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Abolitionist Derecka Purnell on Historic Kamala Harris VP Pick & Why Black Progressives Feel Torn

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As Kamala Harris makes history as the first woman of color to run on a major party presidential ticket, many Black progressive women remain ambivalent, says Derecka Purnell, a human rights lawyer, abolitionist and columnist for The Guardian newspaper. “It’s just unfortunate that you have to protect someone because of their identity … while at the same time if you care about the masses of Black people, the masses of poor people, the masses of immigrants in this country, you know that you have to speak truth and be honest about their record,” Purnell says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Kamala Harris, accepting the nomination for vice president of the United States at the Democratic National Convention. She’s the first Indian American and first Black woman to be nominated for vice president on a major party ticket.

For more, we’re joined by human rights lawyer, abolitionist and writer Derecka Purnell, columnist for The Guardian. She’s joining us from Washington, D.C.

Derecka, thanks so much for joining us, especially as you recover from COVID.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to this historic address, the first African American, Caribbean American, Indian American to be on — the first woman of color to be on a major party presidential ticket, Derecka Purnell?

DERECKA PURNELL: Yes, of course. Thank you for having me.

I mean, all last night, we heard and we saw stories from women who were deeply emotional because they finally have a chance with someone who looked like them. You know, I remember way back, in my college dorm room, watching President Obama secure the nomination, ultimately become president. And I remember crying, being like, “Wow, this is — you know, this could be me in the future.” And so I deeply understand all of the excitement around this woman who stands at the intersection of so many identities. You know, women are excited because she’s sharp, because she’s witty, because she’s a woman of color who’s been tapped to serve as second-in-command. And so, I mean, it’s truly a historic moment for lots of those reasons.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Derecka, though, I’d like to turn to your — the piece that you wrote most recently for The Guardian, “Why Black progressive women feel torn about Kamala Harris.” You write in the piece, “Progressives will have to defend the California senator’s personal identity, while maneuvering against her political identity.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

DERECKA PURNELL: Yeah, of course. I mean, Kamala Harris, you know, she graduated from Howard University, a prestigious HBCU in D.C., right down the road. You know, as Amy says, she’s a biracial woman with Jamaican and Indian heritage. We’ve seen her break so many barriers. And we know that with the ascension and attention that comes with women of color in office, even walking down the street, but particularly in a public spotlight, it, unfortunately, in this country, has invited sexist and racist and xenophobic responses. And so, we already have seen some of that, with the birther conspiracies that are being used against her right now, which is why last night she spoke to the exact hospital where she was born in Oakland. You know, so that’s like one end.

The other end is that, you know, women of color, particularly those who are progressive, progressive Black women, are also frustrated. You know, they’re frustrated by this narrative that the lack of indifference in America ended with Barack Obama and started up again with Donald Trump, you know, are frustrated because of her record as a prosecutor, her refusal to investigate or prosecute police officers, her fight to uphold wrongful convictions, her support of the death penalty as attorney general. I mean, the list, unfortunately, goes on. So, when she says last night, you know, “I know a predator when I see one,” it’s ironic, because one of the wrongful convictions that she fought to uphold was based on a technicality, of someone who was serving 70 years in prison who might be innocent.

So, it’s just, you know, unfortunate that you have to protect someone because of their identity, and against this notion that their hands are going to be tied because they’re a person of color or Black or a woman or a child of immigrants, while at the same time, if you care about the masses of Black people, the masses of poor people, the masses of immigrants in this country, you know that you have to speak truth and be honest about their record and be critical of them in a public spotlight. So, that’s what we have to navigate right now.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re not — we’re sorry we’re not hearing Nermeen right now.


AMY GOODMAN: But let me go to Vice President Pence, who responded to Joe Biden’s choice of his running mate — of course, Senator Kamala Harris.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: As you all know, look, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have been overtaken by the radical left. So, given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine, and abortion on demand, it’s no surprise that he chose Senator Harris to be his running mate.

AMY GOODMAN: Derecka Purnell, respond, please.

DERECKA PURNELL: Oh, of course, of course. So, it forces the Democrats to play political double dutch. So they have to make Kamala Harris left enough to bring in progressives, but also make sure that she isn’t pulling the party too far left. And it’s an unfortunate tactic that works. You know, so, my former professor, Cornel West, says, “I’m a part of the radical left. Kamala Harris is a moderate.” And so, this tactic from Pence is trying to use this radical left idea to push the party further right.

And it’s working, frankly. You know, it’s why Republicans were able to speak longer than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You know, it’s to affirm that the Democrats can reach across the aisle. It affirms that the party is not too moderate. It affirms Joe Biden saying that he believes that police should have more money, as people are hitting the streets to demand that departments all over are defunded. You know, so this is a tactic that’s working.

And there is no way that Kamala Harris is a part of the radical left. If anyone is a part of the radical left, it’s probably Shirley Chisholm, who Kamala Harris invoked last night, who was one of the first people that was endorsed by the Black Panther Party, right? So, the first time the Black Panther Party engages with electoral politics, it’s to endorse Shirley Chisholm. And so it’s ironic that we are excited about the women who paved the way, but we don’t actually talk about the record — or, more people, rather, should be talking about their actual records and beliefs, their policies. And so, no, not by any measure is she part of the radical left, and it’s unfortunate.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, the DNC’s strategy seems to be mostly trying to get conservatives, Republicans and centrists to support Biden. Do you think that the DNC has done enough to get the support of the more progressive wing of the party?

