‘Radical’ Social Budgeting: An Interview With Brandon West for NYC Council
Running for public office consists of a wide range of experiences, of many different connotations. That range only becomes wider when running for office in a city that is simultaneously infamous and revered for its political operations. The revering born from people-powered movements of everyday constituents who have had enough of the shame their infamous government has brought them for far too long. These same movements not only addressing important systemic issues, but producing representatives in themselves to truly make a government of, by, and for the people.
Brandon West (he/him), a bold progressive, is running to represent Brooklyn’s 39th District in the New York City Council. The district encompasses the areas of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, and Kensington. On the 2021 slate as one of the NYC-DSA supported candidates and endorsed by many more groups and electeds, Brandon makes clear that his continued activism and policy stances are necessary structural upheavals.
For over a decade, Brandon has engaged locally with poor and working-class people towards election and democracy reform. This reflected through Brandon’s leadership as the President of the New Kings Democrats in making sure all of Brooklyn’s communities are heard in how they believe the Democratic Party’s direction needs to head in. Having worked as a Campaign Manager with the Center for Popular Democracy, West strengthened the organization’s ballot access initiatives and uplifted the political voices of historically disadvantaged people.
With his city council run, West has emphasized the need for housing to be considered a human right, for community safety to be addressed beyond policing, and a city budget that is truly controlled by the people it currently funds… or needs to start funding. Brandon wouldn’t be a progressive if he also didn't make clear his stance that accessible, quality education, healthcare, and public transportation are a must. This in addition to a “Green New Deal for NYC” being a piece of legislation that all New York residents must be guaranteed.
I had the opportunity to speak with Brandon via Zoom to further discuss what his campaign stands for, how West combats corporate, establishment forces, and how West simply stays centered as an individual on the campaign trail.
How is the idea of “radical politics” defined through the lens of your specific candidacy in this race?
I’m about centering both the budget and the functioning of government as a place where liberation theory needs to exist. That means how we fund things, how we enact justice through our city’s massive budget, and how we spend and what we spend our resources on. This is Black liberation theory, this is Queer liberation theory. Righting the wrongs of the past and centering the most marginalized in every aspect of government. This ultimately improves the lives of everyone.
There’s always this fear of, “If this group gets this help, then ‘we’ aren’t going to get help.” Even in communities of color, I’ve seen this idea stated as though there is a finite amount of justice. Centering the conversations and discussions of those most marginalized creates a better city, and creates a government that we want. This increasingly pokes holes through capitalism and how the city manifests it.
This campaign is an anti-capitalist mission. Black liberation is about how capitalism is the subjugation of Black folks. The underfunding of communities is a part of liberation theory at large. The tool of this liberation is the city’s budget. I want this campaign to be a space where we lift up those ideas.
In reference to your past and continued work, voting rights are one of the backbone issues of your campaign. Do you ever have to unpack misconceptions with people who believe voting rights in New York are fully intact simply because of the progressive direction the city is going in?
This is definitely a part of the bigger conversation of what people believe democracy to be. Election Day is just one piece of voting rights. Knowing what’s going on in your community board, making sure deals aren’t being made behind closed doors is also a part of it. Flint, Michigan is a democracy issue. Those people don’t have a say or access to power. It’s about building power in those communities. We have a democracy as a structure, but it’s truly about talking about the mechanisms of power.
Democracy in our city is about people feeling like they have access and understanding towards all levels of government. It’s about people feeling like they have the resources to make necessary changes and speak up. This goes way beyond the notions of elections and voting. I tell people that electoral politics is but one piece of the puzzle, and isn’t as big of a puzzle piece as people make it out to be.
The bad politics of the local Democratic parties creates bad policy. That plays out over and over again in terms of who is in the room of decision-making, who gets to be a judge, who gets endorsements and who doesn’t. The “horse-trading” that happens still has ramifications to this day. We see people [electeds] say the same talking points over and over, but when the time comes towards when it matters, they aren’t movement candidates anymore.
When people don’t know how to politically navigate around governmental issues, that’s a democracy issue. We have a weak democracy in some ways here in the city. That’s how I talk about voting rights.
Going more into that, as a progressive, what has your experience been like interacting with the Democratic party establishment? How have you seen your work and activism overcome their influence?
