A Socialist for District Attorney?

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For the first time in 28 years, there is a competitive election for Queens County District Attorney in New York City. And after significant deliberation and debate about the implications of endorsing a district attorney candidate, New York City DSA endorsed Tiffany Cabán in the June 25th Democratic primary.

Cabán is a career public defender and DSA member who is running a racial justice campaign with a clear class-struggle message. Her campaign is focused on ending the use of cash bail, declining to prosecute a plethora of crimes of poverty such as jumping turnstiles, ending the war on drugs and sex workers, and demilitarizing the police. Moreover, Cabán has promised to use the Queens County District Attorney’s office to prosecute abusive landlords and despotic ICE agents, set up participatory budgeting for the district attorney’s office, and launch a wage theft unit to take on hyper-exploitative bosses.

DSA-sponsored events accounted for thousands of the signatures needed to get Cabán on the ballot, and DSA members also contributed significantly to non-DSA petitioning events. And just recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Cabán, throwing the campaign onto the national stage.

While the election will likely be close, Cabán’s campaign so far has been a fantastic example of how socialists and working people can use district attorney races to combat racial oppression and class exploitation.

Dismantling the Mass Incarceration System

Jails and prisons are tools the ruling class uses to enforce their class rule. Most obviously, incarceration is used to enrich private contractors and prison companies and to provide quasi-slave labor to the government and large corporations. Jails and prisons serve as holding sites for those who the capitalist order has said do not matter and do not deserve societal support. And in the United States especially, incarceration has been used to shore up reactionary support for the ruling class and its politicians through racist fearmongering and “tough on crime” rhetoric. Beyond that, in the US, incarcerated people are subjected to some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable.

Criminal justice reform, and ultimately destroying the existing prison system, is central to any socialist program — especially because of the role that incarceration plays in racial oppression. Black and Latinx people make up 56% of those in prison and jail despite comprising only 28% of the total US population. People of color are also disproportionately victims of police violence and murder, and ICE routinely terrorizes immigrant communities of color.

Ultimately, as socialists, we fight for the elimination of police and prisons in their current form. In the current moment, that means organizing explicitly toward ending mass incarceration and demilitarizing the police in order to build greater consciousness about the need for even more radical reforms. Tiffany Cabán’s campaign is so powerful because it builds off the example being set in Philadelphia by Larry Krasner and pushes precisely these immediate reforms forward.

Fighting for Workers’ and Tenants’ Rights

A district attorney not only has the power to help roll back mass incarceration and abusive policing, they can also play a critical role in directly attacking capitalists, landlords, and bosses.

Right now in the United States, bosses steal as much as $50 billion from their workers every year, nearly four times the amount stolen in all robberies, larcenies, burglaries, and car thefts. The former is an abuse of power and a result of exploitation, and the latter often a crime of poverty. But crooked bosses are rarely held to account while poor people are systematically arrested and locked away.

One of Cabán’s many proposals to empower the working class is setting up a wage theft unit, tasked with aggressively investigating and prosecuting companies and bosses that engage in the unlawful and exploitative practice.

Cabán has also said she will decline to prosecute sex workers and instead will focus her attention on abusive landlords and bosses. Recently Cabán committed to prosecuting “[e]very contractor who is responsible for a job site death, due to unsafe labor conditions or practices that cut corners and training hours.”

In a recent Jacobin interview, Cabán explained how her campaign goes beyond a narrow view of law enforcement. As she put it, “we’re talking about popular control of resources.” In the same interview, she made a concrete commitment to use participatory budgeting to allocate the “$100,000,000 worth of federal asset forfeiture money” and invest it back into Queens’s working class communities.

The Road Ahead

The policies Cabán is fighting for raise people’s expectations by demonstrating how much better their life can be. Her campaign is helping people to see that the despotism of their landlords and bosses doesn’t have to be tolerated, and that everyday people shouldn’t have to go to jail because they can’t afford to pay court fines.

Diminishing the burden of day-to-day state oppression and ending the disruption of working-class communities, and mitigating the financial impediments and emotional traumas that the criminal justice system impose on the working class creates new openings for working-class people to organize and fight for more.

By fighting for this platform, Cabán is waging an explicitly racial justice and class-struggle oriented campaign. And by focusing on issues like eliminating cash bail, declining to prosecute crimes of poverty, and prioritizing prosecution of abusive and exploitative landlords and bosses, Cabán is sending a fairly simple message: free the poor and jail the rich.

That message was front and center at the first canvass I attended for Cabán. The DSA members leading the training advocated that at the door, we explicitly point out the ludicrousness of charging people for jumping turnstiles while landlords throughout Queens get away with illegally denying their tenants heat during the winter. The canvass was an excellent reminder of how DSA members, by working alongside other activists and speaking to thousands of people, can explicitly connect class-conflict politics with the fight for criminal justice.

New York is by no means the only city in dire need of radical criminal justice reform. And Tiffany Cabán is by no means the only progressive running for District Attorney. Chesa Boudin, a proud socialist, is running for San Francisco District Attorney on a platform similar to Cabán’s.

Cabán’s campaign is nevertheless a great example of why DSA chapters around the country should endorse and support socialist and progressive DA candidates running on programs of ending mass incarceration and holding the rich and powerful accountable.

There are certainly contradictions in supporting a candidate for head prosecutor — but there are contradictions for a socialist in any government office in a capitalist state. But class-struggle campaigns for district attorney are worth supporting because they pose an immense opportunity to concretely fight racism, empower the working class, and begin to create a more humane and just world.