DERECKA PURNELL: Absolutely not. You know, the example I just gave of that in the middle of a movement against police violence, you have Joe Biden coming out and saying that he believes that police should receive more funding, and is touting community policing — a failed, vague reform that we know at this point does not work. You know, in the middle of a pandemic, where Black and Brown people, poor people, are dying at disproportionate rates, you have Joe Biden doubling down on his refusal to support — excuse me — universal healthcare.

And so, all of the reasons why people are hitting the streets, all the reasons why people are suffering, we are seeing a doubling down. You know, we hear President — I’m sorry, Vice President Joe Biden, rather, you know, decide to continue to not cancel, like, all student debt. You know, so all of these policies that people have been demanding to push the party further to the left, to say that we actually should give a care about the people who are suffering, we see a doubling down on the moderate positions of the party, and it’s just unfortunate.

AMY GOODMAN: Derecka, I wanted to ask you about the congressmember from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, being given 60 seconds to speak. In response to that news, AOC tweeted a poem by Benjamin E. Mays:

“I only have a minute.
Sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, I did not choose it,
But I know that I must use it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Suffer, if I lose it.

Only a tiny little minute,
But eternity is in it.”

It was also a poem that was cited by Elijah Cummings when he once got 60 seconds, the late Baltimore congressmember. This does go to the sidelining of the progressives. And even Ady Barkan, who is the American Israeli attorney who has ALS, spoke. He was highlighted, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but he, who is known as a Medicare for All activist, demanding Medicare for All for everyone in this country, never actually used those words. And ultimately, yesterday, he came out in support [sic] of the Biden campaign’s attack on Linda Sarsour, and it was the American Israeli attorney, Ady Barkan, who was featured, who said that the DNC must retract their attack on this Palestinian American human rights activist.

DERECKA PURNELL: Yeah, you know, it’s unfortunate. I mean, obviously, one of the points, talking points, that often gets overshadowed is, you know, all the selfies that Kamala Harris has with Netanyahu. So, she knows a predator when she sees one. It’s ironic that that comment is meant towards Trump, but we know that the United States has a long record and history of supporting violent leaders all across the globe.

And so, I was very excited to hear Representative Ocasio-Cortez speak. I was happy that she used words like “colonization,” and she spoke to the violent origins and violent struggle of this country. And so, yes, progressives are brought out to come and celebrate and to dance and to show all of the cultural factors of, like, the progressive movement. But when it actually comes to progressive policy, the Democrats are just choosing to — they’re continuing to fall short, to sacrifice it.

So, when Kamala Harris, in her speech, says, you know, “These Black women paved the way not only to vote, but to have a seat at the table,” she somehow neglected to mention that Fannie Lou Hamer not only rejected the seat at the table, but rejected two seats at the table, because, she said, “We didn’t come all this way to settle for the lackluster opportunity to participate.” You know, Shirley Chisholm was highly critical of the lackluster platform of the Republican Party and of the Democratic Party.

So, it’s so important that we talk and we acknowledge that history, because it’s not just about them being first. It’s not just about voting. It’s about the history of progressive women in this country taking considerable risk and pushing this country forward. And that’s the tradition that we all should be in.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Derecka Purnell, very quickly, before we conclude — you have 30 seconds — you are at the moment recovering from the coronavirus, which has also been featured prominently. They’ve talked about coronavirus, the pandemic, during the DNC. Talk about your experience.

DERECKA PURNELL: Sure. You know, I’ve been — at this point, thank God that I am at the end of recovery. The last week has been just a remarkable turnaround, but at one point I was very, very sick. I had to go to the hospital. I had all of the neurological symptoms. I didn’t have any of the respiratory symptoms. You know, I lost my sense of smell, my sense of taste. I was having terrible headaches and numbness on the left side of my body. I had to undergo a CT scan and blood work and MRI. You know, at this point, I actually can’t even smell 100% again. But most of my energy is back, and I’m very, very excited to be able to chase my babies around the house.

You know, so, it’s unfortunate that — you know, the coronavirus is not something that is evil. It’s the inability of people to act that is evil, right? It’s the long history that has made Black people in this country have preexisting conditions. You know, those decision-making, those policy decisions, that’s evil. We’re experiencing the coronavirus the way that we are, not simply because of Donald Trump, even though he is largely responsible. It’s because for over 400 years we have created environmental conditions, economic conditions, environmental conditions, that have made people more vulnerable. And that’s what progressives are saying no to.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Derecka Purnell, we want to thank you so much for being with us, human rights lawyer, abolitionist and writer, columnist for The Guardian. We’ll link to your latest piece, “Why Black progressive women feel torn about Kamala Harris.” And I hope you have a very speedy recovery.

Next up, Kamala Harris is not the first Black woman to run for vice president. We will speak with historian Keisha Blain about how that distinction belongs to the journalist and political activist Charlotta Bass in 1952. Stay with us.

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Before Kamala Harris, There Was Charlotta Bass: Remembering 1st Black Woman to Run for VP in 1952

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