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Meeting the Moment

As a lifelong public defender, I ran to become Santa Clara County’s next district attorney. I didn’t win, but our movement did.


I never could imagine running for district attorney. And now that a few months have passed since Election Day, it seems surreal that I actually did. I’ve served as a public defender in my hometown of San Jose for more than 14 years. I’ve been in our jails, juvenile halls, and courtrooms representing people ensnared in the criminal legal system and prosecuted by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. And I’ve given every fiber of my being to claw and push back against this very office — one that has historically defined people by their worst moments, stripped them of dignity, and measured justice by months or years in cages.

I’ve stood next to a 16-year-old boy facing life without the possibility of parole. A 14-year-old boy shackled in court, prosecuted, and punished as an adult. A man whose only contact with his newborn son was through county jail glass. And yet another facing the grim possibility of the death penalty. I’ve read police reports and watched body camera footage. I’ve seen our people frisked, stripped, shot at, and beaten by police officers. I’ve sat in community rooms and listened to people share the pain of police killing their loved ones and the trauma of having their cries for justice ignored by those in power.

I’ve heard testimony from sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence victims. Read accounts of survivors. Looked at photos of unspeakable crimes. Watched videos of horrific gun violence. Listened to impact statements from family members of murdered loved ones. I’ve borne witness to cycles of human suffering, served within a system of unyielding pain. In all of this, I’ve endured the stress of injustice, fully aware that the DA’s office was complicit in the suffering. Never would I join those ranks, I told myself.

But then some public defender colleagues approached me. They wanted me to run for DA. I laughed and scoffed at the thought. Are you kidding me? Me? A DA? Never. But they sat with my skepticism and reminded me that it didn’t have to look or feel this way — that there’s a different, more effective way forward. That a DA who’s accountable to their community can use the resources of their office to invest in the safety and dignity of all people.

That there are ways to respond to interpersonal violence, trauma, and abuse without compounding the pain and creating more harm. That even within the confines and violence of the criminal legal system, a DA can wield their discretion and attempt to meet harm with humanity. That our courthouses, which have long been sites of coercion and family separation, can nonetheless be spaces where accountability, justice, and restoration thrive.

“I’ll think about it,” I told them. 

But then George Floyd was murdered and there was no more time to think. The streets were full. There was a palpable call to declare that Black lives matter — which meant reallocating resources away from policing and the systems of mass incarceration toward refunding and building up our community. There was a resounding call for service, a demand to meet this moment, and to bring about the change and the community we want to see. We couldn’t wait another minute.

The author speaking at a rally outside the Santa Clara County Jail. (Image courtesy of Sajid Khan for District Attorney 2022.)

And so it began — with about 10 people,  mostly fellow public defenders, meeting in backyards and on Zoom calls in the midst of the pandemic. 

We knew it was a critical moment in our community and country. We couldn’t wait any longer to fix the broken, racist legal system in Santa Clara County that had failed to keep us safe. We couldn’t afford another election cycle where the incumbent went unchallenged and without accountability. We couldn’t sit idly by while children continued to be prosecuted as adults, police officers killed our people with impunity, and where mass incarceration and systemic racism left generational scars on communities of color.

In Santa Clara County specifically — the place that I’ve called home my entire life — these scars are real. The incumbent DA prosecuted as adults children as young as 14 and 15, at a higher rate than any other DA in the Bay Area, opposed the law that ended that inhumane practice, and continues to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Police officers shoot and kill people of color in our community with impunity, yet no Santa Clara police officer has been charged for an on-duty shooting in modern history. Likewise, despite reforms, the DA’s office continues to pursue racist gang enhancements — in 2017, 88% of these sentencing enhancements were levied upon people of color and are based on discriminatory gang police tactics that are almost exclusively inflicted on communities of color in Santa Clara County.

