“Wild, Unprecedented” Reformism: The Case of Larry Krasner

Image caption: protesters march behind a banner that reads “students for police abolition

By Tim Horras; Photo by Danielle Corcione

“Activists do politics better than politicians.”

— Lawrence S. “Larry” Krasner, 26th and current District Attorney of Philadelphia (May 2018)

Introduction

In the socialist movement today, the importance of electing progressives to public office is a widely accepted axiom, considered relatively uncontroversial by all but the most hardened anarchists. But only rarely do we seek to justify this belief, despite a less-than-stellar track record of left electoral ventures.

This “electoralist” perspective is widely echoed in the mass media – a set of institutions which plays an important role in policing what is considered politically acceptable at any given time. As the interim between election cycles seemingly shrinks into nonexistence, it becomes more important than ever to take a step back and take stock of the relationship between policy reforms to electoral politics.

Putting aside the numerous instances of supposed progressives and reformers who’ve gone on to betray the movement for criminal justice reform, we must still grapple with the following questions: How important is it to have progressives in elected office? Is the election of a progressive the key ingredient to achieving reforms?

This essay intends to contribute to the argument that reforms and concessions are not dependent upon the ideological beliefs or partisan identification of elected officeholders. Policy victories are the product of class struggle, when the mobilization of masses of people creates a threat (or the possibility of a threat) to class rule.

To investigate these questions, we will take as an example a situation which has developed locally here in Philadelphia, but with implications nationally: the election of progressive trial lawyer Larry Krasner to the office of District Attorney (DA), a move which has been frequently pointed to as evidence of the efficacy of running on the Democratic ballot line.

Our contention is simple: in most cases, activists can achieve similar policy objectives without working to elect progressive politicians. From a purely tactical perspective, the superiority of electoralism has yet to be demonstrated, and the burden of proof lies squarely on the reformist camp.

By zeroing in on one of the reforms being touted by Krasner’s proponents, the elimination of cash bail, we show that this reform has been accomplished in many other municipalities without the election of a progressive district attorney, which raises the question for those of us interested in making social change: just how important is it to have progressives in elected office, anyway?

What we will find is that, at least around the issue of ending cash bail, not only is the presence of a progressive District Attorney not a key ingredient, but that a number of quite different political strategies some of which stand in direct opposition to the tactics promoted by electorally-minded socialists have led to an identical outcome: the phasing out of cash bail.

A Progressive, People’s Prosecutor

Larry Krasner’s candidacy took place in the context of a seriously troubled DA’s office. District Attorney Seth Williams, who’d been elected as a reformer, became mired in a corruption scandal which ultimately culminated in the disgraced DA being sentenced to five years in prison.

Following this upset, Krasner persevered in the Democratic Party’s primary after establishment forces failed to united around a single candidate, splitting their support between several contenders. His ground game was buoyed up by canvassing muscle provided by a number of unions and liberal activist groups. To seal the deal, his message was further amplified by $1.7 million in funding from billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros. While progressives tend to downplay the role that investment capital played in the race, it’s hard to imagine that it had little or no impact, given that contributions from Soros “exceeded the $1,288,287 spent by all candidates in the race over the same period.”

Before and after his election, liberal news outlets have lavished glowing praise on the “people’s prosecutor.” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch claimed Krasner’s election wasn’t simply a primary victory, but rather “a revolution.” Slate claimed Krasner was making, “wild, unprecedented criminal justice reforms.” Meanwhile, commentator Shaun King (who works for a PAC dedicated to electing progressive District Attorneys) wrote a breathless piece for The Intercept calling Krasner’s policies “revolutionary” and “a dream come true.” But it’s not only liberal journalists who’ve been enchanted. Current Affairs referred to Krasner’s election as part of a “wave of victories” for the left. Left-wing taste-makers at Jacobin hailed Krasner’s election as beginning “a new day in Philadelphia,” while New York’s Indypendent touts Krasner’s campaign as “a grassroots model” which should be replicated across the country.

