No Such Thing as a “Progressive” DA: Larry Krasner Arrests Protesters, Not Cops

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Walter Wallace Jr. was murdered by the police. The “progressive” DA supported by the DSA hasn’t charged any of the cops, but has arrested several protesters. There is no such thing as a “progressive” DA.

Man with glasses standing at podium
Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

This week the Philadelphia cops murdered a Black father named Walter Wallace Jr. He was having a mental health crisis and clearly needed help. His family called for an ambulance but the cops showed up instead. Wallace emerged from the house holding a knife, but he remained far away from the cops while his family and people in the neighborhood gathered to de-escalate. It was clear he was unwell, but equally clear that he posed no threat.

But instead of providing help, or even trying to de-escalate, the cops fired 14 shots at Walter Wallace Junior. This is yet another racist killing of a Black man struggling with his mental health, much like the murder of Daniel Prude in Rochester. This was another racist execution by the police.

As we’ve already seen in city after city, the cops have again not been charged with a crime, and the body cam footage has not been released, surely in an attempt to hide the murderous actions of the cops. But there is something unique about Philadelphia. The district attorney is Larry Krasner, the so-called “progressive” DA who came into office as a result of the activism of progressive organizers in Philadelphia, and in particular the Democratic Socialists of America. And yet, Krasner is showing himself to be just like every other DA: refusing to charge cops with murder and covering their asses. In fact, in his statement, Krasner opted for a bland promise to investigate the police and focused on scolding protesters themselves for “violence.”

The Philly Black Lives Matter uprisings have seen a new wave after Wallace’s murder. Hundreds took to the streets to express their just rage against yet another racist police killing. People have protested around the city, blocking traffic and demanding justice for Wallace. During the protests, some stores have been broken into, and some windows have been broken. DA Larry Krasner responded quickly: 24 hours after the killing, Krasner’s office had already processed 27 cases of second-degree felony burglary, with 49 more “in the pipeline.” Larry Krasner isn’t waiting for evidence, and he isn’t waiting for bodycams. He is quickly processing “looters,” providing less benefit of the doubt to protesters who may or may not have broken a window than to cops who are on camera killing a man in need.

Democrats and Republicans have responded similarly, speaking out against the “violence” and “looting” occurring in Philadelphia rather than against the outtright murder commited by the police. Donald Trump called for law and order and claimed that local Democrats couldn’t handle the “riots,” saying he would send federal law enforcement. Turns out, the Democratic mayor called in the National Guard without any help from Trump. Joe Biden also showed his true colors; when asked by a reporter what he has to say to the people in Philly, he responded, “What I say is that there is no excuse whatsoever for the looting and the violence.” This wasn’t a mistake. Biden, Trump, Krasner and the entire political system are more concerned with storefronts than Black lives. Those who break storefronts are prosecuted quickly and fully. Cops who kill Black people, not so much. Even in cities with a supposedly progressive district attorney.

This brings out a big contradiction for the DSA, which wholeheartedly endorsed and canvassed for Krasner. The DSA helped him get into office— and now the DSA has a responsibility to respond:  to rescind all support for Krasner, and moreover, to write, speak, and act against their candidate, who is currently protecting killer cops and prosecuting the movement. Where is your outrage, comrades? Krasner’s latest betrayal is also an opportunity to examine the idea of a progressive DA. 

Larry Krasner is Not on Our Side

Krasner’s 30-year record as a Civil Rights lawyer, defense of Black Lives Matter protesters, and promises to dismantle mass incarceration from within led many to hail his election as a new beginning for Philadelphia’s criminal justice system. His “anti-establishment” campaign promised to “stand up” for Philadelphians’ “rights and liberties” and specifically promised that with his “focus on serious crime,” he would “end mass incarceration,” “free the wrongfully convicted,” and “stop cash bail imprisonment.” His office, he declared, would “resist the Trump Administration,” “protect immigrants,” and “stand up to police misconduct.” As a result, much of the Left rallied behind him, including the Philadelphia DSA, who not only sponsored him, but also campaigned for him.

Once elected, Krasner made some progressive moves, like ending criminal prosecution for marijuana possession, forcing prosecutors to end the practice of extorting bail money from those accused of minor crimes, and even filing a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that have been accused of responsibility in the opioid epidemic. However, his effort to review past sentences has been blocked by judges, demonstrating the limits of electing someone to “make a change from within.” 

However, from Krasner’s time in office, it is also clear that he is working directly against the interests of Black liberation and the Left. First, Krasner continues to hold Black activist and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal — falsely convicted and imprisoned for nearly 40 years, including almost 30 on death row — in prison. He blocked an appeal by Mumia’s lawyers that had been accepted by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, only to reverse his decision after public outcry. And yet he is far from a public advocate for Mumia— rather than play a role in freeing Mumia, he has played a role in keeping him locked up.

