The nomination of Kamala Harris as a vice presidential candidate of a major party reflects that in this country some things have changed. She has also immediately become a target of a host of racist and sexist attacks by Trump and the right.
Harris has cultivated somewhat of an image as a progressive reformer in her first term as senator. However, her career demonstrates a different picture of status quo politics and carceral-based reform.
As Derecka Purnell wrote recently in the Guardian, “We have seen her break color barriers and shatter glass ceilings, even though poor, Black women have felt and swept the falling shards.” This contradiction deserves contemplation. Especially as we approach an election in the midst of intensifying conflicts in the streets over systemic racism and state violence.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues in a New Yorker column that is essential reading, “The movement has revealed the scale of protest that will be necessary if Biden and Harris win and fail to live up to their lofty promises. . . . We may have just experienced the largest participation in marches and protests in U.S. history under Trump, but we would be remiss to forget that Black Lives Matter erupted as a movement during Obama’s Presidency.”
Knowing Harris’s history can only strengthen the ongoing fight necessary to win liberation and end racism and sexism.
Prisons and Punishment
2004: As San Francisco district attorney, Kamala Harris resisted efforts to moderate California’s three-strikes law. At the time California’s harsh sentencing policy was one of the nation’s most punitive, imposing life sentences for a third “strike” that could be any minor felony. While thousands languished for twenty-five years or longer for minor crimes like drug possession, shoplifting, and forgery, Harris urged voters to reject Proposition 66, a ballot initiative that would have limited third strikes to violent felonies. Obviously life sentences are cruel and in California they contributed to astronomical rates of incarceration.
2004: Harris proposed her own weaker reform of three-strikes sentencing, eliminating just some grounds for third strikes.
2011: As California Attorney General, Harris joined governor Jerry Brown in obstructing Brown v. Plata. Despite the state’s prison construction boom, the Supreme Court found California’s overcrowded conditions cruel and unusual, violating the eighth amendment rights of people incarcerated there. But Harris and Brown worked so hard to subvert the high court’s command to reduce the prison population that some legal scholars labeled their efforts contemptuous.
2011: Harris supported a truancy law that charged parents with a criminal misdemeanor if their kids missed more than 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse. Parents of chronically truant children faced fines up to $2,000 and even up to a year of jail time. This law, like many Harris went to bat for, disproportionality impacted communities of color.
2012: Harris fought against efforts to eliminate solitary confinement in the state of California. As many as eighty thousandfederal and state prisoners in the United States are held in cells for twenty-two and a half hours of daily isolation. When California inmates brought a suit over the state’s use of solitary confinement, Harris tried to dismiss it.
2014: Harris’s office fought against orders to grant early release to nonviolent offenders, arguing the state could not afford to lose prisoners as a source of cheap labor for collecting trash, maintaining parks, and even fighting wildfires.
2018: Harris applauded the Koch brothers–backed First Step Act. CoreCivic, the nation’s largest for-profit prison contractor was also a fan of the bipartisan bill. While democrats touted the legislation’s modest concessions toward shorter sentences and programing inside prisons, opponents of the said the bill: “contains what Michelle Alexander has aptly termed the Newest Jim Crow–harmful technology and an expansion of the carceral state that will disproportionately impact Black and brown people’s freedom.”
2010: Harris refused to turn over to defense lawyers the names of police officers with arrest records or misconduct histories whose trial testimony had helped to convict defendants.
The Wrongfully Convicted
2011–2017: Harris regularly resisted innocence claims, often using jurisdictional arguments or technicalities as weapons to keep innocent people in jail. The cases of Maurice Caldwell, Daniel Larsen, George Gage, and Kevin Cooper are probably the four most high-profile examples of this. Larsen received a three-strikes sentence of twenty-seven years in prison on a concealed weapon charge. The conviction was overturned for lack of evidence eleven years later. But Harris managed to keep Larsen in jail, arguing he was too late in filing necessary paperwork.
2011–2017: Harris’s DA and AG offices fought against paying compensation to Californians who were wrongfully convicted.
2004: Despite speaking out against cash bail in 2020, Harris was no champion of the cause during her time as San Francisco’s district attorney. Harris supported raising cash bail costs, sparking a fight with the city’s public defender and defense attorneys who argued the measures would disproportionately harm the poor. San Francisco now has the second highest bail schedule in the nation.
2016: Gary Welchen, an indigent Sacramento resident sued Harris as attorney general for her role in implementing money bail. With the help of Equal Justice Under Law, the suit argued that money bail inflicts an unconstitutional penalty on poverty. Harris denied that cash bail was a wealth-based system and filed a motion to dismiss the case that argued extensively in defense of bail.
