Steve August 20, 2020
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The third night of the Democratic National Convention was memorably described by one late-night C-SPAN caller from California as “spooky … like a drive-in with no cars.” Still, the producers were doing their best to make what’s usually a corny spectacle look appealing in a pandemic. And it was a historic shame: The first Black woman and Indian American woman to be nominated vice president by a major party in the United States received the honor in an empty room. With the exception of her husband and Joe and Jill Biden, the only applause was provided remotely, beamed in by video.

I was not expecting Harris to directly address what she had once regarded as her chief accomplishments. Instead, Harris presented herself as the culmination of generations of women who fought for justice, including her own mother, an immigrant to California from India who raised Harris and her sister “to be proud, strong Black women.” She named the elected offices she held in law enforcement as evidence of the kinds of accomplishments that are possible in the world her mother fought for, “a world in which we all can see ourselves.” It’s a vision she and Joe Biden share, she said.

While Harris has served as California’s junior senator for nearly four years, the core of her political experience is as a prosecutor, a job many more people in this country now understand as political. It explains why anyone outside of San Francisco now might know that in 2003, Harris unseated an incumbent district attorney in the city in a campaign characterizing him as “soft on crime.” From there, she was elected the state’s attorney general. “She was A.G. when Black Lives Matter was taking hold,” Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods told The New Yorker in a 2019 profile of the then presidential candidate. “We were focusing on state brutality and state-sanctioned murder. She gave us silence.” Harris has since cannily recast herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” responding to how the justice system winds have shifted toward systemic reform. As the public defender recalled from experience, “It’s a tale of two Kamalas.”

Harris’s choice last night to simply elide this fundamental part of her political life—to give it barely more time than it took to say the words “district attorney” and “attorney general”—again fits this pattern. What did she say she did as attorney general? She took on “transnational gangs” and “for-profit colleges.” During the financial meltdown of the late-aughts, she said she called her friend Beau Biden, then Delaware attorney general, to talk about going after “the big banks that foreclosed on people’s homes” and his father, the vice president. In this, her most significant address to date, the former prosecutor who now shows up at Black Lives Matter demonstrations mentioned the police exactly once.

It is not progressive to be soft on crime,” Harris told a prospective voter in 2003 in her winning campaign for San Francisco district attorney. She was referring to the incumbent’s decision to drop charges against 400 anti-Iraq War protestors. On the same campaign trail, after speaking to a group of residents who said they were planning a demonstration after the city’s transportation agency failed to deliver on a promise to hire Black youth from the neighborhood as part of a light rail project, she replied, “You should ask a police captain to conduct a protest training. That way you can protest safely. For example, people need to know not to run!” Harris, the reporter following her observed, understood that her “progressive” supporters included her wealthy donors, who “want to maintain law and order—but with a certain San Francisco-­style noblesse oblige.”

Harris still walks that line. The only concrete criminal justice policy offered up at any length happened to coincide with the evening’s other theme: women. Harris praised Biden for his signature role in the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. A segment earlier in the evening had included some b-roll of Biden in the 90s, a time presented to the audience as one when women escaping violence had virtually no one to turn to. In all the praise of Biden’s tenacity for getting the act through Congress, left out is that he was successful largely because VAWA was attached to the sweeping 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. When it was enacted, federal funds poured into states to expand prisons and police forces. The crime bill today is more toxic to bring up, certainly in a space where the names of people killed by police—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—are made mantras, as if to distance from the killers and the justice system that protects them. But VAWA, by comparison, is a twofold win: The candidates get to combine women in need of protection and the hero cops, who we’re to assume will provide it.

It’s not that many people will just forget Harris’s long career in law enforcement. In pursuit of the nomination, Bloomberg News described the potentially advantageous shifts in her public persona in the wake of national uprisings against police killings. “The reform debate burnishes the former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general as a social-justice activist. It also protects the Biden campaign from potential criticism of her efforts while in those jobs to slow innocence bids and punish parents whose children were truants, among other contentious actions.”

Maybe that’s the Harris she meant to evoke in her acceptance speech. “We’ve gotta do the work to fulfill that promise of equal justice under law,” she said, “because none of us are free … until all of us are free.” While she spoke, her home state was burning—more than 300 fires reported in 72 hours, Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. Yet the state still faces a critical shortage of firefighters, The Sacramento Bee was reporting. People incarcerated in California’s prisons are the state’s primary “hand crews,” sent out to cut firelines with hand tools and chainsaws in locations where bulldozers can’t reach. (They are paid a pittance—$1.45 an hour, according to the ACLU.) Now, as prisons allowed Covid-19 to spread unchecked, some prisoners are too sick for wildfire duty and others have been released to help slow transmission. The shortage was something Harris had seen coming as attorney general. In 2014, facing a court order to release prisoners from conditions ruled unconstitutional, the state fought back. Lawyers representing her office argued that if prisoners were to be released early to comply with the order, the available prison labor pool would dwindle.

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