On July 20, the California Bernie delegates to this year’s Democratic National Convention issued a press release along with an open letter to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, calling on him to choose from a short list of three vice presidential candidates they had arrived at through a democratic vote: Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), former State Senator Nina Turner (D-OH), and Representative Karen Bass (D-CA). News of the letter was greeted with national interest; several publications quoted from its contents and mentioned that over 90 percent of those voting (most of the delegation) strongly agreed on the three women. Mainstream media were quick to point out that California Senator Kamala Harris was not among those preferred by progressives—a stinging point noticed by many.
Since then, the profile of Congresswoman Bass has been elevated and promoted in the national press. But whether Biden should decide to go with Bass, Harris, or any other on his reported short list, the conversation on the vice-presidential pick is incomplete without the flip-side to what has so far been positive appeals for a strong progressive. Indeed, in a time of COVID, Black Lives Matter protests and police state repression, the records of both Senator Harris and Representative Val Demings (another on Biden’s short list) warrant greater scrutiny.
There can be no denying that in the era of Black Lives Matter, public awareness regarding the conduct of law enforcement is such that the spoken truth of our nation’s criminal justice system being fundamentally biased against people of color and the poor is without question. And yet, the records of both Harris and Demings indicate their careers were built and advanced on upholding wrongful convictions, backing police accused of excessive force, and a general “get tough on crime” approach that disproportionally targeted people of color, immigrants and the poor -- who had no power, financially or politically, to alter their conditions.
Donald Trump will not be defeated without the votes of the progressive base, which now skews toward younger people of color and for which issues of social injustice are paramount.
This included Cheree Peoples, a mother who was arrested under Harris’ signature truancy program, a project that targeted parents. Cheree’s daughter Kayla missed school often because of chronic and painful sickle cell anemia, a condition known to her school’s administrators. Unsurprisingly, Black and Latino parents were disproportionately singled out for punitive actions. This also includes Kevin Cooper, who came within four hours of being executed in 2004 and to who five judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit have stated is likely innocent. As Attorney General from 2011 to 2017 and with evidence in her custody that could have been tested to prove his innocence, Harris opposed DNA testing. It was not until a much-read New York Times article on the case went viral, that she reversed her position.
As San Francisco’s District Attorney, Harris supported a 2008 San Francisco policy that forced police to notify ICE when undocumented children committed felonies. Despite San Francisco officially being a sanctuary city, police leveled felony charges against a 13-year-old Australian boy of color who took 46 cents from a classmate he was in a fight with. The boy was detained by ICE for a few days, as they prepared to deport him and his family. Good legal work and media glare ultimately prevented the deportation, but over 100 other youth fell victim to the policy she supported; many were handed over before innocence or guilt could be established.
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And then there is Harris’ open and sustained defiance—to the point of nearly causing a constitutional crisis—of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling which required the state to reduce the overcrowding of its prison population which, according to a just published American Prospect article, “was stuffed to some 200 percent of its designed capacity.” The article goes on to highlight the case of Daniel Larsen, wrongfully convicted and serving 27-years-to-life, under California’s “three strikes” law. Harris argued “that even if Danny was innocent, his conviction should not be reversed because he waited too long to file his petition.” Thankfully, the U.S. Ninth Circuit court of Appeals denied Harris’ appeal.
While the scrutiny of upholding wrongful convictions resides with Harris, critiques over a lack of accountability for cases involving police brutality follow Florida Representative Val Demings. A recent Politico article found “Demings routinely sided with police over community complainants and operated cautiously within the system, despite longstanding complaints that the department was prone to excessive force.” Even as juries decided against the Orlando police department in several high-profile cases, Demings’ view that police actions were within the scope of allowable practices has remained unchanged. Her op-ed in the Washington Post, written four days after the death of George Floyd where she asked former fellow officers, “what in the hell are you doing?” seemed to indicate that finally, a line had been crossed. Still, coming just over two years after co-sponsoring the 2018 Protect and Serve Act (which would have made assaulting a police officer a federal hate crime)—a bill that was opposed by the NAACP, ACLU and other groups—the conversion hardly inspires faith that her newfound “wokeness” is genuine.
All of which goes to the heart of the reason why so many progressives oppose both Harris and Demings as contenders for vice president: in neither candidate, is there a sense of authenticity when it comes to a compelling case being made for why they are the right choice for the job at this historically significant moment. Progressives are looking for the kind of exceptional leadership that can help usher in the transformational changes so urgently needed. And as progressive delegates to the convention, we are calling for a VP candidate with a history of demonstrated fortitude in the face of entrenched power, not someone skilled at just-found-religion rhetoric.
The records of the congresswomen here are otherwise: Harris succumbed to the worst sort of transactional politics when she chose not to prosecute Senate campaign donor Steven Mnuchin for foreclosure violations. Demings lacked the courage to defy the Orlando police union to stand up for 84-year-old Daniel Daley. At a time of increased awakening to the problems in law enforcement and politics, they chose the side of corrupt power over those who were its victims.
Donald Trump will not be defeated without the votes of the progressive base, which now skews toward younger people of color and for which issues of social injustice are paramount. Without their votes, Democrats will lose. California progressive delegates chose their own short list to send to Joe Biden. Did he hear them? We cannot be sure. But again, we make the case for who should—and should not be —Vice President. And as with other prominent demands, come the beginning of August, we will find out if the Democratic Party remains a party of outdated conventional wisdoms, or becomes one that listens to a future calling for it to be better.