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But I was a first-time candidate with no money, zero endorsements, and little understanding of the local political process. I had litigated in courtrooms and argued in front of juries for more than a dozen years. But this movement, and running for office, required me and us to show up in different, creative ways with our values, ideas, and experiences. At the outset, this meant getting on the phone and making calls to everyone I knew, and after that to a whole lot of strangers, and asking for money.

This campaign also meant connecting with local labor unions and Democratic clubs, filling out dozens of endorsement questionnaires, and sitting for interviews with local and regional press. It meant attending community events and meet-and-greets and driving all over the county. It meant knocking on thousands of doors. It meant debating my opponents at local churches, community centers, and law schools. 

But we did it. This grassroots, value-based movement raised over $350,000 from small-dollar donors, earned more than 60 local, statewide, and national endorsements, was powered by over 200 volunteers, and received more than 60,000 votes. This means that at least that many voters believed in our pledge to stand up for the forgotten and system-impacted in our community — those who bear the brunt and have been criminalized by harmful practices like overcharging, coercive plea bargaining, and three-strikes and gang enhancements. These voters stood up for our brothers and sisters sitting in our jails on cash bail and languishing in our prisons on life sentences without the possibility of parole. These voters stood up for families scarred by police violence and those killed by law enforcement who never received justice as well as for survivors of sexual and domestic violence who suffer in silence.

People in our county aren’t used to these voices and stories being at the center of a campaign. In a sense, we showed up and organized in a way that Santa Clara County has never seen before, forever shifting the landscape and conversations in this community. We let the people know that sustained public safety for all will not come through jails and prisons. We let them know that our fellow human beings are more than their worst moments. We let them know that we can heal our communities by addressing the root causes of harm and insecurity — and fulfilling the full dignity of all people. In Santa Clara County, this means requiring the reallocation of resources we spend to punish and incarcerate to the front end of our communities — into things like accessible mental health care, vocational training, education, and housing for all people.

In Santa Clara County, addressing the root causes of harm and insecurity means requiring the reallocation of resources we spend to punish and incarcerate to the front end of our communities — into things like accessible mental health care, vocational training, education, and housing for all people.

In all, our movement earned the support of 64,000 voters in Santa Clara County, but not enough to earn a spot in the November primary or unseat the incumbent. This election result gives us a clear picture of what we were up against. The 2020 uprisings showed us that there was an opening, a hope that we had never witnessed before. But come 2022, the pendulum swung back.

Or perhaps it never swung at all. The police union-backed incumbent was reelected despite pursuing the death penalty against an innocent man, prosecuting children as adults, opposing progressive reforms, not prosecuting police officers who kill, cutting and pasting reports to justify police killings, perpetuating troubling racial disparities, refusing to say “Black Lives Matter,” and even physically tripping his opponent

The loss stings. There’s so much more work to do. And I know how deflating that reality may be. We rest. We recover. But we also celebrate. Because here in Santa Clara County, this effort wasn’t futile. Through and because of it, the incumbent DA announced will no longer pursue the death penalty. His office claims to no longer seek cash bail. Through and because of it, we’ve been able to hold off the building of a new jail in San Jose. The ground has shifted.

And then together, we’ll continue to get up and stand tall — 64,000 people who rejected carceral politics in Santa Clara County, along with allies and partners across the state and the country. Hand in hand, side by side, we’ll walk forward resilient, unapologetic, and unwavering in our resistance against mass incarceration, systemic racism, and police violence. With our ancestors and forebears at our backs, we will show up in the courtrooms, in the streets, at city council, school board and county supervisor meetings, state legislature sessions, and at the ballot box, and speak our truths.

I myself am back in the courtroom, representing the same people that I hoped to represent electorally, with a different vision of justice, accountability and safety. In whatever capacity we serve, we will continue to embody and manifest healing, dignity, and justice for our people. The movement marches on, more fortified and committed than ever.

Header image: Sajid Khan on the campaign trail. (Image courtesy of Sajid Khan for District Attorney 2022.)