- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) has had great electoral success in the last few years, winning six seats in the state legislature and an additional two in city council. Now they’re organizing to defend the seats of the DSA for the Many slate, which won a clean sweep two years ago, and elect three more socialists into office.
NYC-DSA members in office have ruffled some feathers. Just weeks ago, state assemblymember Zohran Mamdani was reprimanded by state senator Kevin Parker, who chairs the Energy and Telecommunications Committee, after Mamdani brought up the role of energy and fossil fuel companies in financing Parker’s campaigns.
David Alexis, one of the new NYC-DSA candidates, is challenging Parker for his seat in District Twenty-one. A former Uber driver and longtime community organizer, Alexis is hoping to build lasting power in East Flatbush by using his campaign to better link the working class with the burgeoning left political presence in his district.
After organizing as a volunteer on several campaigns with DSA, he is running for state senate with hopes of bringing the organization’s politics to Albany. He sat down with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas to discuss his path from son of Haitian immigrants to socialist political candidate.
How has being the son of Haitian immigrants shaped your politics?
My family comes from a rich tradition of fighting against imperialism and capitalism. In the Haitian Revolution, much of the fighting force that helped deliver the win for what eventually became the Haitian revolutionary army was fought by Africans that were brought to the country as slaves — pejoratively called the bossale, meaning salt of the earth. They defeated the Spanish, the English, and eventually the French forces that occupied Haiti during this revolutionary period. My family descends from the same region as many of those former African slaves who settled; my father is from Cap-Haitien and my mother is from a town called Plaisance.
The broader resistance to the American order that has been present in Haiti to this day certainly informs the way I look at exploitation at home and abroad. I pull inspiration from how they were able to confront the imperial project and win meaningful change, against all odds, by organizing the masses. That’s all power is: organized money or organized people.
You describe yourself as a product of public institutions and services. What does that mean?
I was born in Harlem Hospital, which was one of the largest public institutions in the country at the time. My father worked at the hospital as a data-entry clerk, and asked for my mother to be seen there after she had previously attended a private hospital. During my checkup, I stopped breathing. Fortunately, because the hospital had adequate staffing, a nurse was able to intervene at just the right time to ensure that my mom had a C-section. Were it not for this nurse being able to respond in a timely fashion, I wouldn’t have survived.
When I turned three, I still wasn’t speaking or making any sounds because of the complications during my birth. I was sent to another publicly funded program called Jawonio, which helps families with developmental disabilities. I then went on to study at public schools for the entirety of my education, where I met some of my greatest life mentors. These early-intervention resources allowed me to get the support I needed to ensure that I could continue to develop and live a healthy life.
Can you describe how those public institutions of health, education, and early-childhood support were won, and subsequently lost?
They were the result of hard-fought battles. The only way working people can win anything in this country is through organizing. The remnants of any sort of welfare state come from the worker struggles in the ’20s, the New Deal of the ’30s, and the fight for the NYC Health and Hospitals in the late ’60s. But we have seen in this country, time and time again, that these gains will be bombarded with budget cuts. In fact, the sickle cell unit at my local hospital where my wife got treatment and the elementary and middle school I attended no longer exist.
A huge reason why this austerity has been so thorough is because there has been no meaningful left alternative to the hegemony that has instituted this order.
How do we rebuild these public institutions so that they can once again adequately and equitably serve the working class?
We need to organize. We need to reclaim the traditions of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr, and build a coalition that unites progressive organizations and working people. People on the front lines have been fighting for generations to provide people in need with mutual aid, food pantries, and health clinics ever since the retreat of the Democratic Party into neoliberalism. Many of the services that used to be provided by the government entered into places like the church, particularly the black church.
But without efforts to nationalize that aid, it will never be adequate to deliver for the masses. We need universal programs to ensure that these public institutions can do what they once did and support millions of Americans. The pathway to that is through organizing in the state and the workplace.
You’re currently running for state senate in Flatbush, where you’ve been living and raising a family since 2013. What’s the neighborhood like? And what’s your vision for building a stronger DSA presence in Flatbush?
The district is largely working-class Caribbean. It’s made up of mostly renters and a couple of small homeowners who purchased their homes decades ago — the average length of time someone in my district has owned a home is fifty years. It has a lot of rent-stabilized homes where people are staving off gentrification, fighting to stay in their homes, or trying to hand it off to their children. I recently spoke to an older gentleman who was actually born in the home he currently lives in.
Our campaign has been acting as a bridge between this Caribbean, particularly very Haitian, district and DSA — showing DSA in a different light than how the media has portrayed the Left, which is a bunch of white gentrifiers looking to displace the people who live here. People in DSA are very concerned about this city that we share together as neighbors and are looking to build real and meaningful ties.
