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How Tiffany Cabán Would Reshape The Criminal Justice System

As Queens' district attorney, she would work to dismantle the devastating power of her office.

Scott Heins/Getty

I first met Tiffany Cabán just before Valentine’s Day, in a crowded cafe not far from the downtown Manhattan court where she was still working cases as a public defender. Two weeks before, she had announced her campaign to become the next district attorney in Queens. Last night, she beat the odds, declaring victory in a primary race that was, from the start, an indictment of the ways in which the criminal justice system operates in the borough, if not the city, and now, the nation. Should the current vote counts hold in her favor, she will become the Democratic nominee, nearly ensuring her a win in November.

Tiffany Cabán is 31, queer, Latinx, and already being seen as a rising star in the new cadre of women coming to power. As district attorney, she will be the most powerful elected official in Queens, presiding over more than 2 million people, a population larger than that of 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Since her victory speech Tuesday night at La Boom nightclub on Northern Boulevard, most assessments of her campaign have focused on her impressive grassroots operation. According to the journalist Daniel Medina, volunteers knocked between 55,000 and 70,000 doors in the last three days of the race, roughly six times the number Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did in the final stretch of her own campaign. Cabán was riding a wave of support from the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, along with grassroots groups in Queens like Make the Road and VOCAL-NY, and Ocasio-Cortez herself, who endorsed her in May. But Cabán owes her victory more to her unique approach to criminal justice reform, which set her apart from the candidate the Queens political machine had wanted and poured around $1 million into electing: Borough President Melinda Katz.

While Katz (along with all but one of the seven total candidates) wanted to be seen as a progressive reformer, Cabán sought the office in part to dismantle its devastating power. She called herself a “decarceral” prosecutor, and in February, told me she hoped to mitigate the harm the criminal legal system inflicts by listening to the people of Queens and taking her cues from them. “It’s about communities,” she said, speaking about her now well-known stance on decriminalizing sex work. “It’s about communities knowing themselves best.”

Cabán’s radical commitment to decarceration—which goes beyond reforms that are easier to sell to the public, such as releasing only those with nonviolent offenses on their records—sets her apart even from other newly elected “progressive prosecutors” across the country. It also owes to decades of work on the part of anti-racist and feminist groups like INCITE!, along with newer coalitions like Survived & Punished, which have long called for alternatives to policing and prosecution to keep communities safe. Of course, not all such abolitionist groups are lining up to install progressive prosecutors; they want to dismantle the system in its entirety. But they have, until recently, been almost alone in acting a counterweight to a feminism that sees the police and prosecutors as allies in women’s empowerment, a feminism that is focused on putting more of that punitive power in the hands of women.

That brand of feminism has often found a home in district attorneys’ offices. Linda Fairstein, for example, was a Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor heralded in the city as women’s champion against rape. In the 1989 Central Park jogger case, she helped send five black and Latinx teenagers from Harlem to prison for a rape someone else later confessed to. (She has been made infamous again after Ava DuVernay’s new series When They See Us premiered this month, an occasion she used to insist again she was right to prosecute Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise—this, long after their convictions were vacated in 2002.) In Fairstein’s telling, she was simply defending women and keeping them safe. This is also how she justified criminalizing sex workers. As the historian Anne Gray Fischer has noted in The Washington Post, at a New York State Bar Association hearing in the mid-’80s, Fairstein called women in the sex trade “the greatest victim of the crime” while also decrying sex work as “very un-feminist activity.” It’s a common carceral feminist approach: arrest women in order to protect them from themselves.

This is the mindset Cabán set out to tear down. Sex work became an issue in the Queens district attorney race, not only because Cabán said she would not prosecute sex workers for loitering and other offenses, or because the sex workers who supported her campaign made it an issue themselves, but because her detractors fashioned it into a useful moral cudgel, a way for tabloids to invoke New York’s bad old days with a feminist gloss. The Daily News came out against Cabán, condescending to voters for not having “really thought about what it might mean if Cabán puts an ‘All Sex Work Decriminalized Here, Effective Immediately’ sign on the Queensborough [sic] Bridge.” A news item the New York Post ran days before the election made the point plain: “Tiffany Cabán would turn Queens into a giant brothel, critics say.”

Katz leaned into that narrative. She was on the record saying she opposed prosecuting sex workers, yet spoke of them as “victims” and insisted it was necessary to arrest their customers in order to protect them. She also ran attack ads claiming that “Tiffany Cabán is dangerously wrong.” In one, a female narrator tells viewers that violence against women is on the rise in Queens. It’s true that reports of rapes in New York City are up, but as the mayor himself has pointed out, the spike is most likely due to the fact that “historic underreporting is finally being addressed” with more women willing to come forward thanks to the #MeToo movement. Nonetheless, Katz used the statistic to call her opponent “dangerous.” It was a Fairstein-ian move; Katz was portraying herself as a defender of women against a reckless challenger. Rape was the wedge she turned to in the closing days of the race, in an attempt to discredit Cabán. It didn’t work.

These failed ploys are the more important story of a new generation of women winning races like this one. Law-and-order feminists have long used the idea of professional white women’s safety and reputation against young women activists of color. Now, they are losing.

In her speech last night, Katz invoked safety again, this time of “our families.” At La Boom nightclub, Cabán spoke of family, too, “my Queens family I stand with tonight.” She acknowledged her coalition, “from formerly incarcerated folks to sex workers to undocumented immigrants.” The victory was theirs. And now they will be the ones to hold her to account.