At first sight, Kamala Harris looks like a progressive. She has adopted policy proposals such as Medicare for all, favors strengthening abortion rights and supports a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. But a quick look into her record shows that she is no friend of working people. She is both a “top cop” with a 28-year career in law enforcement and a thorough Democratic Party insider. Her roots in the establishment are very deep: She was already billed by the New York Times in 2008 as a potential presidential candidate thanks to her being a “tough fighter” as district attorney of San Francisco. She was hosting fundraisers for Obama in his first election run, and he appeared as a guest in her fundraisers later.
If glancing at Harris’ CV is enough to say that she isn’t even a wolf in sheep’s clothing, why bother writing an exposé of her? Mainstream outlets such as The Economist or VICE News recognize her shortcomings. There are already several long and detailed articles that scrutinize her past. But they often fail to capture a crucial fact: Harris does not exist in a vacuum. By looking at the meteoric ascent of a top cop, we can sketch out what is needed to become an insider, how law enforcement and state power operates in this country and how the most marginalized are used as punching bags to build political careers.
A Cop’s Way to the Presidency
According to her website, Harris has been fighting her entire life “to fix our broken criminal justice.” In fact, her career has been intimately linked to prosecution and punishment, but not in the way we might understand from reading that. She deliberately started her career in law enforcement so she could be close to decision-making and try to change the system from within. She first served as an intern in the attorney’s office of Alameda County (1988-89), and after passing the bar, she became deputy district attorney (1990-98). Harris slowly worked her way up to the highest levels of law enforcement, first by being elected district attorney of San Francisco in 2003, then district attorney of California in 2009, serving as the state’s DA from 2010 to 2016. From here, the story is familiar: She won a Senate seat in 2016 and launched her Democratic primary campaign in 2019.
When challenged about her history as a law enforcer, she usually refers to the reforms she implemented. But even if she now tries to rebrand herself to go with the times, her record shows that these reforms were far from progressive. She was a rabid law enforcer, fighting for increased punishments that especially targeted low-income and marginalized communities. Her most controversial measures include pushing for ways to incarcerate the parents of truant children and fighting the relaxing of parole requirements because that would threaten the supply of prison labor. She hardened the application of drug laws, preventing many offenders from accessing the existing rehabilitation system and favoring incarceration. And she increased the prosecution of “quality-of-life” crimes, such as panhandling, graffiti, loitering and living in a homeless encampment. She was not just a district attorney; she called herself San Francisco’s and California’s “top cop.” Her offices are one of the reasons that California was until recently a leader in mass incarceration.
District Attorney: A State Enforcer of Violence
Harris’ career has been that of a regular prosecutor, made more politically palatable by her being a black woman. In an age of overpolicing, when criminalization is thrown at every social issue (be it homelessness or drug abuse), Harris is just one more enthusiastic cog in the brutal American system. Her role in the system is replicated in some U.S. cities. The levers of state power are more often acted on by people of color. District attorney positions are no longer exclusively for white men. For example, Orlando, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston and New York have women of color as district attorneys. Like Harris, these women often choose to cooperate with the system. The few who fight back end up facing dire consequences. For example, Marilyn Mosby, the black district attorney of Baltimore, attempted to prosecute the policemen who murdered Freddy Grey in 2015. Today, she routinely faces death threats as well as a lawsuit for wrongful prosecution by the same policemen she tried to prosecute.
Women, especially those of color, often choose to be “tough fighters,” because it is one of the few ways that they can fight sexism and unconscious biases while remaining “respectable” candidates. This is true not only for district attorney elections but for all elections. A quarter of the women in the U.S. Senate have a background in law enforcement. The same way The Onion satirized Gina Haspel torturing double the amount of prisoners to earn the respect of her male colleagues, Harris proved herself a “tough fighter” by dropping the hammer down hard on brown and black people—so hard, in fact, that she was praised as “ruthless” by Gary Delagnes, the former president of the San Francisco police union.
The extent of Harris’ cooperation is remarkable because it involved breaking the work of Terence Hallinan, a “progressive” prosecutor and her former boss. Harris claims that she became a prosecutor to implement reforms and that she fought a broken system. But these “reforms” actually set back a “progressive” agenda for decades. Hallinan instituted the alternatives to incarceration for drug crimes that Harris would later dismantle. He would never seek the death penalty and forced officers to inform arrested people about their rights. He went as far as charging the San Francisco PD’s heads for a coverup after three off-duty officers were involved in a bar fight. The police union naturally hated him. Most of Hallinan’s harm reduction would not survive Harris. Harris consciously chose to run to his right and proceeded to dismantle most of these structures. The volatility of measures adopted by “progressive” prosecutors is especially important to point out in an age when the Democratic Socialists of America and left-liberals such as Shaun King focus on electing progressive district attorneys to reduce the harm as much as possible. Even if one ignores the shortcomings of District Attorney Larry Krasner’s approach in Philadelphia, Hallinan offers an example of how all this can be dismantled as soon as an election goes the wrong way, returning us to square one or worse.
