California Senator Kamala Harris recently characterized the Republican Party’s police reform bill as ‘lip service…[with] no teeth’ that ‘literally…would not save a life’ when comparing it to the Democrats’ alternative ‘George Floyd Justice Act’ bill. Harris was correct to condemn (and ultimately block) Senator Tim Scott’s GOP bill; it only discourages the use of chokeholds, and does not remove ‘qualified immunity’ from on-duty police. It would also continue to disallow victims of police misconduct the right to sue. But Harris herself faces criticism for her record on criminal justice and civil rights issues, especially as she is a favourite for Biden’s VP candidate.
The Democrat bill (which is not expected to advance in the majority Republican Senate) concedes to more of the revolutionary demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though it fails to enact such sweeping structural change as the Minneapolis City Council, it has been endorsed by organizations such as the NAACP for its reformative measures:
‘The legislation holds all law enforcement officials accountable for their actions, ends “qualified immunity” for police officers, ends racial and religious profiling, empowers our communities, establishes uniform policies for the use of force, mandates data collection on police encounters, bans chokeholds and “no knock” warrants, limits military equipment on American streets, requires body-worn cameras and classifies lynching as a hate crime’.
Republicans such as Senator John Cornyn attribute Harris’ refusal to compromise to self-interest rather than principle. They accuse her of exploiting the BLM movement as an audition for Biden’s Vice President. On Wednesday 24th June Cornyn chastised the Senate Democrats for their intent to filibuster the GOP’s Justice Act. Cornyn alluded to Harris’ ‘shadow campaign’ for Vice President by suggesting that she was ‘more interested in politics than solutions’. Senator Scott criticized her for ‘playing for Presidential politics’. Harris defended her motivations, insisting to Politico reporters that her highly publicized opposition to the Justice Act was ‘not at all’ inspired by her Vice Presidential ambitions.
Such criticisms from the right have been made to divert attention from the hollow nature of their own legislation, which was even described by Republican Senator Mike Braun as ‘window dress[ing]’. However there are legitimate reasons for scepticism regarding Harris’ commitment to reforming the inherently racist American justice system. There are legitimate reasons to oppose her selection as Biden’s Vice President. After all, Harris’ Presidential hopes were ultimately sunk by Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s debate attacks concerning Harris’ troubling record as California Attorney General (2011-2017) and San Francisco District Attorney (2004-2010). Gabbard declared that “Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president” then cited the following concerning features of the former Prosecutor’s record:
“[Harris] put over fifteen hundred people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep a cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”
Each of Gabbard’s accusations can be substantiated, and together they highlight the web of contradictions and hypocrisies that have defined Harris’ career. These controversial decisions will doubtlessly be weaponized and emphasized by Republican campaigners should she become the Vice President nominee, especially if she seeks to harness the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, and so are worth examining.
Even Harris’ choice of career, given her upbringing, is surprising. She revealed in a 2018 NPR interview that her “family…thought, at best, it was a curious decision… [to] be a part of an institution that is not always fair and does not always pursue justice”. Her family’s misgivings are unsurprising, considering her parents met as student protesters on the progressive campus of 1960s UC Berkeley. Her father went on to be Stanford lecturer in economics, described in a 1974 student newspaper as a ‘radical prof’ and ‘one of two Marxian economists [then] in the department’.
It is conceivable that Harris entered the criminal justice system in 2004 with a youthful idealism, determined to enact meaningful reform from the inside. However, the trajectory of her career suggests either that she was quickly disillusioned, or that political self-interest dictated her decisions all along.
During Harris’ time as San Francisco DA she made several decisions that now clash with her present-day image as a ‘progressive prosecutor’. In 2019, for example, she introduced legislation in the Senate that would have nationally decriminalized marijuana, but as DA she fought to competitively increase the conviction rate on marijuana cases in comparison to her predecessor, convicting over 1900 individuals for possession. In 2019 she also co-authored bipartisan Senate legislation designed to end the nation’s cash-bail system (reasoning that ‘in [America], whether you stay in jail or not is wholly determined by whether you’re wealthy or not”), but as DA she pushed for higher cash bail for criminal defendants involved in gun-related crimes.
