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“I grew up in the justice system. I grew up seeing a lot of my friends and family destroyed by crime, violence, drugs,” he told me over the phone in late April.
“I know from personal and professional experience what will work to make us safer and better overall.”
On June 9, Wise Smith, an attorney with seven years’ experience as a prosecutor and a background in management and policy, will be on the ballot for district attorney of Fulton County, which Atlanta straddles. He is the first progressive candidate in recent memory to run for the office. His campaign represents the local touchdown of a nationwide movement that has seen progressive prosecutors winning elections on promises to steer their communities away from mass incarceration and the criminalization of people of color.
But Wise-Smith faces an unprecedented hurdle. Georgia’s stay-at-home orders had been in effect for about three weeks when we spoke, and I was wondering how the shutdown would affect his campaign.
Local elections suffer from low voter awareness in the best of times. During the pandemic, they’ve receded even farther from public consciousness.
How do you get the word out when you can’t knock on doors and shake hands? Smith’s Instagram page is full of selfies, his black beard and glasses framing a surgical mask as he plants campaign signs all over town. Some feature supporters expressing approval from a distance. He’s participated in Zoom candidate forums and livestreamed discussions with local hip hop artists, nonprofit leaders, and elected officials.
The stakes of the Fulton DA race are high. “It’s about the future of criminal justice in Atlanta,” Jonathan Rapping, president of Gideon’s Promise, a public defender organization, said.
“Atlanta suffers from all of the symptoms of mass incarceration. If you walk into a courtroom in Fulton County Superior Court, you almost wouldn’t know there are white people breaking the law in Atlanta. Everyone being sent to jail is poor. And that’s under Paul Howard’s tenure.”
Howard, the incumbent, took office in 1997, and has run unopposed in every election since 2004. He has maintained a tough-on-crime approach that has deepened racial disparities.
Perhaps the most egregious example is the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case. Howard charged 35 educators with racketeering and conspiracy for allegedly changing students’ answers on standardized tests: 34 were black; white teachers implicated in the initial investigation were never charged. For the first time in the nation, educators accused of cheating were slapped with charges that carry decades-long sentences.
Seven years and millions of dollars later, that case is still playing out, as seven educators appeal convictions in perhaps one of the biggest boondoggles Georgia’s criminal legal system has ever seen.
The third candidate in the DA race, Fani Willis, was a lead prosecutor on the cheating case, and her politics hew closely to Howard’s.
“Bullies,” Wise Smith said when we talked about his opponents and their role in the case. “RICO charges are for mobsters and gangsters, not teachers.”
“It still hits a nerve,” he said. “A lot of people felt that the justice system, and Paul Howard and Fani Willis specifically, abused their power. People who committed violent crimes didn’t get the treatment that those educators got.” A video he released on that theme is his most watched, with thousands of views across his social media channels.
Wise Smith is also committed to ending cash bail, a reform that officials across the country are increasingly embracing to try to level the playing field between poor people, who get stuck in jail awaiting trial, and wealthy people, who can buy their way out.
The County Jail and its annex have become chronically overcrowded, with deplorable conditions, prompting human rights groups to sue. Covid-19 has made the situation worse.
In early April, Southerners on New Ground staged a protest demanding a mass release. Women in the jail annex, they said, had described being on lockdown with eight people to a cell, with overflowing sinks and toilets, and no masks, hand sanitizer, or soap. In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the DA’s office said Howard recommend the release of more than 300 of the 2,600 people in Fulton County jail facilities.
Ultimately, Wise Smith said, this race is about the values behind the policies.
“Justice does not equal convictions,” is how he summed his up. “I want to create a system that cares more about people than conviction rates.”
That’s a major departure from the prevailing notion that a prosecutor’s job is to rack up guilty verdicts like home runs. With 2.3 million people locked up nationwide, the need for a different approach is plain.
Now, protests are rocking Atlanta, along with dozens of cities across the country, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It has been an outpouring of rage matched by police aggression. Alarmed by blazing police cars and smashed storefronts, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made an impassioned speech Friday night, imploring protesters to go home. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote,” she said.
While national media declared Bottoms a rising star and possible Democratic vice presidential nominee, many of her constituents were angered by a directive that seemed to downplay the suffering underlying the protests. Those will take more than an election to rectify. For years, the over-policing of black communities in Atlanta has gone hand-in-hand with gentrification, which Bottoms has championed since her days on the city council. In the last mayoral election, many people affected by poverty and displacement rallied for a progressive candidate only to end up with two front-runners propelled by corporate backers. When it comes to the Fulton DA, voters haven’t had a real choice for 16 years.
Protesters are rejecting the false dichotomy Bottoms presented between protesting and voting. On social media, young people in Atlanta are expressing their intentions to do both.
When we caught up earlier this week, Wise Smith said he hopes people who are galvanized in this moment will go further.
“These riots are a response to generations of frustration and anger built up. I echo the frustrations of people being told to just go vote. I’m taking it a step beyond and actually running for office, and I encourage other people to do the same. If we are frustrated with the only option that we have had, let’s be that next option.”
Something Is Happening Here is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, offering scenes from a pandemic—a series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends. Edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, it will appear weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.