While Krasner’s candidacy certainly excited Philadelphia’s activist milieu, the wider public wasn’t nearly as taken with it. Voter turnout for the election was a mere 17%, relegating it to the respectable but far-from-spectacular third highest turnout over the past eight DA races. In terms of share of the vote, Krasner received a smaller percentage than his now-disgraced predecessor Seth Williams did in 2009, with Krasner’s share being lower than Williams’ in both the primary and the general election.

To be sure, the District Attorney’s progressive bona fides have never been in doubt. Krasner has gained a deserved reputation among Philadelphia’s activist milieu for defending protesters pro bono. Beyond Krasner the candidate, the role of individuals and organizations who have done years of organizing against mass incarceration in raising these issues in the public consciousness deserves recognition and acknowledgement. Many of these comrades saw the elevation of a friendly face to high office and assurance of a “seat at the table” as the culmination of many years of painstaking labor and sacrifices undertaken in conditions of relative obscurity.

Krasner’s campaign marked a tactical alliance between establishment progressive nonprofits and labor front groups, rich liberal donors, grassroots prison abolition organizations, Bernie Sanders supporters, and networks of returning citizens and the families of the incarcerated. However, socialist participation in the Krasner campaign was negligible; although Krasner’s campaign has been widely associated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Philly chapter didn’t endorse his campaign until several months after the critical primary election, at which point Krasner’s ascension into office was already a shoo-in.

On the policy end, Krasner has backed an unobjectionable reform agenda, which includes a number of common sense measures such as ending civil asset forfeiture abuse and treating addiction as a medical condition rather than a crime. His principled stance against mass incarceration have gained a grudging respect even from his more conservative detractors.

Krasner has also promised to never pursue the death penalty, although just how much of an impact this pledge will have is is debatable, given that “Pennsylvania has not executed an inmate since 1999 and has carried out only three executions since 1976, making it one of the least-active states with the death penalty” and that the state currently has an active moratorium on the death penalty.

A Case Study in Reform: Ending Cash Bail

One of the flagship reforms Krasner has been credited for has been pushing to end the practice of cash bail.

The cash bail system means that when someone suspected of breaking a law is arrested, they must pay a certain amount of money in order to be released from jail until a trial determines their guilt or innocence. In recent years, a national debate has unfolded in which critics of the system point out the unfair and unequal burden this places on poor and minority suspects.

A number of negative consequences flow from the cash bail system, including the propping up of a parasitic bail bond industry, the imposition of enormous costs onto taxpayers (who foot the bill for interning suspects), the exacerbation of preexisting racial and class inequalities, and the de facto unjust imprisonment of poor suspects regardless of guilt or innocence.

Fortunately, a reform movement has made numerous strides toward decreasing power of the “American gulag,” and cash bail is one flash point in this struggle. Here in Philadelphia, the City Council recently passed a non-binding resolution calling for the District Attorney’s office, the state legislature, and the courts to begin overhauling the cash bail system. This symbolic action reflects a widespread sentiment among lawmakers at the municipal and state level that the cash bail system is irreparably broken.

In locales as diverse as New York, New Orleans, Nashville, Birmingham, and Washington D.C., activists have succeeded in pressing state and municipal governments to lower or eliminate bail bonds. Without question, the tenacity of grassroots activists in these cities and many others have made admirable progress in reversing the decades-long trend of mass incarceration.

In many of these cases, this has been accomplished without a progressive District Attorney initiating the process.

In Maryland, changes in cash bail were made as a result of a decision by the state’s Court of Appeals. Certainly reforms such as these which are handed down by courts from on high are welcome, but what lessons do we draw from them? Rarely if ever do socialists (even of the “democratic” variety) argue for the movement to employ litigation as a strategy for achieving our policy goals, although litigation in defense of social justice has historically been responsible for major breakthroughs and has been a long-standing tactic used by progressive groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Freedom to Marry.

