'Price has made her sharp turn away from prosecuting criminal offenders when arrows on crime graphs are making a sharp turn towards the sky' (Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

December 22, 2023   8 mins

The standard TV image of a district attorney — or, prosecuting attorney — in the US is of a tough government lawyer passionate about putting bad guys behind bars. Or maybe the “DA” is a cynical, striving politician willing to bend or break the law to get a high-profile conviction on a guy who isn’t bad at all. Either way, DAs on TV like to finish the process that begins with the police arresting someone by getting a conviction, setting bars between society and a guy, usually but not always bad. The reality is very different in the smaller details, but fairly similar in the larger ones. Reality has far fewer dramatic trials than TV, for example, and much more plea-bargaining, but on the main thing — prosecutors tending to prosecute people — TV and reality are in rough agreement.

Except where I live. Where I live, in Alameda County, California, the DA is Pamela Price, who says she sees herself as “minister of justice”, not “prosecutor”. Fair enough. America’s DAs could maybe exhibit less single-minded focus on winning convictions (and blocking bad convictions from being overturned), and more interest in simple justice. But Price has made her sharp turn away from prosecuting criminal offenders when crime is making a sharp turn upwards, especially in the county’s largest city, Oakland. For this reason, local groups are working to force a “recall” election, hopeful that crime-weary Oaklanders will vote her out.

This recall threat may have been why she staged a public event called “Know Your District Attorney” in late November. If so, how she staged this is extremely interesting. You’d think a DA under pressure for being soft on crime would make some gesture in the other direction, reassure her constituents that she does care about rising crime and its growing population of victims. Perhaps she’d have a high-ranking police officer on stage with her, a handful of crime victims supporting her as she empathises with them, an American flag somewhere in the background, because doesn’t everyone respect the flag, deep down?

But Price had no police officer enhancing her aura of toughness, nor victims on stage with her. Crime victims were in the building, but they were in the audience, and frowning. Two of them, whom Price made a point of ignoring, wore hoodies bearing an iron-on picture of a young relative who’d been murdered. Nor was there an American flag anywhere visible, which is notable, as American police and prosecutors traditionally have a flag in the frame when they face the public. Instead, as a photographer named Thomas Hawk documented on X: “The event started out with a cultural dance presentation and then a prayer to our ancestors where for some reason a Poinsettia plant was watered in front of the crowd while we bowed our heads in prayer.” Following this, according to Hawk: “We got a panel lecture from some of the non-profits advocating for her brand of progressiveness while complaining about more moderate district attorney’s [sic] in the past.”

This latter detail calls to mind the Oakland teacher’s strike I wrote about last June, when, in a high-stakes political moment, the teachers’ union’s progressive leadership pressed a seemingly impolitic slate of extreme demands having little to do with teacher pay or working conditions. This posture sent a revealing mix of signals into the political environment — close affinity with other progressive organisations and a sort of bold indifference toward school parents, traditionally a key constituency. Like the radical leaders of the teachers’ union, Pamela Price is responding to a moment of political challenge not by looking to the broader electorate for support but by turning to the activist NGOs that sit with her on the ideological fringe.

These cases are symptoms of a political phenomenon that my fellow Californian Matthew Crawford calls the “Party State”, which he describes in a pair of typically trenchant essays from last August. California is a Party State in that it is so dominated by the Democratic Party that political actors worry less about the mass of voters, who will vote Democratic even if they’re ideologically moderate themselves, and more about nodes of influence within the Democratic Party. These tend to be highly organised and ideologically extreme NGOs, issue groups that also exert a mimetic influence on each other that makes them both more similar and more radical. This logic is doubly powerful in those parts of the state — such as Alameda County — where Democratic dominance is even more lopsided and the activist NGOs even more extreme. If officials in a city like Oakland can seem strangely indifferent towards voters, in other words, that’s because they are. Their most valued constituents aren’t voters. They’re well-organised ideologues who staff and lead activist organisations, whose most valued constituents, in turn, are each other, the bunch of them locked in a bidding war of moral purity.

The Party State is a powerful concept. It helps explain why not just conservative but moderate and merely liberal Californians sometimes feel like they’re governed by a tuned-out aristocracy of lunatics. It’s no small thing to gain some insight into such a predicament, but I’d like to examine another aspect of the theatrics of the Pamela Price event — the odd ceremony by which it was baptised, via a a potted pointsettia, from a plastic bottle.

This sort of ad hoc ceremony has become a staple of political theatre in progressive circles in North America. In less official or governmental modes it has the familiar character of the “privilege check”, people securing their authority to work or speak on sensitive matters through an appearance of grovelling. You’re only worthy of having opinions about marginalised communities if you proclaim that you’re not worthy of having opinions about marginalised communities, because of your privilege. After that, you can have opinions (but only some opinions). Likewise, you’re not worthy of living in a house or having a college or running a fancy boutique on land where native tribes once lived unless you post a sign or put some text on a website announcing this fact of pre-colonial history. This is the increasingly popular “land acknowledgment”, which imbues the privilege check with spiritual meaning through the conjuring of other people’s ancestors.

But, as the Pamela Price event shows, this progressive spiritualism shows up in governmental settings as well, and when it does it takes on political meaning that is, in fact, profound and consequential. When Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao was sworn into office in early 2023, this civic event began with an elaborate quasi-indigenous dance ceremony — conducted in Spanish — and of course a land acknowledgement. Such gestures serve the political convenience of progressive officials while conveying a novel message about the broader legitimacy of the authority they’re elected to wield.

