Philly D.A. Larry Krasner Says He’s Ready to Charge Invading Federal Agents with Crimes

He sees a way out of our “drunken stumble” into fascism.

Hamilton Nolan July 22, 2020

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner reacts while being mentioned by Danielle Outlaw at a press conference announcing her as the new Police Commissioner on December 30, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

When uniden­ti­fi­able fed­er­al agents began snatch­ing pro­test­ers off the streets in Port­land, peo­ple got ner­vous. When Don­ald Trump said ear­li­er this week that he want­ed to roll out the same strat­e­gy to Chica­go, Philadel­phia, New York and oth­er cities, we got more ner­vous still. The elect­ed offi­cials in most of those cities urged the feds to stay away — and Philadel­phia dis­trict attor­ney Lar­ry Kras­ner took the extra step of issu­ing a state­ment threat­en­ing to pros­e­cute them, say­ing, Any­one, includ­ing fed­er­al law enforce­ment, who unlaw­ful­ly assaults and kid­naps peo­ple will face crim­i­nal charges from my office.”

"I will charge people, whether they’re police or not, who engage in what is effectively kidnapping and brutal assault."

Such brash obsti­na­cy was very much in char­ac­ter for Kras­ner, who spent his career as a left-wing defense lawyer before get­ting elect­ed D.A. in 2017 as a pro­gres­sive reformer on a plat­form of end­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion. (He sued the Philadel­phia police depart­ment at least 75 times before being elect­ed D.A.) Today, Kras­ner is one of the most out­spo­ken of the crop of pro­gres­sive dis­trict attor­neys elect­ed in major cities across the coun­try in the past few years.

We spoke to him about what he might do about rogue fed­er­al agents descend­ing on his city, and about our drunk­en stum­ble” into fascism.

Hamil­ton Nolan: Have you heard any­thing offi­cial­ly about fed­er­al troops com­ing to Philly, oth­er than Trump’s comments?

Lar­ry Kras­ner: No.

Nolan: Do you think it’s going to happen?

Kras­ner: As they say, some­times there is no there there. Is some­thing gonna hap­pen? Prob­a­bly. But what does that mean? He’s saber rat­tling about, he’s gonna send 150 fed­er­al law enforce­ment offi­cers to Chica­go. The police depart­ment in Chica­go is 12,000 peo­ple. So let us under­stand what we’re talk­ing about: He’s gonna take over a city with one per­cent of their every­day police pop­u­la­tion? So, what I do know is he will say absolute­ly any­thing, and he has absolute­ly no inter­est in accom­plish­ing any­thing useful.

Nolan: But of course, there’s still the issue of what the fed­er­al agents might do if they get there. For those of us who aren’t lawyers, what’s your under­stand­ing of the legal­i­ty of fed­er­al troops com­ing into cities and tak­ing peo­ple off the streets, like they’ve done in Portland?

Kras­ner: It appears to me — and I don’t have all the facts — but it appears to me there was ille­gal con­duct in Port­land. There was cer­tain­ly extreme­ly trou­bling con­duct. If you jump out of an unmarked van, and you’ve blacked out the plates, and you grab a civil­ian on the street, you bet­ter have prob­a­ble cause. It’s not at all appar­ent they did, although obvi­ous­ly I don’t know every sin­gle thing that they knew at the time. So that looked ille­gal. When you fire a dead­ly, life-threat­ing, non-lethal” round into a pro­test­er and frac­ture his skull, that would appear to be ille­gal. So, if you come to town, police or not, and you start kid­nap­ping and assault­ing peo­ple and caus­ing seri­ous bod­i­ly injury, with­out legal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, you get arrest­ed and you get charged. And I will charge peo­ple, whether they’re police or not, who engage in what is effec­tive­ly kid­nap­ping and bru­tal assault.

Nolan: This is still the­o­ret­i­cal in Philly, but not in Port­land, and per­haps not in Chica­go soon. In that sce­nario, when you think about charg­ing a fed­er­al agent, what would hap­pen, real­is­ti­cal­ly? Would you expect to be imme­di­ate­ly over­ruled somehow?

