Can We Celebrate Kamala Harris’ Vice Presidency & Still Fight Abolish the Police

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

6 mins read

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Like lots of other people on my feed, I have been really caught up the momentum of the movement to abolish police. I’ve been sharing the memes, reading the books, making the argument to some of my family—all of it. But recently, a couple of things reminded me that I still have a lot to learn about this movement. First, as several activists pointed out, there’s an inherent contradiction in believing that we need to abolish police (yes!) and wanting killer cops prosecuted (… also yes? It’s complicated.) And second, Joe Biden’s pick for vice president.

ICYMI, Biden chose Kamala Harris, the U.S. senator and former presidential nominee who famously (and beautifully) raked Bill Barr, Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh over the proverbial coals when questioning them at various Sentate hearings. But Harris is also a former prosecutor and California attorney general who proudly (?!) called herself the state’s “top cop.”

In a joint statement about her appointment, the Progressive Democrats of America and RootsAction.org accused her of failing “for years to hold police accountable for gross misconduct in California.” (In 2014, two days after Missouri police killed Michael Brown, L.A. police officers shot and killed a young Black man named Ezell Ford. Harris didn’t bring charges against the cops, saying she deferred to the city’s district attorney, Jackie Lacey, who also declined to charge them.) As the New York Times pointed out earlier this week, her 2009 book, Smart on Crime, included lines like “if we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up” and “virtually all law-abiding citizens feel safer when they see officers walking a beat.” (YIKES.) And, she famously sponsored a truancy law that saw some parents go to jail because their children were absent from school.

Of course some people feel betrayed by Biden’s choice. In a year that saw formerly “radical” ideas become mainstream, Harris feels like the least radical VP candidate. (This is not helped by the fact that her running mate is also the least radical presidential candidate the Democrats could throw their support behind.) What’s more, she has actively done harm to the same communities who are now supposed to celebrate her appointment as a win for representation.

I mean, I’m not even American and I feel betrayed. But… I also do feel inspired and excited by Harris’ appointment.

Harris isn’t the first Black woman to run for vice-president—that would be Charlotta Bass, who ran as the Progressive party candidate in 1952; Angela Davis, who ran on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984, was second. She’s also not the first Asian-American woman to run for VP—Emma Wong Mar did so in 1984. But she is the first woman of colour to run on a major party ticket, which is the only one that’s likely to win, and that means something.

Yes, our perpetual focus on representation can be frustrating. There are so many important conversations that we need to have about race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc., but instead, here we are, still counting the number of people from marginalized groups in our organizations, still celebrating firsts, still calling awards shows out for not recognizing enough of us. But there’s a good reason we keep having those 101-level conversations: BIPOC people just don’t have fair representation. Most of the time, we still don’t get to see ourselves as the heroes of the story—or in positions of real-life power. So yes, seeing a Black, Indian woman with an immigrant mom be chosen for this role is powerful, even if she’s not perfect.

And there’s a practical reason I’m paying attention, too, even though I’m Canadian and have no way to vote Biden/Harris into the White House. (Though I would help if I could, guys, I promise.) Remember when Toronto city councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam put forward a proposal to cut the Toronto Police Service budget by 10%, but council voted against it? That was really frustrating, but not unexpected. If anything, it just proved what we already knew: that abolishing the police is going to be a really long process, and Matlow and Wong-Tam’s proposal was just one step in the right direction. The Biden/Harris ticket is kind of the same thing, I think. I wouldn’t have chosen either candidate for a variety of reasons, not least because I think a Castro/Warren ticket would have been brilliant. But it’s a step in the right direction—and it’s only by taking those steps that we’ll see real lasting change.

Also, while there’s no denying her history, I don’t think it’s totally fair to ignore the good—or the ways her positions have evolved. As Jordan Weissmann argued in Slate, “she’s consistently been on the side of reformers in recent years, and the ambitious criminal justice plank of her presidential platform, which covered everything from marijuana legalization to abolishing mandatory minimums to curbing police use of force, was clearly designed to quiet her naysayers.” She’s also shown she can change her mind. Back in 2008, she described a proposition to legalize sex work in San Francisco, where she was then district attorney, was “completely ridiculous.” In 2019, she openly declared her support for decriminalization. (She was also the only candidate to explicitly say so.)

All of which is to say, yes: I think it is possible to feel excited about seeing a biracial woman accomplish something huge, even if you also have to acknowledge that she’s not the person you’d have chosen for this role. And you can still deepen your understanding of abolition and work towards defunding the police, even if the person you vote for now is only taking baby steps toward that goal.

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Yesterday, I was really lucky to attend an anti-oppression workshop facilitated by Rania El Mugammar, and I’m finding some of our conversation really helpful in sorting through my conflicting feelings about Harris. At one point, we discussed the famous equality/equity/liberation illustration. El Mugammar reminded us that equity is about re-allocation of resources to mitigate barriers, while liberation is about removing those barriers entirely. But, she pointed out, sometimes liberation is out of reach. In those cases, equity may be all that’s accessible to us—and that’s okay.

The point is progress, not perfection.

And Did You Hear About…

The best recipe reaction video ever.

This Vox piece on the new social justice-themed IG accounts, and their millennial-friendly design choices.

A gynecologist’s take on “WAP.”

This really smart analysis of cancel culture—and who’s really to blame.

Mel Magazine’s piece on how the conversation around sex trafficking has been co-opted by far right conspiracy theorists, which distracts from actual children who are being hurt. (ICYMI, we touched on this last month in the newsletter about Chrissy Teigen and Pizzagate.)

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