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As Kamala Harris Makes History as VP Pick, Her “Top Cop” Record Faces New Scrutiny Amid BLM Protests

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s selection of California Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate for the November election makes her the first Black woman and the first Indian American on a major party presidential ticket. “It’s hard to overstate how historic, how monumental this is,” says Aimee Allison, president of She the People, which works to elevate the political voice and leadership of women of color. But in the midst of the largest protest movement in American history against racist policing, Briahna Joy Gray, the former national press secretary for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, says “there’s a great deal of frustration” with Harris, who is “known for being the top cop from California.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re beginning with the top news here in this country. Joe Biden has selected Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his vice-presidential running mate, making her the first Black woman and the first Indian American to be on a major party presidential ticket. Kamala Harris is the daughter of immigrants, her father from Jamaica, her mother from India. Biden and Harris are scheduled to make their first appearance today in Wilmington, Delaware. Harris will officially accept her nomination next Wednesday during the Democratic National Convention. In a tweet, Biden described Harris as a, quote, “fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants.” Kamala Harris had endorsed Biden in March after challenging him for the nomination.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: I really believe in him, and I have known him for a long time. One of the things that we need right now is we need a leader who really does care about the people and who can therefore unify the people. And I believe Joe can do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris even though the two sparred on the campaign trail. In the first Democratic debate last year, Harris criticized Biden over his comments about working with segregationists in the Senate and for his opposition to Delaware’s attempts to bus students in an effort to integrate its schools in the 1970s.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden. I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe — and it’s personal. I was actually very — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.

AMY GOODMAN: Kamala Harris has served in the Senate since 2017. She previously served as California’s attorney general for six years and, before that, as district attorney of San Francisco for seven years. She’s a graduate of Howard University, the historically Black college. While Harris has been credited with pushing criminal justice reform in the Senate, she has been criticized for her record as a prosecutor in California by progressives, in part for her reluctance to prosecute police brutality cases. She once called herself California’s “top cop,” and wrote in 2009, quote, “If we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up.”

Biden’s selection of Harris was celebrated by many progressive organizations. NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson said the selection of Harris is, quote, “the culmination of the tireless work of Shirley Chisholm, Charlene Mitchell, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan, Ida B. Wells, and Myrlie Evers in their fight for representation and equality,” unquote. Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash praised Harris for taking the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, endorsing the Green New Deal and taking on Big Oil as California’s attorney general.

Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also praised Harris, tweeting, “She understands what it takes to stand up for working people, fight for health care for all, and take down the most corrupt administration in history.”

Meanwhile, at the White House, President Trump attacked Harris, describing her as, quote, “nasty.” He made no mention of the fact he had twice donated to Harris’s reelection bid to be California’s attorney general in 2014.

We’re joined now by two guests. Joining us from Harris’s hometown of Oakland, California, Aimee Allison, president and founder of She the People, which has worked to elevate the political voice and leadership of women of color. Also with us, Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. In 2019, she wrote a piece for The Intercept headlined “A Problem for Kamala Harris: Can a Prosecutor Become President in the Age of Black Lives Matter?”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Aimee Allison, let’s begin with you. Can you respond to Joe Biden’s announcement yesterday that Kamala Harris will join him on the presidential ticket as his vice-presidential running mate?

AIMEE ALLISON: Well, it’s hard to overstate how historic, how monumental this is. It’s a watershed moment for women of color across the country. We’ve worked tirelessly over the last three years, but standing on the shoulders of women of color who have worked as engaged citizens and as the most loyal Democrats to lead.

And for Kamala Harris to join the top of the ticket is not just a nod to our voting power, the necessity of women of color to turn out in historic numbers in November; it’s an indication that the establishment in the Democratic Party, who just four years ago could not imagine women of color and Black women being in executive leadership and in governance, now acknowledges that America needs the leadership of women of color, and so our time has come.

It’s a very exciting moment, and I’ve been hearing from women of color all over the country how thrilled they are. The move deepens the enthusiasm that women of color, particularly in battleground must-win states, feel about the Biden ticket, the Biden-Harris ticket. It’s going to get people to be able to see themselves more deeply in the campaign. And that’s going to bode well for a path to victory in November.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask, Briahna Joy Gray, your response to Vice President Biden’s choice. And what message is he sending in terms of what sectors of the electorate he is courting or he is deciding that he doesn’t need to placate with his vice-presidential choice?

