Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. Approximately 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. right now, about 25% of all of the world’s prisoners. African-Americans are imprisoned at a rate six times higher than that of white people. And as people of color have been murdered at the hands of police, thousands have taken to the streets in protest in the last few years, promising to challenge any politician that supports racist policing, and promising to challenge the system of policing itself.
This is the context Larry Krasner—a defense attorney of 30 years, a tall Jew with a Tesla, a man with enough political enemies to make Frank Underwood jealous—steps into as he runs for District Attorney of Philadelphia. Krasner is a dark horse candidate. He’s been endorsed by no city bigwigs, he has no political experience, and he thinks the system he will help run if he’s elected is corrupt, racist, and essentially needs to be chucked out. The story would end there, in the grand tradition of lefties who run on principle (and almost always lose), if Krasner and a whole bunch of other people, including George Soros, didn’t think he could win.
The first year of Trump’s presidency is proving to be a boon for out-there candidates, both on the right and left. But House districts have been gerrymandered into the shapes of strange beasts to favor Republicans, and so even Democrats with a lot of money still lose, like John Ossoff, the House candidate in Georgia who raised tens of millions and still couldn’t secure 50% of the vote.
So now, it seems most Democrats’ hopes and bank accounts are being poured into municipal races, where electorates are often more liberal, and where candidates don’t have to pander to their gerrymandered districts. Larry Krasner has been endorsed by a milieu of progressive groups and supporters of causes like Black Lives Matter. He’s won the backing of people who think the prison system should be abolished entirely.
But the question remains: Can anyone, even someone as progressive as Krasner, affect change from within the confines of an office set up to prosecute any and all crime, an office with a decades-long history of disproportionately prosecuting black and brown people? District Attorney is a very particular job that, to most, has a very clear job description: put people behind bars. How can Krasner change that?
To Krasner, the answer is easy enough: You just overhaul the entire system. Krasner wants to get low-level offenders out of jail, he want to end the cash bail system, he wants to prosecute cops, he wants to stop prosecuting many low-level cases, he wants to end stop-and-frisk. Most of his views come back to the word “decarcerate” – reduce the prison population. And how do you do that when you’re a DA—someone whose job it is to incarcerate?
There’s a difference, he said, between someone selling heroin who has a gun in his back pocket, and someone using heroin, or selling it but who is obviously an addict. Krasner thinks justice has to be served on a case-by-case basis with the end goal being safety for everyone, not the longest prison sentence possible. Sure, he would be required to prosecute some illegal activity, but there are loopholes: You can seek less time or charge for lower offenses (robbery 2 versus robbery 1), instead of throwing the book at people.
“In other words,” Krasner said, “there are safety valves in the system that allow prosecutors, when they want, not to do stupid things.”
A few weeks before May 16, Election Day, Krasner and I sat at a large conference table in his combination office-campaign headquarters, a three-story townhouse in the heart of Philadelphia’s gayborhood. The office is nice—there are leather chairs and oriental rugs, mahogany tables and a large fish tank. This is the house Krasner’s firm affords by defending famous football players and accused murderers, which has made him one of the highest profile lawyers in the city. In his free time, he’s defended members of the Occupy Movement, the radical LGBTQ nonprofit ACT UP, Black Lives Matter, and many others. Krasner says he’s worked for free in all of those cases.
The curated tranquility of his office stands in contrast to the way way the campaign outside of it, which can often feel more like a victory tour than a campaign. That’s not because of a particular hubris within Krasner’s team, but because the narrative is there: Philly is used to corruption and Tammany Hall- style politics, and Krasner is the outsider and this is 2017. We live in an era when people want to believe in the underdog, when people are ready to take a chance, when a self-proclaimed Mexican biker lawyer with the words “not guilty” tattooed across his chest can be elected in Texas, when an old socialist from Vermont is America’s most popular politician, when the president is a real estate tycoon and reality star with no political experience.
Outside a recent campaign event, Krasner stood stressed in a nice suit, shaking hands. He was flanked by his PR guy, an activist he defended after he chained himself to a casino development site, and his assistant, another long-time activist who was once arrested as part of a famous pro-weed protest in Texas (Krasner brags about this often). With the suit and the assistants, the cameras and the handshaking, Krasner felt outsized for a measly DA election. That’s partly because he’s a big personality in his Tesla and his power suit. He’s the kind of guy I’ve only seen when reporting in the South— brash, a good debater, not afraid to tower over his opponents, not as falsely humble as most rich, white northerners.
But it’s also because Philadelphians have placed outsized hopes on his shoulders, in the same way Americans have placed outsized hopes on Ossoff in Georgia and on a lot of other Democrats. Krasner not only represents policy change in the city, but hope that American democracy can still produce real change.
“There are guys in this city who voted for Obama twice, then Bernie in the primary, then Trump,” Krasner said as we drove through a white working class part of town to an event. “They want change. If it comes from a Jewish nerdy guy like Sanders, so be it. If it comes from an orange monster, so be it. To me, that’s useful to remember.”