The Death Penalty
2004–2017: Harris has campaigned on her personal opposition to capital punishment from the beginning of her career in law enforcement. But she refused to take critical action in the cases of people on death row.
2014: When a federal judge declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional, it could have laid a foundation for statewide abolition. But Harris defied a substantial petition drive and appealed the ruling. As this case made its way through the federal courts, Harris defended the death penalty. The decision was subsequently overturned.
2008: Harris spoke out in support of a city policy that required law enforcement to report undocumented juveniles to ICE, regardless of whether they were actually convicted of a crime. In the first year after the policy was implemented over a hundredjuveniles were referred to federal authorities. One of them was a fourteen-year-old who faced deportation after he brought a BB gun to school.
2019: After initially supporting Medicare for All (M4A) and claiming in a June 2019 primary debate that she would abolish profit-driven private insurance, she swiftly walked back her support for M4A and reversed her claim, saying she misunderstood the question. Then she came out with her own plan which expanded private insurers’ role in health care.
2019: Harris’s health care plan called for the further privatization of Medicare.
2020: As twelve million people in the United States lost their health insurance in the pandemic-driven economic crisis, Harris continued to support private insurance at the expense of Medicare for All.
2010: Harris responded slowly and inadequately to a police crime-lab scandal that may have tainted evidence in numerous drug cases.
2011: Harris opposed Assembly Bill 639, a 2011 bill restraining the practice of civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows police to seize money, property, and cars under a simple suspicion of being used for criminal activity. One study found that in 2014 law enforcement took more stuff from people through civil forfeiture than all other criminals stole in reported burglaries combined. Harris’s opposition to Assembly Bill 639 puts her squarely on the side of a system that effectively legalizes police robbery.
2011: Harris was a big supporter of familial DNA searches, an invasive police technique used by forensics experts to see whether a potential suspect has any relatives in the criminal database. California’s familial DNA testing is particularly invasive as it allows the police to collect and preserve DNA from anyone who is arrested even if they are not charged with a crime. The ACLU argues this process “puts an offender’s entire family under scrutiny.” In 2011 Harris increased the funding to double the number of familial searches.
2018: But Harris was an opponent to DNA testing when it came to a case that would have likely freed an Black man from death row. As attorney general Harris refused advanced DNA testing that would have likely cleared Kevin Cooper, who has maintained his innocence through decades of struggle for his freedom. In 2018 a New York Times op-ed on the case went viral and Harris expressed regret for her role keeping Cooper in prison though by then as a senator she could no longer take direct action.
2004–2011: Harris protected serial rapists. Harris’s predecessor in the San Francisco district attorney’s office collected files on sex abusers within the Catholic clergy. But when she was elected to this office, Harris refused to share these files with victims. When child abuse survivors called her office requesting help, they described feeling like “office policy was we can’t provide you with anything.” Harris has always been vocal about sex crimes and child exploitation but she declined to take on the Catholic Church, one of San Francisco’s most powerful political institutions.
Friends in High Places
2011: Harris has a history of corrupt dealings with the gas and electric company PG&E, the company that burned down an entire neighborhood through negligence, killing eight. When the town’s mayor asked Harris to bring charges against PG&E for illegal cooperation between the company and regulators, Harris ignored it. After years of shielding the company from accountability, PG&E’s political consultants helped Harris run her presidential campaign.
2011–2014: Harris accepted donations from both Donald and Ivanka Trump during her campaigns for California attorney general.
2013: Harris overruled her own office’s recommendation to prosecute Steve Mnuchin’s bank for predatory lending during the housing crisis. As a result, no one at his bank faced prosecution and no one got their homes back. Harris not only allowed Mnuchin’s OneWest bank to get away with fraudulent lending and foreclosure practices that broke the law over a thousand times, ruining thousands of lives, but she also later tried to bury the evidence. Steve Mnuchin later returned the favor by donating to her Senate campaign.
2013: Harris refused to investigate the exploitative practices of multilevel marketing scheme Herbalife. Herbalife specifically targets Latinx communities. When the League of United Latin American Citizens and others pleaded with Harris to investigate Herbalife, she declined.
2015: Harris sought to block gender affirming surgery for a transgender person in prison. A federal judge had granted permission for the surgery, recognizing that to deny it would impose cruel and unusual punishment. Harris appealed the decision and sought a stay, arguing the procedure was “medically unnecessary” and would pose too much confusion over whether to force the person to stay in a men’s prison or transfer her to a women’s prison. She won her surgery and parole, no thanks to Harris.
