Austin’s Likely Next District Attorney Vows to End the Drug War

José Garza

José Garza, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is set to become Austin, Texas’s next district attorney after a movement-based campaign promising to end the drug war and radically downsize the carceral state. He says the Left is finally making its mark in Texas politics.

José Garza, Travis County's district attorney–elect, is a former federal public defender, immigrant rights activist, and the leader of the Workers Defense Project in Texas.

Interview by
Meagan Day

When José Garza won his primary race for district attorney last week, John Nichols at the Nation announced that “Austin, Texas just voted to end its drug war.” The Appeal called Garza’s victory “a milestone for drug decriminalization.” The Texarkana Gazette feared that Garza’s “experiment” would make “Austin a safe haven for small-time drug dealers and users.” The Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which endorsed Garza and of which he is a member, called his victory “a mandate to reimagine justice and to end the oppressive criminalization of skin color and poverty.”

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Travis County district attorney candidate José Garza about his personal and political background, the coalition that pushed him to victory, the sea change happening in Texas politics, and the responsibility Garza feels to the millions of ordinary people in the streets demanding an end to injustice at the hands of police and prosecutors.

Meagan Day

What in your personal background shaped your political perspective, culminating in your run for district attorney?

José Garza

I started my career as a public defender on the border, where I worked both at the state and federal level. I really loved my work representing people who could not afford lawyers, fighting for them every single day. I was also really disgusted by what I saw, which is a criminal legal system that clearly weighs most heavily on working-class people and people of color.

Every day I saw people who we had failed, because of our failed economy, because of our failed education system, because of our failed health care system and mental health system. And as a result of our failure, they made mistakes. I learned that we use our criminal legal system like a rug to just sweep them under, so that we didn’t have to see our own failures. That had a huge impact on my worldview.

I’ve been back in Austin running Workers Defense Project, and I think I learned something different in that work, which is just the incredible power that people have. We’ve waged some campaigns and won some victories that I’m very proud of, and each and every one of them was fueled by the fearlessness and determination of regular people — in the case of Workers Defense, many times undocumented working people. I came to this campaign with a strong sense of disappointment about what our system is, but also really hopeful about what it could be if people got engaged and really lent their voice to transformation.

So that’s one answer. Another is that I’m a fourth-generation Texan whose great-great-grandparents were immigrants to this country. My grandparents were sharecroppers who lived in a dirt-floor structure and worked other people’s lands, and that story and that history will just always be with me. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to that history. I feel a responsibility to honor their lives and their existence and what they built for our family, and to all of the things that stood in their way.

Meagan Day

How did you come to feel that a challenge to your opponent was necessary and possible, and what did you want to see changed?

José Garza

It has less to do with my opponent. We really ran against our system. But I will say that throughout the course of the last four years, several people had gone to the district attorney’s office asking for reform — and not amorphous reform but very specific sets of reforms — and were deeply disappointed that here in the most progressive county in the state, we did not have a leader on these issues.

From my perspective, we were behind the curve of progress. But again, I also felt a deep sense of hopefulness that a large swath of the community was ready to accept and champion these kinds of reforms that we saw happening all over the state and the country.

So we were focused on these reforms, like stopping the prosecution of the war on drugs and ending cash bail, and we unveiled a relatively extensive platform back in September. Since then we’ve continued to work to add depth to the commitments that we made. Some of these reforms we talked about more often than others, but they’re all very important to me, and I think they’re all very important to the community. For the majority of people involved in this movement and in our campaign, it was the totality of the platform that spoke to them.

In creating this platform, we started by recognizing some of the things about our system that are broken. For example, we talked about the fact that 9 percent of the population in Travis County is black, but over 25 percent of the population of our jails is black. We talked a lot about the fact that every year, the district attorney’s office brings more drug possession cases. We talked about the fact that in the last four years, not a single law enforcement officer who has killed a member of our community has even been charged with the crime. We talked about the fact that every year there are something in the neighborhood of a thousand sexual assaults that take place in our community, and that the district attorney’s office was prosecuting less than 10 percent of them a year. We talked about the fact that we’re using so many of our resources on attempting to address substance use through our criminal legal system.

