On Tuesday, among resounding electoral victories for the left — including a trans candidate, Danica Roem and a socialist candidate, Lee Carter in Virginia — there was one that stood out especially to those interested in criminal justice, mass incarceration and police brutality: progressive civil rights and defense attorney Larry Krasner’s election as District Attorney in Philadelphia.
Krasner’s career so far has involved suing the Philadelphia Police Department 75 times, having recognized there is systemic racism in law enforcement. He has campaigned against mass incarceration and represented protesters, including those from Black Lives Matter, ACT UP, and DACA Dreamers pro bono. His priorities include ending the criminalization of poverty by keeping low-income community members out of prison and improving access to services for those with drug addiction and mental illness. He has promised to abolish money bail — a hot-button issue for those on the left — and not to seek the death penalty.
Krasner has a long way ahead and has noted this himself. Prosecutorial impunity, and the lack of accountability for prosecutors who misuse the already broken system, is well documented. Within such a broken system, many progressives argue that there is no way to be a “good” prosecutor and fix the system from within. As Professor and Criminal Justice Advocate Abbe Smith argues: “Prosecution is inherently political. It is impossible for prosecutors to avoid political and public pressure, and even the best sometimes cave in to it. It doesn’t matter how experienced or popular the chief prosecutor.”
Similarly, law professor and former prosecutor Paul Buttler has written
, of his disillusionment with changing the criminal system from within: “You’re not really allowed to use the power that you have in a way that makes a big difference. Your main work, as a line prosecutor, is to put people in prison, and if you seem too uncool with that fact, you start to arouse suspicion.” Indeed, while so-called “progressive” prosecutors have been elected before, they have often been met with backlash from the criminal justice community, who point out that even the most reform-minded prosecutors continue to uphold the same patterns of racist mass incarceration, disproportionate sentencing and punishing marginalized communities.
Krasner, however, has the potential to stand out from this crowd: he is decidedly farther left of any of the other popular liberal prosecutors. And perhaps more importantly, he isn’t a career prosecutor but is rather a total outsider to the system: free of the burdens of career prosecution and the ways in which the system can subsume even its most diverse and progressive hopefuls into working for it. Krasner has been endorsed by progressives in a way that prosecutors don’t usually get endorsed, no matter how reform-oriented they are: he’s backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and unions and activist groups and campaigned for by Black Lives Matter Activists. There is a real belief and energy that Krasner could “structurally [destabilize] our carceral nightmares of white supremacy from within.”
The biggest takeaway from Krasner’s election, though — and Roem’s, and Carter’s — is that the country is desperate for progressive, left-leaning, and drastic change. Krasner was described as unelectable. Carter challenged Virginia’s House Whip, and Roem went up against the author of Virginia’s bathroom bill, despite centrists and conservatives decrying left commitment to trans rights as a losing cause politically. These victories are local, but they are also “proxy election of sorts for how we think about national politics.” Every single time Democrats have chosen to go left, rather than the center, they have triumphed against fascist, toxic right-wing and Trumpian politics. Every time they’ve pulled back to the center, they’ve failed energize and lost. The country is ready for fewer people in jail, the end of racist policies that lead to mass incarceration, the death of police brutality, the beginning of more progressive and even radical change in how we think about law and order, justice, welfare and social security. The country wants Democrats to ally less with the white upper middle class, and the interests of finance and Wall Street and moderate centrists, and more with Black Lives Matter activists, environmental and climate change campaigners, socialists, and trans and LGBT radical activists. Anyone who wants to defeat Trump should take this hunger seriously and begin to embrace a progressive agenda for 2018 and 2020 as the only viable, pragmatic and just way forward.
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