District Attorneys Now A Battleground For Progressives This Election

Anoa Changa talks about Rachael Rollins unprecedented run for DA in Boston, as a Black woman and a progressive. Progressives are running for local office as never before

District Attorneys Now A Battleground For Progressives This Election

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, great to have you with us. I’m Marc Steiner.

November 6 may prove to be one of the most pivotal elections in U.S. history. Many are focusing on Congress and the pitch battles for seats will determine who will have the majority in both the U.S. Senate and in the House of Representatives. Races for governor around the country could determine how congressional districts are defined until the year 2030. So, we are in the midst of a crucial political election. The races down ballot are equally as important, if not more important, to some people. Around the country, races for state assemblies and district attorneys we’ve been covering are battlegrounds between progressives and conservatives as well as between progressive and establishment Democrats.

This could decide the future direction politically for our country as well as power inside of local governments. The races for district attorney in communities as diverse as Ferguson, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Boston, places and California could transform the criminal justice system, build movements of the poor and disenfranchised and put an end to policing that incarcerates too many brown and black people in our country. One such race is taking place in Boston, Massachusetts, or more suspiciously, Suffolk County where progressive Rachel Rollins won the Democratic primary.

In a moment we’re talking with an Anoa Changa, host of The Way With Anoa, talking about this race that’s taking place now in Boston. Anoa, welcome back. Great to have you with us here on The Real News.

ANOA CHANGA: Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: So, let’s start in Boston and we’ll work our way down the coast to Georgia where you are. But let’s begin with this race in Boston. What this win meant for Rachel Rollins in this primary, who she’s facing and what’s being set up here.

ANOA CHANGA: So, we’ve already been seeing this really amazing wave of progressive DAs really taking on long term incumbents and fundamentally shifting the idea of what does it mean to have a prosecutor, particularly in some of these larger areas. We see, most notably, Larry Krasner in Philly. We’ve seen, this summer, Wesley Bell take on Bob McCulloch, who infamously botched the Michael Brown murder trial, as well as has harassed St. Louis and Ferguson area protesters. We’ve seen Kim Foxx in Chicago. While that movement wasn’t exactly in electing Kim Foxx, the campaign definitely was pivotal in terms of having accountability built into that office.

And so, what we’re seeing now is Rachel Rollins is running in Suffolk County, which includes Boston. She won in a pretty competitive field of Democrats in the primary, and now she’s up against an independent who’s definitely more conservative leaning, is backed by the police. And she’s having to really fight to explain why the reforms she is trying to bring to the system are necessary, particularly when you’re looking at the rate of issues of mass incarceration, not just across the country, but specifically in Suffolk County and in Boston, as well as this is another area that has over-criminalization, basically poverty. We have a lot of crimes and poverty that are overly criminalized, that is said to help people use wraparound support and services.

And these are some of the things that she’s looking at doing through the office of the prosecutor, as well as not prosecuting for certain low level offenses like minor drug possession, et cetera. And there are some people who are just like, “You’re crazy, you’re going to create more crime.” And we literally have seen the opposite, right? We know with the End Cash Bail movement that we have people who are in jail literally because they cannot afford to post bail and not be there. So, when we’re looking at Wesley and Larry Krasner and these other progressives who won their elections, and now we’re turning our attention to Boston, which is supposed to be this liberal Democratic bastion.

The fact that we have such a strong candidate, particularly in this era of women candidates, Women of Color, Black Women being so successful at the ballot it’s fascinating to watch Rachel have this uphill climb now in a Democratic liberal bastion against this independent that’s backed by the police.

MARC STEINER: And I mean, very specifically, one of the things I was reading about Suffolk County and the area around Boston is that even though it’s still a majority white community, white area, that the numbers of black and brown people incarcerated and arrested in those communities are even higher than what takes place in the rest of the country. It’s pretty amazing. They often look at Boston as the most northern Southern city in many strange ways. So how does this play out?

ANOA CHANGA: From criminal justice, to education, to housing, it’s a whole bunch of stuff. It’s like down south but up north.

MARC STEINER: We might be doing better in Atlanta than in Boston.

ANOA CHANGA: We might be.

MARC STEINER: So, how is that playing out in this race though? I mean, how is that setting up the contest in terms of how people are viewing Rachel Rollins and the critique she’s getting and how this sets up the debate, what you’re actually seeing in that race?