It’s been long, hard, lonely work. Getting people to understand the ramifications of the party establishment’s actions and doing the coalition behind that understanding took a lot of work to where we are today. When the pandemic started, the Democratic Party tried to kick a lot of leftists and democratic socialists off the ballot because they [the establishment] went unchecked in their influence over the Board of Elections.
It’s been challenging. The system was easy to manipulate. Then 2016 happened and the political landscape changed so much. Right now we have a great base of folks who are trying to create an alternative to the current party. It’s in the same backyard as the Black and Brown political establishment in Brooklyn. The Queens machine is a little weaker, their cracks formed a little earlier which woke more people up.
The city’s establishment in response to this tried to use race as a tool to stop movements like ours from moving forward, and that’s frustrating as a Black organizer who has been in spaces with predominately White groups. We all work together, but you have these people saying awful things to the media, awful things to the press against you through a racial lens. It’s triggering. They’re trying to take power away from you through racism instead of addressing it in our political systems; on top of a lot of these electeds already benefiting from things like the housing insecurity we face today in the city.
As progressives, we have to have very clear values towards what it means to be in power so people don’t think you’re the same establishment that has existed. We have the value system, we just have to own exactly what we want. The Democratic machine has been very focused on undermining our narrative, particularly [undermining] leftists of color in political spaces because we are a direct threat to their power structure.
Considering all of this, how do you mentally and emotionally take care of yourself as a candidate running for public office? Or simply engaging in any capacity politically?
That’s a good question. It’s tough. A political campaign has a gradual start and then grows out exponentially with a spike at the very end. It’s tough because your name is out there, your face is out there, people are talking about you and forming opinions about you before you get a chance to say anything to them.
That can be weird especially as someone who doesn’t talk about themself often. I’m usually a “behind the scenes” person. I don’t thrive being in front of everything. I like to work and organize with people directly in groups. It took some adjusting to get used to. The days are long. It’s hard because you have to put yourself out there over and over again getting used to rejection and being present with people regularly.
Now though, the campaign has gotten so much bigger and is really growing in energy. Having random people tell you, “I’ve heard about your campaign, how can I help?” is very uplifting. But even taking a little bit of time to recharge is incredibly important. That recharging has generally been music for me; to disconnect and use as an outlet. Planning your calendar and sticking to it both with the campaign and that little bit of time carved out for yourself is critical.
This is a marathon. You can’t sprint the whole campaign. We’re getting close to the sprinting stage, but before it was tough because I wasn’t taking that time for myself and it was showing. I’ve been more intentional about making separate time for my work and for myself. You can’t let those areas bleed into each other. It’s easy on your time off to check Slack or check Twitter and immediately feel bad. But I think having that separation now is really great.
Is there anything else you would like to mention or include?
Speaking of mental health, I was talking to a union organizer recently that I went to college with and he was saying that there was this conversation had recently between a bunch of old-school civil rights organizers and millennial organizers. The older activists were telling the millennials things like, “Why are you on the internet so much? Why aren’t you ‘working harder’ on the streets doing your activism?” and the millennial organizers replied back to them, “Why aren’t you taking care of yourselves? You’re burnout and irritable.”
It’s interesting to see how the movement space has changed. Racial justice, Queer liberation, these spaces have evolved pretty quickly over a generation. The strategies of the ’60s and ’70s are not going to necessarily work right now, but that’s the exciting part of the landscape shifting in New York and how we can build around these new ideas created out of these political changes.
So many folks agree on the organizing basics like terminology. But in terms of practice, we have to make this real. I tell people you have to work in the streets and you have to work in the spreadsheets. You need to do the movement work, with the movement, but you also need to know how to make the organizing work. We need to really make sure we know how we can defund the police and actually fund our communities. We need to understand the systems and dismantle them if we need to. Understanding what we need to breakdown, and what we need to rebuild.
If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen now. The moons are aligning, and we really need to take advantage of it.
Learn more about Brandon’s campaign and their upcoming events, follow the campaign on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and volunteer your time and skills towards Brandon’s primary victory on June 22nd, 2021.
When you see the phrase “grassroots campaign”, that means that every ounce of support, especially volunteering, is greatly appreciated.
Fellow Activists: You Are Enough
Mental health reminders for my fellow activists doing the good work
6 Actual Statements People Have Made to Me Because I’m a Democratic Socialist
Specifically, statements that are misconceptions