By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
US Vice President-elect Kamala Devi Harris has been going as a Black American. Though she was only half Black, her Indian mother brought her up as a Black girl deliberately choosing to live in a Black neighborhood and sending her to a Black Baptist church. Kamala herself graduated from Howard, a leading Black University.
As a candidate for the elected post of Attorney General in California, and subsequently for the Senate, the Democratic Party nomination for the US Presidency, and lastly for the US Vice Presidency, Harris portrayed herself as a Black woman primarily, only occasionally identifying herself as a person of part Indian origin. This was sensible as Blacks voters outnumbered Indian immigrant voters.
As a Black political candidate and as an elected State prosecutor, Harris advocated a fair system of criminal justice to the Blacks, among other progressive reforms. Her running mate in the recent US Presidential election, Joe Biden, had dwelt a great deal on the issue of social justice for the Blacks in his manifesto. On justice in the field of crime, which is still not available to Blacks in the way it is to the Whites, Biden assured Black parents that they would feel confident that their children were safe walking the streets of America. “Our criminal justice system must be focused on redemption and rehabilitation and not incarceration,” he said and promised that he would call for the Scott’s SAFE Justice Act, an evidence-based, comprehensive bill to reform the criminal justice system.
He would “expand and use the power of the U.S. Justice Department to address systemic misconduct in police departments and prosecutors’ offices,” his manifesto said. Biden pointed out that President Trump had rolled back civil rights enforcement across the government and cut staff for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. These regressive measures would be reversed, he promised.
Harris, Biden’s Vice-Presidential candidate, spoke in the same vein. On Aug. 28, 2020, CNBC news reported her saying that she was “sickened” by the shooting of a Black man Jacob Blake in Wisconsin and said it was further evidence for the need to address racial injustice in the US. “The reality is that the life of a Black person in America has never been treated as fully human. And we have yet to fulfill that promise of equal justice under the law,” Harris said.
However, doubts had been expressed about her commitment to rendering a non-racist and fair criminal justice system to the Blacks. She was criticized for giving in too often apparently to avoid alienating herself from her potential White constituents. She was accused of playing to the White gallery in pursuit of her political ambitions in a multi-racial but White dominated America.
Writing on August 12, 2020 in vox .com, German Lopez even wondered if Harris was truly sympathetic to the Blacks. He pointed out that her record on criminal justice issues as Prosecutor in California had made critics describe her as a relic of a “tough on crime” era going back to the 1990s and 2000s. In a harsh indictment, Lara Bazelon, a law professor and former director for the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, said in a New York Times op-ed that “Harris had not bartered or traded to get the support of the more conservative law-and-order types. She gave it all away.”
It is pointed out that Harris’ office’s handling of over-incarceration, the death penalty, and wrongly incarcerated people, maintained the status quo for the most part. She carried on with the anti-truancy program that targeted parents of kids who skipped school and threatened them with prosecution and punishment to push them to get their children to school. She seemed to care little for the socio-economic roots of truancy among Black schools kids in poor neighborhoods.
Harris is undoubtedly personally opposed to the death penalty, and earlier in her career, she’d been willing to incur political wrath by refusing to seek it in 2004. But as Attorney General, she told voters she would enforce capital punishment. As Attorney General she seemed to avoid antagonizing the rank and file of her staff who wanted her to be tough on crime. She even went to the extent of describing herself as “California’s top cop”. In 2009 she wrote in her book that liberals should move beyond “biases against law enforcement.”
It is reported that Harris overlooked and defended law enforcement officials accused of misconduct. In one such case, a state prosecutor, Robert Murray, falsified a confession, using it to threaten the defendant with life imprisonment. Harris’s office did not view it as misconduct because it did not involve physical violence.
Harris also resisted some attempts to hold the police accountable for shootings. She opposed a bill which would have required the Attorney General’s office to investigate killings by police. She resisted efforts to create statewide standards for police-worn body cameras, meaning that not all officers should be made to wear body cameras. She initially also defied calls to have her office quickly investigate certain police shootings in California.
These made Anne Weills, an Oakland civil rights attorney, say that she was at best a half-hearted piecemeal reformer without a broader view criminal justice. Rights activists urged Harris to investigate two high-profile police shootings in California: Ezell Ford’s death in Los Angeles in 2014 and the 2015 killing of Mario Woods in San Francisco. But she demurred, saying she lacked legal grounds to overrule local prosecutors. This was valid as she had no absolute authority to over-rule them. But she could have tried to change the law, activists said.
According to Ann Weills, Harris’ reserve was because she had to win White votes in a future bid for the US Presidency. “It’s a very calculated process. For her to start to alienate the whole law enforcement establishment by taking on these investigations … it might have destroyed her career,” Weills said.
A 2015 bill, which failed to pass, would have required the attorney general to appoint a Special Prosecutor to take on cases involving police use of deadly force. Harris declined to support it.
In Harris’s Defense
Harris’s supporters say that her career as a law officer has been marked good as well as bad patches. They say that she had to balance the interests of the majority Whites and the minority Blacks in her department. Under her ‘Back on Track” project she allowed first-time drug offenders, including drug dealers, to get a high school diploma and a job instead of prison time. Top Democrats John Kerry and Bill Clinton had supported this program.
Under the “Three Strikes Law” a person who committed a third felony could go to prison for 25 years or to life, even if the third felony was a nonviolent crime. But Harris ordered that the San Francisco district attorney’s office only charge for a third strike if the felony was a serious or violent crime.
After the Black Lives Matter movement took off, Harris introduced or expanded training of police personnel to root out racial bias. She got the California Department of Justice to be the first statewide agency to require body cameras. And she launched OpenJustice, a platform that, among other data, allowed the public to track reported killings by police officers.
As a Senator, Harris had consistently voted for progressive criminal justice reforms. She introduced a bail reform bill with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) which would encourage States to reform or replace their bail systems. Hundreds of thousands of people are in jail before they’ve been convicted of a crime, just because they cannot afford to pay their bail. With Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC), Harris also introduced a bill that would for the first time make lynching a federal crime.
Seeking to reconcile the competing demands of police and civil rights groups, Harris tried to avoid antagonizing either side. Such tightrope walking has given rise to criticism that she could have done more to lead California’s efforts to limit police use of lethal force, one her critics said. But Harris’s fundamental plea is that seeking criminal justice reform and supporting law enforcement are not mutually incompatible. They should coexist.