Wednesday, August 12th, 2020
Election 2021: Eliza Orlins on Running For Manhattan District Attorney
“It can’t just be tinkering on the edges. It has to be sweeping overhauls because of the racism and white supremacy that exists within our criminal legal system.”
Aug 12, 2020
By Steve King
This is not the most opportune time for an interview with a candidate running for office in 2021. We might not have that much time left. But as Spacehog says, “in the meantime.”
Eliza Orlins has been a Manhattan Public Defender for over a decade, defending those in court who cannot afford to defend themselves. She did stints on Survivor and The Amazing Race and parlayed it into a career in law. She took the ball and ran with it. Now, the path she’s been on finds her at a crossroads, as she has entered the Democratic race for District Attorney of Manhattan.
Orlins graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University. At Fordham Law School, she clerked for judges on the New York Supreme Court and was Symposium Editor at the Urban Law Journal at Fordham Law. She has argued in front of the New York State Criminal Court and the New York Supreme Court.
She’s a Warren Democrat, a first time candidate, and known for being a “relentless champion of the underdog.” On Father’s Day this year she tweeted “My dad taught me that the only things that remain after we’re gone are the ways in which we’ve taken on the challenges to make the world better.” That’s the whole magilla, to me. Politics and policy are really the only lasting impacts we can make on the world around us while we’re here. If New York is supposed to be the center of the universe, it needs a new DA. It needs a generational change. Eliza Orlins is it.
This is all there is when it comes to politics. What we leave behind is the only thing that matters. It doesn’t matter how we got there or how we spent our free time, as long as we were able to help shape reality back toward something resembling normal.
Steve King (Under the Radar): You’ve said that being on Survivor “taught me how to deal with people who are sometimes very difficult and even some of whom I don’t like…. That experience translates to this job because on a daily basis, I’m confronted with difficult people I may not like, but we still have to work together.” This was a lesson you learned pretty early. Are you finding it helpful in politics? Because they’re not that different.
Eliza Orlins: That’s very true. I have obviously spent far more of my life in the trenches, in the courtrooms, fighting against injustice than I ever have in front of a camera. But some of the lessons I learned definitely translate to running for office. I developed a very thick skin and I think that will serve me well given the attacks I’ve received and I’m sure will continue to receive.
What made you want to go into law?
All I ever wanted to do was be a public defender. I went to law school knowing that was the only job I would apply for when I graduated, and it was. I remember when I had that final round of interviews with the head of the Legal Aid Society. He said to me, “Well, it was great to meet you and let us know if you get any other job offers.” And I said, “Can I ask a question? Will that enhance my application in any way?” And he said, “No, we just want to be kept apprised if you’re thinking about taking another job” and I said, “Okay, well, you should know there won’t be any other job offers. This is it. This is all of my eggs in one basket.” All I ever wanted to do was be a public defender because of the passion I felt for standing up for those who were marginalized and the injustice they faced. I just saw how the criminal legal system operated and I knew that I wanted to fight for those who didn’t have the resources to pay for an attorney.
New York is kind of like Baltimore, where we’ll overwhelmingly elect someone and then immediately go about putting them through a meat grinder. Our cities tend to consume their best people. With that being said, why would you want to be Manhattan DA?
That’s a great question. When I became a public defender over a decade ago, I saw how our cruel, unjust criminal legal system operated, and I remember being frustrated and heartbroken and angry. Over a decade of working as a public defender and standing side-by-side representing over 3,000 people and fighting for human beings charged with crimes in the city, I’ve seen the humanity in each and every person and I’ve defended. These are people’s moms, dads, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives. These are people’s children. These are people who are being jailed and bullied for low-level minor offenses and dehumanized, and the DA’s office is perpetuating that lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality, and I’ve seen the system that is designed to systematically disenfranchise so many. I realize that we can’t change the system unless we change the DA. That’s why I decided to run.
You’ve written that, “Many often characterize our criminal justice system as ‘broken.’ The system is not broken—rather, it functions exactly as designed,” and that the current criminal justice system needs big sweeping changes. This is institutional white supremacy that has been in place for hundreds of years. How can we expect to make those sweeping changes in our lifetime?
