Black Lives Matter activists stand by him, and he's sued the police 75 times. Now he’s the DA
Larry Krasner, a left-wing defence lawyer who has sued the Philadelphia police department 75 times, was elected on Tuesday as Philadelphia’s new district attorney.
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WASHINGTON—A Black Lives Matter activist and a white candidate for district attorney walk into a barbershop and...
Not a joke. This happened a bunch of times, Asa Khalif says.
Khalif, the public face of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, is the kind of polarizing figure Americans seeking to become DA usually run away from or run against. But wherever Larry Krasner went out and campaigned, Khalif was at his side.
The protester arrested on some 20 occasions had offered to play the role of character witness. The prosecutor-to-be had gratefully accepted.
Khalif had never endorsed any political candidate before Krasner. But Krasner, a left-wing defence lawyer who has sued the Philadelphia police department 75 times, had represented him in a half-dozen court cases.
More importantly, much of Krasner’s platform could have been written by Black Lives Matter itself. Krasner was calling for an end to abusive “stop-and-frisk” police searches, an end to “mass incarceration,” an end to cash bail for non-violent offences, an end to the death penalty.
So one day in the spring, the Democratic primary in full swing, the Black Lives Matter activist and the white candidate for district attorney walked into a barbershop in low-income North Philadelphia, a pair of lone-wolf rabble-rousers now a tag team.
Krasner was in his trademark suit and glasses. The black men in the chairs were debating the merits of Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Within five minutes, Khalif said, Krasner’s sincerity had them transfixed. The conversation ended up running for an hour.
“Real recognize real in the hood. And Larry’s as real as it comes,” Khalif said in an interview. “So he’s an honorary brother right now.”
He’s also the toast of left-wing America.
Even on a dramatic Tuesday election night that was comprehensively good for Democrats, with victories in high-profile governor races in Virginia and New Jersey, Krasner’s overwhelming victory — 75 per cent to his Republican opponent’s 25 per cent — stood out as significant national news.
Sure, Krasner ran in one of the country’s most Democratic cities. But Philadelphia is also a city that four times, from 1993 to 2005, elected a law-and-order Democrat who was proudly known as America’s “Deadliest DA.” Days after Krasner’s victory, the left-wing Nation magazine gave him a new title: America’s “Most Radical DA.”
Krasner’s background was so unconventional that the president of the local police union had dismissed his candidacy as “hilarious.” Krasner himself had joked that he was “completely unelectable.”
In 2017, it turns out, a Larry Krasner is eminently electable. Before he trounced Republican Beth Grossman, he trounced establishment-backed Democrats in the primary that serves as the city’s de facto election.
His win is a sign of a marked Democratic shift toward the uncompromising leftism of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders — and, perhaps, in favour of Sanders-like outsiders.
It is a sign of the maturation of Black Lives Matter, a movement sometimes dismissed as aimless but that has racked up a series of significant victories below the national radar.
It is a sign of the continued urban clamour for progressive criminal justice reform even as U.S. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions move sharply in the other direction.
And it is a sign of the energy behind the anti-Trump “resistance” movement active in every state in the country.
Black Philadelphians’ discontent with local justice and local policing was a bigger factor than discontent with the president. But Trump loomed large.
In addition to pledging specific justice reforms, Krasner’s platform included an explicit promise to “resist the Trump administration.” In Krasner, despondent progressives found someone they could believe in.
“In light of the pain of Trump’s presidency, particularly the pain felt in American cities and urban centres, people feel compelled to counterbalance that in a way that’s been something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” said Shaun King, a journalist for the Intercept who is affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. “People are now being very clear on the progressive principles and ideals that they stand for.”
Krasner was backed by a diverse constellation of local and national progressive groups. He received more than $1.5 million from liberal billionaire George Soros. He also received more than 100 foot soldiers from grassroots group Reclaim Philadelphia.
Reclaim was founded last year by veterans of Sanders’s primary campaign who decided to turn their post-election attention to local problems. They became the strategists and labour behind a pro-Krasner door-knocking force that targeted black neighbourhoods.
“The Democratic Party is not really responsive here to the needs of citizens. Many of the same things you see at a national level you can see on the ground here. And people in some way can be galvanized more on local issues because they feel them, they see them right at their doorstep,” said Nikil Saval, a Reclaim co-founder.
Black Lives Matter, born in street protest and online protest to racism and police brutality, had always been focused on local issues. It had not always been interested in local elections.
Over the past two years, however, its activists have shifted from shouting to campaigning. And they have won.
Like other justice reform advocates, Black Lives Matter has put increasing emphasis on district attorneys, who often shape local justice policy more than famous national legislators. Last year, district attorneys opposed by the movement were unseated in Chicago and Cleveland.
“I think we get it now,” Khalif said. “I think a lot of the activists in the Black Lives Matter movement understand that not only do we have to yell and rally in the streets and organize, but we also have to have a seat at the table when policies are discussed. Especially in terms of how they affect us in our communities. So I think we can do both. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Despite his margin of victory, Krasner faces considerable skepticism across the city. The previous district attorney was also elected on promises of change. Last month, he was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption.
“I’ve seen these ‘moments’ for almost 40 years. And yet nothing changes on the back end,” said Linn Washington, a Temple University journalism professor who has reported on Philadelphia justice issues since 1975. “Krasner has to find a way to govern. And that’s always a tough nut. I’m not sure how that’s going to work out . . . He’s the quintessential outsider and Philadelphia is the quintessentially inside-game political city.”
Progressives are not content with mere victory. Two days after the election, a coalition of groups released a list of ambitious policy demands for Krasner’s first 100 days in office.
To make such changes, Krasner will have to deal with fierce antipathy from Philadelphia police officers.
In the days after his election, several cops circulated a #NotMyDA hashtag on social media. One fantasized about slapping him. Another prank-called his law office.
Current prosecutors are themselves anxious. Krasner felt compelled to write his new employees an email to say, “Please do not be frightened by what others may have told you.”
Some of the fear of Krasner is a product of his unapologetic embrace of Khalif. He had the Black Lives Matter activist stand with him at many of his events — not only at barbershops in “the hood” but even at a televised launch speech. The Soros ads, which initially worried Krasner, emphasized his work on behalf of Black Lives Matter and Occupy.
Khalif called him a “friend.” He also said he will not hesitate to hold his friend accountable through protest, “just like any other politician,” if he does not deliver on his promises.
“But I don’t think I’ll have to deal with that with Larry, knowing his character,” he said. “That’s just the man that he is.”