This campaign isn’t just about knocking on doors but also developing a lasting institution in our neighborhood — a place in the community for people to come and get referred to resources that they need.
How has your family life and role as a father influenced you as an organizer and candidate?
Organizing is not just a hobby for me. It’s how I’ve survived. Coming out of college after the 2008 financial crisis, I didn’t have any major prospects. I had just met the woman who would become my wife, but didn’t have any way to support her. I was forced to take odd jobs here and there before eventually finding myself in the gig economy, which squeezed me for every drop. It was by no means ideal — the long hours, lack of benefits, inconsistency — but it allowed me to ensure that my wife, who has sickle cell disease, got some care.
My daughters have also had to deal with the barriers of growing up in a community that was deprived of resources on top of navigating our impossible health care system. Community organizations like Healthy Families New York helped alleviate these struggles that were all too common for my family and our neighbors. I also attended fatherhood celebrations where there were other fathers who, like me, didn’t have many people in our intermediate circle who were fathers. The mentorship, support, and guidance we received was invaluable. In order to pay forward the support and care that had been given to me, I began to organize.
Unable to find consistent work that would allow me to take care of my family, it was through these additional services and the people who connected me to them that I was able to survive. There are so many people in similar situations, who are barely treading water, looking for something better. And it is through getting them involved with this work that we can not only give them what they need to stay afloat but also connect them to a movement that is aiming to address the root cause of our poor material conditions.
We need to push for legislation like the New York Health Act, Build Public Renewables Act, and Utility Democracy Act. These bills speak to the very essence of democracy — bringing ownership of the services the public relies on under the control of, well, the public.
There has been an enclosure of much of what has been developed by workers for private gain, and the result has been unable to deliver for people. Business cycles within capitalism are constantly pushing out families in Flatbush, Flatlands, Midwood, Canarsie, and beyond. If we are tired of seeing ourselves, our families, and our neighbors deal with these issues, then we need to create counterhegemony. In essence, we need to organize a coalition with both existing and new institutions that can replace this dysfunctional system that has failed people in the midst of the 2008 financial crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond.
Can you tell us about your time as an Uber driver and the independent contractor organizing born from that?
I started driving for Uber in 2016. There were a lot of incentives that Uber was offering, including $1,000 to cover your initial costs because, of course, to even get started drivers were responsible for the equipment that we needed to work, the vehicle. Out of the gate, I had to spend about $700 of my own money to get the Taxi and Limousine Commission license, the classes, and the training. I rented a 2015 Hyundai Sonata that had over eighty thousand miles for $450 a week.
Driving was difficult, especially at the beginning. I was working so much just to pay off the $450 I needed to rent the car. I had an arrangement with the leasing company where they would take the money out of my wages before I could even access them at the end of the week. Oftentimes, after paying for my gas and other expenses, if I wanted to have any spending money, I needed to work overtime. There were times when I first started driving where I was operating at a loss. I had a negative balance with Uber. Eventually, I was able to get support from family and friends to buy a vehicle, which I paid $2,200 for upfront. While cheaper than renting, the car payments were still exorbitant given my poor credit at the time.
I enjoyed driving and connecting with people, but I abhorred the crazy hours. I would often have to sleep in my vehicle because I was too tired to get home safely or because I hadn’t made enough money yet. I would often nap at the airport while leaving the app on in between trips.
When I first started driving, there wasn’t even bathroom access in the airport, despite the thousands of drivers coming through the terminals daily. I remember my excitement the first time I saw a porta-potty being installed. But it shouldn’t be an amazing experience to have basic needs met like getting access to a restroom on the job. I researched one of the organizations that helped win restroom access and started paying dues right then and there.
Over the next few months, I got involved with actions to fight back against some of the city’s regressive efforts to regulate the industry, which added additional fees for drivers who were already overburdened and underpaid. It culminated in us shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge demanding better compensation. We saw the rideshare companies continually cut wages, hours, and accessibility while their executives reaped record profits. With the market being flooded with more drivers every day, we demanded and won the first pay floor of its kind for independent contractors in the country.
But even that wasn’t enough. I spent more time organizing for mutual aid on behalf of drivers — getting them access to resources, getting them on the PPE loans, helping them navigate the system — than driving.
I worked with an organization called United for Brownsville, where we were able to feed about seven hundred families a week. Drivers started delivering what we called “boxes of love,” which contained produce, PPE, and other materials to families across East Brooklyn. At its height, we delivered boxes of love to over 1,600 families in the course of a month.
Funding for that eventually dried up, and we realized the need for further organizing. A friend had approached me with a concept of a system where drivers controlled the scheduling, rides, and profit.
