Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Washington Post, December 28, 2021
When Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s liberal district attorney, was asked this month about the city’s crime surge that includes an unprecedented 550 homicides this year, he appeared to play it down. “We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness,” Krasner said. “We don’t have a crisis of crime. We don’t have a crisis of violence.”
Krasner, who is White, has been an ally of Black leaders pushing for changes to the criminal justice system, but Michael Nutter, a former Philadelphia mayor who is African American, erupted at Krasner, accusing him of dismissing the pain of Black residents who suffer from the violence while purporting to support them.
“It all goes back to supremacy, paternalism. ‘I’m woke. I’m paying attention. I spend a lot of time with Black people. Some of my best friends … ’ All that bulls—,” Nutter said in an interview. “And so you get a guy like Larry Krasner who is the great White hope and ‘I’m gonna ride in on a white horse with a white hat.’ ”
It was a jarring rebuke of one Democrat by another. But it also laid bare a broader turbulence within the party and the progressive movement, as those pushing a message of racial equity sometimes do so with a zeal or tone that fails to resonate with portions of the Black or Latino communities. The dynamic is even more fraught when those ideas are championed by White leaders.
The year 2021 in the City of Brotherly Love will always be marked by the shocking number of people whose lives came to an abrupt and violent end: an 18-year-old shot two weeks before his high school graduation, two men killed in a hail of gunfire at a July Fourth cookout, a pregnant woman gunned down as she unpacked presents from her baby shower.
On Wednesday, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) was carjacked at gunpoint in the city. She was unharmed, and five suspects have been taken into custody.
The Krasner-Nutter exchange is complex. Nutter — who was known as a blunt, tough-on-crime mayor — wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that if Krasner “actually cared about [Black and Latino communities], he’d understand that the homicide crisis is what is plaguing us the most.” Yet Krasner has twice won election in a city with a large African American population, and other Black leaders praise his approach, which includes such actions as reducing sentences, cutting prison time and treating drug use as a public health issue.
City Council member Jamie R. Gauthier, for example, said that Krasner “is an ally and a partner” and that his record on criminal justice cannot be erased by a few ill-chosen words. Gauthier, who represents communities that have been battered by homicides, said a return to policies defended by Nutter, a two-term mayor first elected in 2007, would only intensify the city’s problems.
“It is 100 percent accurate that I am a White man that has enjoyed some White privilege,” Krasner said. “But it wasn’t just skinny White vegan lefties who liked what I was saying. It wasn’t just well-educated White professionals. It was in many ways the kinds of clients I had represented for 30 years as a public defender, as a civil rights lawyer, as a criminal defense lawyer. It was those people who thought what I was saying resonates.”
Krasner’s controversial comments came after he was asked about a string of robberies and carjackings that have plagued the tourist-friendly Center City. Republicans quickly seized on his response, saying it shows that Democrats’ push to change policing indicates they are radicals who coddle criminals at the expense of their victims.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel penned an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer saying rhetoric like Krasner’s is “leading to distrust and unrest across the country.” The op-ed was titled: “Why aren’t Biden and the Democrats doing more to stop crime in big cities like Philly?”
Philadelphia is contending with twin aims: stemming the tide of killings and responding to calls for police reform that remain stuck in a bureaucratic morass or hampered by legal restrictions. Like communities across the country, Philadelphia was spurred to rethink policing by the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the killings of other African Americans by law enforcement.
Nutter argues that reform can coexist with the amplified police presence needed to combat crime. One of the best things city leaders can do for embattled Black communities, he said, is to rid them of criminals.
In the interview, he said that Krasner may have apologized but that he still holds an incorrect and dangerous worldview. He accused the district attorney of following the trend, positioning himself as a reformer with the aim of getting elected to a higher political office.
“I think he really just wants to tear the system down and tear it apart with seemingly no idea as to how to build it back up,” Nutter said. “Larry’s got that paternalistic mind-set of: ‘I’m going to take care of you and I’m going to right all the wrongs that have historically been going on.’ And there certainly are challenges in the law enforcement community, no question about it. But good people still want to be safe.”
Since being elected in 2017, Krasner has retooled the district attorney’s office, prioritizing prosecutions against unethical police officers and rebalancing a system he criticized as focusing more on punishment than reform. In 2019, the jail population declined by 40 percent, to its lowest level since 1985. His office has decreased the amount of time people spend in prison or on parole, particularly for drug offenses and property crimes. Krasner’s office also handled 98 percent of juvenile arrests in juvenile court, rather than treating the defendants as adults.