Kras­ner: The way it works is, the law does in fact apply to fed­er­al employ­ees includ­ing the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. I know he likes to pre­tend it doesn’t, but it does. So they actu­al­ly have to come to town and obey the law. If they do not obey the law then they can be arrest­ed, and they can be charged local­ly. Under [cer­tain] cir­cum­stances, after they are charged, down the road they can try to have the case heard in fed­er­al court. But it does not apply all the time, it only applies some of the time.

Nolan: The may­or put out a state­ment that was more or less in line with yours. But where does the Philadel­phia police depart­ment stand on this?

Kras­ner: It’s impor­tant to under­stand that in Philly, the bar­gain­ing unit of the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police is a bunch of Trump-lov­ing right-wing Repub­li­cans who are con­trolled by its retired mem­ber­ship. They recent­ly threw a par­ty for Mike Pence that was attend­ed by the Proud Boys. Okay? That’s where they are. On the oth­er hand, the police [depart­ment itself] is run by Danielle Out­law, who is our recent­ly appoint­ed African-Amer­i­can police com­mis­sion­er, who has made it pret­ty clear she is inter­est­ed in reform, and that she is not gonna go in the same direc­tion. We should dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the voice of the past — the FOP does not con­trol the behav­ior of the Philadel­phia police department.

Nolan: Would you have any con­cerns about what police offi­cers on the street would do in a sce­nario where city cops are being asked to enforce the law against fed­er­al agents? Or who they would lis­ten to?

Kras­ner: Yes and no. No because, if we have the evi­dence, we don’t need the assis­tance or par­tic­i­pa­tion of an indi­vid­ual offi­cer, and no because I believe the com­mis­sion­er wants to even­hand­ed­ly enforce the law. Yes, to the extent that the cul­ture still reflect­ed with­in the rank and file to some extent is a very ant-Black Lives Mat­ter, anti-protest, anti-free speech, pro-Trump cul­ture. Yes, to the extent that there are some peo­ple in that large orga­ni­za­tion who aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly going to want to enforce the law. Can­did­ly, it’s an issue that we’ve already faced [in var­i­ous inci­dents since the Black Lives Mat­ter protests began]. But the bot­tom line is, I’m cer­tain­ly hope­ful that the police offi­cers under­stand chain of com­mand and know what their duty is and will pro­tect civil­ians even against crimes com­mit­ted by fed­er­al law enforcement.

Nolan: Have you had any con­ver­sa­tions with your coun­ter­parts in oth­er cities about how to approach this, since it sounds like mul­ti­ple cities could be fac­ing this issue soon?

Kras­ner: Actu­al­ly a cou­ple of my pro­gres­sive D.A. bud­dies have texted today. Mar­i­lyn Mos­by [of Bal­ti­more] and Eric Gon­za­lez [of Brook­lyn]. We’re all chatting.

Nolan: You touched on fas­cism in your state­ment on this issue — where do you think we are as a coun­try in terms of the tip­toe­ing towards fascism?

Kras­ner: I’d call it more of a drunk­en stum­ble, actu­al­ly. We’re deal­ing with this per­son who is just so out of con­trol. He’s just so deranged. If it wasn’t so com­i­cal, I’d be more fright­ened. What do we say to this, oth­er than come on, Decem­ber 31?

Nolan: Is there any­thing reas­sur­ing that you can say to pro­test­ers and oth­er peo­ple who are ner­vous about the way this whole thing is progressing? 

Kras­ner: I can say Decem­ber 31 is com­ing. Don’t for­get to vote. I can say that I actu­al­ly believe that everyone’s great­est con­cern is not that Trump’s gonna win the elec­tion, because he won’t. They’re all con­cerned that he will try not to leave. I do not believe that the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary has a scrap of regard for this man. I think we’re gonna be okay.

This inter­view was light­ly edit­ed for length.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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