Harris and Sex Work
Hallinan was also forward looking in an area Harris is notable for being bad on: sex work. In a decade marked by widespread prosecution, Hallinan looked toward decriminalizing sex work, calling it a public health issue and not a criminal offense. Harris reversed all of this, conducting prostitution stings in which female agents posed as sex workers. The crime of “intent to commit prostitution” was barely defined, catching many bystanders. As the state district attorney, she would go on to institute a program in which truckers and hotel workers would report suspected sex workers. While all these policies were enforced with the supposed intent of protecting sex workers, they only ended up harming these marginalized workers.
Harris’ supposed concern for sex worker exploitation contrasts with her refusal to engage actual sex abuse scandals if they involve powerful perpetrators. As San Francisco DA, she refused to prosecute Catholic priests accused of child abuse. She held on to documents that detailed up to 80 years of coverups of these abuses by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, refused reporters’ requests to see them for five years, and refused to compile with the California Public Records Act. As state DA, she refused to intervene in the Oakland PD’s sex-trafficking scandal, in which officers sexually exploited an underage girl. These two cases show that we should understand her crusade against sex work as just a way to round up support as a tough fighter by attacking marginalized communities that cannot fight back. This is hardly a new tactic: In the 1960s the NYPD used to do the same with the homosexual community. Just before an election, the police would ramp up their raids on gay clubs and entrapments of sexual “deviants.”
One of Harris’ last acts as CA district attorney before the 2016 Senate election to direct the prosecution of Backpage, a website used by sex workers to advertise their services. She spearheaded the arrest of the Backpage executives for pimping and conspiracy. The charges against those executives were far from solid, and Harris knew as much. She was among the petitioners to Congress to change the law so that she could target these same people. What better way to appear tough just before an election? This was just one more instance in which Harris used high-profile trials to enhance her standing with complete disregard for the marginalized communities who had to survive under her policies.
As Harris joined the Senate, the law changed. The antiprostitution campaign of 2013 would eventually give birth to the federal SESTA/FOSTA bills, which she helped get passed. Even if sex work is not a federal offense, FOSTA makes it a felony to promote or facilitate it. These bills are first and foremost an attack on web pages used by sex workers to stay safe. The sex workers rights organization COYOTE remarked that “after Fosta, it’s like hunger games for sex workers.” Criminalization kills, and these punitive measures harm sex workers the most. In sex workers’ eyes, “Harris may as well be Trump,” because she pushed to pass the greatest threat yet to their safety and livelihoods.
In light of the times, Harris recently changed her message on sex work. Considering that Harris antagonized sex workers in the past, it is hard to believe that her campaign suddenly found a stance in favor of sex workers. But in February 2019, she announced for the first time that she supports asymmetric decriminalization, also known as the Nordic model. Under this model, only the customers are prosecuted, so it is still a form of controlling sex workers. Scientific studies into the matter reveal that criminalizing any aspect of sex work, including only the “johns,” as Harris plans, causes “excessive harm” to the health and safety of sex workers. Sex workers know this and have stated in no uncertain terms that the Nordic model will hurt their safety and livelihoods. That Harris supports the harmful Nordic model while falsely labeling it “decrim” plays to media outlets that repeat falsehoods about sex workers and that never consult actual sex workers when discussing their work. Harris’ concern is not for the communities affected by her policies, but for appearing to be a progressive prosecutor for the mass of voters who do not understand the realities of sex work.
Kamala Harris for the People?
By many measures, Harris is a true politician. She claims to refuse donations from corporate PACs, but as an integral part of the Democratic machine, she knows how to court her donors. She refused to prosecute OneWest, the former employer of Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, for several illegal foreclosures, contradicting the advice of her own Consumer Law Section. Harris never explained why declined this prosecution, but she unsurprisingly was the only Senate Democratic candidate to get a donation from Mnuchin in 2016.
Harris has perfected the political act of saying one thing and immediately walking back. She refused to go to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, but met the California AIPAC representatives the day after, which the organization’s Twitter account praised. During that meeting, she went as far as tying her support to Israel to her support for civil rights in Selma.Another example is when she raised her hand in June’s Democratic debate about agreeing to abolish private insurance in the path to Medicare for all, but walked it back the day after, saying she supported other paths and leaving many wondering what her plans actually are. Judging by the usual dynamic of Democratic politicians in which she fits perfectly, it is reasonable to expect that she will pivot away from Medicare for all if she gets the nomination.
Harris unveiled her campaign on MLK day, and she has sought the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus. In a very full field of candidates, she ties her identity as a black woman deeply into her campaign. She rightfully confronted Joe Biden for his racist views on busing, and her platform for racial justice claims that she has been a “leader for racial justice throughout her career.” But we have seen that this does not match her record. Her commitment to racial justice stops very short of challenging American racism. She fails the litmus test of supporting Colin Kaepernick, claiming that Russia is behind the furor.
The 2020 Democratic primary has been designed to prevent a Sanders nomination without seeming rigged. Finding an acceptable outcome for progressives and centrists has no easy solution. Harris could manage to successfully paint herself as “for the people” and become this compromise. But her past as a top cop could also become overbearing. It is too soon to tell.