ANOA CHANGA: I think what we see … not that, again, Larry Krasner is sort of like our go-to comparison for these types of DA candidates, not that Krasner have not seen or experienced challenge or issues or whatever, but for the most part, he was pretty welcomed overall. With Rachel, I think there has been a lot of pushback and there’s a lot of fear being built into rhetoric around what she plans to do by local media, by her opponent obviously, that she just wants to inflame and support criminals and she is going to increase more crime. I mean, they’re definitely trying to appeal … like the statistic you just shared about how there is a large over-incarceration, mass incarceration of black and brown individuals who live in that area as compared to their representation of the communities is a really stark reality.

What’s a sure fire way to get – no matter how well-meaning people say they are – to get white people scared and voting against someone is to claim that the black or the brown person is supporting terrorists or criminals right. I mean, we see this happening in several races across the country right now. We have candidates who are not doing that tough on crime schtick because we know, over the past several decades, that tough on crime has been code for locking up and over-prosecuting black and brown communities. So, when we’re looking at what’s happening, so I mean, her campaign is trying to do what campaigns are supposed to do; knocking on all the doors, talking to people, but also going toward mass education of why these policies that she’s trying to adopt are necessary.

I mean, when we’re looking at communities that have been ravaged not only by the crack epidemic in drugs in general, but then also now we’ve seen this more recent, newer wave of the opioid epidemic in the county as a whole. That’s one of the things I appreciate about the way Wesley Bell ran his campaign, was leveraging how we have these tools and resources that we can use in terms of drug courts and things of that nature, in terms of helping people who really need treatment of one form or another, and not necessarily incarceration. And so, Rachel is looking very similar when she’s talking about Boston, and it’s actually improving the quality of life for all of those who reside in the county.

There are some other issues coming out of the prior incumbent, because this is actually a race actually that is an open seat because the incumbent was not running for re-election. But there were some findings, some court cases, I think it was from a couple years ago, about a tainted lab with DNA. I mean, there were all sorts of issues with prosecuting cases in this county that disproportionately affected black and brown people. So, Rachel is really looking at how to have a more equitable and justice-seeking office that is balancing the needs of the relatives and victims, but also making sure that the accused are getting a fair shake in the system, as fair a shake as possible in this system, considering all the constraints that exist.

And I think that’s what we’re seeing with a lot of these progressive-minded DA candidates that are starting to run. And people are really building up a base with the community and trying to organize in a way that’s really different. One thing that I thought was very interesting that the candidates in the Dem primary did, and Rachel got the endorsement from these groups, there were groups that organized debates or forums with the DA candidates with incarcerated persons. Incarcerated persons got to ask questions of these people, like when they were running in the debate, and Rachel performed the best. Now, some might say, “Well, of course they want someone who will answer their questions well.”

But when you when you consider that she’s actually grappling with the realities and the conditions that are making our prisons overflow with people, it’s not that, “Oh, these are criminals trying to pick the person who is prosecuting them.” I mean, nobody ever says that about the police, right, the police are literally backing DAs all across the country because they will do what they want them to do. But we have someone’s who’s really looking at how to best serve the population as a whole and that requires listening to different segments of people. So, you have people who are in prison, who are locked up because of cash bail, because they literally can’t afford the bail, or because it’s a crime of poverty or something of that nature.

And you’re listening and really taking into consideration all these different conflicting issues and then trying to make policy on that basis. You see someone like a Rachel Rollins, like a Larry Krasner, like a Wesley Bell, who are trying to move Justice forward in a real meaningful way that doesn’t have the same gridlock as a state legislator, like a district attorney, a county prosecutor. In these races we also have Mark Haase running in Hennepin County, Minnesota. These individuals literally can make decisions with the stroke of a pen that our state legislatures would be locked in gridlock trying to figure out.

ANOA CHANGA: Two very quick questions I want to get to before we end. One has to do with the progressive candidates running for DA, which is actually a relatively new phenomenon in American politics, to have people with this mindset that want to see ending cash bail, not arresting people for drug use in the community and these small misdemeanors, urinating in alleys, whatever, not putting people in jail and trying to find ways to adjudicate issues other than prison. But that also means it sets them up on a direct collision course with law enforcement in those communities when they are the district attorney if they win these races.

And we’re broadcasting from Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby won. She’s in a constant conflict with the police saying she’s not tough enough even though she won the last primary. And so, the question is, what do you think is setting up in terms of a broader political movement in this country when you have races like this taking off?

ANOA CHANGA: I think in some ways it’s setting up maybe one, a real requirement of independence and autonomy in these seats that we haven’t really seen, because I mean they work really closely with police. But when you have police officers, as what happened in some of the races out in California in the primaries – or they didn’t have primaries, it was just a one and done race. So, you had Genevieve who ran out in San Diego County, when you have people who are funded by police officers or police unions because they want that person in, even though they have this horrible record, it really serves as a stark contrast to what is needed to uphold and pursue justice.

