How a Decarceral and Abolitionist Movement Helped Defeat the “Red Wave” in Pennsylvania

Photograph Source: Guillermo Romero from Pittsburgh – CC BY-SA 2.0

During post-election debriefs, political pundits, journalists, and analysts theorized and attempted to dissect why the midterms went “surprisingly” well for Democrats in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Simultaneously, countless organizers—including myself—gathered in a hotel room in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square to celebrate the fruits of our labor. Certainly the theories that these strategists espouse have merit. Women came out en masse to vote for reproductive rights and youth came out in record numbers. 

But there’s a glaring blindspot in all the media attention around the election results: the grassroots—the ground-force of working class, low income, Black, Brown, and historically disenfranchised people, who mobilized to push Pennsylvania Democrats past the winning line. 

In the weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania elections, the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat Mehmet Oz, was running millions of dollars of political ads in Philadelphia, accusing his opponent, John Fetterman—and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner—of releasing “dangerous murderers” back to the streets. Meanwhile, in the Black Bottom section of West Philadelphia and the Happy Hollow section of Germantown, a joint canvass by Straight Ahead, Free The Ballot: Incarcerated Voter Family Network, and Amistad Movement Power was knocking over 20,000 doors in Philadelphia.

Formerly incarcerated leaders like myself brought our stories of redemption to people’s doorsteps because all of us served over twenty years in prison for violent offenses, including murder. We know these streets and the people in our community; we were able to make personal connections with the people from these neighborhoods in a way that Oz’s racist, fear mongering ads couldn’t. Family members of the incarcerated were doing the same on separate canvases, talking with people about the pain of losing a loved one to mass incarceration.

We knew we didn’t have the money to compete with the Republicans ad campaign, so we invested in our ground game to make a difference—and it did.

We smashed the Republicans’ false, dehumanizing narratives stereotyping formerly incarcerated people by showing our faces and conversing with our neighbors. We pointed out that if Republicans genuinely wanted to help our communities, they would fund our communities, instead of over-policing, over-prosecuting, and over-incarcerating us. This message resonated.

On the 42nd block of Lancaster Avenue, I knocked on a door answered by a woman whose son is in prison. She shared the name of the prison. I had been incarcerated there too. We talked about the four-hour drive up to visit him, how my family had taken that same trip, and how she hopes one day her son comes home to get involved in the type of community work we’re doing. As we departed, she told me to be safe, and I told her and her son to stay strong. She held up the literature of Shapiro and Fetterman with a thumbs up. 

In addition to having our boots on the ground in the neighborhoods most impacted by mass incarceration, families of incarcerated people within our movement made thousands of telephone calls. We also mailed election guides to over 1,200 leaders within the Pennsylvania prison system, who in turn photocopied and distributed them to their networks inside and shared them with their families members on the outside.

During the weekend leading up to the election, we participated in and led Get Out the Vote drives across the city with Pittsburgh-based social justice Hip Hop activists 1Hood Media  along  with actress Kerry Washington and Black Voters Matters.

We blasted Get Out the Vote messages via emails, snail mail, and social media. Families of prisoners and formerly incarcerated people worked the polls on election day across the city, ensuring access to the ballot box was protected and the message of redemption was heard. And we prevailed. The supposed Red Wave collapsed in the heart of Pennsylvania and once again, as in 2020, Philadelphia was the bulwark against the rising tide of Republican Fascism. 

An Underestimated Political Force

For decades, people directly impacted by the destruction of mass incarceration have been organizing for real solutions in our communities, growing out of a movement I helped found while I was incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prison. We have since become a potent, savvy, and influential political force in Pennsylvania. On matters of importance to our communities, we can, and do, turn up, turn out, and influence politics in a significant way in the Keystone State. 

The Republican national machine devoted over a hundred million dollars on Pennsylvania elections, mostly spent on fear mongering crime ads blaming spikes in gun violence on the roll backs to the mass incarceration machine that our movement has won across the state. The Republicans offered nothing but racist talking points lifted from the playbook of the rhetoric and policies that successfully built mass incarceration in the 1990’s. Only this time it didn’t work. 

