IDEAS & DEBATES
District Attorney: No Role For a Socialist
A DSA member ran for district attorney in New York City. Is this an appropriate ambition for a socialist?
November 11, 2017
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As news of progressive election victories is discussed in various online articles, a colorful piece in The New Yorker describes the last-minute write-in campaign of Marc Fliedner for Manhattan District Attorney. Fleidner is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and former lawyer in the Brooklyn DA’s office. Fliedner’s reason for launching the write-in campaign, he says, was his frustration with the news of how Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. refused to prosecute both Harvey Weinstein for misdemeanor sexual abuse in 2015 and Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. for fraud in 2012. “Part of a prosecutor’s job is to step up to the plate so there aren’t more victims down the line,” he told The New Yorker.
In September, Fliedner made an official run in the Democratic Party primaries as a candidate for Brooklyn DA, the highest office in criminal prosecution in the borough. He ultimately lost to Erik Gonzalez, a Democrat who won 53 percent of the vote despite the fact that it was a six-way race. Fliedner himself received 10 percent of the vote, approximately the same share as that of each of the other five candidates.
Endorsed by Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution and a proud DSA member, Fliedner apparently sees no contradiction between being a socialist and a criminal prosecutor. An ADA for 30 years, he is best known for his partially-successful prosecution of Peter Liang, the police officer who murdered Akai Gurley in 2014. After Fliedner secured Liang’s conviction for manslaughter, and the late District Attorney Kevin P. Thompson recommended only house arrest and community service as Liang’s sentence, Fliedner left the Brooklyn DA’s office. According to The Village Voice, upon resigning, Fliedner “deemed the system broken beyond repair,” and he sees the position of District Attorney as a way to “legitimate systemic change in policy.”
If that seems contradictory, it’s because…well, it is.
The entire function of the District Attorney’s office in any municipality, as Fliedner made quite clear in his stated reason for running, is to investigate and prosecute crimes in conjunction with law enforcement — essentially, to finish the job begun by the police. The DA does not have any power or involvement in formulating legislation, but is expected to enforce the same racist laws that lock up non-violent drug offenders. This occurs in the context of the country with the largest incarcerated population in the world, disproportionately made up of people of color.
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In fact, the most “progressive” tactic in such a position is a fight to decrease the power of the office. This is, of course, exactly what is promised by candidates wishing to obtain the “progressive” vote — demands such as transferring many criminal cases to civil court or increasing community solutions to antisocial behavior instead of involving the courts at all.
The trouble is that, by virtue of their very nature, arms of the state such as the police or the district attorney’s office cannot be reformed in a way that allows for the kind of social and economic change demanded by socialists. Such reforms would betray the primary function and purpose of these departments — implementing the laws and prosecuting those who break them.
Although the impetus to run in these elections — mounting a resistance against the political culture of Trump and Weinstein — seems progressive, the majority of people prosecuted by law enforcement are not billionaires. Most are working-class people, an inordinate number of whom are people of color. This is by design and is inherent in the system itself. The police enforce laws this way, the DA’s office prosecutes this way, and there is nothing an individual district attorney can do about it. Their entire role is to be on the side of the capitalist state and to prosecute and imprison people.
The police and courts exist to protect the private property of the ruling class in a myriad of ways. This is why police break strikes, repress protests, and arrest people for minor crimes. After the cops arrest, the courts convict. All of these roles serve to add to the intimidation of the working class. But the courts are also a crucial component in mass incarceration, a racist system that has resulted in a supply of nearly-free labor that the capitalist economy has grown quite fond of and isn’t eager to give up any time soon
A piece entitled “Yesterday Was a Good Day” in Jacobin touts the election of a new DA as one of Tuesday’s many left victories: “In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, a self-described ‘completely unelectable’ defense attorney with a history of suing the city’s police department and representing Black Lives Matter and Occupy activists pro bono, became the city’s top prosecutor. With a campaign spearheaded by former Bernie Sanders volunteers and pledges to end to cash bail, the death penalty, and mass incarceration, he won by a three-to-one ratio, thanks largely to the votes of the city’s communities of color. ‘This is what a movement looks like,’ he told a crowd of supporters.”
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The impossibility of a district attorney ending any of the measures on Krasner’s list is plain to see, but this fact does not make it into Jacobin’s assessment. (For more on the limitations of these types of campaigns, see “Anti-Trump Elections Signal Opening For Socialist Politics.”)
This idea — that a socialist can affect change and increase the power and mobilization of the working class through offices in law enforcement — doesn’t only lead to a lack of success; it actually creates setbacks by legitimizing these roles. It acts as an acknowledgement that on some level, the type of criminal prosecution system we have is valid. This, in turn, actually directs working class socialist energy toward the last place it should go — upholding one of the most destructive arms of the capitalist system.
Similar to the case of Danny Fetonte, the cop union organizer who was elected to the National Political Committee of the DSA and advocated for better working conditions for police, this run for the office of District Attorney by another DSA member shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the law enforcement system that reinforces violent and racist oppression of working class people; both seem to believe that the role of socialists is to create a “kinder, gentler” version of capitalist law enforcement.
As socialists, we must fight against state oppression by building mass movements and using working-class tactics such as strikes and demonstrations. When socialists run in elections, it should be to highlight the rotten nature of the capitalist state and should specifically expose tyrannical structures like the prison industrial complex. It is impossible to do this in roles like that of the District Attorney.