And I really think, when we look at the proliferation of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, as well as the Movement for Black Lives and other organizing work that has happened over the last several years, we can advocate from the outside all we want to. But until we actually can get people in these direct decision making positions, it’s a both and. It’s not that advocating from the outside didn’t work, so we go elect people. You do both because we still need to hold folks accountable once they’re elected to office. So, I think what we’re going to see is we’re going to see more of this people building and organizing with committees to run, and committees having more leverage or understanding of how to hold folks accountable.

And I think police officers are really about their jobs, their basic job is allegedly serving and protecting. They should be on board with this because ultimately, they just want the communities to be safe. But we also know there’s other issues of funding and machinations that go on with that too. So, I think that’s where we’re going. We see a movement that sprang up around Larry Krasner, the movement that ultimately led to Kim Foxx being elected in Chicago, and it’ll be interesting to see how that even plays into the mayoral elections happening in February in Chicago. But also, what we’ve seen happen in Ferguson, groups like Color Change and Shaun King’s Real Justice PAC.

I work with Democracy for America and we’ve begun endorsing DA candidates and things like that yet, so we endorse down the ballot too. And there really is a real motivation. There is actually even a group that is working with people to run for sheriff to try and draft more progressive-minded sheriffs, because people are really looking at these decision making –

MARC STEINER: On the local level.

ANOA CHANGA: Yeah, at the local level. Because we’ve seceded too much ground for too long to Republicans are conservatives by just writing off positions. So, people are really looking at the change that we need to make, and these are like really immediate, impactful ways we can do something without worrying about struggling at the federal level with Congress or here at the local level, at the state level with your state legislature. These are immediate decision makers.

MARC STEINER: So, very quickly here, because we’re almost out of time. But there’s another major issue in these races and in her race, specifically Rachel Rollins’ race and Genevieve Jones’ and others around the country, which is this rise in black candidates running as progressives, many of them women, and running in races in not predominately black communities. This is another sea change that I find really interesting to watch and seeing how it’s bubbling up and actually taking hold. And folks like Rachel Rollins and Genevieve Jones-Wright and Stacey Abrams running for governor in your home state of Georgia could actually win.

ANOA CHANGA: Oh yeah, absolutely. The big thing with Genevieve Jones-Wright, she’s an amazing candidate, got to meet her in June. But the big thing with her race was, like I was talking about, was having like all this police backed money that flew into their race to handpick the DA. And had they had a little more time, a little more organizing – and I’m pretty sure whatever she does next is going to be phenomenal and she’s going to win and do all the things. But we’re seeing the same thing, like you’re saying. I think what it is is we have this … particularly after Black Women for so long have been at the vanguard of all these different movement spaces and we just watched this nation, regardless of what people think about how the election went down, elect Donald Trump, the most unqualified of unqualified people.

And oftentimes, candidates of color in particular and other candidates have had this experience too, they get told, “Oh, it’s not your turn,” or “You’re not electable for these reasons” or “People will never vote for you.” People just voted for that. So clearly, if you give people something to vote for … I mean, voters can’t be that picky if they actually elected Trump. So, what I’m really excited about seeing, and I think about my own daughter and other young women that I know, they’re just like, “It doesn’t matter what other people are saying, it’s possible for us, we’re not letting other people set our boundaries for us anymore.

Also, in Boston in that same area is Ayanna Pressley who was basically told that she needed to just sit down and not run for Congress, and she won her primary. So, we’re seeing these women stand up, predominately women, not all, we’re seeing people stand up and say, “You know what, I’m going to do this because I have good ideas and I’m going to do it for the block and for the people and we’re going to move this forward because this is what’s necessary in this time.” It’s not any more of the hand wringing trying to get the Romney Republicans to come caucus with us so we can overturn Trump. It’s really building with communities. And I really appreciate what Stacey Abrams is doing here in Georgia, despite all the dumbness from the Republicans, as well as what other candidates are doing across the country to engage voters who have really actually been left behind by both parties and the system itself.

MARC STEINER: We’re sitting here talking with Anoa Changa who is host of The Way With Anoa. As always, a pleasure to talk with her because she’s got such a grasp on these issues and I’ve always enjoyed our conversations. And we’re here on The Real News Network. And if you just stay tuned for just a minute, I want to come right back with Anoa just to talk for five minutes and less about – get an update on the Georgia election, which we meant to do today. So, Anoa, good to have you with us but don’t go away.

And I’m Marc Steiner here with The Real News Network. Stay with us, we’re coming right back.