All of this led us to the policies, for example, our policy to end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses. When I say that, what I mean is we’re going to end the prosecution of possession of a gram or less of narcotics, and that above that we will consider diversion programs. We’re doing this for two primary reasons. The first is the data’s just really clear that that’s not the best way to keep a community safe. Every day that a person struggling with substance abuse stays in jail, the likelihood that they commit another crime goes up. So, continuing to try to address substance use through the threat of incarceration, and then through incarceration itself, actually makes our community less safe.

We also know that the prosecution of low-level drug offenses is one of the greatest drivers of racial disparities in our system. We know that 30 percent of all arrests for drug possession in Travis County are black folks, even though, as I said, they only make up 9 percent of the population. We know that the number one way that people get arrested and charged with drug possession is through traffic stops, and that over 60 percent of all people who are stopped, arrested, and charged are people of color, even though people of color don’t make up 60 percent of Travis County. And all of this even though we know that substance use across Travis County is consistent by race and ethnicity.

So that’s just one example, but in general we started from the problems first and that led to the policies. We also talked a lot about the need to prioritize violent crimes like sexual assault, about the need to end the cash bail system, and many other things. And what drove those is that those were the things that were impacting people’s lives and that we were hearing from people about every day.

Meagan Day

What forces came together to help make this campaign happen and make it successful?

José Garza

We said from the beginning that we were going to build a criminal legal system that didn’t weigh so heavily on working-class people, people of color, young people, and women. And because those were the communities that were being most directly harmed, we were very intentional in going into each of those communities to hear about people’s experiences and to talk about our vision for reimagining our criminal legal system. We knew that if those communities came together, we would have a real chance of fundamentally transforming our criminal legal system, and they did. We had an election night celebration on Tuesday, and it was very much a celebration of those communities. Ultimately, this is their victory.

Meagan Day

What about the organizational ecosystem? Everyone that I know in the DSA orbit is celebrating your victory as being associated with DSA, though I’m sure that DSA is not the only group.

José Garza

I first got to know DSA starting in 2017, when my full-time job was being the executive director of the Workers Defense Project. And at that time, we had just gone through a legislative session in which the legislature passed SB 4, which was a bill and policy that was meant to weaponize our criminal legal system against immigrant families.

We had a comprehensive strategy to fight back against that law and that policy, but I’ve always believed that the best defense is to demonstrate an alternate vision for governing. And so in 2017, we launched an ambitious plan to pass paid sick-time policies in three Texas cities: Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. We built a statewide coalition of working people, of labor, of people of color, of community-based organizations like the Texas Organizing Project, of youth organizations like Texas Rising, of faith organizations. Through that process, I got to know DSA really well, first here in Austin.

DSA was an integral part of getting paid sick time passed in Austin, and then a key part of getting it passed in Dallas and San Antonio as well. I have this beautiful memory of flying to Dallas in the last week of the campaign to collect signatures to get it on the ballot there, and being at this office where the Texas Organizing Project, DSA, Workers Defense, Planned Parenthood, and Texas Votes were all working out of.

Ever since then, I’ve had an incredible amount of respect for the DSA organizers, especially here in Austin, that comprise DSA. We’ve been through so many fights side by side. And you know, the secret is that our coalition here in Travis County for this race wasn’t so different. It was Workers Defense, Texas Rising, and of course DSA played a huge role in this fight. They really got the ball rolling and did an incredible amount of work throughout the entirety of the election.

In addition, our coalition was made up of the Real Justice PAC, the Working Families Party, and some really key and important allies in the labor movement: the firefighters’ association, the medics’ association. Teachers, hospitality workers, construction workers, all of them really threw down in this campaign. So did women and advocates for survivors of sexual assault.

