By Jonathan Greig
When Phara Souffrant Forrest first started calling for the government to cancel rent, most people outside of the Democratic Socialist universe scoffed.
But now that a pandemic has kneecapped the American economy and millions are still struggling to find work, the public, and even centrist Democrats, have begun to embrace the idea that America’s wealth should be used to protect those in the working class who are most insecure.
The public has now spoken, and Forrest has declared victory in her race for Assembly District 57, beating the incumbent, heavily-favored opponent Walter T. Mosley III. She trailed Mosley by 588 votes on election night but a deluge of absentee ballots put her ahead by over 2,500 votes.
“It was a long wait, but today we can finally say that we did it. Together, we made history by electing a socialist nurse in the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years. With a powerful grassroots coalition, the help of over 1,000 volunteers, and the support of over 13,500 voters in Assembly District 57, we rose to meet this important moment. Our win is a victory for every person who is struggling in this state,” Forrest said.
“It is a win for nurses without protective equipment, for Black and Brown people targeted by police violence and chronic disinvestment, for immigrants deprived of their democratic rights, for tenants who can’t make rent, and for the thousands of unemployed people struggling to survive. Our win is a rejection of politics as usual. This win shows that our time is now.”
In a statement, Mosley said he was proud of his record in office and that he was confident Forrest would “continue to be a strong voice for this district in Albany.”
Millions across the country are facing evictions as rent moratoriums have begun to lapse and jobs are still few and far between. The healthcare challenges of the United States have been laid bare as the country struggles to reopen even with rising COVID-19 infection numbers.
The situation is even more stark for the Haitian and Caribbean community in Brooklyn, which has suffered immensely due to the spread of COVID-19.
The 31-year-old will almost certainly take over the District 57 seat — which covers sections of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
In her quest to unseat Mosley, Forrest had to adapt to a new, socially-distanced brand of campaigning all while racking up major endorsements from democratic socialist stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and the official Democratic Socialist branch in New York.
Bianca Cunningham, co-chair of NYC DSA and a member of the Central Brooklyn branch, called Forrest a “warrior for her community” and said she “is not afraid to speak truth in a way that cuts through the deception and dirt of electoral politics.”
“Phara is a daughter of the community. She has lived and worked in the community all her life and is not disillusioned by political aspirations. She is in this fight representing the interests of the most vulnerable in society. Phara is in this race to take on the real estate giants who have created a mass displacement of people through gentrification. She wants to fight to make housing affordable and end the abuse and harassment of tenants and Black homeowners by developers,” Cunningham told The Haitian Times.
“Phara would be a great assemblywoman because she is unsought and unbossed. Phara is a union nurse who has life experience that has led her down a path to seek justice for the least among us. Hers is a campaign leading with compassion, love and a true concern for humanity.”
Before the pandemic hit New York, Forrest was pounding the pavement, knocking on more than 20,000 doors and canvassing extensively to get the word out. But she went fully digital due to the pandemic, holding town halls online and trying to reach as many people as possible through phone calls and food drives.
Social distancing never stopped her from getting the word out about her platform, which includes rent cancellation, free healthcare and more stimulus funding for small businesses that have been decimated by the pandemic.
Housing is where Forrest got her start and it is one of the major pillars of her campaign. She has focused heavily on ending homelessness in the district and helping people who are paying more than half of their salary in rent. She said 40 percent of the district currently has this problem.
“Working people should feel like someone has their back. Housing is a human right. People will always come in and try to develop, but people who are living in the neighborhood should have a democratic say into how their community is formed. You want to develop in the neighborhood, no problem, but it has to be on our terms,” Forrest said.
“I don’t see why we as the working class should be taking our money and giving it to a landlord that just sits there and collects rent and doesn’t give anything back. There are other models that we can use. We can use public housing. We can use the idea of land trusts. We can use cooperatives. We own the building together. Those are far more sustainable models of housing and it’s democratic. But I do not think that we should just take our hard-earned money and hand it to a landlord.”
She added that hundreds of Haitian families in the district are living in smaller buildings and need protection from landlords who may evict them for any reason.
Forrest also said that the condos being built in the neighborhood are way out of the price range of local residents, essentially forcing them out of the areas where they have developed a community.
In addition to stronger public housing, she also called for more robust healthcare options for local residents.
