowing our political horizons and lowering our expectations. Radicals may prefer to ignore the electoral system and focus on grassroots activism, but the electoral system continues to have an effect on grassroots activism — whether we like it or not. I would not want to build up a principle about this either way — that we must always run candidates, or that we must never run candidates. I don’t see why we should, in principle, cede this terrain to the 1%. One last point — a problem we always face in grassroots activism is building links and connections between various struggles and between various issues. I hope that our campaign offers activists an opportunity to do just that. Our platform is essentially a collection of the best demands of New York’s unions and social movements. Joining this campaign gives you an excuse to talk to your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and classmates about all of it — the New Jim Crow, the climate catastrophe, neoliberalism, the schools… all of it.
FF: Recently, radical or progressive candidates and electoral campaigns have gained wide recognition and met unusual success. Probably the most renowned of these efforts was Kshama Sawant’s victory, as an openly socialist candidate, in the Seattle City Council. Sawant has endorsed your campaign, and you are also an openly socialist candidate and a member of a socialist organization. Would you say that efforts such as these are made possible by the changing social conditions in the United States? Or would you say that it is more due to some sectors of the Left having reassessed the importance of electoral processes as part of working class struggle?
BJ: Howie Hawkins, our candidate for governor, also calls himself a socialist, by the way. A poll from his hometown of Syracuse puts Howie in second place behind Cuomo, with the Republican in third place. The reason is simple. Wages are stagnant. Good jobs are hard to find. Record numbers of people are locked up for drug possession. Schools are facing budget cuts. Everyone is in debt up to their eyeballs. And if they keep up the fossil fuel extraction, we won’t be able to drink the water or breathe the air. People are beginning to think that things are radically wrong, which is why radicals don’t seem so scary.
FF: An important issue of the Hawkins/Jones campaign has been a focus on attacks against education. How would you describe the present threats to public education in NY? And against higher education institutions such as SUNY and CUNY? What are some of your proposals for dealing with these problems?
BJ: A new study says that New York has the most segregated schools in the nation. Meanwhile Cuomo’s budgetary schemes have robbed roughly $9 billion from all of the schools during his time in office. The solution to this is not privatization and philanthropy. Desegregation and equity requires us to add more money to the pot, not simply to reshuffle the existing resources between the schools. Instead of schools competing with each other or against homeowners, we need to tax the rich to fully fund our schools. We are simultaneously facing the neoliberal restructuring of higher education. Tuition is going up, and so is the use of adjunct professors. It’s time to restore free tuition at CUNY and introduce it at SUNY. This is not a utopian dream. We had free tuition at CUNY for 125 years. It’s ridiculous that young people graduate from these schools tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Reversing the decline of tenure lines will have a huge impact on the quality of higher education in this state — and would make New York a leader in reversing the trend nationwide.