Phara Souffrant Forrest is a daughter of Haitian American immigrants, a union nurse, a tenant activist, and a member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and she is running to represent the 57th Assembly District in Brooklyn. Growing up in Crown Heights, an area of Brooklyn she now hopes to represent, Forrest witnessed firsthand police injustice, and went to her first protest against NYPD brutality at just 8 years old. She supports tenant unions, universal health care for all New Yorkers, and police transparency. On June 9, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed her. But the campaign has hit twin obstacles: the Covid-19 pandemic and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to pull the presidential primary off the the state ballot (a court later forced him to reinstate it), which left many New York voters confused about this election.

In an interview compiled from two conversations—one before and one after the unrest—Forrest and I discussed health care, climate change, housing, gentrification, police racism, and the importance of voting on June 23.

—Sara Baig

Sara Baig: How did you get involved with advocating for your community?

Phara Souffrant Forrest: At 16, I organized with PACC [Pratt Area Community Council] to talk about lead-based poisoning in tenants’ buildings. In high school, I was a part of a group advocating for the Dream Act to ensure undocumented students got the same opportunity to go to school, and not pay astronomical fees. My most recent activist work started in 2016 when my building was being converted from a rent-stabilized building to luxury condos. We knew we were going to be subject to harassment, and we needed to have something in place. I started making an association alongside neighbors in my building and my community to push for stronger rent laws. Eventually, I ended up in Albany, with the statewide tenants’ movement. I got arrested in June of last year, standing up to ensure that stabilization laws were kept in place permanently.

I didn’t know I was going to run for state Assembly at the time, but I knew that I had to step up because we didn’t have anybody. You’re just as much as part of the problem if you don’t stand up.

SB: Growing up in Crown Heights, how did you see police violence affect your area?

PSF: That was the conversation in high school, in college, like, it was expected. That was the law of the land: If you’re black or a person of color, you’re going to be stopped, so you had to be educated on how to deal with the police. I had seen it affect a lot of the young men and women I grew up with; everything was affected by police brutality.

SB: What have you seen at the protests in your community?

PSF: I went to a protest yesterday organized by New York Community for Change Crown Heights Tenants Union and a couple of other tenant unions and talked about housing and George Floyd. People are protesting police brutalization in light of coronavirus, poor housing, and the loss of jobs. There are huge gaps in our children’s education. The governor cut education by 20 percent and $400 million from health care while leaving the New York City Police Department budget intact.

My first protest was when I was 8 years old in 1997, when the police sodomized Abner Louima. Louima received a settlement, but I remember it took a long time for the police officers to face justice. That was 23 years ago, and now we have on camera, a police officer kneeling on the neck of George and killing him. Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor—it’s too much, so we are hitting the streets.

SB: What needs to be done to stop police brutality?

PSF: The bare minimum is passing the Safer New York Act backed by Communities United for Police Reform. The package includes a full repeal of 50-A [which conceals police misconduct from the public and was repealed on June 9]. Repealing 50-A will allow us to see police disciplinary records and help hold police accountable. The next step is reducing the NYPD budget—$5.6 billion a year—and reinvesting in social welfare like health care and education, which is being cut. We can keep our city safe and healthy without resorting to the constant use of force. We can provide better jobs and living conditions and educate more social workers to respond to our society’s problems.

SB: Have you seen any improvement in police violence growing up in Crown Heights and now?

PSF: No, Louima was sodomized, and Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times. Now we have police laying their knee on somebody’s neck and feeling the breath leave their body. We have police choking people out like Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor was shot up in her home. No, it has not gotten better. Thank God for social media; we know better.

SB: As someone running for office to represent neighborhoods with continuing gentrification. What do you think should be the proper response to combating an issue that affects mainly low income and people of color?

PSF: With the issue of housing, the system has to change. If you’re in the business of housing, you should be in the business of housing people humanely, not focusing on profits. Real estate developers and corporations need to understand housing is a human right; we need to fundamentally overhaul everything that our system of housing is based on. I think I’m very progressive, and I have some ideas about what progressive housing can look like: tenants owning their building or some mutual arrangement where housing is shared amongst the occupants. The idea that a landlord sits and collects checks from tenants in the name of profits—that system has to be tossed out the window.

SB: How has climate change affected your community?

PSF: My community extends beyond District 57 in New York City, I see a similar thing happening here comparable to the disasters tied to climate change in Haiti. Hurricane Sandy, the blackouts and brownouts of 2019, heat waves, and the loss of some shoreline have been occurring in Haiti, and we think this community is so far away, but it’s so close. We need to get serious about climate change and address it from the perspective of the most vulnerable communities: black and brown people and those who live along shorelines. We’re being pushed out by people who are moving in from other areas of Brooklyn that have been affected. The fact that we live in the center of Brooklyn and on higher grounds makes this a hot pocket for more displacement and gentrification. Nobody is protected from climate change’s effects.

SB: As a nurse, you have seen firsthand how unfair the health system is especially toward black women who have the highest maternal mortality rate. How would you tackle this issue to provide a safer and healthier environment for women of color?

PSF: If I were an assemblywoman right now, I would say to our government, “Cut the malarkey, get us back in session.” We have so many things to do right now. If we were in session, then we can talk about the New York Health Act [which would provide universal health care for New York residents covered by a statewide public fund]. But once we’re not in session anymore, you essentially cut off our communities and the assistance that we can give to our communities because we’re no longer able to debate and legislate. As a nurse, I will always continue to fight for the New York Health Act. I will always fight for safe staffing. When we talk about safe staffing, we’re talking about ratios to protect patients, because when there’s not enough nurses and staff, patients die. These are the first two things that I would fight for in terms of pandemic care. We need to make sure that we’re not cutting health care budgets. In the light of this pandemic, our lovely governor has cut $6.5 billion in Medicaid and the health care budget. That is disgusting, and it’s because we have a governor that’s unchecked, and a legislature full of followers. You should be focused on taxing the rich to fight for the poor, period.

SB: What have been your experiences as a union nurse during Covid-19, and how do you think Governor Cuomo has managed this pandemic?

PSF: There has not been an emphasis on protecting patients and protecting staff. When we talk about personal protective equipment [PPE], we’re talking about forming a barrier; it’s preventing me, the nurse from spreading the disease from one patient to another or to my staff members. PPE is necessary to keep whoever’s germ to themselves. If you take it out, the hospital becomes a petri dish.

If you, as a governor, are allowing other people to donate PPE, I think that’s disgusting. You should have been the one to give the PPE, which is a state and federal responsibility. You should have made sure these hospitals have the things they need today. But you systematically have been cutting beds, staff, and funds. Now we have Covid-19, it’s a disaster; the hospitals are a disaster.

SB: How have you seen your community respond to the pandemic?

PSF: The pandemic caused people to lose work, and then you don’t have health insurance. That’s a problem. People are struggling to pay the rent. That’s why we have the “cancel the rent” movement. The Crown Heights mutual aid community is a hotbed for real community activism. Neighbors coming together and helping each other out makes me feel empowered to represent this neighborhood, because we are a neighborhood of movers and shakers. Once we have the right leadership, we’ll be able to do so much.

SB: How do you think Cuomo’s decision to pull the presidential primary from the ballot and then the court’s decision to reinstate it will affect down-ballot elections like yours?

PSF: All this pulling and pushing only confuses people. It makes a lot of people in the community suspicious, and breeds an attitude towards the primary that’s undemocratic. We have much to do to repair and ensure people have faith in the system so they feel that they can vote safely, seriously, and be represented.