In her interview with The Haitian Times, Forrest said it was appalling that at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, people across Brooklyn had to pay for coronavirus testing, potentially exacerbating the crisis and driving away people who needed assistance.
When it comes to police, she was critical of how cops have handled the pandemic response. The New York Times reported in May that nearly 80 percent of the stops police conducted for social distancing or not wearing masks were of Black people, all while little to no social distancing was being done on the fields of Manhattan’s Central Park.
“Stop this harassment by police of young Black people walking down the street. People of color are being given tickets for not socially distancing and it’s not even true. People will just be outside and then you give them tickets,” she said.
When it comes to education, she had major questions about the explosion of charter schools in the district. Forrest went to public schools her whole life and noted that funding is always the biggest issue.
She noted that local school buildings now have four or five schools running inside it, which she said would not fix the problem and would only lead to having “four overly-paid principals in one building. Forrest added that not all charter schools are built to handle the problems of all students and she wondered whether these schools are able to goose their numbers by essentially screening out most children.
Cunningham explained that Phara’s platform includes pushing housing legislation even further by working to reduce evictions, making it easier for workers to join a union and holding employers accountable when they intimidate or retaliate against their employees for trying to organize.
Forrest’s parents are from Jacmel and she was raised right in Crown Heights, attending PS161 and the Benjamin Banneker school before getting her degree in international relations from SUNY Geneseo.
She spent time helping mentor public school students as a teacher before diving headfirst into becoming a nurse.
Stephan Woolley, who has known Forrest for years and worked with her at an education non-profit called Global Kids, said the DSA candidate was always outspoken and eager to help her community in any way possible.
“A lot of the things she speaks on are things that I believe in. I know that she’ll fight for those same ideals, the same way she used to work with the same passion and drive that she used to give the kids that she used to teach,” Woolley said “If you had a chance to sit down with Phara for even two seconds, you can really tell she is passionate about everything she puts her mind to.”
Forrest told The Haitian Times that her political life began when she became active locally with the tenant union after battling her landlord.
“I felt housing insecurity after my building went condo. We were afraid of the fact that we could be put out of our building even though we were rent stabilized. We knew that our landlord was going to harass us and he was not one to do repairs. We were already being threatened with the prospect of major capital improvements, so we knew that even if we weren’t kicked out, we would be kicked out by the raised prices,” she said.
She got heavily involved in the Crown Heights Tenant Union and then later with the Housing Justice For All Coalition.
The big day for her was when she went to Albany to participate in a protest.
“The day I decided to run for office was on June 4, 2019, when I participated in a demonstration in Albany and we knew we were going to be arrested. That’s why we went. But it was definitely supposed to be peaceful yet it was not peaceful,” Forrest said.
“Profits are being pushed ahead of the needs of the people and we need someone who understands that. That’s where I saw that all my identities just came together to really just say ‘Hey, this is who we need in Albany.’ Someone from the working class working for the working class to make sure that capitalism is not only checked, but we actually push for policies that help the working class.”
She reiterated that her time working in education, healthcare and housing activism makes her the ideal candidate to address the most pressing issues facing Brooklyn residents, particularly Haitians looking for support from local governments.
“Our politics are not a spectator sport. You cannot just sit by and hope for change. You cannot sit by and just talk about the change. You need to be about it. You need to yell about it, you need to be strong about it,” Forrest said.
“The issues we have today are because we keep electing yesterday kind of candidates,” she added.
Dr. Francois Pierre-Louis, professor of political science at Queens College, said Forrest’s win was another jaw dropping example of how far the Haitian community has come in terms of the political power the group is able to wield during elections.
He noted that there are now a number of New York politicians of Haitian descent and the head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party is Haitian as well.
“I’ve been in the Haitian community since 1978 and at that time, when we needed representation, it was Major Owens, African Americans and white liberals or progressives who had to speak on behalf of Haitians to help us. Today, we have a Haitian leading the Democratic party in Brooklyn, we have councilwomen, members of the state legislature, not only in New York City but in the suburbs. We’ve come a long way,” Pierre-Louis said.
“We no longer need others to be our intermediaries. We have our own to speak for us. It shows how the Haitian community has been able to mobilize its voting power and its political power in order to get representation. The second generation coming up is more savvy, more educated about American politics. Several Haitian-Americans are also working in the Biden campaign as well. We have a voice now that we didn’t have before.”