We must be against participation in the carceral system in any form

by Evan G (SBK)

By all accounts, Tiffany Cabán is an excellent public defender, an active DSA member, and a good candidate for Queen’s District Attorney (DA). Despite the arguments made below, I believe that now that NYC-DSA has endorsed her, it is best for the organization that Cabán wins. The argument made below is an argument against DSA endorsing any candidate for DA.

The police and the DA are inseparable institutions. The police arrest, and the DA prosecutes. Both are essential elements of the carceral state, which exists to maintain our unjust society. The U.S. carceral state was created after the Civil War to reinforce a racist unequal class society. It carries on this purpose by continuing to arrest and imprison black and brown people at disproportionately high rates.

Even if the carceral system were not thoroughly racist, Socialists should oppose participating in it. The police exist to maintain public order, enforce a state monopoly on violence, and maintain capitalist property relations. In other words, they enforce the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Within the legal system, DAs represent the interests of the police. They decide what charges to bring against a suspect, they recommend what bail to set, they pressure suspects to take deals and confess to crimes. They provide legal justifications for the repressive role of the police in society. In the simplest sense, the DA is essentially a police person with a law degree.

The argument in favor of endorsing a DA is that a “good” DA can reduce harm by, choosing not to enforce laws harshly, declining to prosecute, and not recommending punitive bail or sentences. But the case of Larry Krasner in Philadelphia shows that even a “good” DA’s job is to punish and enforce the law. They are structurally bound to play their part in the carceral state. A “good” DA will still necessarily do the job of a prosecutor, representing the interests of the police in court, and ruin people’s lives by sending them to prison. A “good” DA will still enforce bourgeois property relations, through enforcement of property laws. This dynamic is clearly demonstrated in the way that Larry Krasner has chose to fight the appeal of political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, despite Mumia’s worsening health. Under capitalism, there cannot be a “good” DA.

As socialists, we understand the horror of life under capitalism and sympathize with all who suffer under it. We also understand that the only way to end the horror is to transform society: to fundamentally alter its logic and end the dictatorship of capital. In DSA, we generally understand that despite its drawbacks, electoral and legislative action is part of a larger strategy to transform society. But electing a DA does not fit into this strategy for transformation because DAs have no power to legislate. DAs cannot change the laws that help define the structure of capitalist society, they can only choose how to enforce them in a limited way for a relatively short period of time. Once “good” DAs leave office, their successors can resume enforcing the law in all its harshness and inhumanity.

In fact, participating in a DA election could strengthen the status quo. By choosing to participate in the election of a DA, socialists give legitimacy to this fundamentally undemocratic office and signal support for the repressive work of the DA once in office. Endorsing a DA shows support for the idea that DAs can be good, if the right people are elected.  

But the police apparatus of the capitalist state is thoroughly rotten. It cannot be reformed. It must be totally torn down and replaced by a system that actually offers justice for all. There cannot be a good DA. Participating in the election of a DA makes us complicit in the operation of the carceral state.