Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Why Socialists Should Never Support District Attorneys

A DSA and AOC-backed candidate for district attorney in Queens is running on the promise to radically reform the DA’s office. However, a DA’s office cannot be reformed. Its entire purpose is to prosecute and imprison people on behalf of the capitalist state.

Maryam Alaniz

June 24, 2019
Facebook Twitter Share

In recent months, public defender and self-described socialist Tiffany Cabán has emerged as a contender in the Queens district attorney race. The borough, which has about 2.3 million residents, is represented in part by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Congress. Cabán has not only received the endorsement of progressive groups like Our Revolution and self-described socialists like AOC and the DSA, but she has also recently received the blessing of the New York Times’ Editorial Board.

What might the DA office in Queens look like under Tiffany Cabán?

Ostensibly inspired by reformist DAs like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachel Rollins in Boston, Cabán is running on a platform that aims to end the prosecution of offenses like low-level marijuana possession and fare evasion on the NYC subway. Cabán also backs the No New Jails movement in NYC and the campaign to decriminalize sex work. She recently shared that her overarching goal was to “stop thinking about criminal justice as a punitive system.”

Cabán sees no problems or contradictions between being a socialist and working as a criminal prosecutor in a country with the largest incarcerated population in the world. Candidates like Cabán know that DAs are historically problematic in nature – as they are expected to enforce racist laws and essentially support the functions of law enforcement. Their response is to stress that the best way forward is to weaken the power the office has by doing things like transferring criminal cases to civil court.

However, the idea that a district attorney’s office can be reformed to meet socialist demands is fundamentally flawed. Just as the police apparatus exists  to prosecute those that break the laws, the DA’s office exists to enforce a system of laws that enshrines private property in the highest of all altars, deports immigrant workers, and turns a blind eye on exploitation and oppression. They do so by working in tandem—when the cops arrest, the courts convict, and a system of mass incarceration ensues.

This system has become an integral force in our economy as a steady flow of practically free labor in the form of incarcerated people–largely people of color– is employed by companies like Victoria’s Secret. Consequently, capitalists are encouraged to advocate for a “tough on crime” stance so that they can continue hiring a large sector of the population at very low wages, all while boasting that their products are “made in the USA.” The police and courts, including the DA’s office, work together to keep things in place by breaking strikes, repressing protestors, and arresting vulnerable people for minor crimes. By having a tough enforcement agency, these terrible conditions and small sparks of rebellion are kept at bay.

While it may seem feasible to some to run as an insurgent DA candidate that aims to reverse the impact of years of corrupt and deeply racist DAs, it’s incredibly naive to think “campaigns like Cabán’s can also build up the Left’s capacity to confront the institutional power police hold in our cities,” as Jacobin claims. Dismantling a system whose entire existence relies on the capitalist state is not a task that will come easily. The experience of the past century and a half shows that you cannot achieve socialism by way of administering and reforming the capitalist state into extinction. Marx and Engels famously stated  that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

Perhaps Philadelphia’s current DA, Larry Krasner’s time in office can shed light on how progressive prosecution is oxymoronic. Krasner ran as a reformer who was going to fight the oppressions of the DA’s office, but during his time in office he has prosecuted a trans activist who faced police brutality after attempting to burn a blue lives matter flag. He also initially opposed the appeal of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist who has spent decades on death row after being falsely convicted of shooting and killing a police officer.

Leftists should not be surprised by these betrayals; Krasner is an example of the misunderstanding that reform is possible through elected officials. He exemplifies the fact that the institutions of the capitalist state will always work in the service of capital. Krasner’s ineffectual attempts to “rethink” his office are indicative of this idea.

In the article District Attorney: No Role For a Socialist, Francesca Gomes challenged the idea that “a socialist can [e]ffect change and increase the power and mobilization of the working class through offices in law enforcement.” Any sort of validation or support for roles like the DA would set socialists back by directing working class efforts toward an inherently destructive and unjust arm of a capitalist system. The problem with running for the DA office is that it legitimizes the judiciary system, the state, and even the police.

Instead of trying to reform the DA office, we should respond to systematic state oppression by fighting against the illusions of a kinder and gentler capitalism. Theoretically, a socialist could use an electoral campaign for DA with the only purpose of exposing the atrocities and inadequacy of a capitalist state. Elections, when used on an independent working-class ballot, can raise workers’ class consciousness and help build a political identity for socialists and working-class people. However, Tiffany Cabán and all other“progressive” DAs cannot succeed in reforming a fundamentally capitalist system or in building a socialist movement.

Facebook Twitter Share

Maryam Alaniz

Maryam Alaniz is a socialist journalist, activist, and PhD student living in NYC. She is an editor for the international section of Left Voice. Follow her on Twitter: @MaryamAlaniz


Guest Posts

Biden speaking at a podium at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021.

Biden Won’t Stop Climate Change

Many hoped that President Biden would be America’s first “climate president,” but there’s no such thing.

M. Carlstad

May 9, 2023
The outside of First Republic Bank showing the main sign.

First Republic Bank: The Case for Public Ownership

The collapse of First Republic Bank is the latest chapter in the rolling banking crisis in the US. It demonstrates the case for public ownership of the banking system.

Michael Roberts

May 3, 2023
Sami protesters in Norway protest the construction of wind turbines on their land.

Norway: Thousands of Youth Demonstrated against “Green Colonialism”

From the end of February to the beginning of March, over a thousand youth protested against the construction of wind turbines on Sami land. This movement represents the birth of a militant, Indigenous-led environmentalist movement.

Matthew Walters

May 1, 2023

Striking Workers at the University of Michigan Are Building Powerful Solidarity

University of Michigan graduate students have been on strike for one month. While these workers have faced harsh conditions, the broad connections and class-consciousness they are developing are worth celebrating.

Ryan McCarty

April 29, 2023


Tracking, Deportations, Internment: European Countries Go on the Hunt for Migrants

On May 10, German chancellor Olaf Scholz strengthened Germany’s anti-migrant policy. This means more deportations, border patrol reinforcements, and economic agreements with sending countries. The new policy is being deployed throughout Europe.

Leo Stella

May 25, 2023

#AllthatsLeftPod: Three Years Since the George Floyd Uprising:

In this episode of the podcast, we reflect on the 2020 George Floyd uprising, which began three years ago. We discuss how to turn the energy of a mass uprising into a sustained movement, and the kind of revolutionary leadership that's required to do so.

Left Voice

May 25, 2023

Fight Capitalism, Fight for Neurodivergent Liberation

Neurodivergent and disability liberation will have to come from the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist system which values different forms of human behavior and directs resources to meeting human needs.

Sam Carliner

May 23, 2023
Prof. Gail Green-Anderson of LaGuardia Community College at a rally outside Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Manhattan office on Thursday.

Rekindling the Militant Spirit of CUNY’s Past

Mayor Eric Adams has announced an austerity budget that includes significant cuts to the City University of New York among other city agencies. In order to defeat these cuts, students, faculty, and other workers across the city must unite our struggles and be prepared to shut the university down.

James Dennis Hoff

May 22, 2023