Rarely has the aphorism “his reach exceeds his grasp” been more applicable than to black activist Shaun King. His social media following is huge, but he’s a simplistic dolt. That could explain his appeal. Unfortunately, his “reach” has made him a hot commodity for those who have little reach of their own.
When King hooked up with Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project, he gave them a huge audience they would never otherwise have. And they gave him cred he would never otherwise have. And never deserve.
Eventually, even Shaun King processes things that other people, smarter people, figured out long before him, and he’s capitalizing on one such idea. For some time, Democrats holding office as prosecutors have spouted reform rhetoric, but then gone about their jobs as usual. As my joke goes, Republicans were happy to put people in prison. Democrats felt badly about it, but locked them away nonetheless. The upshot was the same.
One problem is that the job of prosecutor tends not to fit neatly into reform. The job is to prosecute, convict people. They don’t write the laws. While they have discretion, they are not a super-legislature, only enforcing laws with which they agree. They are not a super-judiciary, reinventing punishment in their image (for better or worse). They should be prosecutors as Justice Jackson described them, but prosecutors. There is crime. There are criminals. There are victims. Someone has to do the dirty work of prosecuting them. That’s the job.
But Larry Krasner, a former public defender and civil rights lawyer, and Philadelphia’s new District Attorney, has invigorated the notion of enlightened prosecutor. A progressive view of changing the system to accomplish its goals beyond the carceral solution. He’s making changes, revealing bad cops, calling bullshit in drug war prosecutions, pushing treatment over incarceration and opening safe injection sites. He took office in January. How these ideas will work out has yet to be seen, but one thing appears certain. He’s not just cheap talk.
As Shaun King is wont to do, he’s seized upon other people’s ideas after he’s had sufficient time to process them, as if they were his own.
Shaun King, a prominent black rights activist and writer, announced Thursday that he is co-founding a political action committee to help elect “reform-minded prosecutors” at the county and city levels.
Real Justice PAC plans to spend upward of $1 million to support campaigns by progressives running for district attorney offices this year.
The rhetoric is nice, if worn.
“No position in America, no single individual has a bigger impact on the criminal justice system ― including police brutality, but the whole crisis of mass incarceration in general ― than your local district attorney,” King said. “They are the gatekeepers of America’s justice system.”
They are, indeed, the “gatekeepers.” They are, indeed, the individual with the ability to have the most significant impact on the system, especially when you remember (as so few do) that yammering by the Attorney General has little actual effect on much of anything. Actions by your local prosecutor have huge impacts.
And prosecutors are vulnerable. Much as the position is elected, they are largely appointed by the dominant party, as people vote for whomever the party boss runs. Incumbents are rarely challenged, so once in office, they stay in office for a very long time. That much power, that much security, is a heady mix.
Historically, the path to prosecutor was paved with tough on crime talk. It’s an easy sell, and it’s consistent with our understanding of the job. Supplicants for the post needed only to beg at the party boss’ knee, swear their fealty, pay their dues and then wield their power. The primary concern of the party boss was to win the election, own the position. Reformers, being harder to sell and usually refusing to bend a knee to the good of the party, were unlikely to get the job.
Will King’s “Real Justice” PAC “elect prosecutors who will fix our broken criminal justice system”? The latter half of that sentence raises a great many questions about what’s broken and how to fix it. Menckian solutions sound great from the outside, but making them work from the inside isn’t nearly as easy.
But can they “elect prosecutors”? The group has a two-pronged approach, to find reform challengers to run against incumbent prosecutors and to fund their challenges.
The Real Justice PAC will seek to win county prosecutor races by testing, iterating and scaling the “big organizing” approach outlined in the book Becky Bond co-authored titled: “Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything.” The PAC will also leverage social media, digital tools and the voices of a new generation of leaders like Shaun King who are organizing massive audiences to take action locally and nationally through rapid response campaigns.
The team consists of King and the Bernie fundraisers, who will do their grassroots voodoo and get their mil nest-egg at $5 a toss. They did it for Bernie. They can probably do it for King. And the goal?
Win races with a mandate for real justice. By working to help candidates with a bold, clearly articulated platform win by the widest possible margin, we help create a mandate for overcoming the barriers to making big changes on day one of a new administration. The 2017 success of Larry Krasner in Philadelphia raised the bar for what reformers could demand once in office — and other elected local officials are following suit such as when the Philadelphia City Council voted to abolish cash bail.
A very ambitious cause, and if they can succeed in electing prosecutors, the sky’s the limit.
The PAC hopes to eventually also focus on electing sheriffs and judges who, among other things, would support reducing the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses.
Whether this means they support life plus cancer for people convicted of violent offenses is unclear. They may not have thought this through yet.
So what could possibly be wrong with such a positive approach to reforming a system that’s certainly rife with problems? Does anyone seriously want the dumbest guy in the room to become the new prosecutorial, not to mention sheriff and judge, kingmaker? And before you respond, “well, at least he’s on the right side,” it’s not just a matter of fixing the system:
Another priority for the PAC is electing more women and people of color to prosecutorial posts.
The country’s 2,400 district attorneys are notoriously non-diverse. As of 2015, 95 percent of them were white, 83 percent were men, and just 1 percent were women of color.
King likened the complexion and maleness of the group to the population at “any golf course in America.”
Speaking from experience, no defendant feels better about being sentenced to life in prison for a crime they didn’t commit because Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark is a black woman. Yet, the preferred supplicants will bend their knee at the Idiot Throne for Shaun King’s blessing and cash. What could possibly go wrong?