And here’s why: unlike our status in the 1990’s, our movement has grown strong. We’ve been preparing for this moment. And we rose to the occasion, as evidenced by the outcome of the midterms in PA at the state and federal level.

In the summer of 2022, our movement began preparing for a November election that we knew would be a referendum on the gains of the decarceral movement. That August, we convened a community forum on criminal justice reform with Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, a moderate Democrat. The forum brought community leaders, formerly incarcerated leaders, family members of incarcerated people, advocates, and local politicians together to make demands on Shapiro’s criminal justice reform platform as well as begin to mobilize a strong voting block in support of Shapiro.

Kevin Butler, a man who served 36 years in prison, spoke at the forum. Kevin was released on commutation in November of 2021 as a result of “yes” votes on the Board of Pardons by Governor-Elect Shapiro and U.S. Senator John Fetterman. Several months later, Kevin was one of us going door-to-door in the Happy Hollow section of Philadelphia (his old stomping grounds) in the run-up to the midterm elections. 

This forum was not our first encounter with Shapiro, however. It was another step in a relationship going back several years that had started acrimoniously. Back in 2019, at the Netroots Nation Conference in Philadelphia, we shut down a panel he was on about progressive prosecutors because of his support of a bill that would have stripped progressive Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner of jurisdiction to try gun cases in Philadelphia, a move launched by the Republican-dominated legislature.

As a result, Shapiro repealed his support of that proposed legislation, and through mediators we opened a dialogue which resulted in formerly incarcerated leaders drafting points in his campaign’s criminal justice platform supporting an end to felony murder in Pennsylvania and support for geriatric parole for long term prisoners.

Today, I sit on the transition team of Governor-elect Shapiro, ensuring that the promises he made to our communities at that forum back in August ring true through his tenure as Governor.

Holding the Line and Exposing the ‘Big Lie’

Working in unison, our movement demanded progressive positions from any candidates seeking our support, on the issues that disproportionately demonize, disenfranchise, and disservice us, particularly policing and mass incarceration. We refused to accept the “tough on crime” rhetoric from ANY elected officials, no matter their party, racial identity, or other background. We have demonstrated time and again that we can and do mobilize when our interests are at stake, including most starkly in the recent midterm elections, but also on high profile local and statewide issues

In short, what has been missing from the post-election punditry flowing from major media outlets in the wake of the Blue Block of the Red Wave, is the acknowledgment that an organic decarceral and abolitionist movement rallied and turned out on behalf of candidates who embraced (or at least moved towards) positions that aligned with our concerns around public safety, over-policing, and mass incarceration, and our unapologetically progressive stances on how to address these issues. And those candidates not only won, they did so in a state that was considered one of, if not the most, critical tests of whether the electorate nationwide would push back against, or double down on, an anti-democratic, regressive, racist, misogynistic, Trumpist agenda.

Our movement:

+Turned up for Summer Lee, a working class progressive from Pittsburgh who won her race and has become the first Black woman from Pennsylvania to enter the U.S. Congress. 

+ Turned up for U.S. Senator John Fetterman (whose flipping of a Senate seat from Red to Blue was one of the most crucial wins that increased that body’s slim democratic majority, and who did not back down from his progressive orientation around issues like broadening parole eligibility for those serving excessive sentences, even when he was called “pro-murderer” by his opponent, Mehmet Oz). 

+ Turned up for the more moderate-leaning Governor-elect Josh Shapiro, who worked directly with our movement to draft key progressive positions in his criminal justice platform. And while Shapiro has voted to commute the sentences of people serving life-without-parole less often than Fetterman while both have been members of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, he has voted to do so for 46 people convicted of homicide offenses. 

These past November midterm elections have shown that  decarceration is no longer a liability but can be a political asset—for winning statewide office in Pennsylvania.

As proof, contrast the Pennsylvania election results with what happened in our neighboring state, traditionally Blue New York, where things did not go well on election night for the Democratic party. Dems lost critical ground in results that seemed to surprise the prognosticators as much as the opposite outcome did in Pennsylvania. 

Why the difference? I attribute it to prominent, powerful, leaders—former Governor Andrew Cuomo, and current New York City Mayor Eric Adams. They are both center-right Democrats who chose positions and alliances that have slid New York backwards towards more conservative policies, and which paved the way for the critical Republican gains this November—crucial and painful losses that flipped control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Democrat to Republican.

