A New Day in Philadelphia

A left-wing civil rights lawyer is within reach of becoming Philadelphia's district attorney. Can he use the office to roll back mass incarceration?


Larry Krasner, a left-wing civil rights lawyer, has won the Democratic primary for (and thus almost certainly the office of) Philadelphia district attorney. This is a very big deal: one of the city’s most high-profile critics of the criminal justice system will now have a leading role in administrating and, hopefully, transforming it.

Philadelphia is the city where the former DA Lynne Abraham, dubbed “the deadliest DA” for her zealous embrace of the death penalty (though no one she sent to death row was ever actually executed), ran the office for nineteen years.

It’s the city where police-chief-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo reigned throughout the 1970s, a human embodiment of reactionary backlash politics with a reputation for meting out beatings as a rank-and-file cop and who took glee in a public strip search of Black Panthers. He reportedly once pledged to make “Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”

It is a city where police officers and prison guards have committed abuse with impunity, and where a drug war vacuums people of color into the prison system while public schools careen from fiscal crisis to crisis and overdose deaths skyrocket.

The Philadelphia that voted Rizzo and Abraham into office, however, is gone — at least as a governing majority. Krasner’s win was powered by a coalition of activists from social movements he fought for in court over decades: Black Lives Matter, Occupy Philly, ACT UP, and Republican National Convention protesters. He has repeatedly sued the police. Now, somewhat awkwardly, he will prosecute alleged criminals. But he promises to do so in a different way than past prosecutors.

Krasner’s vision for the criminal justice system is one “that makes things better, that is just, that is based on preventing crime, and is based on building up society rather than tearing it apart,” he said in addressing a raucous crowd of supporters in Center City’s Gayborhood, not far from his law office.

Philadelphia politics, like those in cities across the country, are shifting rapidly. Not long ago, Krasner would have been fatally attacked for being on soft on crime. This year, those charges didn’t stick, in part because there wasn’t a single self-professed law-and-order candidate in the race. Krasner dragged the field to the left and everyone else struggled to follow.

A few years back, a white candidate like Krasner would have found it impossible to win in a crowded seven-candidate field with just one black candidate. This year, black civil rights activists and many political leaders backed the left-wing white guy.

Krasner’s decisive win — a local anchor noted that he “obliterated the field,” winning by a margin of eighteen points ahead of his nearest rival — is historic. It is the strongest evidence yet that the grassroots movement activated by the Bernie Sanders campaign is capable of winning critical elections. And it should inspire activists and organizers nationwide to target mass incarceration where it begins: with local police departments, courtrooms, and, critically, prosecutors.

“Ultimately, this is not about any individual in the way that the movement around Bernie was really not about any individual,” Krasner tells me.

Full article in JACOBIN