Why don’t socialists generally support strategies utilizing litigation as a centerpiece of a campaign? Perhaps it’s because on some level, even the most right-wing elements of the movement intuit that our job as socialists has something to do with organizing the working class and the oppressed, whereas lawsuits and court cases only create opportunities for organizing by way of byproduct or afterthought, if at all. Fighting it out in the capitalist courts means entering into a political terrain that privileges the ruling class. From a revolutionary perspective, it also engenders the illusion that our legal system is the fair and unbiased institution that civics textbook propaganda claims it is, disarming us by muddying the clear-eyed realism we need in understanding the courts and prisons as appendages of the enemy.

The case of Atlanta is further instructive. Here, the newly-elected mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, made eliminating cash bail her administration’s first policy initiative. But far from being the progressive darling, Mayor Bottoms ran against the Bernie Sanders backed candidate. Liberal columnist Shaun King eloquently summed up Mayor Bottoms’ political outlook while chastising leftists for not supporting her:

Bottoms was the establishment Democrat in the race from the beginning. She was supported by the Democratic Party. She was endorsed and supported strongly by the current mayor, Kasim Reed. She was supported by much of the black establishment in Atlanta. Bottoms, on policy matters, is not democratic socialist. She’s not a Berniecrat. She’s not an activist. To my knowledge, she’s never been arrested in a protest. She’s not a radical. She’s a mainstream Democrat.

Clearly having a progressive in office is not a necessary prerequisite for achieving meaningful reforms.

Finally, while the District Attorney should certainly be credited for doing his part to eliminate cash bail by pledging not to request it, we should remember that “Even if a prosecutor doesn’t ask for bail for a particular defendant, magistrate judges could still make the decision to order it.” Effectively, the ball remains in the judge’s court.

This points to a larger problem in the Krasner “model”: while District Attorneys can exercise prosecutorial discretion – which is to say, while they can determine whether or not to press charges, what sort of charges to bring up, recommend sentences and offer plea bargains – they are neither legislators nor judges. They don’t write laws, issue rulings, or set legal precedents. So while DAs have significant leeway in setting priorities, any policies they enact are less durable than reforms won through legislation or judicial decisions; it only takes a new person occupying the office of executive to roll back such reforms-by-fiat, as we’ve seen in the case of the Trump administration reversing many of the Obama administration’s executive orders.

All told, the urgency of electing progressives appears to take a backseat to spurring on powerful grassroots social movements and building independent political organizations which can effectively criticize policies, raise demands, and put pressure on every institution and political actor.

Police and prisons: Reform or abolition?

In studying the political context, Krasner’s policies appear much more as a continuation of long-standing trends rather than a sharp break from past practices.

When touting Krasner’s victory in the Democratic Party primary as a “model” to be employed elsewhere, proponents of the progressive prosecutor have proudly touted the nine percent reduction achieved in the DA’s first one hundred days. Unfortunately, this sort of boosterism fails to account for larger long-term trends which have driven these sorts of fluctuations and, therefore, obstruct us from understanding the root causes of the changes, instead ascribing them to the actions of a single politician.

Nationally, incarceration rates have reached a two-decade low. Locally, from 2008 to 2016, the number of inmates in Philadelphia prisons fell by over twenty percent, from 9,300 to 7,452. In 2016, Philadelphia received a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the twelfth largest private foundation in the United States. The goal of the grant was to reduce the prison population in Philly jails by more than one third. Today, the number of inmates has fallen an additional “26 percent since the reform initiative was announced.” In fact, the city has made enough progress on these metrics that officials recently announced their plan to shut down the dilapidated, 91-year-old House of Corrections, which they expect to close by 2020.

In material terms, a grant from a capitalist foundation likely had a significant impact in reducing the prison population. But no serious revolutionary would argue that we need to spend our time writing grants. Given that a decent case could be made that a policy-directing grant from a capitalist foundation has as big an impact as the election of a progressive politician, we’re left with no understanding as to why elections are the favored tactic of the reformist when, looking at it purely from the perspective of accomplishing a given reform there are much more efficient routes. Perhaps this is why so many reformists end up capitulating to the political logic of the nonprofit industrial complex, finally ending up snugly in the capitalists’ back pocket.

