When Cat Brooks casts her vote for president in about 80 days, the Oakland, California-based organizer and former Democratic Socialists of America-endorsed candidate for mayor will vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — without joy or enthusiasm.
“I’m not a fan of Kamala Harris,” Brooks said Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Biden named the California senator and former state attorney general as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee.
“I’m not a fan of how she treated the families of victims of police violence, I’m not a fan of how she failed to keep police accountable for violence,” she added. “I’m frustrated that once again, as a Black woman, I don’t get to walk into the voting booth excited, and I have to choose the lesser of two evils.”
Moderate modern-day civil rights movements like the Poor People’s Campaign, co-founded by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have warmly welcomed Harris’s nomination as an historic moment that reflects real opportunity. And even some militant and far-left organizers and activists recognize in Harris at least a chance of meaningful reform.
But Brooks’ attitude reflects a feeling common among many other activists working on defunding the police, de-incarceration, and other racial-justice reforms under the broad umbrella of the Black Lives Matter coalition — including many who took to the streets after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Barring an unforeseen turnaround, Harris’ critics from the left, some of whom maintain that the former prosecutor’s embrace of her background as a “top cop” is a disqualifying, will go to the polls and cast reluctant votes for the Biden-Harris ticket without volunteering for the campaign or offering much vocal support. And that may be a best-case scenario.
Harris’ record as a prosecutor is complicated. She was one of the first to support drug-diversion offenders and risked her career by refusing to pursue the death penalty for a cop-killer. She’s also the “top cop” who refused to prosecute police implicated in their own killings, fought to uphold the death penalty, and oversaw wrongful prosecutions she’s yet to explain.
Restorative justice is all about second chances, and some believe Harris deserves hers. Some of the people declaring “Kamala is a cop” and refusing to support the ticket “are the same people saying they believe in restorative justice,” said Dorsey Nunn, a formerly incarcerated man who now serves as executive director Legal Services for Prisoners With Children.
Nunn was one of the organizers of a first-of-its-kind candidates’ town hall last fall, held in the old Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, moderated by former prisoners. Harris made headlines a few months earlier for skewering Joe Biden, her future running mate, over his coauthoring of the 1994 crime bill — one key decision that, scholars argue, filled prisons with Black people and undid many of the Civil Rights Movement’s victories.
Coming to prison, to face the kind of people she’d put there, meant Harris risked the same treatment. Harris was one of only three candidates to attend. “She showed up in a way that other people don’t show up,” Nunn said. “That was worth something.”
What might also be worth something would be some outreach from the Biden-Harris campaign to critics working in criminal-justice reform, or some honest reckoning with Harris’ record. Yet so far, Harris has not demonstrated much interest in rapprochement with her left critics.
In her first speech as Biden’s running mate, Harris did not mention George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or any victims of police violence. She offered a nod to the “people of every age and color and creed who are finally declaring in one voice that yes, black lives matter,” but also embraced her prosecutorial record, boasting that she’d taken on drug cartels and human traffickers.
While Harris is progressive by most district attorneys’ standards, she was regressive and pro-police often enough to not deserve her self-applied label as a “progressive prosecutor,” as University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. She fought to uphold the death penalty, and also demonstrated a tendency to push bad cases, like the wrongful prosecution of San Francisco actor and musician Jamal Trulove. Using bad evidence ginned up by police, Harris’ DA office sent Trulove to prison for a murder he did not commit, a mistake that later cost taxpayers $13 million in a civil rights settlement.
Trulove offered his own endorsement of his former persecutor via Instagram on Thursday, but, like Brooks and others, he couched it as more anti-Trump than pro-Harris. “My reservations with her are not bigger than this election,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to fall into that Trump trick bag, and I suggest you don’t either. Y’all make sure man y’all going to rock the vote for Biden and for Kamala.”
If Harris would account for these missteps, she might win over skeptics like Brooks.
“She could apologize to the families of hundreds of victims of police violence murdered on her watch. She could do that.”
“She could apologize,” Brooks said. “She could say, ‘I was wrong.’ She could apologize to the families of hundreds of victims of police violence murdered on her watch. She could do that.”
None of these critiques can be news to the Biden and Harris campaign, but activists and academics contacted for this article were unaware of any outreach to the more radical segments of the Black Lives Matter movement, even though Harris spent more than a year running for president and months as a VP pick-in-waiting.
“I personally haven’t heard of any dedicated outreach from Kamala Harris or her circle to left critics and organizers doing the work on police and prisons,” said Shanti Singh, a San Francisco-based tenant organizer who worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign (and on successful police-reform campaigns before that).
“They’re just telling us to shut up and vote for them,” Singh added. “I doubt Kamala’s approach will break that mold.”
At the same time, a Biden-Harris ticket represents the best opportunity to enact meaningful criminal-justice reform, particularly if Democrats also manage to break the deadlock in the Senate. “This could be her big moment, to be the face of criminal justice reform on the national stage,” said USF’s Bazelon. “I want her to take to Washington people who are truly progressive and pushing the envelope — not the same old centrist cast of former DAs and U.S. attorneys.”
If Harris plans to do that, she hasn’t said so publicly. Lurking in the ambiguity is the specter of the past. If Joe Biden built prisons as the crime bill’s energetic author, Kamala Harris eagerly filled them. That is not something reform advocates will ever forget.
“I personally don’t feel very enthusiastic about seeing Kamala Harris on the ballot,” said Taina Vargas-Edmond, the Los Angeles-based cofounder of Initiate Justice, which organizes prison inmates and their family members. “She’s a self-described progressive prosecutor, but those of us who are progressive [prison] abolitionists are very disappointed in her.”
And so the Biden-Harris campaign appears poised to march toward November without the energy or the enthusiasm of this summer’s mass marches. If Harris pivots again toward the center, and the tough-on-crime top cop appears again, the ticket may be lucky just to get votes.
“I don’t plan on knocking on any doors, and I don’t know of any activist organizers planning on doing any active campaign work,” Vargas-Edmond said. “I don’t really know of anyone excited about this.”
CORRECTION Aug. 15, 2020, 2:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Sen. Kamala Harris did not say “Black lives matter.” According to a transcript of her speech, Harris said: “People of every age and color and creed who are finally declaring in one voice that yes, Black lives matter.”
Cover: U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris delivers remarks after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden spoke on August 13, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)