Krasner has already proven himself in the eyes of many. His 30 years as a defense attorney has been a de facto 30-year-long political campaign of sorts—helping him rack up points with various communities.
“His record for defending black and brown activists is kind of a legend in the streets,” said Asa Khalif, an activist and filmmaker who has protested under the banner of Black Lives Matter. “I don’t usually go goo-goo gaga over politicians, but Larry is different.”
On December 15, 2014, Brandon Tate-Brown, a 26-year-old black Philadelphian, was pulled over and then shot by police. Police initially said Tate-Brown had reached for a gun, but then revised their story. The DA, Seth Williams, Philadelphia’s current DA, who isn’t running this election because he’s been indicted on bribery charges, refused to prosecute the officers involved in the shooting, and Philly’s already-strong Black Lives Matter contingent grew, got angrier. Protests became more frequent. Tate-Brown became a symbol for all that is wrong with Philly’s justice system, and America’s.
Tate-Brown was Asa Khalif’s cousin.
In 2016, during Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade, a New Year’s Day tradition infamous for its displays of racism, Khalif and nine others were arrested for disorderly conduct as they held up Black Lives Matter signs. Krasner represented them free of charge.
“He was this average white guy in a nice, gray suit,” Khalif said. “Then in court he became this revolutionary.”
Khalif was particularly impressed by Krasner’s willingness to challenge the police on the stand in court. He showed no deference and instead hammered down on them about why they had arrested peaceful protesters.
“He didn’t mind calling those fucking pigs out,” Khalif said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I fucks with you, Larry.’”
Khalif said he believes the justice system in Philadelphia is rotten to its core, but when someone like Krasner steps up, you take the opportunity.
There’s been a rift in some Philadelphia activist circles about Krasner. For hard-liners, Krasner is just another example of a reformer with high hopes who will prove ineffectual in the long run.
“You can’t reform a broken system,” said Erica Mines, an organizer with Philly for Racial, Economic and Legal Justice (better known as Philly REAL Justice). “How can you reform a system based on oppression?”
Mines said she appreciated the defense work Krasner had performed for her fellow activists, but she said having him as DA could siphon activist energy into electoral politics, which she believes is a dead end. Maybe if he ran as a third party candidate, she said, she’d be willing to vote for him. As of now, he’s a bit too in and of the system he purports to want to radically alter.
“We can’t support someone who is prosecuting people,” she said. “Unless the people they’re prosecuting are the politicians, the police, the city.”
But his detractors are outnumbered, and definitely out-funded. A few weeks before election day, three of the country’s largest progressive groups—Democracy for America, Our Revolution (a Bernie Sanders-related group) and Color of Change PAC—endorsed Krasner. And then a few days later, the mutterings throughout the campaign about outside monetary support came to fruition when a SuperPAC affiliated with George Soros announced it would back Krasner, and pour $1.45 million into ads in Philadelphia. That’s in addition to the approximately $300,000 Krasner’s campaign will spend on its own. Compared to Krasner, his competitors have peanuts.
In late April, at a campaign event held at a church in the center of Philadelphia, the room was packed. Krasner sat on a stage, squished in the middle, shoulder to shoulder with his six opponents: Teresa Carr Deni, a former municipal court judge; Tariq El-Shabazz, the right-hand-man of the now-indicted Seth Williams, and who has come under fire for mishandling cases as an attorney; former federal prosecutor Joe Khan; former prosecutor and ex-Republican Michael Untermeyer; and former assistant district attorney and young gun Jack O’Neill.
Toward the back of the audience sat Dianne Bridges, 67, and Arnetta Terry, 59. Both are African-American and from the city’s North, which many associate with crime and poverty. The friends came to the debate because while they were leaning toward Krasner, they’d been burned so many times by politicians in the past they wanted to see him face-to-face, try to assess if he was the real deal.
“We trust them, they give us empty promises, they get into office, and they disappoint us,” Terry said. “It’s the same thing over and over again.”
The questions, posed by audience members, were tough and specific: The first one came from a man named John who had been sentenced to life without parole as a teen and was released just two months prior. Will you commit to not sentencing kids under 18 to life without parole? he asked. The candidates’ answers spoke as much to the current state of American politics as they did the specific race in Philly: Every candidate, besides El-Shabazz, answered an unequivocal “yes.” All seven of the candidates promised to reform or end cash bail, to radically reform civil forfeiture, to prosecute more cops for crimes.
DAs once played to the center, promising to be tough on crime while ensuring civil liberties. These days, it seems you’re practically obligated to bash the system you’re hoping to run.
It was hard to differentiate policy at the debate, but Krasner kept hyping up the audience, calling out his competitors for their actions as prosecutors. By the end of the forum, Krasner had clearly become the favorite. He kept driving home the point that he, unlike those he shared the stage with, was an outsider. And when he left, he got a standing ovation.
At the back of the church, I found Dianne Bridges and Arnetta Terry again, and asked if they were still leaning toward Krasner. “Even more,” both said.
Bridges was hoping to talk to Krasner in person, but Krasner was already briskly walking out of the church to his Tesla, to drive to another campaign event in the north of the city.