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: Yeah, I think there can be no doubt that of course this nomination is historic. But something else historic is going on right now, which is that we are in the middle of the largest protest movement in American history. And it’s a protest movement that’s all about finding nonpunitive, noncarceral solutions to the kinds of economic problems that are plaguing disproportionately Black and Brown communities, but all Americans, especially right now in the middle of this additionally historic global pandemic.

And so there’s a great deal of frustration that there is this choice not only to nominate a candidate who is known as the author of what is actually called the Joe Biden crime bill, but that he’s gone and also selected a running mate who is known for being the top cop from California, the state that has the second-highest number of incarcerated people in America. And moreover, Kamala Harris is someone who has had these criticisms leveraged at her throughout, very early on, at the start of her campaign, and, to many people in the activist community, has done very little to assuage people’s concerns about her previous stances or to demonstrate the level of growth that we would like to see.

So, I think that to the point that Ms. Allison was making about whether or not Black voters in swing states are going to be more inclined to turn out, what we saw from poll after poll is that Joe Biden had the base locked down, and he is often celebrating the fact that Black voters overwhelmingly voted for him. So it’s not clear to me what the the electoral value of this is, when you contrast that especially with the fact that younger voters, in particular, and swing voters are less enthusiastic about this campaign in part because they were looking for a kind of fundamental change in this campaign cycle, a desire that was only exacerbated by the health crisis and economic crisis that we’re in now. And Joe Biden has articulated very clearly that he is the candidate who promises that nothing will fundamentally change.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. That’s Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid. And we’re joined, as well, by Aimee Allison, who is the founder of She the People. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Is This All?” by Bobbi Humphrey. This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Joe Biden has selected Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his vice-presidential running mate, making her the first Black woman and the first Indian American to be on a major party presidential ticket. Harris, the daughter of immigrants, her father from Jamaica, her mother from India.

We’re speaking with Aimee Allison, president of She the People, and Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign and contributing editor to Current Affairs.

Aimee Allison, I wanted to ask about, well, Briahna’s tweet yesterday. Just as the announcement came down, she tweeted, “We are in the midst of the largest protest movement in American history, the subject of which is excessive policing, and the Democratic Party chose a 'top cop' and the author of the Joe Biden crime bill to save us from Trump. The contempt for the base is, wow.” Aimee Allison, your response?

AIMEE ALLISON: I have so much respect for the analysis and the acknowledgment of the importance of the call for racial justice. There’s no doubt that racial justice, and issues dealing with America’s racism, is going to unify a multiracial coalition as we go into the polls.

But here’s what we understand about the base. Women of color — Black, Latina, Asian American and Indigenous — form 25% of the voting base in several of the must-win key states, battleground states, such as Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida.

We held a series of listening sessions over the last six weeks to ask women of color who lead voter engagement, voter registration and movement building, organizational building on the ground, what they needed. Did they see themselves in the Biden campaign? What are the issues they care about? We heard, loud and clear, that there was an enthusiasm gap and that the vast majority of them wanted to see a woman of color on the ticket, and that the conversations and the engagement in the middle of a pandemic, with voter suppression alive and well in those states, and the fact that we have a economic crisis where actually people are not able to afford their rent as of this month — all of those calamities, we’re basically going to have to crawl through glass to be able to vote and get our votes counted. And having a woman of color on the ticket was part of that, but it wasn’t the only thing.

You know, the world doesn’t rise and — the sun doesn’t rise and set on one candidate. Much of the excitement right now and how we translate the movement that we’ve been seeing, calling for Black Lives Matter and justice and a lot of the changes in policing that we’ve been in conversation with, are local issues. And what I’m hearing from battleground state folks is, it isn’t just the top of the ticket, it’s also down-ballot races. There are three women who are running for — who are Democratic nominees for Senate. There’s an historic number of women of color running for Congress. But it’s those local, the state legislative, city council races where the call to defund police will be translated into policy and budgets. That’s where the fight is. And so, it’s not an either/or. It’s that we continue to push.

My final point is, you know, Kamala Harris is not the same person as she was in 2011. She has a very progressive voting record as a senator. It’s 2020. She showed up in this historic pandemic time as an advocate for economic justice and for racial justice in the ways that are very promising. The movement has strength, and this is an indication of its influence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Briahna Gray, what about this issue, one, that Kamala Harris has evolved as a political leader? The issue of the down-ballot impact of this choice? And also, the senator that you worked for, Senator Bernie Sanders, his adviser, Chuck Rocha, responded to Biden’s pick by saying, quote, “She is a good pick. A safe pick.” Your response to that?