This is a system that is not broken. People say over and over “our criminal justice system is broken,” but it’s not, it’s working exactly the way a rigged system is supposed to, and disenfranchises the very people it’s meant to disenfranchise. And the prime beneficiaries of this system have consistently been the rich, powerful, and well-connected. Meanwhile, those who’ve been systematically disenfranchised have been anyone from marginalized communities. Black and brown folks, lower-income people, LGBTQIA, non-citizens, victims of sex crimes, anyone who is not powerful and not well-connected.
We have to figure out a way to truly change the system. It can’t just be tinkering on the edges. It has to be sweeping overhauls because of the institutionalized racism and white supremacy that exists within our criminal legal system. While it seems so blindly optimistic that there is a possibility for change, I do feel hopeful in that regard and I think we are seeing it across the country. We’re seeing people get elected to these DA positions who have so much power to make these types of changes. We’re seeing it in Boston, in Philadelphia, and San Francisco, and I know that I will make bold, transformational changes to the Manhattan DA’s office that it has never been seen before in New York City.
Black Lives Matter started when unarmed Black civilians were being killed on video by police, who are agents of the government, during a time when a Black man was in the Oval Office. The current president is a psychopathic criminal who tweets “LAW AND ORDER” all the time, and his reaction to the resurgence of Black Lives Matter has only added fuel to the fire. This is a historic injustice. How are we going to get back to normal? But was the old normal even good? How do we fix this?
I can’t say that I have some magic potion that in the next 90 seconds I can give you an answer as to how to change the deep-seated inherent racism that exists in the United States, because it exists within policing, also within access to medical care, within health care, housing, within jobs and education. It’s so pervasive it’s going to take a lot of work by everyone, because Black people have been fighting against this for hundreds of years and white allies need to step forward.
It’s not enough anymore for people to walk around and say, “Well, I’m not a racist.” It’s not enough to not be racist. You have to be actively anti-racist every single day, which means that you must be intentional, deliberate, and unapologetic in your fight and effort to dismantle structural racism and systemic oppression, and to call out white supremacy when you see it and shout out loud, “Black Lives Matter,” and show that with your actions.
You live and work, until recently, in what was the worst place on earth to be hit by the virus. Considering who it has affected, and how, and when, and the U.S.’s response to it, it really seems like American ethnic cleansing… That’s not even a question…
But I have a response. New York City was the hardest hit by COVID, for a while, than anywhere else in America, but even more so, the epicenter of the epicenter was Rikers Island, the New York City jail. Our infection rate, at Rikers Island, was 10 times that of New York City and 87 percent higher than the rest of the country at their peak, and they are all these people sitting in Rikers Island, and because of the racist nature of our criminal legal system, people entering jails and prisons are already some of the most vulnerable in our society, and during incarceration, that vulnerability is exacerbated.
It’s exacerbated by things like tightly confined spaces, lack of access to medical care, unsanitary conditions. Sometimes you don’t have soap, there’s 30 to 40 people sharing a toilet, you’re eating off of dirty trays in crowded mess halls, and hand sanitizer is quite literally contraband, and there’s no ability to social distance. So, of course, jails and prisons are incubators because there’s no way to keep the disease from spreading. So people are being condemned to die at Rikers Island and in jails and prisons throughout the country because of poverty, because of pretrial, and they’re locked up with bail they can’t afford or because of a substance abuse disorder that had gone untreated. Because of a mental health issue.
It’s unbelievable to me that people pretend this is some moral issue like “Oh, well. We need to maintain safety by keeping these people locked up.” It’s an outrage because it’s public health 101. COVID doesn’t stop at prison walls; the boundaries between correctional facilities and communities are porous. And we can see that because correction officers have died at an exponential rate. They’ve brought it home to their families, and their family members have died, and they’re going to the same hospitals, the same doctors and treatment facilities. So the fate of the community and those who are incarcerated are inextricably intertwined.
I think that during the COVID crisis I was really speaking out very aggressively in New York about those issues, and saying that the more it spreads the more people are in danger, and the DA has a massive impact on this because he could have been spending that time decarcerating and saving human beings’ lives, which is what Chesa Boudin is doing in San Francisco. Instead, he was actively continuing to send people to Rikers Island and opposing motions to get people released, opposing those motions on a daily basis and sending more people to Rikers, so the COVID situation, in terms of our jails and prisons, ties in very closely to all the reasons why I’m running for this in the first place.
Do you think Cy Vance got into the job for an idealistic reason, but was just swallowed up by the machine and turned into the villain he’s supposed to oppose? What is his deal?