These examples illustrate how impossible it is for Harris to escape the specter of her prosecutor past. Her more progressive record in the Senate only serves to throw her DA record into sharp relief. In June 2020 she described the GOP’s inadequate ‘Justice Act’ as akin to “asking a mother, save one of your children and leave the others”. But the unfortunate choice of simile, one appealing to the sanctity of motherhood, inevitably recalled her infamous DA truancy initiative that threatened to criminalize and imprison mothers of elementary school children.
Harris may well attribute these disparities to a genuine change in opinion over time. After all, Harris’ tenure as District Attorney began during an era when the Democratic party was still competing with the GOP for the conservative mantle of ‘tough on crime’. She first ran for office in 2003, at the same time that John Kerry ran a Presidential campaign ‘on hiring more cops, adopting a “zero tolerance” approach to gangs, and “cracking down on drug trafficking”’. This was because “Kerry’s platform was the legacy of the 1980s and 1990s, when Republicans and Democrats…competed to see who could be “tough on crime”’. This political obsession with appearing to be ‘tough on crime’ resulted in punitive and racist measures like the 1968 Safe Streets Act, the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the 1994 Crime Bill.
However, this justification – that ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric was the only way to be elected in the early 2000s – would only be permissible if Harris had since demonstrated a significant pivot in her attitude toward criminal justice issues. But scrutiny of Harris’ record reveals that the ‘tough on crime’ mentality continued to define Harris’ career up until her 2017 entry into the Senate. Harris’ prioritization of re-election over progressive values appears to have been cultivated early in her first term as District Attorney, when an instance of rare integrity lost Harris powerful political endorsements, and therefore almost jeopardized her reelection.
In 2004, the newly elected DA Kamala Harris became embroiled in a controversy that directly brought her supposed principles and political expediency into conflict. In alignment with her manifesto, she refused to pursue the death penalty for David Hill, a man accused of murdering San Francisco Police Officer Issac Espionaza, standing her ground even when Senator Dianna Feinstein confronted her at Espionaza’s funeral. The principled decision predictably lost her the endorsement of any police unions in her 2010 campaign for California Attorney General. This made the election extremely narrow: she beat Republican Cooley by less than a single percentage point. Cooley received the coveted endorsement of several police unions, including the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs, and Harris won because of her opponent’s embarrassing last minute gaffe.
The election evidently taught her that courting police union endorsements was imperative to winning elections. Supporting the death penalty was clearly an essential component in winning these endorsements. Her subsequent reversal on the issue won her the endorsement of several police unions for her successful 2016 Senate race. It also demonstrated Harris’ willingness to capitulate to the demands of a small but powerful minority. She would repeatedly make concessions that compromised her self-professed ‘progressive prosecutor’ ethos, if it made re-election more likely. The fallout from this personal revelation can be discerned in the cynical and questionable decisions that pervaded her tenure as California Attorney General from 2010 until 2016.
As California’s Attorney General, Harris ignored requests in 2016 from the Public Defender of San Francisco and members of the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition for the California Department of Justice to investigate incidents of police brutality in the San Francisco police department. These included the December 2015 fatal shooting of African American man Mario Woods by a police sergeant in Bayview and the May 2016 fatal shooting of an African American woman named Jessica Williams.
California’s Legislative Black Caucus also criticized Harris’ failure to support Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s 2015 legislation, Bill AB86. The bill mandated that the California Department of Justice independently investigate fatal police shootings, and introduced state standards for police body cameras. When queried on her resistance to state-wide body camera standards, Harris unconvincingly expressed disapproval for a ‘one-size-fits-all approach’. She also refused to answer questions about a policy that allowed police departments to investigate themselves. Instead, she distracted attention by pointing to her department’s establishment of a transparent public website to log incidents of in-custody deaths, citizen complaints and arrest rates.