Liberal elements of the ruling class have recognized for some time that current incarceration levels – the highest in the world – are unsustainable. In bourgeois democracies such as the United States, the ruling class doesn’t govern by violence alone. Consent of the governed requires keeping up the appearance that the system works for a large fraction of the population, and at least the acquiescence of the majority. The system is also adept at leveraging reforms and concessions to co-opt potential enemies, undermine more radical demands and placate strategic sections of the working class. For this reason, criminal justice reform has recently become a pet project of more farsighted liberal elites.

While a variety of wealthy liberals have bankrolled criminal justice reform institutions such as the Sentencing Project, Real Justice PAC, the ACLU and others, without a doubt the most visible role has been played by hedge fund manager George Soros, who in addition to pumping the aforementioned million dollars plus into Krasner’s campaign, has lavished funding on numerous other District Attorney races as part of a larger nationwide strategy. As of August 2016, “The billionaire financier … channeled more than $3 million into seven local district-attorney campaigns in six states.” The number of DA races and the amount of money has only increased since that time.

Why has this been happening? Capitalists prize social stability, and over the past few years our society has been rocked by the reemergence of a powerful mass movement against police violence. The Black Lives Matter movement polarized American society – at one point exerting such influence over the narrative (as reflected, for instance, in a precipitous drop in confidence in the police by the general public) – that the legitimacy of the police has been questioned to an extent and with a persistence that is really unprecedented.  

Realizing not only are the policies of mass incarceration unsustainable, but that the entire system of policing is threatened by a crisis of legitimacy, liberal capitalists promote the remaking of the police on a new basis (“police reform”). By materially supporting efforts at police and prison reform, it allows the ruling class to preempt and undermine the more radical specter which has been raised by numerous activists within the black liberation and socialist movements: abolition of police and prisons.

The demand to abolish police and prisons is the sort of clarion call which can dramatically reshape the political playing field. As author and lawyer Derecka Purnell explains, “a call for police transformation after abolition undermines the purposes of abolition. The call tethers accountability to police review boards, task forces, and pleas to value black lives.” It’s precisely these sorts of efforts to bring about “police transformation” which are a prominent feature on the agenda of the nonprofit-industrial complex. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but a movement for abolition and liberation can never emerge from a set of institutions funded by billionaires.

On tough choices, self-discipline, and the need for strategy

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

Among socialists today, it’s popular to say that all strategies can be pursued simultaneously, and there is no need to pursue a single, unified and coherent strategy. The idea is widely promoted that there are no trade-offs between throwing time and effort into phone-banking for a Democrat and protesting in the streets, setting up a mutual aid program or organizing a union in our workplace.

Much like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” our movement seems to believe that by every activist pursuing their own individual interests, this will ultimately, somehow, result in a net positive social change. This idea makes sense to many of us because it syncs up with and reinforces an understanding of the world which has been drilled into us our whole lives: call it the “neoliberal theory of social change.”

However, the hard truth is that as individuals we cannot be in multiple places at the same time. Our organizations and movements have only a finite amount of time, resources and energy to expend in pursuit of our objectives. In terms of deploying our relatively few activists and volunteers, we are still operating under conditions of acute scarcity, and we should be therefore laser-focused in how and when we take up a cause.

But there is an alternative to this individualist laissez faire attitude toward movement activity: it’s called “strategy.”

As important as it is to choose tactics and interventions wisely, most of the time pursuing a strategy means making decisions about what not to do. As individuals, organizations, and movements, increasingly we need to learn how to say “no” to volunteering to take on activist obligations. “No, we won’t attend your rally.” “No, we won’t endorse your candidate.” “No, we won’t sign onto your campaign.”

For every action we take, there exists an opportunity cost for the action we didn’t take. Without adhering to a clearly-delineated strategy, we risk losing our ability to identify fault lines in the class struggle and intervene in critical political openings. If, on the contrary, we believe that every political opportunity which comes our way is equally important, we’re likely to end up right back in the vicious cycle of activist networking. This inevitably leads to us chasing after the latest political fad until enthusiasm inevitably dies down, until the next big social movement appears, and desperately trying to jump on the bandwagon once again.