Adams, a former cop and a Democrat, ran on a “tough on crime/crime is out of control” agenda to beat back the gains of a progressive mayoral candidate in the democratic primary. He won, but in doing so, his outdated rhetoric (and policies) helped shape the Republican strategy for the midterm elections: make them a referendum on crime, with the usual accompaniment of racist dog whistles and fear-mongering ads. 

The gains by Republicans in New York State in these all-important midterms, can also be partly attributed to Cuomo’s appeasement policies with Republican lawmakers, a tactic he chose as a counter-balance to fight a strong progressive challenge to his center-right approach. That strategy backfired when, during redistricting, the Republican Supreme Court Justices Cuomo appointed in NY, redrew the maps in favor of Republican candidates. 

Meanwhile, Pennsylvanians chose a very different direction. Here, activists, progressive candidates, and politicians leaned into decarceration and criminal justice reform. In the same month in 2021 when New York elected Eric Adams on a “tough on crime” platform, Philadelphia re-elected progressive DA Larry Krasner with a larger turnout  than in Krasner’s first bid for the office. This emphatic endorsement of Krasner’s approach came during the deadliest year of gun violence in Philadelphia’s history, and with a “tough on crime” former prosecutor, Carlos Vega, running against him. 

When Pennsylvania’s Republican Assembly moved to impeach Krasner in the fall of 2022, as an election ploy to focus voter attention on wedge issues, our movement of decarceration activists and progressives once again sprang into action throughout Philly’s Black and Brown neighborhoods and stopped it.

Meanwhile, the same organized base of us that mobilized to defend against the disenfranchisement of Philadelphia voters and criminal justice reform in the Krasner debacle, was also sending hundreds of canvassers out in Philadelphia for Fetterman, Shapiro, and Austin Davis, the Lieutenant Governor candidate. I was proud to be one of them. 

In the end, we won. The results of the Working Families Party PA Chapter’s endorsement list tells the story: 14 out of 18 (a whopping 78%) of our endorsed candidates—including now Senator John Fetterman and now Congresswoman Summer Lee—were victorious. Six of the winners were new to their positions including three who flipped PA House seats from Red to Blue; eight were incumbents who held the Blue line against the Red Wave. And none of the seats of our endorsed candidates flipped from Democrat to Republican.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the attempt to impeach Krasner backfired when our progressive-Left coalition successfully framed the impeachment as being about defending democracy and the demonstrated will of the people, and fired up and activated our base three months out before the election. Those same, largely Black, Brown, and poor people—already energized by our triumph in beating back the impeachment circus—turned out in Philadelphia in numbers that amount to the second-best showing in voter turnout for midterms in the past three decades! 

Our democracy was put to the test in this election. And the power of the people resoundingly won in Pennsylvania. While this came as a surprise to many of the media pundits and political news analysts, those of us working on the ground have seen the steadily building momentum for decades. 

Whether it is protecting democracy in Philadelphia from Republican attempts to impeach a popularly elected progressive district attorney; or squashing the onslaught of a national Republican party intent on undoing this country’s democracy through the “Big Lie,” we draw an important lesson from these battles that the mainstream media and punditry class is failing to acknowledge: when we run towards our principles and not away from them, we win. When communities of color organize ourselves from within, we are powerful. And when we confront those who seek to disenfranchise us, and we refuse to accommodate or appease them, our democracy grows stronger. 

Robert Saleem Holbrook was sentenced to death by incarceration (life in prison with no chance for parole), for an offense he was involved in as a 16-year-old. In 2018, after serving 27 years in the Pennsylvania state prison system, he was released on lifetime parole after the The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. In prison Holbrook began organizing for the rights of incarcerated people, including co-founding the Human Rights Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration. Upon his release from prison in 2018, he joined the staff of the Abolitionist Law Center, a PA-based, non-profit, public interest law firm; and in 2020, he was promoted to become ALC’s executive director – a position he still holds. In 2021, Holbrook led the establishment of PA-based Straight Ahead, ALC’s legislative, lobbying, and electoral arm, where he also serves as executive director.