I can’t comment on his mental state or what he thought the job would be or what he intended, but I can say that he’s someone who has very clearly given breaks to the rich and powerful. He argued for leniency for Jeffrey Epstein, didn’t prosecute Harvey Weinstein for something like six years, despite having recorded evidence that he’d already been committing sexual assaults, and didn’t prosecute the Trump kids back in early 2010 for their fraudulent real estate dealings and after taking massive campaign donations from their attorney. It’s hard to say what is in his brain, but I can tell you based on his actions that what he’s done by continuing to perpetuate the “lock em up and throw away the key” mentality as it pertains to marginalized folks while giving breaks to the rich and powerful is something that New Yorkers should not stand for for another minute.
He’s lost control of the city. He’s lost control of the police. He’s cut deals with monsters like you said, with Jeffrey Epstein. He shouldn’t run for reelection, obviously, but aren’t you afraid of what this system could do to you?
No. No. My morals and ethics are pretty solid. I’m not concerned about changing who I am as a person. This is something that I’ve spent my entire life fighting against: injustice. So, I’m certainly not going to change as a person once I’m Manhattan District Attorney. No, it’s not even a question.
Some of the videos out of New York during the protests were pretty sickening. I watched you run from the cops. The NYPD and a ton of other departments around the country are behaving like gangs. What can you do as DA to restore some trust in that system?
There are a lot of problems with policing as it exists right now, and for many years and billions of dollars a year, our country has allocated that money. Billions of dollars a year to policing, surveillance, and punishment; instead of trying to foster equitable, healthy, and safe communities. Criminalizing addiction and poverty has not kept us safe, and it never will, and our criminal justice system should focus on those who perpetrate real harm, and not on petty crimes that take productive citizens out of society.
Focusing on reallocating funds to support people and services in marginalized communities, like supporting social services like mental health, domestic violence, homelessness, funding schools, hospitals, housing, food, etcetera, will create systemic change. For that to happen, the whole system has to change, and we have to focus on programs beyond policing as essential toward achieving these goals.
Also, as Manhattan District Attorney, I will make sure to disentangle myself from the NYPD. I will not be Cy Vance, who continues to protect police officers who brutalize and terrorize, and assault and murder members of our community. They will be held accountable, and they will know that they will be held accountable. I’ll also refuse to call them as witnesses when they have been known to repeatedly lie under oath. There has to be someone in power who will be a force for safety without fear and justice without overreach. We need a new vision for New York that will actually keep us safe, because the police are not doing that right now.
Oh my god. Shootings have skyrocketed in the city and it’s clear there’s a police slowdown. They did the same thing in Baltimore after Freddie Gray. One told me, point blank: “The city had to suffer until the Mayor and State’s Attorney were gone…” He told me that, easily. I didn’t even have to pull it out of him. They just stopped doing their jobs and let the city tear itself apart for a couple years. How can you get the NYPD, or any big city police department to not engage in this form of terrorism?
There needs to be accountability. I actually think the police don’t want these responsibilities of going after people who are really in need of social workers or homes, or whatever. Why should the police ever be responding to a situation where someone’s in the throes of a mental health crisis? Having someone show up who is armed and untrained in dealing with mental health issues will certainly do nothing but escalate the violence and lead to potentially something terrible happening, which we’ve seen time and time again. Or someone who is experiencing homelessness; does someone become a police officer saying, “Do I want to spend my days arresting people for sleeping on the train?” I don’t think so. If we can really figure out a way to take resources…if you put those into mental health treatment, drug treatment, housing, education, homeless services, mental health initiatives, youth development programs, all those things. Take those responsibilities away from the police, [and] it will actually create a situation that’s better for everyone.
It’s like classic community model policing. How could you translate that to a place as large as the city?
New York City feels big but there are a lot of things that are neighborhood-based, and a lot of youth programs that former clients of mine have been involved in, are very neighborhood, within walking distance of their homes. These violence interrupters who are so successful are people from within the community. They are people who know. Despite the fact that the city feels big, these communities and neighborhoods are small and familiar to people.
With the American militarization of the police over the last decade or so, the last couple decades, it’s like we built this big machine and we needed to use it just to prove to ourselves that it was necessary. You’ve participated in Black Lives Matter protests and have been fired on by the NYPD. What can people like us do to combat this kind of fascism?
