The prison-abolition movement needs a DA Cabán to put policies into action

By Emma C

DSA’s prison-abolition position is consistent with an endorsement of DA candidate Tiffany Cabán, because it represents concrete steps we can take to counter mass incarceration.  In my work with hundreds of incarcerated people, it was rather shocking how hostile nearly all of them were to the idea of prison abolition. Upset, they demanded to know how dare I, safe on the outside, suggest the violent people they were around on the inside should be let out of prison? It made me seriously self-reflect on what abolition meant and how to achieve it. For me, abolition was framed in entirely negative terms: ending cages, tearing down prisons, and stopping new prisons from being built. In politics you need a positive vision to garner popular support - the obvious follow up to a policy of not-incarcerating is “Well, what should we do?”

Luckily there have recently been plenty of examples to get us past a limited, negative idea of abolition. These positive examples have been led by Black Liberation groups and those most impacted by mass incarceration, and unsurprisingly their perspective has focused on the material realities of the powers behind the prison industrial complex. The first example is the #ByeAnita campaign to defeat Anita Alvarez in the district attorney race for Cook County, led by prison abolition group Assata’s Daughters in Chicago.  Kim Foxx, Alvarez’s opponent, was not nearly as progressive as any of our comrades would like, but as Assata’s Daughters explained, quoting Ella Baker: “The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence.” That’s exactly what we want to do with Cabán’s campaign: show the most criminalized people in Queens that people power is stronger than the Queens political machine that supported DA Brown and his policies of locking up people of color and the working class.

The second example is the policies enacted by DA Larry Krasner in Philadelphia. An independent study recently verified, using statistics from DA Krasner’s time in office during which cash bail was eliminated for non-violent offenses, that the cash bail system is nothing but an additional punishment on working class people and its elimination would have no effect on crime rates, recidivism, or people showing up to court. The evidence from implementing the components of a prison-abolitionist vision is exponentially more compelling than any essay or speech. Advocates will be using this example to push against cash bail in their own counties and states for at least the next decade.

Of course, electing a progressive DA does not achieve abolition, nor does it absolve the need for grassroots actions like civil disobedience and protest. It does provide a platform to criticize and question pervasive criminalization and introduce these fringe ideas of abolition to the mainstream discourse. Cabán has stated her support for the No New Jails movement, and her election would give us a key elected official to work with as we continue to push for community solutions to closing Rikers (rather than simply moving the incarcerated elsewhere). Cabán’s strong stance against prosecuting sex work is a good fit with the policies promoted by recently elected NYC-DSA State Senator Julia Salazar. Cabán’s unprecedented stance against criminalizing poverty through welfare “fraud” crimes is a timely position that can use media attention on the Jazmine Headley case to promote prison-abolitionist ideas. All of these, among Cabán’s many other radical positions, would significantly decrease harm to Black and Latinx people, a group that DSA has too often neglected in our campaigns and demands.

Jazmine Headley’s recent testimony to the New York City Council about her experience being arrested while trying to navigate the cumbersome welfare system speaks to my last argument for endorsing Cabán: “It’s not just the fact that I was arrested,” she said, “It was the harsh way that I was treated by people who are supposed to help me.” As democratic socialists, we want a government by and for the people, not a government that arrests working class Black women for the “crime” of trying to survive, as DA Brown did over and over. As a FDCPA* litigator, I have seen landlords look at civil penalties as merely a cost of doing business, and consequently not changing their abusive behavior even after being sued over it dozens of times. The power of the state can help us combat the overwhelming power of corporations (which are the political force behind policies like welfare criminalization) and challenge the idea that governments exist to protect profits rather than people. Cabán’s pledge to prosecute tenant abuse and wage theft can hold corporations accountable in a way that civil law cannot.

Endorsing Cabán was the right decision because it will introduce prison abolition through action and not just words to the public.  Cabán is now collecting petition signatures to get on the ballot - it is imperative for all of us to join her campaign to put our prison abolition values into action, to keep working class people and people of color out of prison, to wipe the smirks off the faces of unrepentant predatory bosses and landlords, and to challenge the stranglehold that corporations have over governmental power.

*FDCPA: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act