Jurisprudence

Kamala Harris Is Going to Need a Better Answer for Questions About Her Prosecutorial Record

California Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during a rally launching her presidential campaign on Sunday in Oakland.
California Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during a rally launching her presidential campaign on Sunday in Oakland.
Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

OAKLAND, Calif.—Sen. Kamala Harris is proud of who she is and, based on the messaging of her nascent presidential campaign, she wants you to know it. She’s a proud child of Jamaican and Indian immigrants turned civil rights activists, a proud “daughter of Oakland, California,” and most emphatically, a proud black woman.

Indeed, throughout one short week on the campaign trail, Harris’ public appearances have been unapologetic in their blackness. To start, Harris not only announced her candidacy at Howard University—the former California attorney general’s alma mater and one of the country’s oldest historically black colleges—she did so on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, roughly 47 years after Shirley Chisholm announced her historic run for president. (Some have speculated that Harris even borrowed the colors used by Chisholm’s campaign for her own campaign insignias.) And if Harris’ campaign announcement left any lingering questions as to her black identity (including those awkwardly asked by news pundits), her campaign launch rally on Sunday sought to end the debate.

The opening national anthem, belted by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir to the tune of clanging tambourines, was more spiritual than officious. The following musical performance—a drum-clad rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” by Oakland band Samba Funk—urged attendees not to simply sway and clap, but to dance. And the opening prayer, a political invective against poverty and discrimination, did not manifest bowed heads or clasped hands. Instead, it took the form of bouncing feet, raucous claps, and roaring “hallelujahs.” One supporter in attendance described her excitement for Harris as reaching “to a spiritual level.” Another described the rally as “a healing.”

When Harris emerged on stage like Oakland’s homecoming queen, welcomed by syncopated “KA-MA-LA” chants and skee-wees from her black sorority sisters, she could barely break her laughter long enough to speak. “What’s up, Oakland!?” she said through a wide smile. Harris seemed happy to be home.

But a few minutes into her speech, one dissenting attendee interjected from the crowd. “You’ve done terrible things!” the protester yelled before being swiftly drowned out by Harris’ supporters. While this protester failed to elevate his point beyond a stunted scream, his anger reflected growing resistance from the progressive base of Harris’ own party­—especially from progressive people of color—centered on her record as a former prosecutor.

Less than two weeks ago, a biting New York Times op-ed from Lara Bazelon, who worked alongside Harris during her time as San Francisco district attorney, accused Harris of withholding information about potentially corrupted criminal inquiries, declining to take a position on reducing sentences for low-level felonies, refusing to support a bill standardizing body cameras for police officers, and more. The firestorm of criticism following Bazelon’s op-ed was further catalyzed by a viral Twitter thread from Oakland resident Blake Simons, the co-host of the Hella Black podcast. In the thread, Simons castigated Harris for a record of “rampant anti-Blackness” which included “strengthening the prison industrial complex.” When I asked Simons what Harris would need to do to earn his trust, he said directly, “If I trusted Harris, I would be a fool. Only a fool would trust someone who has proven to be an enemy time and time again.”

Such critiques made their way to Sunday’s rally, where a small protest gathered to vocalize the rebukes that have proliferated across the progressive social web in the last week. At the counter-rally, there was a particular focus on Harris’ failure in 2013 to prosecute Steven Mnuchin, the current treasury secretary and former CEO of OneWest Bank, following the bank’s widespread foreclosure violations. One protester told me, “As a black woman, I would love to see another black woman become president. But this is much deeper than symbolism. Her record shows that she is not ‘for the people’ as she claims.”

Others haven’t been so quick to dismiss Harris. Maya Wiley, the New School’s senior vice president for social justice and a frequent commentator on MSNBC, told Slate she was “excited” about Harris as a candidate, and described her as a “natural born leader.” Wiley went on to praise Harris’ record of reforms as California’s attorney general, including advocacy for implicit bias training for police officers, an open data initiative, and workforce development programs for formerly incarcerated individuals. According to Wiley, “[full] reform requires more of the steps Sen. Harris helped to pioneer.”

Lateefah Simon, who’s worked closely with Harris and experienced her prosecutorial approach firsthand, also came to her defense. Simon, who before becoming the president of Oakland’s Akonadi Foundation spent much of her career battling prosecutors in the court system, was hired by Harris to lead the creation of San Francisco’s Re-entry Division, which seeks to help previously incarcerated people re-enter the community. Simon credits Harris with the creation of programs, like “Back on Track,” aimed at helping first-time, nonviolent drug offenders gain the skills and support needed to successfully navigate life outside of prison. Whereas some have been unforgiving of Harris’ alleged missteps, Simon has called attention to her courage. “People may not understand what Harris was up against,” she told Slate. “It takes an incredibly brave person to enter a system defined by structural racism and try to dismantle it.”

Still, not everyone is convinced. After Sunday’s rally, Johnetta Elzie, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist who led protests in Ferguson, Missouri, alongside DeRay McKesson in 2014, said she was “not excited” about Harris. Elzie first became familiar with Harris’ controversial record in 2017. “Having lived through the experience of protesting in Ferguson, and knowing the impact body cameras could’ve had on catalyzing our moment, I couldn’t understand her position,” she said. “I want her to sit with someone willing to ask the hard questions, and dissect her reasoning. I just want her to explain ‘why.’ ”

Ultimately, in a country where only 36 percent of black people say that they trust police officers, Harris must find way to reconcile her unapologetic blackness with her controversial record as San Francisco’s, and then California’s, “top cop.” Harris’ critics don’t just want authenticity. They want answers.