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: I think that it’s — I would agree with the fact that it’s a safe pick. But I’m a little confused by the argument that this is the pick that’s going to turn out Black women in particular, for two reasons. One, because the reason that Black women are characterized as the base is because of our commitment to voting for the Democratic ticket kind of regardless of who is on it. And that is, of course, a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing for the Democratic Party, because there are all of these instances historically in which Black women have been the “but for” factor to Democratic candidates being able to pull through against oftentimes truly heinous Republican alternatives. At the same time, it means that very little has to be done to appeal to Black voters. And we’ve seen a kind of indifference demonstrated by the Democratic Party, that is increasing over the years.

So, I want to just note that, because I think it’s important to say that there is a constituency that isn’t as enthusiastic about Joe Biden’s ticket right now, and that is younger voters, including younger Black voters, who are in a place where they’re a little bit past representation being a be-all/end-all. And I’m, of course, not arguing the facts that Ms. Allison is saying here, but it is difficult to feel sometimes, as a person of color, as a Black person in particular, that representational value is being elevated in these instances over your substantive political concerns.

So, my feeling here is that, yes, Kamala Harris has evolved, but that’s also part of the concern here, that I think a lot of voters aren’t exactly sure where she stands on a lot of these issues. And I think that’s part of what was an issue for her during the primary. Remember that she dropped out before any ballots were cast, before the California primary, speculation being that that was in part because she was losing her home state to Andrew Yang. So, there is a lot of California-based, local, domestic concern about her from people who know her record the best.

And there has been an implication, online at the very least, that the people who have raised concerns about Kamala Harris and her record are not the base, are not Black people, are white leftists. The “Bernie bro” mythology has been raised as a specter again, when the reality is there’s a lot of grassroots frustration with the fact that this, again, unprecedented political movement is basically being ignored, or at very least a nose is being thumbed at what’s going on in the streets right now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Donald Trump responding to Biden’s choice of California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: She was probably nastier than even Pocahontas to Joe Biden. She was very disrespectful to Joe Biden.

AMY GOODMAN: That was what he said yesterday after he heard the news. Aimee Allison, you’re also part of a group called We Have Your Back. And I was wondering if you can talk about this, first, his response — and also want to get Briahna’s response to what he said — and this, of course, his slur against Elizabeth Warren in the same breath, but also what you’re demanding of the media now as this campaign moves forward.

AIMEE ALLISON: Donald Trump set the stage, even when he was campaigning in 2016. His attack on Black women in particular, women of color, has been pointed. It’s part of what he does. It’s how he rallies a racist base of voters, and it’s red meat to his supporters.

Let me just tell you and be very clear: Black women and women of color were never confused about who Donald Trump is. We voted in record numbers against him in 2016, and we will, despite the fact that we face a lot of challenges voting and getting our votes counted. What he says does not matter.

The issue, though, with We’ve Got Your Back is bigger than party. It’s bigger than Trump. It’s that this country, although the base of the Democratic Party in recent polls has demonstrated that they want a Black woman in leadership — and so now we have a Black woman at the top of the ticket, a woman of color at the top of the ticket — despite that, racist and sexist comments dismissing the readiness of many of the women of color, particularly Black women, who were being vetted for VP, already had started. And it wasn’t just from Republicans. It also came from quarters like former Senator Chris Dodd. So, what we have to do is be vigilant. We learned a lot from the attacks on Hillary Clinton as a white woman running for president. We know that the racist and sexist attacks are going to continue fast and furious against Senator Harris and other women who are standing for leadership.

So, what we ask from the media is to focus on the issues, is to not tolerate headlines like they had in L.A. Times, which is likening Kamala Harris to receiving a rose on the island and silly things like that. We don’t want any conversation about her hair or her clothes. What are the issues? What are we trying to do with this country? What are the essential values of the political game? What is the plan? And when we take the conversation, particularly for women of color, away from characterizing the personal attributes and dismissing women of color with words like “ambitious” and holding women of color to a different standard, we actually get a better political result.

So, in all, what we’re doing, as women of color and broadly, is we’re leading a larger movement to create political space for women of color to lead — not just Senator Harris, but women of color everywhere. We are the fastest-growing voting bloc. We are the most underrepresented at every level of government. And for us to be able to assert ourselves in a multiracial democracy, we have to push back hard against racism and sexist attacks, and celebrate and uplift our ability and willingness to govern.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask both of you about the — we’ve heard the preliminary lineup for the Democratic convention next week. And your sense of the focus of the Democratic Party being largely the Obamas, the Clintons, and, of course, Jill Biden and Joe Biden as the main speakers at the key hours when all the national networks are tuned in? I’m wondering your response to the big tent of the party, why, for instance, Bernie Sanders is not being given a more prominent speaking role in this convention. Is that signaling something to that same expanded Democratic base?

