Today marks the end of Trump’s disastrous and divisive presidency, and the start of a new era under President Joe Biden. While he is not entirely unproblematic, few would disagree that his inauguration marks a fresh start for America and a chance for the nation to heal and begin making amends. With Biden comes America’s first ever female vice-president – a remarkable achievement in itself. However, that she is a woman of colour makes her election even more important and historic. I usually write about women who lived and died long ago, but as we witness history being made today I wanted to share why I think Kamala Harris represents a hope for a better America!
1. HER BACKGROUND
“My mother had a saying: ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”
- Kamala Devi Harris was born in California on 20th October 1964. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was an Indian immigrant who held a PhD in biology and whose work on the progesterone receptor gene stimulated work in breast cancer research. Her father, Donald J. Harris, is also a PhD, and works as an economics professor at Stanford. He arrived in the US from Jamaica in 1961.
- She regularly attended an African American Church with a neighbour, was also well-versed in Hindu mythology and often accompanied her mother to temple where she would sing.
- As children, she and her sister visited their mother’s family in Chennai several times. She credited her maternal grandfather with having a positive influence on her – he was a retired Indian civil servant whose progressive views on democracy and women’s rights left a lasting impression.
- Harris has remained in touch with her Indian and Jamaican family throughout her life.
- She has spoken of being segregated from white children in her father’s neighbourhood who were not allowed to play with her when she visited him.
- Harris attended the historically-black Howard University in Washington DC where she graduated with a degree in political science and economics.
- Harris then returned to California to attend law school at the University of California. She graduated in 1989 and was admitted to the California Bar a year later.
Thus, Kamala knows the value of immigration, ethnic and religious diversity, and racial integration first hand. She also values education, and has been properly educated in politics, economics, and the law – a welcome change from a celebrity with no political or legal history!
“Don’t pretend that you can just be oblivious to politics. You can’t. What you never do is break your personal code. Have a code and keep it. You should never compromise what your priorities are.”
2. HER CAREER
- In February 1998, she became the chief of the Career Criminal Division, prosecuting homicide, burglary, robbery, and sexual assault cases.
- In August 2000, Harris took a new job in San Francisco running the Family and Children’s Services Division representing child abuse and neglect cases. Considering the previous president bragged about sexual assault and famously locked children in cages, to have someone in power who once worked to put people like him in prison can only be a sign of progress.
- In the November 2016 election, Harris immediately promised to protect immigrants from the policies of President Donald Trump. At Trump’s impeachment in 2020, Harris addressed Senate at reminded them that no one should be above the law, even the president. Harris voted to convict the president on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, but alas was unsuccessful. Karma won ut in the end though yay.
“What’s important for my daughter to know is that… if you are fortunate to have opportunity, it is your duty to make sure other people have those opportunities as well.”
3. PROSECUTION AND CRIME
“I often advocate that we look at many sides of an issue, walk in someone else’s shoes, and identify and reject false choices.”
- Harris became the first person of colour elected as district attorney of San Francisco – following which the conviction rate raised by 26%.
- From 2004 to 2006, achieved an 87 percent conviction rate for homicides and a 90 percent conviction rate for all felony gun violations.
- Pushed for higher bail for criminal defendants involved in gun-related crimes, tightened legal loopholes, sought minimum 90-day sentences for possession of concealed or loaded weapons, and charged all assault weapons possession cases as felonies
- Pledged never to seek the death penalty as she believed life imprisonment without parole is a better and more cost-effective punishment than the death penalty
- Worked against companies including Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google in order to protect users’ privacy and online safety.
- Signed an accord with the attorney general of Mexico to improve coordination of law enforcement resources targeting transnational gangs engaging in the sale and trafficking of human beings across the San Ysidro border crossing.
- Issued a report titled, “Gangs Beyond Borders: California and the Fight Against Transnational Crime” addressing the prominent role of drug, weapons, and human trafficking, money laundering, and technology crimes employed by various drug cartels and offering recommendations for state and local law enforcement to combat the criminal activity
“I’m opposed to any policy that would deny in our country any human being from access to public safety, public education, or public health, period.”
- In 2014, Harris introduced OpenJustice, a criminal justice data initiative making available statewide data on arrest rates, deaths in law enforcement custody, arrest-related deaths, and law enforcement deaths. These blew open revelations about racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
- In 2004, Harris worked with civil rights activist Lateefah Simon to create San Francisco Reentry Division. The flagship program was the Back on Track initiative, a first-of-its-kind reentry program for first-time nonviolent offenders age 18–30. The program maintained rigorous graduation requirements including 220 hours of community service, obtaining a high-school-equivalency diploma, maintaining steady employment, taking parenting classes, and passing drug tests. After graduation, the court would dismiss the case and expunge the graduate’s record. Over six years, the 200 people graduated from the program had a reoffending rate of less than 10%, compared with 53% of wider offenders. This became a model for reformation programmes, especially as it was so much cheaper than imprisoning low-level offenders. In 2009, a state law encouraged California counties to start similar programs
“This virus has no eyes, and yet it knows exactly how we see each other—and how we treat each other. And let’s be clear—there is no vaccine for racism. We’ve gotta do the work. For George Floyd. For Breonna Taylor. For the lives of too many others to name. For our children. For all of us.”