Oh my gosh. We all need to be out in the streets. I’ve been doing this for years. I’ve been shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters for my entire adult life, or maybe even my childhood; I was out protesting. I think that right now we are in such a moment. Really, truly. We’ve seen previously how protests lead to change, and this is such a historic moment in time.
I think the conscience of our country has really been rocked. I can tell you. I was out chanting “Black Lives Matter” and protesting “I Can’t Breathe” back after Eric Garner’s murder, almost six years ago, and people were not out there. Not on a continuous basis…. My public defender friends were out there but not really such a widespread group of people. And now, people are so ready for this and we’ve seen previously, reform starts with protests. If you think about the first Pride, the first Pride was a riot. Because trans women of color at Stonewall were sick of being harassed and brutalized by the police and they started a riot and it led to real change. This is a moment where people have finally said, “Enough is enough,” and we have to just keep at it and not be satisfied with just little bits of, “Okay. You all should go home now. Go home, now you’ve done enough. Good job. You’ve made some things happen.” No. We won’t stop until they stop.
The protests haven’t stopped. They’ve just not been covered as much recently. It’s still going on.
These last few years have combined the anti-establishment movements of Me Too and Black Lives Matter into what could be the perfect storm for generational social change. All of the pieces could be in place for a pretty wild transformation. How are we actually going to pull this off? What’s the first step?
The first step is using your voice. And when I say using your voice, I mean not just using your voice to speak out on social media. Not just using your voice to speak out in the streets, not just using your voice at the ballot box, which, don’t get me wrong, all of those things matter; but using your privilege, if you have it, in a tangible way, and fighting for those who have been the most impacted.
There are people who systematically had their voices taken away from them in order to perpetuate the system. Our work is not done. Not even close. Don’t get complacent. Recognize that even if you live in a blue state that’s not enough. Not all Democrats are created equal. I’m running against a Democrat. I’m running in a Democratic primary in a blue city within a blue state. We are not the same. There are huge differences to be made by electing insurgent candidates, who will really make huge changes. That’s where we start.
Recently, YouTubers and recipe magazines have been rocked by allegations of institutional racism. Sitcoms and sports are starting to tip over, in the right way. The system seems to be extra-judicially correcting itself. A new law is forming; it’s not mob rule, but it’s kind of close. As an officer of the court, what are your feelings about what’s been labeled as “cancel culture?”
I take issue with that because we are operating within a system which has been profoundly racist for far too long, and if it is now being called out, and in an aggressive way, on a daily basis, and holding people accountable for their racism or their complicity, that’s great. That’s fantastic. The only way to break the status quo is through transformative change, which is going to require a massive reckoning.
You’ve been a public defender for a while now, working with mostly black and brown defendants. What is the biggest thing that New York can do to help these communities from a social and criminal justice perspective?
There are so many things that need to happen across the board. All of these issues are so intertwined because housing and education and jobs and health care and criminal justice all kind of go hand-in-hand, but I do think electing people who care and who want to make changes and who want to make sure that investments in communities are made…. That the group drivers of harm and crime and issues that people are facing are addressed rather than just perpetuated incarceration. There are so many things that can be done, but the problem is getting the right people in power to make sure that they are done.
We thought that the Bush Justice was bad but what we’re dealing with now is something else. I don’t know what it is. It really seems like Attorney General Barr is setting the stage for a contested election. He’s played games with the SDNY, buried the Mueller Report, and claimed voting by mail can lead to vote-rigging. What do we do when the top law enforcement official in the country is covering for a criminal president? Is there any law at that point? What do we do with this corrupt Attorney General?
It is absolutely terrifying what is happening right now, from everything you just listed, all the way through what’s currently happening in Portland, where federal officials in no uniform or identification have grabbed people and protesters and shoved them into unmarked vans, detaining them without charges, without telling them why, and basically disappearing them. These tactics are straight out of an authoritarian regime. This is not a democratic nation. It’s very scary.
It’s hard to say what we do when someone is just undermining the rule of law in such an egregious manner. I don’t know if you saw my tweet this past week that went totally viral, where I said “Just a quick note to any rogue federal agents planning on operating Portland-style in Manhattan, without ID, or uniform, the statute of limitations for kidnapping will not have expired by the time I take office.” Even if there is authorization to deploy federal agents into cities and counties and states, they’re not above the law. They don’t get to come in and do things outside of the purview of what they’re actually allowed to do and operate in this way. It’s very scary. We’re going to have to rely on local elected officials to protect citizens.