Sex Worker Rights
2008: Harris opposed Proposition K, a ballot measure sex workers put forward to end arrests for prostitution in San Francisco. Harris said of the bill, “I think it is completely ridiculous, just in case there is any ambiguity about my position. . . . It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”
2015: Harris opposed legalization of sex work. A sex workers’ rights organization sued Harris and other California law enforcement, challenging the state’s sex solicitation law in a federal court. Harris filed a motion to dismiss that eventually succeeded in burying the case.
2016: As California’s attorney general, Harris, on two separate occasions, brought criminal charges against Backpage.com, a classified ads website that helped sex workers find work. Sex workers opposed Harris’s campaign against Backpage because they said the platform provided them more control over the conditions of their work. In the Senate, Harris played a role in crafting legislation to target Backpage and sponsored federal bills that led to the site’s seizure. According to some sex workers, the shutdown of Backpage forced them back into more dangerous forms of sex work.
Legalization of Marijuana
2004–2011: As district attorney, Harris oversaw over nineteen hundred marijuana convictions in San Francisco, a number that was higher than her predecessor.
2010: Harris opposed Proposition 19, a state initiative to legalize and tax marijuana for adults over twenty-one. She called it a “flawed public policy.”
2011–2017: Harris opposed the legalization of marijuana for recreational use during her years as a prosecutor.
2014: When a number of states petitioned to take marijuana off the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of most dangerous substances, Harris opted to not join.
Student Loan Forgiveness
2020: Harris opposes student debt forgiveness plans that completely eliminate student debt.
2017: Harris voted in favor of legislation to bundle together sanctions against North Korea, Russia, and Iran.
2017: Harris refused to cosponsor Senate bill S.2016, No Unconstitutional Strike against North Korea Act.
2017: Harris supported the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act, which deepened sanctions on Iran. The act was even too provocative for John Kerry, who said it would be dangerous because it would alienate Iranian people from any negotiations with the United States. This bill allowed Trump to impose sanctions on Iran that violated the nuclear deal.
2018: Harris voted for and heralded the passage of the $677 billion National Defense Authorization Act, the largest military budget the world had ever seen. It was larger than the next seven largest military budgets around the world combined. The budget included billions of dollars more in funding than the Trump administration requested. This vote was a clear indication that Harris supports a more belligerent US militarism.
2019: Harris opposed the peace process of the Korean Peninsula. South Koreans overwhelmingly supported the Trump–Kim summit while only 11 percent saw it in a negative light. Harris presented the peace process as an example of Trump’s closeness with dictators despite it being desired by South Koreans as de-escalation of the conflict.
2019: While calling for the end of the war in Afghanistan, Harris supports maintaining a military presence there.
2019: While claiming the need to “re-evaluate the relationship,” Harris told the Council on Foreign Relations that Saudi Arabia is an important ally and said she would not end the long-standing special relationship with the monarchy despite its complete lack of democracy, its repression against women, and its slaughter of Jamal Khashoggi. She referenced mutual areas of interest including counterterrorism. The Saudi–US partnership on counterterrorism has played a role in some of the most belligerent acts of our times, including the horrendous military intervention in Yemen, protracted intervention in Syria, and ongoing provocations towards Iran.
2019: Harris supported continued escalation of the war in Syria when Trump unilaterally announced withdraw of troops..
2020: Harris has failed to support Senator Markley’s bill to prohibit unauthorized United States military intervention into Venezuela.
2016: At an AIPAC speech in 2017, Harris cited her biracial background as a reason for supporting sending tens of billions in military aid to Israel. But interracial marriages between Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza with Israeli citizens are illegal in Israel.
2017: Harris met with Benjamin Netanyahu the day after Netanyahu announced a plan to expel forty thousand African migrants from Israel. Netanyahu branded them as “infiltrators” who pose a threat to Israel’s “Jewish Character.” Politicians across the political spectrum, including those from Netanyahu’s own party, have held anti-Black protests and referred to African immigrants in Israel as a “cancer,” “emitting a bad stench,” and “likely to cause all kinds of diseases.” In her meeting with Netanyahu she completely ignored Israel’s sanctioned anti-Black racism.
2017: Harris cosponsored Senate Resolution 6, which objected to a UN Security Council resolution adopted in 2016 that declared Israeli settlements a violation of international law. She has proudly pointed out that this was the first resolution she cosponsored as a senator.
2018: At the 2018 AIPAC Policy Conference Harris boasted: “As I child, I never sold Girl Scout Cookies, I went around with a Jewish National Fund box collecting funds to plant trees in Israel.” The Jewish National Fund has directly participated in land theft and ethnic cleansing campaigns targeting Palestinians and Bedouins.