Nineteen-year-old Aaron Coleman is a dishwasher and soon, possibly, a left-wing state legislator. He just won an underdog primary campaign in Kansas, campaigning on issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and unseated a seven-term, anti-abortion incumbent in a heavily blue district. Up to this point, his story seems to mirror those of young leftists who took on Establishment candidates and won. But his victory isn’t exactly a cause for progressive celebration: When Coleman was 12, he tried to ruin a girl’s life. “He got one of my nudes and blackmailed me with it and told me if I didn’t send him more he would (send) it to all of my friends and family,” his victim told the Kansas City Star several days after the primary results began to come in. “And when I didn’t send him more, he sent it to everyone I knew.” Two more women say he harassed them brutally while they were teenagers. One attempted suicide.
And Coleman hasn’t exactly been the portrait of penitence. “I’ve moved on,” he recently told a relative of the woman who tried to take her own life. When his past behavior first made the news two weeks ago, he issued a blanket apology, telling the Star, “I made serious mistakes in middle school and I deeply regret and apologize for them.” This week, he said he would drop out of the race, only to take it back days later, in a lengthy, defensive statement in which he decried the press for “putting what I did in middle school” — outraged emphasis his own — “under that kind of national microscope.” It remains unclear whether Coleman has offered a direct or meaningful apology to the women he hurt. From a fawning profile in the Intercept, we learn that he has “reached out to his victims … to make amends.” What does “reaching out” mean in this context? The Intercept piece doesn’t specify, but it does note that none of his victims have responded to him. An accompanying interview doesn’t offer any clarity. Coleman says all three women have him blocked on social media. He notes that his cell-phone number is public, and that they could call him if they wanted.
The initial outrage over Coleman’s behavior set off a debate. To some, his critics were overly harsh, evidence that we live in a culture where no one can ever escape their youthful mistakes. Glenn Greenwald, who both published the Intercept piece and interviewed Coleman, wrote that his story “raises profound and important questions whether adults should be judged by the actions they undertook when they were a child, particularly when they have apologized and expressed remorse.” This argument found traction on Twitter, where a handful of liberals and leftists expressed disbelief that someone so progressive should be “canceled” forever for something he did when he was just a kid. The writer Thomas Chatterton Williams called the backlash “horrific and intolerant.” The Intercept’s Ryan Grim tweeted, incredulously, “Wait, he did this stuff when he was 12? And we’re just done with him forever?”
Only Coleman didn’t just do “this stuff” — calculated, misogynistic harassment — when he was 12 and 14 years old. After he found his online defenders, the full extent of his violent contempt for women grew clearer. In the past few days, new victims have come forward with claims of their own: Coleman’s recent ex-girlfriend, Taylor Passow, told Grim that Coleman choked and slapped her last year. In a more thoroughly reported piece for Medium, Jessica Valenti revealed that Coleman threatened to kill Passow if she ever got pregnant and told her that he hoped she got abducted and raped. Another woman, a young pro-choice activist, told Valenti that Coleman badgered her repeatedly over Twitter after she told him to stop campaigning on her abortion story without her permission.
But even before these stories came out, his earliest victims said that Coleman didn’t belong in the state House. “I just don’t think he needs to be in a powerful position, considering what he’s done to girls,” one told the New York Times last week. In interviews with the Star, they expressed the same sentiment: We don’t trust him with power. He abused it when he had it last.
So why did anyone look at Coleman and immediately conclude the world owes him a second chance? To some, the saga functioned as a case study in restorative justice, an alternative to the court system that emphasizes healing over punishment, bringing victims and perpetrators to seek restitution. The story hit at just the right moment. The left is winning elections again; meanwhile, protests over police brutality are pushing prison abolition into the mainstream. Growing out of all this desperation is a conviction: We must remake the world into something more humane. This means, at the same time, that people are trying on a progressive ideology for the first time. That political evolution is uncomfortable, especially for young white men like Coleman, who must unlearn racial and gender supremacy. But Coleman’s defenders oversimplified the facts of his case, and exposed a blind spot the width of an ocean: They preemptively forgave someone who hadn’t demonstrated any meaningful effort to take responsibility for his actions. This isn’t what restorative justice looks like. Instead, it more closely resembles a familiar and worn-out argument defending any promising man accused of misconduct: Why should we ruin his life over this?
Coleman had years to make amends, but admits he only tried doing so after his misconduct became public. A mere week ago, he attacked critics for caring about “the opera show” while he focused on “working-class Kansans.” And when he (temporarily) decided to withdraw, he complained, in a since-deleted tweet, that feminism was threatened by “Donatists,” a reference to a medieval heresy which held that clergy must be totally pure. Cancel culture, in other words. In the statement he released to announce his intention to keep running for office, he said he had an obligation to lead by example. “I will change the material conditions in my district, my opponent will not.”
But misogyny is a material problem, and it does matter to the working class. Sexual harassment and misconduct are two leading motivations for women to organize at work. Activists with the Fight for $15 and a Union have demanded gender justice alongside the right to organize and a living wage. They do so because they know, intimately, that misogyny is the bedrock upon which so many injustices are based. Why should any woman believe that Coleman understands this, or even cares enough to do something about it? He says he’s pro-choice now — though he wasn’t two years ago, when he ran for governor — and that, he and his defenders say, is a good enough reason to give him a chance. After all, do women really want an anti-abortion Democrat to keep that seat?
People can change and yes, the left should embrace restorative justice. But restoration is a process. It can take years, and it produces evidence. Coleman never provided anything more substantial than words. If he withdrew — this time for good — and began the slow, difficult work required to bring healing to his victims, maybe he’ll become the person his apologists wanted him to be. But right now, that day looks far off. He’s promised “new solutions” to “old problems,” but there’s nothing new here: Pick this bad man, or this other bad man will take away your right to abortion. This isn’t material change, it’s the same old bullshit.