Kamala Harris Is a “First” With Nothing New to Offer

Identity as a Mask for Convention

Benin Bryant
Aug 19, 2020 · 7 min read
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Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Do you remember your first? Your first kiss? Your first date? Your first — love? What makes a “first” so unforgettable — so unique — is its novelty, its significance as an experience that stands in stark contrast to whatever preceded it. Kamala Harris, born of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, will be the first woman of color to run as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate. While her selection represents a “first” of sorts, the fervor surrounding her candidacy belies a bleak banality associated with national politics; the coupling of “tough on crime” posturing with willful blindness toward corporate misdeeds.

It isn’t the first time Harris has been celebrated for being a “first.” In 2003, the then deputy city attorney became the first African-American, the first Indian-American, and the first woman to serve as district attorney in California state history. She did so by defeating the most progressive district attorney in the country, incumbent Terence Hallinan. The then two-term San Francisco DA, having come from a background of staunch civil rights advocacy, eschewed the typical “tough on crime” (i.e., punish the poor) policies that had become all too popular among Democrats and Republicans alike in the 1990s.

Ahead of his time, Hallinan hired minority prosecutors (including Kamala Harris) and advocated for providing non-violent drug offenders with social services instead of incarceration. By diverting cases for non-violent drug crimes to rehabilitation programs, drug offenders were able to receive treatment for their addiction as opposed to punishment. Drug cases “diverted” into treatment programs were not recorded as victories for the prosecution but instead, as losses. Hallinan’s reward for being one of the first district attorneys of a major American city to implement — what is now regarded as — a best practice when deciding drug cases was a plummeting conviction rate. Sensing Hannilan’s vulnerability, Harris ran against her former boss in a subsequent election and employed the customary fear-mongering tactics associated with “tough on crime” campaigns.

Despite crime in San Francisco decreasing some 60% during Hannilan’s tenure as DA, Harris, nevertheless, attacked her former boss for being “weak” on crime. Harris’s campaign distributed election flyers with imagery reminiscent of the Southern Strategy, containing pictures of shirtless brown-skinned males brandishing firearms and flashing gang signs. In contrast to the novelty of San Francisco electing its first woman of color to serve as DA, the tried-and-true tactic of using dog-whistles to stoke fear (remember the Willie Horton ad) proved effective.

After serving as San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris would again represent a series of firsts by winning the state election for attorney general. Regardless of her service for San Francisco or the state of California, there was very little novelty in Harris’s tenure as “top cop.” Having run a “tough on crime” campaign rebranded as “smart on crime”, Harris did what was — and still is —common among law enforcement officials. She targeted the working poor, many of them black and brown. Witness the vice presidential candidate bragging about using the threat of criminal prosecution for truancy against a single mother of three children, who, despite having two jobs, was nevertheless homeless.

Harris remarks, “she just needed some help.” The only novelty on display here is Harris’s claim that the use of homicide and gang prosecutors to intimidate women in indigent circumstances somehow constitutes “help.” In another example, typical of “top cops,” Harris can be seen mocking protesters advocating for more schools and fewer prisons.

While there is nothing new about the mocking of protesters demanding more humane public policy, the lack of recognition by the self-advertised “smart on crime” prosecutor of the causal relationship between inadequate public education and street crime is at least original. Harris argues that any serious consideration of criminal justice reform must include the “acknowledgment” that violent crime does indeed occur and that there should be a “broad consensus” for the need for “serious, severe, and swift consequences.”

One need not wonder if Harris believes there should be any “acknowledgment” for wrongdoing on the part of her district attorney’s office. During Harris’s tenure as DA for San Francisco, Jamal Trulove was framed for murder by San Francisco police officers, spent six years in prison, and after his successful appeal received a $13 million settlement from the city. Not only are Harris and Trulove both Black, but they also share something else in common. Trulove hopes one day to receive an acknowledgment from Harris that “she could have messed up.” As Harris is yet to respond with that acknowledgment, Trulove has shown himself to be the bigger person and has expressed support for the official who wrongfully convicted him of murder. For district attorney’s offices run amok, it is still unclear what “serious, severe, and swift consequences” Harris believes they should incur.

The irony of a prosecutor speaking of the necessity for “acknowledgment” of wrongdoing is certainly nothing new. Given the obstinate tendencies of prosecutors to withhold exculpatory evidence, suppress evidence of civil rights violations, and uphold wrongful convictions, it is unfortunate that Harris was no outlier. Harris’s past resistance to policies suggesting body-worn cameras for California law enforcement officers and mandatory investigations of police shootings by the California attorney general’s office is par for the course.

What would have surely been a “first,” at least in the era of big finance, would have been a “tough on white-collar crime” prosecutor. OneWest Bank, a regional bank headquartered in Southern California, was once run by President Trump’s Secretary of Treasury, Steve Mnuchin. When Harris was the attorney general of California, her consumer law section uncovered evidence of widespread violations of California’s foreclosure laws by the Mnuchin led bank. Families, many still reeling from the 2008 mortgage crisis, were allegedly rushed out of their homes due to OneWest violating notice statues in addition to backdating documents. Harris refused the recommendations of her own office and declined to indict OneWest Bank. The same can not be said, however, for the 1900 marijuana convictions she oversaw while serving as DA for San Francisco.

Those celebrating Harris for being a “first” among vice presidential candidates should ask themselves if it mattered to the poor working women of color that the author of their persecution was Black, Indian, and female? Do Harris celebrants believe the identity of the “top cop” mattered to those receiving convictions for marijuana possession? Do they believe a wrongfully convicted Black man feels less wronged when convicted by a Black prosecutor? It’s fair to surmise that Harris’s identity mattered very little to those who donated to her campaigns for California attorney general and Senate in 2011 and 2017, respectively, which included contributions from none other than Mnuchin himself and one-time owner of OneWest bank, George Soros.

The great irony of Harris’s selection is the extent to which a candidate with a record marked by conventional political tropes can be celebrated as being a “first.” There is nothing new about “tough on crime” prosecutors building their careers on punishing the poor. Even less novel is the kid-gloves treatment of corporate malfeasance by our nation’s “top cops.” The only novel feature of our modern body politic, given our nation’s ever-increasing diversity, is the implication that claims to identity can, and will, Trump substance.

If the Biden/Harris ticket is victorious in November, and they govern in a manner commensurate with their respective records, rest assured, we can take solace that their tenure in office won’t be our first heartbreak.

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Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Benin Bryant

Written by

Born and raised in Chicago, living in San Francisco, CA. Can be reached at beninbf@gmail.com, and twitter @beninbf

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Benin Bryant

Written by

Born and raised in Chicago, living in San Francisco, CA. Can be reached at beninbf@gmail.com, and twitter @beninbf

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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