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: Well, first, I want to echo what Ms. Allison has said about there being no excuse for using racism or sexism to criticize Kamala Harris or any other female candidates or candidates of color. At the same time, evoking the example of Hillary Clinton, I think part of the issue there was that there was a mixed bag of substantive complaints and sexist concerns. And I would hate for us to fall in the same trap that the party fell into in 2016 in dismissing both, in tandem, instead of taking and addressing a lot of those substantive concerns head-on in a way that it could have helped Hillary Clinton assuage the concerns of her critics and unify a party that — much of which felt ultimately gaslit and ignored.

And I don’t think anybody here thinks that the substantive criminal justice concerns, in particular, that have been lobbied at Kamala Harris are sexist. And already we’ve seen some of that characterized that way. So, Aimee Allison raised this idea of calling her ambitious as a sexist slur. No doubt that some people are characterizing it that way. But there’s also a very legitimate criticism of her choice to pursue a career as a prosecutor in part because it’s a very commonly known way to advance oneself politically when you have a background as a lawyer. And I say that as an attorney myself.

With respect to the Democratic National Convention, you know, I think the party is sending a very clear signal about whose votes they are reaching for and whose they aren’t. They have John Kasich, who is a Republican and who has attempted to pass some of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in the state of Ohio, in a prime spot, when there was news for a while that suggested that they weren’t even going to allow AOC to speak. Of course, they now have. But they have made gestures like barring The Young Turks, one of the preeminent lefty news organizations, from having a press pass to a digital event. Why you would do that, other than to send a kind of signal to progressives that you’re not interested in their vote, I don’t know. So, it’s a really curious choice.

It feels again like it’s 2016, and there is a dynamic being set up where there is a kind of wanton disregard for the values and interests of what is coming up to be the new base, the insurgent left wing of the party, the part of the party that just celebrated the victory of Cori Bush last week and Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones. And it is telling that the only people under the age of 40 — under the age of 50, rather, who are speaking at this event are AOC and Pete Buttigieg.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I wanted to ask, very quickly, Briahna, about Medicare for All, an absolutely key position. Recently, the platform committee of the Democratic Party voted 125 to 36 to reject the single-payer plan during a virtual meeting they had. Now, Senator Kamala Harris has taken an unusual position on this. First, when asked in the presidential debate how she feels about Medicare for All, she raised her hand in support, but, the next day, took it back. Can you explain her position, though, as co-sponsor of Bernie Sanders’ bill?

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: Yeah, I think that a lot of people struggle to explain her position, which I fundamentally think is what her issue was in failing to get more traction in the general election. I truly thought she was going to be the most difficult candidate to beat. But you saw and over again that she would make a kind of strong claim on the debate stage and then ratchet it back in the spin room or in the days and interviews afterward.

So, look, I think that the silver lining to this is that Kamala Harris was one of the early co-signers of Bernie Sanders’ 2017 Medicare for All bill. Her Medicare for All plan, although ambiguous in some respects, is most certainly to the left of Joe Biden’s plan. So I’m curious to see if the media will ask her and Joe Biden to define what’s going on in the space between the two, and how Kamala Harris is reconciling her acknowledgment that healthcare is a human right, her acknowledgment that — especially during the time of this pandemic, that people should not have to pay for healthcare to survive, that the employer-based healthcare system has been revealed as a complete failure in a world where we’re seeing record unemployment rates, unemployment rates that of course are disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities, and more so the actual COVID infection rates are, of course, affecting Black and Brown communities disproportionately. How are we going to reconcile all of that with Joe Biden’s obstinate insistence that even if Medicare for All were to be passed, were it to pass the House and Senate, that he would veto that bill? And perhaps there are opportunities for leverage there for the left.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, this is a conversation that is going to continue. And Democracy Now! is there all week next week, of course virtually. On Democracy Now!, we’ll be bringing you the Democratic National Convention coverage each day, bringing you highlights of the evening’s events and commentary, as well. We want to thank Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign and a contributing editor to Current Affairs, as well as Aimee Allison, president of She the People, speaking to us from Kamala Harris’s hometown of Oakland, California.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we talk to the award-winning author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Stay with us.

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