In 2018, trans woman ReeAnna Segin allegedly attempted to set fire to a Blue Lives Matter flag. She was brutally arrested, referred to by male pronouns, and then forced to spend the night in a men’s prison before she was released on bail. She was charged with two misdemeanor counts, which were later dropped only after public outcry. 

Enter the pandemic. As Scott Cooper wrote about Krasner, “There’s nothing like a series of crises to reveal the truth. For instance, as Covid-19 hit Philadelphia and a movement to free imprisoned people emerged, hundreds of Philadelphians — mostly Black — were stuck in jails for minor offenses while Krasner dithered with a “plan” to get judges to allow the release of some of them.” In the middle of a pandemic, Kranser kept people locked up, even when close confinement could mean life-threatening danger from the virus. 

And then came the huge Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. Philadelphia was a hub of the movement, with massive protests and brutal police repression. They kettled protesters, tear gassed them, and beat them, all the while allowing right wing vigilantes to roam the streets. What was Krasner’s reaction? Nearly 2,0000 people were charged by Krasner, who may review the charges with a “special commission”— which buys time and takes attention away from a “progressive” DA charging BLM protesters. And only one cop was charged with misconduct, for pepper spraying protesters who were kneeling on the ground without warning– even pulling down one person’s goggles to pepper spray her in the face. This is nothing compared to the vast reports of other incidents of police brutality, many of which were caught on video. In other words, Krasner played a central role in criminalizing the movement and upholding police violence. 

And this, now, is the final straw. Krasner is refusing to arrest a killer cop while arresting protesters, showing that when push comes to shove, he is just like any other DA. Like any other DA, he may be pressured into bringing charges against the cops. But that makes Krasner the same as his counterparts all over the country who have done so as a result of mobilization. So much for progressive district attorneys.

Right now, Philadelphia and the whole country should rise up to demand that the killer cops who killed Walter Wallace Jr. be jailed and that Larry Krasner resign, as should any other elected official who refuses to prosecute killer cops. 

Krasner and the Left

Although Krasner is acting like any other DA, his background was different. As Megan Malachi, an organizer with Philly Real Justice and the Black Radical Collective said, “It wasn’t the liberals of the city who got behind Krasner originally, it was the activists…We wanted him to continue to support people doing radical work, and now in this political moment when he has the ability to do that, he’s not doing that.”  The  Philadelphia Left ended up supporting an enemy of the uprisings, the working class, and the oppressed. The Left played a central role in getting Krasner elected to his position. The Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) endorsed and canvassed for him. Socialist Alternative declared, “While we cannot ‘endorse’ his campaign, we wish Larry Krasner luck, and we will be fighting alongside him and all those working in his campaign to win the reforms he is fighting for.” Jacobin described Krasner’s primary victory as “a chance to tear [Philadelphia’s criminal justice system] out by the roots.” Shaun King called his policies “essential and revolutionary.”

Krasner was seen as a shining example of an electoral strategy. An article published on the DSA web-page reads “Philadelphia made history in November 2017, when a labor-backed multiracial coalition proudly elected movement activist Larry Krasner as Philadelphia District Attorney on a platform of ending mass incarceration, protecting immigrants, and confronting abusive police. Krasner’s victory showed the world the collective power that Philadelphians have when we rally together, electing somebody who fights for us. LILAC (Local Initiative/Local Action Committee) envisions a socialist struggle that can collaborate with local fights like the Krasner campaign.” In this sense, the DSA sees Krasner as someone who is on the side of the working class and as a model for organizing in Philadelphia

As Krasner is demonstrating, this model is a failure. Larry Krasner is not with us in the movement, he is against us. 

We should be outraged; we should be furious that Krasner duped so many people into thinking he would be different. And we should call him out. This is first and foremost a task of the socialist Left, who played a central role in supporting him. It’s time for the radical wings of the Left and socialists to blast Krasner and force him out of office. It’s time to get angry at Krasner and the entire strategy of reforming the criminal justice system from the inside and act on that anger.  And we must take conclusions; it was a mistake to place any faith in the idea of a “progressive” DA. He is not a “progressive” DA because that phrase itself is an oxymoron. There is no way to be “progressive” and be in charge of locking people up. There is no way to be “progressive” while holding the keys to Pennsylvania’s prisons. 

It’s also time to fight against leaders who thought and may continue to think that it’s a good idea to support enemies like Larry Krasner. When he runs for reelection, socialists should not endorse or support him. 

This is a loss for the Left: for our credibility and for working-class people’s belief that change is possible. But we must provide a way forward. Many people might feel disillusioned by politics as a result of Krasner, they might feel that “nothing we do matters”. As the Left, we have to provide a different solution. We have to show that what we do matters very deeply; our mobilization and strength in the streets and in our workplaces are the only things that make progressive changes happen.

About author

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.