A Life-Long Fight For Justice Spurred Alvin Bragg Into the Manhattan DA Race

Theodore Hamm Aug 6, 2020

Note: This the fifth in a series of interviews with 2021 contenders in the race for Manhattan District Attorney.

Alvin Bragg is a former chief deputy attorney general of New York. Born and raised in Harlem (where he still lives), Bragg is now co-director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School and a board member of the Legal Aid Society. 

Along with co-counsel Gideon Oliver, Bragg is currently representing the families of Eric Garner and Ramarley Graham (as well as other criminal justice activists) in a lawsuit against the NYPD and de Blasio administration. The goal of the suit is to produce full transparency regarding the investigations conducted by the NYPD into Garner’s death. 

You have the most experience as a prosecutor and law enforcement administrator among the current contenders to succeed Cy Vance. Can you explain how this background also allows you to position yourself as a reformer? 

I have spent the better part of two decades in the courtroom, standing up to the powerful and fighting to defend the rights of those without status or power, the New Yorkers who need justice most — and deserve it. 

I am the only candidate for Manhattan DA with deep experience managing lawyers to bring justice for New Yorkers, including starting a unit from scratch to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians and serving as Chief Deputy Attorney General, overseeing 1,200 people and some of the office’s biggest cases. I’ve sued the Trump Foundation, prosecuted Harvey Weinstein for a hostile workplace, and stood up for survivors of crime and their families. 

‘Wrongful convictions are the height of injustice. They ruin lives and undermine trust in our criminal justice system.’

But just as important as my reform credentials are my lived experiences: growing up in Harlem and now raising two children here; having been repeatedly stopped and frisked by the NYPD as a teenager, including three times at gunpoint; having been shot at and held at gunpoint by people who were not police officers; having supported a close family member who moved in with me post-incarceration in the wake of solitary confinement; and having witnessed a drug-related murder. 

All of that provides me with a deep personal understanding of the injustices and inequalities that are baked into the criminal justice system. This is the experience and commitment you need to reshape and repurpose the DA’s office to end racial disparities, build trust in the office for survivors, deliver one standard of justice for all, and focus on cases — like unlawful gun sales by licensed firearms companies who flout the law — that actually make us safer.

What’s the intent of your lawsuit on behalf of the Garner family and other victims of police violence and how does that connect to the approach to police accountability you’d bring to the office? 

We must hold police accountable and have prosecutors who are independent from police. This has been my life’s work. 

As a civil rights lawyer, I sued the New York State Police for using excessive force on protesters. Later, I prosecuted a sitting DA for not doing a proper investigation of an officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black man, and I prosecuted an FBI agent for lying and obstructing justice. I headed the unit in the New York State Attorney General’s office responsible for investigating police killings. And now I’m representing Eric Garner’s mother and other police accountability organizers in a case against the mayor seeking key details about Mr. Garner’s death. 

Acts of police misconduct undermine the entire justice system. As DA, I will create a civil rights unit to handle investigations of police misconduct thoroughly, transparently and independently of the police department. 

How would you handle Wall Street and large real estate interests differently than Vance? Many critics view his efforts in the Abacus Bank case as emblematic of his focus only on small players, and his non-prosecutions in the Trump SoHo case were also telling. 

The Manhattan DA’s office has a unique role in this area, and I’m the only candidate who has done this work on behalf of consumers, investors, workers and tenants. The Abacus Bank case was a total failure and should never have been brought. 

In the Attorney General’s office, I directed a groundbreaking case against one of the city’s worst landlords. I also helped make our office a nationwide leader in labor law enforcement, including prosecuting employers for wage theft and over worker safety. I held Trump and his family accountable for their misuse of Trump Foundation funds. 

As a federal prosecutor, I prosecuted the head of a $30 million business that laundered millions of dollars for a violent criminal enterprise, the owner of a pharmacy who engaged in health care fraud, and employers for wage theft. As DA, I will shift the office’s focus from low-level crimes now being pursued to the type of system-reform cases I have done my entire career, which protect consumers, investors, workers and tenants. 

Vance’s conviction review unit has been a non-presence in his office. What would yours look like?

Wrongful convictions are the height of injustice. They ruin lives and undermine trust in our criminal justice system. While district attorneys across the country have established effective conviction integrity units to review past convictions, Cy Vance has not. I’m proud to have the support of Lu-Shawn Thompson, whose late husband Ken Thompson pioneered this effort in Brooklyn. 

As Manhattan DA, I will create an independent, transparent unit that reports directly to me. It will include voices outside the DA’s office, including defense attorneys, community leaders and exonerees. No prosecutor will be allowed to review a conviction in which they previously were involved. It will have a broad, flexible scope, and have clear, standardized and publicized criteria for reviewing cases. And it will immediately look into the cases of Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor responsible for the false prosecution of the exonerated Central Park Five, who also oversaw hundreds of cases during her tenure in the Manhattan DA’s office.

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