Beware "Rising Crime" Rhetoric in Seattle PoliticsRoundup
tags: crime, urban history, Seattle
Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at UW Bothell and a coordinator of the Washington Prison History Project.
All politics may be local, but the policies and ideas surrounding them are not. The contest for Seattle city attorney pits abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy against former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor Ann Davison. The candidates have diametrically opposed perspectives on crime, the law and mass incarceration that have garnered both statewide and national media attention.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired a segment branding Thomas-Kennedy an “extremist who wants to dismantle the very office she’s seeking,” and two former Washington governors, Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke, endorsed Davison. Gregoire called Thomas-Kennedy “an anarchist … who doesn’t believe in our country.”
These strong denunciations are part of a national debate about the role of prosecutors. After decades of tough-on-crime policies that have given the United States routine police violence and the world’s largest prison population, reformist candidates in cities around the country have been swept into office on bold promises of change.
While these positions resonate with pluralities of voters, a vocal and well-funded opposition led by police unions, GOP megadonors and Democratic Party insiders persists. Raising a well-worn appeal for “law and order,” these conservative critics allege that disrupting the status quo produces crime. The evidence tells a different story.
As a scholar studying the history of mass incarceration and prison abolition, I have followed these races with great interest. For generations, the district attorney office has been a steppingstone. The office has played a fundamental role in local politics, while individuals within it have often used the job as a springboard to higher office. Local district attorneys have both shaped and responded to tough-on-crime policies, riding to office on waves of fear of crime and pursuing tougher punishments once there.
The strategy to elect progressive prosecutors is different. It takes as its constituency popular outrage at police violence, harsh criminal sentences and other forms of injustice. This outrage, it should be noted, has come from people who are themselves often survivors of crime and violence, and speak from experience about their frustrations with the status quo. And those who have pursued elected office seem genuinely interested in the job itself.
Much as conservative prosecutors have done for generations, these reform candidates recognize the enormous power of the office and have moved to transform it. Though each one of these candidates has been shaped by protests against the criminal legal system they desire to work within, the progressive reformers have channeled that energy into making the existing system more humane and reducing the reliance on punishment as a response to social problems. Claims of impending lawlessness notwithstanding, the attempt to elect reformers to these roles can be seen as a measure of homespun optimism. People have enough faith in their ideas, their neighbors and their cities to seek government office. They are trying to change the system from within.
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