It’s important to understand the scale of the industry in New York City. Before the height of the pandemic, New York City was doing almost eight hundred thousand trips a day in just rideshare alone. And then if you include yellow cabs, you can add another two to three hundred thousand on top of what is, for all its deficiencies, the largest public transportation system in the country. Millions of people were traveling throughout the city every single day. In order to maximize connectedness between a passenger in need of a ride and a driver to transport them, we realized we needed our own app. Initially, we didn’t know how to get the resources and material needed to get this project off the ground.
By March 2021, the less than ten of us working on the project had pooled together some money and organized over 2,700 drivers. We didn’t have a working app yet. All we had was a promise — conversations that we started over Zoom about what we were hoping to do. And drivers responded. We were able to use that to generate momentum that earned us about $200,000 or so to get a very basic app. We launched on May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day.
Later that month, we received coverage in the New York Times as well as some other left-leaning outlets. We leveraged that into getting over forty thousand downloads in a month and a half from our launch before starting a crowdfunding campaign that raised $1.4 million. Then we got access to government contracts and built what is now the largest worker cooperative in the country by member count. We are at just under six thousand drivers in our universe now, as of February 2022.
Can you give us a brief summary of your involvement in DSA?
While I was driving, I began listening to left podcasts, trying to better understand the system that required me to drive all hours of the day to make ends meet. Quickly, I realized that if I wanted to make change, I needed to join an organization that was focused on attacking the structural reasons for why society is the way it is.
Not long after I joined DSA, I started working with the Campaign for New York Health, which focused on the New York Health Act. I was a part of the fight against Amazon HQ2 from setting up their new headquarters in Long Island City. Last year, I got involved with the Tax the Rich campaign — one of the most empowering parts of which was being able to influence the state budget.
One of the most exciting projects to address both the divestment and inequality that’s been rampant in communities like Flatbush and the coming climate catastrophe is the fight for public power and a Green New Deal. This is especially personal for me because I found out that I had contracted asthma at the same time as my daughters, after floods knocked out our hot water for over two weeks and blackouts hit our neighborhood. We’re represented by the state senator who chairs the Energy and Telecommunications Committee, which is responsible for the different policies that led to the excessive flood damage.
We’re struggling against a problem with a clear solution that would create thousands of good union jobs, but the “Joe Manchin of New York” refuses to act because he accepts money from fossil fuel companies. The fight for public power and a Green New Deal within DSA has also bridged a lot of the work that I’ve done outside of DSA. My campaign is an extension of that fight, bringing organized electoral opposition to the state senator.
New York City DSA has an impressive six members in the New York State Legislature and is now running several more candidates. What do you see DSA’s presence in the legislature as doing for socialists organizing in the city and state?
DSA members in the state legislature act as a tribune for the working class — representatives who respond to the people, to organizing, to this movement, to the needs of families like mine. I have a wife that has sickle cell disease. The sickle cell bill could not get through the state senate because they felt it wasn’t worth investing in the New York Health Act, which would play a major role ensuring that health care became a human right, where we aren’t burdened by various expenses.
I think of the 2019 housing bills that got through in large part because of DSA having a member in the state senate. Now we have a climate slate of four candidates, three here in New York City and one upstate, that is going to work to build a larger and more durable coalition.
But change doesn’t start in Albany. It starts with the people. Our campaign, in true DSA fashion, is going to knock on tens of thousands of doors to get people more involved with this political process. We have an opportunity to recreate the coalition that delivered the March on Washington and won transformative policy like the New Deal. We need workers to understand the power that they have. We need policies that actually meet the needs of the moment to ensure that all of New York can live a dignified life — hopefully to inspire the rest of the country.
The only difference between the haves and the have-nots in our society is the investment in us and the time we have at our disposal. We live in a system where all of the investment goes into the hands of a few who have already benefited. Capitalism is very effective at two things: reproducing immense amounts of wealth and immense amounts of poverty, creating these dynamic poles at both ends. If we are tired of seeing all of this wealth accumulated at the top, but only crumbs leaving the majority of people in poverty, then getting more representation in the state legislature, and getting more people involved in this movement while doing it, is an essential step.
Your campaign is focusing on immigrant protections, environmental justice, and health care. How do you plan to tie these issues together, especially in the context of presenting them to working people?
Immigrant workers come to America with a dream of living a dignified life, but how can you do that without access to things like health care, education, or a union job? When we talk about the families that live in this district, they’re often either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Our platform speaks directly to their needs.
Many of the workers who have built the critical infrastructure of this city, and who will build the necessary green infrastructure of the future, are immigrants who have been exploited by corporations that steal untold wealth from their labor. Solidarity is the antidote to this problem — clarifying that the boss is our enemy, not each other.
People are feeling the sheer longevity of this exploitation, and the only way we can confront it is, again, by building a coalition of working people. Without a lasting base, we open ourselves to reactionary forces that will reinstall a system that works against us, not for us.