Thao has a job that traditionally involves supporting the police in the sometimes violent and controversial conduct of their jobs. Price’s office requires her to use the testimony and evidence police officers provide her to send people to prison for committing felonies. Unavoidably, then, Price and Thao are implicated in some ugly and troubling things. Arrests involving bodily force, even when both the arrest and the force are obviously justified, are un-nerving to see. A citizen being killed by police fire, even a violent citizen holding a gun and threatening others, is a shocking event. Owing in part to the violence of American society, in part to the insular and sometimes lawless culture of American police departments, in part to questionable practices being official procedure throughout American law enforcement, American police forces bear some pretty bad reputations for some pretty good reasons. And the local jails to which DAs ask judges to remand criminal suspects, and the prisons to which they work to send criminal defendants, are typically hideous places. For these reasons, the moral and political legitimacy of the entire apparatus of public safety in America is always unresolved, and, in progressive cities with large black populations, it generally rests on a knife’s edge.

But all DAs and mayors in American cities with volatile racial politics and serious crime face this challenge. They usually handle it by standing up after an incident of police misconduct or a controversial police shooting, often with the Chief of Police at their side and an American flag somewhere in the frame, and conceding that improving police conduct is an ongoing project while also insisting that most cops are good cops and the work they do is indispensable. But the movement Oakland’s Mayor and DA emerged from is deeply rooted in the anti-police protests of the last decade, in which police reform has been largely displaced as an organising focus by police defunding and abolition. This movement has had to invent an entirely new set of crime-fighting methods — often based on the assumption that police cause crime and that social workers, therapists, and other unarmed helpers can do a better job of preventing it. It wants nothing to do with police and policing, in other words, except to agitate against them.

And yet sometimes activists from this movement get elected as mayors and DAs of cities that have not yet conquered crime by defunding and abolishing their police departments. The police are all they have for tackling crime, and crime — especially the wild and brazen daylight crime Oakland has experienced over the last year — is one area where progressive leaders must pay almost as much attention to unhappy voters as they do to progressive NGOs. They have to support the arrest and imprisonment of some people at least, sometimes, but in doing so they are tainted by association with institutions they made their political names by execrating. To remove this taint they enact ceremonies from traditions, real or invented, originating far outside the national traditions to which policing belongs. By publicly blessing themselves with the holy practices of America’s historic victims, they create a hygienic distance between themselves and the dirty institutions of American order they were elected to lead.

They’re also advancing a new mythos, an alternative official story of the American state and American nationhood. And this, potentially, is a big deal. As Benedict Anderson portrays them in Imagined Communities, his magnificent study of nationalism, national stories typically reflect and impose an aggressive presentism. In them the basic legitimacy of the nation-state in its present form is taken as unquestionable, and the history of massive violence and expropriation underlying that form is treated with a sort of useful incoherence — which Anderson calls “memory and forgetting”. The historical parts and constituent groups of a given nation, whose defining encounter may have been conquest or civil war or ethnic cleansing, are remembered in national myth as primordially bound, their bloody encounter the playing out of some deeper, indeed fraternal, unity.

Consider Anderson’s treatment of the “old Norman predator” whom British children learn to call “William the Conqueror”. Hearing this name an impertinent child might ask, “Conqueror of what?” The obvious historical answer is “Conqueror of the English”, but that would put William, whose people stuck around and became an important part of the English nation, in the company of enemies such as Napoleon and Hitler, which won’t do. “Hence”, Anderson writes, “’the Conqueror’ operates as [a] kind of ellipses
 to remind one of something which it is immediately obligatory to forget”. The mythic result of this mix of memory and forgetting is that “Norman William and Saxon Harold
 meet on the battlefield of Hastings, if not as dancing partners, at least as brothers”.

The American national myth reflects an even more vigorous effort of memory and forgetting, in which America’s vicious Civil War was a “war of brothers”; in which the enslavement of Africans serves as mere prelude to their emancipation into civic brotherhood; and in which indigenous peoples America called “Indians” as it took over their continent are honoured as primordial brothers of the land, fearsome role models for its greatest frontiersmen, and thus worthy of having countless sports teams named after them. Such national stories are obviously ridiculous in their substance, but the fact that they persist despite this merely highlights the gravity of their purpose. Given the feared alternative — in which the fault lines erased in the myth are redrawn, the old hatreds refreshed into new ones, the old violence given new life — tellers and hearers of national stories have adapted themselves to their incoherence, committed themselves to forgetting as they remember. The feared alternative is quite bad enough, and the nation and state in their present workings are just good enough, to justify this strange commitment.

The new generation of governing progressives, and the curators of the new progressive mythos influential in American media and education, are fixing to test these assumptions. They can’t abide the unifying stories of America not just because they’re incoherent and historically dubious but because they’re unifying. The present regime they help justify should not in fact be justified. It is, after all, maintained in its semblance of public order by the police. And the only thing one should do with the police is work to abolish them, and, should one come in contact with their impurities in the course of one’s public duties, use certain prescribed rituals to remove the taint. As a way to reassure one’s progressive friends in the Party State, this effort of political storytelling and moral hygiene should work pretty well. How it works as a way to govern violent cities is different question.

Matt Feeney is an writer based in California and the author of Little Platoons: A defense of family in a competitive age