Harris also spurned the opportunity to counter the fear mongering, reactionary rhetoric of Proposition 47 detractors like Senator Dianna Feinstein. Feinstein insisted that the 2014 referendum proposal to downgrade the classification of several crimes from felony to misdemeanour would achieve ‘anything but make our communities safer’. In reality, the successful referendum reduced incarceration costs by reducing prison time for non-violent crime. This allowed more money to be invested in mental health treatment and programmes for ‘at-risk’ students. Harris refused to even comment on the proposition.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Harris has faced credible allegations of deliberately retaining the unconstitutionally cramped conditions of California prisons so that prisoners can continue to be exploited as cheap labor. In 2014 lawyers argued on behalf of the Attorney General against a federal order to expand an early parole programme, reasoning that the prisoners were needed to fight wildfires. Harris acknowledged regretfully that the argument ‘evokes images of chain gangs’ and ‘indentured servitude’. The slavery-related image is particularly apt considering the over-representation of African Americans in California prisons. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, ‘in 2017, the year of most recent data, 28.5% of the state’s male prisoners were African American, compared to just 5.6% of the state’s adult male residents’.
Other regressive decisions taken during Harris’ tenure as Attorney General include her opposition to abolishing the death penalty after the Espionaza affair in 2004. In 2012 and 2016, Harris declined to support California Propositions 34 and 62, which marginally failed to abolish the death penalty. In 2014 she made the more proactive decision to appeal US District Judge Cormac J. Carney’s ruling that California’s implementation of the death penalty was unconstitutional, affirming her support of capital punishment, a practice that disproportionately kills African American men. Harris’ mission, according to her 2018 memoir The Truths We Hold, has always been that of a ‘progressive prosecutor’ determined ‘to shine a light on the inequality and unfairness that lead to injustice…[and] to recognize that not everyone needs punishment, that what many need, quite plainly, is help’. But such a mission statement, one that focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment, is irreconcilable with Harris’ pro-death penalty position.
The authenticity of Harris’ commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement is particularly relevant given that criminal justice is such a pronounced weakness for Biden. The disastrous 1994 Crime Bill looms large in the 2020 political landscape not only because it was written by probable future President, but because it continues to lock generations of minority families in inescapable cycles of incarceration and poverty.
The bill stripped prisoners of the education opportunity of a Pell Grant, determined that prisoners can serve life sentences for minor criminal offenses, and triggered mass incarceration via its funding of prison construction (America incarcerates 20% of the total number of prisoners globally, despite only constituting 5% of the world’s total population). Despite previous supporters of the bill since denouncing it, Biden stands by it. In a 2007 Presidential debate he proudly called it the “Biden Crime Bill” and in a 2019 debate declared that there was “a lot of…good things in the bill” and that “it did not generate mass incarceration”.
Even as early as 1994 civil rights activists like Reverend Jesse Jackson were describing the bill as an inevitable contribution to the “grievous racial injustice built into [the American] legal system”. The 1994 Crime Bill disproportionately affects African American and Latinx communities because, as the Center for American Progress explains, of ‘unequal contact with the police and the justice system’ that communities of colour face. The Sentencing Project further explains that ‘African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences’.
Therefore, the increasing likelihood that Biden will select Kamala Harris as his Vice President candidate threatens to counter-productively answer the BLM movement with a Democratic ticket composed of two individuals with extremely problematic relationships with the justice system. If Biden selects Harris as his running mate, it will be symptomatic of his entitled perception of African American voters as a monolith to be taken for granted. This perception was laid bare in May when he told Charlemagne tha God that “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” Choosing a VP candidate solely on the basis of race, gender and name recognition, while ignoring the incompatibility of Harris’ record with the BLM movement, dismisses and trivializes the demands of the Black community.