What has been your best day as a public defender?
I love that question because it’s hard to even pick just one. I love being a public defender. I’ve loved it even on the hardest days. I love standing up and fighting against our cruel and unjust criminal legal system. I’m so lucky to have gotten to do my dream job for over a decade. There is one case that stands out, and within it there like three different days that were the best day.
I represented a young woman [who was] about 16, maybe. She had just turned 17 when I first picked up her case, and she had been hanging out with not the best group of guys, things were a little bit tough at home, and the cops were pulling up, one of the guys she was with in this group tossed her a gun, and was like, “Hold this, you won’t get in trouble, you’re a girl.” And she was shoving it up her sleeve as the cops rolled up and she was arrested. Pretty little thing. She was terrified when I went to go talk to her in back before arraignment. The DA’s office was, of course, asking for bail, were ready to send this teenage kid to jail, and throughout her case we were just begging for a sentence that didn’t involve incarceration.
Why do we need to lock up a teenager? Things were not going great in her life, but why can’t we figure out a way to make this better? And they were like, “Nope, nope, nope.” No one would allow it. A bunch of judges said no, and finally we got in front of this wonderful judge who said, “Okay, Miss Orlins. I’m going to take a chance on your client. You better keep on her and make sure she goes to her programs but I’m going to give her an opportunity,” or what’s called an alternative to incarceration, and we had gotten her into this wonderful program. Jessica went to this program every single day, even days she didn’t have to be there, staying extra hours, mentoring other kids. She really flourished there, and I remember the day when she finally came in and successfully completed the program.
She’d gone through all of it, she’s going to get what’s called “youthful offender treatment” on her case so it wouldn’t remain on her criminal record, so she’d have no record. And she brought in her certificate so proudly and presented it to the judge, and the judge called me up to the bench and she said, “I just want to say, I see hundreds of cases every week. I can’t say I remember all of them but this one has really stuck with me. I’m so proud of Jessica, so proud of you, and I just hope that this will make a difference in her life and will send her down the right path and I hope to stay in touch with her.” I was like, “Yes, and I’m so proud. Thank you, judge.” She said, “No. Thank you for your advocacy,” and I’m like, “No. Thank you.”
That day was really, really special, and Jessica and I were just hugging, and we kind of stayed in touch on and off, but I remember, probably two years later, I hadn’t heard from her in a little while, and I got a call from her girlfriend saying, “Eliza, I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m Jess’ girlfriend,” and I was like, “What happened? What is it?,” because normally as a public defender if you get a call from a former clients’ family member, it’s just bad news. It’s only with bad news: it’s so-and-so’s been re-arrested, something terrible has happened, we need your help. And she was like “I know you’re super busy” and I said, “Whatever it is, just tell me. I’m here for you.” And she said “Jessica’s actually graduating from high school and we know you are super busy but we had an extra ticket to the graduation and it would mean so much if you would come.” And I was like, “Of course I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Absolutely, thank you, thank you, thank you…”
So anyhow, the principal signed off and he asked me to speak at the graduation as long as it was okay with Jess. She said it’s fine, so now I’m a graduation speaker. Then I reached out to the judge, and I called her in her chambers, and she’s not even working in criminal court anymore. She’s over in civil. I said, “Judge, I’m not sure if you remember this case, it was a couple years ago…,” and she says, “Of course, I do.” And I said “I just want you to know Jessica is graduating from high school and this is all thanks to you taking the chance on her and giving her an opportunity for this alternative to incarceration, instead of just locking her up and her life would have been ruined, most likely.” She was like, “Oh my God, Eliza, That’s so wonderful. I’m so happy to hear it.” And I said, “just so you know, I’m going to attend her graduation and blah blah blah.” Anyhow, she calls me back and says “I would like to attend also,” and she speaks, and I speak and we’re all taking pictures and there’s flowers and crying. I sobbed as if my own child was graduating from high school. It was truly one of the highlights of my career and life.
I was just so proud, and now Jessica has been doing great. We’ve been in touch. She has a job with the city and she’s going to get a pension and everything. I just feel that that is one of the beautiful demonstrations of how we can impact people’s lives, especially young people, without thinking about incarceration as the only option.