- In 2015, Harris conducted a 90-day review of implicit bias in policing and police use of deadly force.
- In April 2015, Harris introduced the first of its kind “Principled Policing: Procedural Justice and Implicit Bias” training, designed in conjunction with Stanford University psychologist and professor Jennifer Eberhardt, to help police achieve neutral policing and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the community. All Command-level staff received the training, though given recent events its clear this was a limited success.
- Initiated a package of reforms that also included increased recruitment of diverse special agents, an expanded role for the department to investigate officer-related shooting investigations and community policing.
- Harris’s became the first statewide agency in the country to require all its police officers to wear body cameras.
- She implemented a new state law requiring every police force in California to collect, report, and publish expanded statistics on how many people are shot, seriously injured or killed by peace officers throughout the state.
- In 2016, Harris announced a patterns and practices investigation into purported civil rights violations and use of excessive force by the two largest law enforcement agencies in Kern County, California.
- Harris was one of the most outspoken opponents of Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and she also questioned Mark Zuckerberg and Christopher Wylie on reports that Cambridge Analytica misappropriated the data from 87 million Facebook users to suppress the votes of African Americans and the extent to which Facebook violated the privacy of its users.
- In May, Harris heatedly questioned Secretary Nielsen about the Trump administration family separation policy, under which children were separated from their families when the parents were taken into custody for illegally entering the U.S. In June, after visiting one of the detention facilities near the border in San Diego, Harris became the first senator to demand Nielsen’s resignation.
5. LGBT + RIGHTS
“The bells will ring and the marriages will begin. And it’s a great day in our state for equal protection under the law for all people.”
- She created a Hate Crimes Unit, focusing on hate crimes against LGBT children and teens in schools.
- In 2006, Gwen Araujo, a 17-year-old American Latina transgender teenager, was murdered by two men who later used the “gay panic defense”. Harris, alongside Araujo’s mother, convened a two-day conference of at least 200 prosecutors and law enforcement officials nationwide to discuss strategies to counter such legal defenses. Harris subsequently supported A.B. 1160, the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act, advocating that California’s penal code include jury instructions to ignore bias, sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion in making their decision, also making mandatory for district attorney’s offices in California to educate prosecutors about panic strategies and how to prevent bias from affecting trial outcomes. In September 2006, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed A.B. 1160 into law; the law put California on record as declaring it contrary to public policy for defendants to be acquitted or convicted of a lesser included offense on the basis of appeals to “societal bias”.
- She successfully fought against California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
- In 2014, Attorney General she co-sponsored legislation to ban the gay and trans panic defense in court, which passed and California became the first state with such legislation.
6. WOMEN’S RIGHTS
“No woman should be told she can’t make her own decisions about her body. If women’s reproductive rights come under attack, I will be standing up for women.”
- obtained a guilty plea and a four-year prison sentence from a stalker who used Facebook and social engineering techniques to illegally access the private photographs of women whose social media accounts he hijacked.
- In 2015, several purveyors of so-called “revenge porn” sites based in California were arrested, charged with felonies, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In the first prosecution of its kind in the United States, Kevin Bollaert was convicted on 21 counts of identity theft and six counts of extortion and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
- In December, Harris called for the resignation of Senator Al Franken, asserting on Twitter, “Sexual harassment and misconduct should not be allowed by anyone and should not occur anywhere.”
- Harris articipated in questioning the FBI director’s limited scope of the investigation on Kavanaugh regarding allegations of sexual assault. She voted against his confirmation
“What I want young women and girls to know is: You are powerful and your voice matters. You’re going to walk into many rooms in your life and career where you may be the only one who looks like you or who has had the experiences you’ve had. But you remember that when you are in those rooms, you are not alone. We are all in that room with you applauding you on. Cheering your voice. And just so proud of you. So you use that voice and be strong.”
Thus, in almost every important area of government, Harris provides the tonic to the prejudice, hatred, and ignorance espoused and implanted by Trump. While no one is saying that Harris and Biden’s administration will fix America over night (which even a black, liberal president could not do), their election is a sign that America is ready to welcome progress again, and provides hope for the future of the nation and the world at large that political mistakes can be undone with the right people at the helm.