Our movement needs to learn how to practice self-discipline: how to investigate social conditions, identify fault-lines, gather and collate information, create a strategy, then do the work and stick with it until our efforts have produced enough evidence to even tell us if our efforts are succeeding or failing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t improvise on the fly. It does mean that if we pivot from deep organizing into mass mobilizing, our sharp turn needs to fit into a long-term strategic sequence, so that we emerge from the other end of our pivot in a better position than we did going into it.

For the reformist, the purpose of activism is to win reforms. The choice of tactics flow from this analysis – for instance, we support politicians because they will fight on behalf of a particular reform, etc. Revolutionaries, however, especially within the base-building milieu, see our present moment, and its related tasks differently. In the absence of a revolutionary situation, our primary task is to develop revolutionary political organization which can lead toward the construction of a socialist party. When we decide whether or not to intervene in struggles to win reforms, our first question is therefore not whether the reform is a good in and of itself, but will this specific reform help cohere a social base which can form the nucleus of a party.

In the current period, neither reformists nor the majority of revolutionaries believe that revolution is on the immediate horizon. Recognition of this fact doesn’t mean, however, that what’s needed to achieve success is to modulate our message or water down our politics. Meeting people where they are at doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility to engage them in a process of mutual transformation through organizing, education and collective struggle.

Revolutionary politics are, to be sure, a minority perspective not only in our society but even within the socialist movement. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this we need to throw out our entire understanding of the world in order to better fit in. If anything, we have an obligation to vigorously advocate for a revolutionary perspective. Opinions are not static, and while we can’t will into existence a revolutionary situation, we can and should try to change people’s minds and win them over to a politics of working class hegemony.

Conclusion

“We do not live in a revolutionary moment, but that is no excuse to abandon revolutionary socialism as a political horizon.”
— R.L. Stephens (July 2017)

The Krasner campaign presents no conundrums whatsoever among liberal progressives. If anything, it functions as as the epitome of what a successful electoral campaign should look like, which probably explains the urgency with which the campaign’s successes have been bandied about in the left media. This is because the liberal is generally not especially concerned with long-term goals of revolution, the abolition of police and prisons, or establishing a socialist economic system; for the liberal, harm reduction isn’t simply one component of a more ambitious political strategy; it’s the end goal itself.

But among revolutionaries, the Krasner campaign must necessarily appear more problematic. Given that socialists only participated peripherally in the Krasner campaign, it can’t very well be taken as any kind of “model” which the movement should attempt to replicate elsewhere. Neither does it vindicate the notion that progressives winning competitive primaries is any sort of determinate factor in shaping policy. For the revolutionary left, the campaign raises more questions than provides answers, but primarily this: If not this, then what?

The economic crisis of 2008 showed conclusively that contemporary capitalism stands on much shakier ground than is generally acknowledged. As for those in the movement who proclaim that this time the capitalist state really is invincible, and that any rebellion against it is a fool’s errand, we can only reply that for all their talk about the impossibility of revolution, they have no more idea of what’s to come than we do. While they chide us for faith in the revolutionary potential of the masses, the reformists have their own kind of faith in the stability of the status quo.  

The ultimate test of truth for Marxism is determined by the encounter with reality. For the genuine revolutionary, a certain humility about an unknowable future coexists with an optimism as to the long-term structural instability of capitalism. The great revolutionary socialist Amílcar Cabral instructs us to “tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” For those who wish to change the world, fidelity to truth is indispensable; if we misunderstand our reality, if our goals are nothing more than pipe dreams, then any positive outcome to our activity will be at best a happy accident, and more likely a predictable tragedy.  

While the election of Larry Krasner to the office of District Attorney in Philadelphia has certainly buoyed up hopes of many, we must be clear-eyed and vigilant; our movement cannot subsist on feel-good victories which don’t build up long-term capacity, just as human beings cannot subsist on sugar-coated rocks. Only by facing unpleasant truths and dispensing with comfortable self-deceptions can we fully reckon with the enormity of our tasks – the abolition of police and prisons and the establishment of a revolutionary counterpower – which, while daunting, remain an absolutely essential prerequisite to achieving our goal of socialism.

. . .

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