Meagan Day

Your victory comes on the heels of the election of several other progressive district attorneys, from Larry Krasner to Chesa Boudin. One difference, though, is that you’ll hold the office in conservative Texas. What’s happening politically in Texas right now? Are we witnessing a sea change?

José Garza

Texas is becoming more responsive every day to the people who live here. That is the simple explanation. The more complicated one is that underneath the surface of these transformations in our state’s politics, there is a growing infrastructure dedicated to giving the ordinary people who live and work in this state a voice and a seat at the table.

The emergence of DSA as a real power in local and statewide politics is a great example of it. So is the emergence and growth and strength of the Texas Organizing Project in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Likewise, with the emergence and strength of the Workers Defense Project in Austin, Dallas, and Houston, and the growing strength of the labor movement and organizations like Texas Rising and MOVE Texas. There is beginning to be real organization and capacity and infrastructure that supports working people, young people, women, and people of color in Texas.

A lot of this movement is concentrated in the cities, yes, but something we’re very cognizant of and that is deeply embedded in our organizing strategy is that 70 percent of people in the state of Texas live in San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and Austin. And that’s not to mention El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. One thing we’ve been very intentional about is not taking those communities for granted. We’re trying to deepen our power and strength in those cities by organizing and engaging people there. We’re trying to change Texas politics, and we’re going about it strategically.

Meagan Day

How formidable do you anticipate the roadblocks will be to implementing your agenda once you take office?

José Garza

Well, we are absolutely about to find out. But we do intend to make good on every commitment we have made since the beginning of this campaign. And we have been incredibly intentional about making concrete, detailed commitments. We’re not talking about change in vague or illusory ways. We have attempted to be very concrete because we expect those eighty thousand voters who came out to elect us to hold us to these commitments and to hold us accountable.

We’ve said that on day one we’re going to end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses, and we’ve been very clear about what we mean when we say that. We intend to do that. We have been very clear that we seek to dismantle the cash bail system here in Travis County. We intend to do that. We have been very clear that we intend to hold law enforcement officers accountable. We just released a series of commitments about three weeks ago that I think is a pretty detailed road map for what we intend to do. We also released a pretty detailed set of commitments about what we think it means to have justice for survivors of sexual assault. And we intend to follow that and to keep those promises.

All of that said, we were clear from the beginning that winning this election was going to be the easy part. We didn’t take it for granted, obviously, and we worked incredibly hard, but it’s the easy part relative to the challenges that lie ahead of us. Making the change we’ve promised is going to be the hard part. And we’ve also been clear that we can’t do this by ourselves.

I’ve said multiple times that I wasn’t running for district attorney to save people. I was running for district attorney to empower people. I think the community is ready. I think they want these changes and they believe in them. And so we’re going to expect them to show up, to continue to make phone calls, to flood Commissioners Court, to flood the city council demanding these changes. And we’ll be ready to see them through.

Meagan Day

You won in the midst of the largest street protest movement in American history, which was focused on reducing the imprint of the carceral state in Americans’ lives, particularly black people’s. How do you see your campaign and your victory in dialogue with the George Floyd protests?

José Garza

We feel an enormous amount of responsibility to this moment and to this movement. We will walk into office in January with a deep sense of all that we have lost to get to this point, the thousands of people who have literally lost their lives because of this failed system, and with a deep sense of responsibility to the families of the people who have lost their lives or that have been torn apart because of this broken system, as well as to the millions of people who have been marching in the streets for the last two months.

I think for anyone who has been paying attention, it’s clear that these protests didn’t come out of nowhere. This movement has been gathering strength for the last five years. It’s been building infrastructure, it’s been growing in sophistication, and that’s why this moment was so potent. Once there was a flash point in the death of George Floyd — this moment of national consciousness — the movement and the infrastructure were ready to absorb people, to funnel them, to channel them. And so, although no one could have predicted the incredible show of strength by millions of regular people, it wasn’t altogether surprising. It was a long time coming.