The fascinating experience captured in “Philly DA”
In May, Larry Krasner, a progressive district attorney for Philadelphia, fended off a main challenge from Carlos Vega, a moderate Democrat. Since Philadelphia is a Democratic stronghold, Krasner is a shoo-in to win re-election in November. The primary was seen as a referendum on Krasner’s unorthodox approach to prosecution, which begins with the belief that shrinking the footprint of the criminal justice system, rather than expanding it, will make Philadelphians safer. Since coming to power in 2017, Kranser has had no shortage of enemies among those who see his position as incompatible with the role of prosecutor. Perhaps his most ardent critic is John McNesby, who heads the Philadelphia Police Union. McNesby, host of Back the Blue rallies, is known for calling a group of Black Lives Matter activists a “pack of rabid animals” and for accepting an invitation to Trump White House, where he spoke out against the threat Krasner and other progressive – or, he says, conciliatory – prosecutors pose to law and order.
Krasner couldn’t make a more perfect target for people like McNesby and the Fraternal Order of Police. He is the paragon of an idealist, a longtime defense lawyer who has made his career defending victims of police brutality and protesters with groups like MAKE SIENNES and Black Lives Matter. He wore a ponytail until he was forty, and he sued the police on behalf of his clients over seventy-five times. Critics of Krasner are not wrong in saying that his policies are at odds with the mission of an office known to incarcerate large numbers of people for long periods of time. But, after thirty years of continuing to “beat [his] head against the outside of the DA’s office, ”Krasner, joining a wave of like-minded lawyers across the country, decided to try something very different and to become the DA, to try to eat away at the system from the inside out.
It was a dramatic choice, and when Krasner won, Philadelphia instantly became a laboratory for the idea that mass incarceration could be reduced by the right chief prosecutor. Fortunately, a team of filmmakers had the foreknowledge of documenting the experience from the start. The result is “Philly DA,” a captivating eight-part series from PBS Independent Lens, now airing on Topic, which follows Krasner through his early years in office as he attempts to reduce the number of Philadelphians behind them. bars and reform discriminatory practices. as a cash deposit. The tension between Krasner’s ideals and the realities of his office resonates throughout the series, which explores the deep significance of the criminal justice system in the lives of Philadelphians.
The show begins triumphantly, with Krasner’s unlikely victory in 2017, and his immediate desire to end the prosecution for sex work and minor possession of marijuana. For anyone who has observed or participated in the reform implementation process through the typical channels, these first scenes are enticing; for a moment, one has the impression that the old debate between changing the system from the outside or from the inside has settled in favor of the latter. But the triumphalism doesn’t last, and it doesn’t take long before the pace of change slows down far below what Krasner’s team, let alone their militant collaborators on the outside, are comfortable with.
Krasner, with his frank, pragmatic rhetoric and indifference to tradition, is easy to idealize. In the first episodes of the series, it feels like the creators – Yoni Brook, Ted Passon, and Nicole Salazar – are gearing up to do just that. There is an end-of-story vibe in scenes like Krasner’s election victory. “It’s a revolution! someone from his team exclaims. Soaring music plays as he takes the stage, smiling at an adoring crowd chanting “Larry!” Larry! As they wipe their eyes.
But, as the series progresses, it evolves beyond hagiography, developing a serious critique of a man as arrogant as he is admirable. In a newsworthy scene, Krasner shows up at a community meeting in the Kensington neighborhood, a regional epicenter of the opioid crisis. He comes at the behest of City Councilor Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who loves “Larry” but wants him to try more to explain his philosophy to his constituents and allay their fears that he will make the city less safe. Instead, Krasner is armed with “data” meant to defend his own record, apparently expecting a document filled with statistics to address the grievances of Philadelphians overwhelmed by drug trafficking on their doorstep. Krasner is not wrong to stress the importance of facts, but his reluctance to come up with a narrative in which those facts would be convincing to anyone who is not already on his side is not just bad policy – it is is a missed opportunity to build the kind of trust and understanding that would enable long-term cultural change.
As Quiñones-Sánchez puts it on the show, “Larry’s refusal to be in retail politics is part of who he is, and that’s going to make him incredibly successful or not.” Perhaps a member of Krasner’s team anticipated the potential political cost of this aspect of Krasner’s personality, which might help explain why they allowed a film crew to enter their office: They might have appreciated the opportunity to explain Krasner to the public and take some control over his political narrative. Or at least that’s an explanation that crossed my mind as I tried to figure out why they had accepted something so risky. Krasner reportedly told the trio behind the show that he wanted to “demystify” the DA’s office. Whatever the reasoning, Krasner and his team clearly made the bet in the hope of his tenure that things would go fundamentally well and that documenting this for the public would do more to bolster Krasner’s image than to harm him.
As I watched, the question of why “Philly DA” has lost its importance in relation to everything that happened in the process of creating the series, much of which has little to do with it. see with Krasner. The most memorable stories are those involving Philadelphians whose lives have been altered by the policies discussed in the abstract within the DA’s office. A common thread follows LaTonya Myers, who spent nine months in jail because she couldn’t pay bail, and who now works as an activist trying to prevent this from happening to others. Listening to him recount his experiences and express his vision for a fairer future is a reminder that the most valuable and effective work is often done by people with personal experience of the criminal justice system.
In the DA’s office, the camera is almost always rotating, and this look inside an institution that is not famous for its transparency is fascinating. Internal struggles abound and can at times make “Philly DA” sound more like a political thriller than a documentary. (Rather than White House-obsessed American shows like “House of Cards” or “The West Wing”, “Philly DA” reminded me of a pair of serious French series, “Marseille” and “Baron Noir,” which revel in the mud and chaos of city governance.) On a snowy day in January 2018, shortly after Krasner arrived at the DA’s office, he fired thirty-one prosecutors, believing he would be incapable to implement his radical vision if he faced constant resistance from the old guard. One of the first plots follows Lisa Harvey, one of the survivors of the so-called Snow Day massacre. Harvey is a veteran of the Mining Department, and Krasner and her team obviously kept her because they believed her capable of adjusting and getting on board. For a few episodes, you watch her arguing with members of the new administration over fundamental philosophical differences over the purpose of their office, until it becomes painfully clear that things aren’t going to work out.
The embarrassment of knowing that the cast of “Philly DA” is made up of real, ordinary people, rather than fictional characters, can sometimes make it difficult to watch, as they bicker, disappoint and embarrass each other, as we all are. . inclined to do in our workplaces. But it’s even harder to look away, because watching Krasner and his team do what they’re trying to do is too convincing no matter how messy, frustrating, and painful things get. In this sense, the show is an argument for trying things out, an argument that is likely to be persuasive for many well-meaning progressives, who can often feel stuck between two bad options: participating in faulty and harmful institutions for the purpose. to push them in the right direction or boycott them in the hope of hastening their demise. Krasner made a choice, but that choice causes discomfort, and it’s not always clear that it was the right one. I wondered if he could feel as confident as he looks when he evangelizes others, as when he advises a room full of people: “When the movement has a chance to go to inside, go ahead. “