This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
This story was co-published with The Washington Post.
As a child, Kamala D. Harris idolized Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley, the legal heroes who took the fight to dismantle racism to America’s halls of justice.
She was a pioneer, the first woman and African American to be elected California’s attorney general, and Harris says she became a prosecutor to change the system, as they had, not to join it.
“There was this tool that they had figured out was powerful, as powerful as anything, to achieve justice or get a step closer to that,” Harris said in an interview with the 19th.
The lone Black woman in the Senate, Harris has joined protests in Washington, D.C., and is pushing for federal policing overhauls — roles some see her as uniquely positioned to fill given her dual identities as a Black woman and former prosecutor. But that same experience drew criticism during her presidential campaign last year — particularly among young Black activists — when she was labeled a “cop” and her record cast as contributing to mass incarceration and the ills of law enforcement.
As the country reckons with the future of policing in Black communities, in many ways, Harris’s career stands as a nexus: between cries to “defund the police” and calls to compromise and legislate; between pushes to redistribute resources to address the inequalities that can lead to deadly confrontations with officers and efforts to increase and improve training, accountability measures and bans on extreme uses of force such as chokeholds.
Harris sees the central question America is wrestling with as the central one of her life: Who will get equal justice under the law?
“I was born a Black child in America, the child of parents who were marching and shouting, just like all the folks who have been marching and shouting in the streets these last days,” said Harris, the 55-year-old daughter of activists.
“From my childhood, I was there in a stroller in the streets, marching,” she said. “It’s just what I do. It’s what I believe in. I don’t know any other way.”
Harris brings her lived experience as a Black woman and ex-prosecutor to this moment, said Tracie Keesee, a Black woman who spent 25 years in the Denver Police Department and co-founded the Center for Policing Equity.
“There’s an expectation from our community that we would try to do something from the inside, not knowing what the challenges are,” Keesee said.
“At some point in your career, you realize you can only effect change so much because you do bump up against the system and you bump up against culture, and you’re only one person,” she said.
The protests sparked by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks are not only about these tragic incidents. They are the latest in a parade of Black death at the hands of law enforcement and White vigilantes, stretching back centuries in America. The past month has been the latest chapter in the Black Lives Matter era that began in 2014 with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Brown’s killing birthed a rallying cry for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, with calls for accountability from police departments to politicians. Prosecutors, in particular, were seen as part of the problem.
Harris was the first woman and first African American to hold two prominent prosecutor jobs: In 2003, she was elected district attorney of San Francisco; in 2010, she was elected attorney general of California, putting her in charge of the second-largest justice department in the country, behind the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lateefah Simon worked for Harris, hired in 2005 to head the reentry program in her district attorney’s office. Simon recalled meeting Harris five years earlier, when Simon was an activist organizing for young women on the streets and in prisons and Harris was working to stop San Francisco police from arresting and charging teens in sex work, instead pushing to categorize them as victims.
Simon considers Harris a mentor, calling the senator “an architect of the progressive prosecutor ideology.”
“She was always clear that the laws were unfair — and that her duty was to work inside a system to chip away at these inequities,” Simon said.
Throughout her career, Harris said, she has cast herself in the spirit of her heroes.
“They were the ones who understood the skill of the profession of the law, to translate the passion from the streets to the courtrooms of America,” Harris said.
Black women in these roles have always understood both the systemic racism that exists in America and its impact on how the criminal justice system treats minorities and poor people, said Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore who prosecuted the officers accused of killing Freddie Gray in 2015.
“She was a prosecutor in the tough-on-crime era, she was a pioneer for the progressive prosecutors that currently exist,” Mosby said of Harris, whom she considers a mentor. “The challenges that we face when we push reform, when we attempt to hold police officers accountable, we are harassed, we are ridiculed, we’re mocked, we’re sued.”
In California, Harris pioneered initiatives around reentry, pattern-and-practice investigations into police departments and open data on policing. But she said many in the department were not open to change.
Harris points to the activist community, pushing from the outside, as helpful to her efforts, then and now.
“I know how the system works enough to know that if you don’t have the brilliance of a Black Lives Matter movement, you cannot make change happen,” she said. “There are those within the system that are not only hesitant to reform, they are hostile. When you’re in the system, you have to have that pressure from the outside to counteract the pressure from the inside, that is a pressure against change.”
It was the Black activist community that was also among the most vocal in opposition to Harris as a presidential candidate, making the derisive slogan “Kamala is a cop” a frequent talking point.
A New York Times op-ed dismissing the idea of Harris as a “progressive prosecutor” dogged her for much of the campaign, and critics seized on her support of California legislation to prosecute parents of truant children — a law that would disproportionately impact poor people of color.
Harris said she understands the criticism that came with her role.
“There was so much more that needed to be done,” she said. “If you’ve been part of the system and you didn’t get everything done, there’s going to be a healthy level of criticism. I understand where it’s coming from, because there is a righteous sense of urgency that this stuff needs to be fixed and fixed immediately.”
Alicia Garza, founder of the Black to the Future Action Fund, said the bar is higher for prosecutors in the Black Lives Matter era.
“Records of law and order are going to be scrutinized in a way they weren’t a decade ago when she was district attorney,” said Garza, who co-founded Black Lives Matter and talks regularly with the senator. “Back then, there really wasn’t such a thing as a ‘progressive prosecutor.’ In some ways, it’s a timing issue.”
Harris said she is in conversation with activists to incorporate their concerns into policy. This month, Harris was among a group of lawmakers to introduce the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds, mandate the use of dashboard cameras, establish a national policing misconduct database and reward departments for best practices. She met again with activists this week to discuss the legislation and issues related to policing and criminal justice.
Many of the same activists who are pushing for change are pushing Democratic nominee Joe Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate. Harris is frequently discussed as the front-runner of the field, and Biden has promised to pick a woman to join him on the ticket.
Her recent efforts have thrust her into the spotlight and may have raised her political capital, but Harris dismisses the notion of whether that also makes the case for why she should be the country’s next vice president.
“I do feel that it is my responsibility and place to speak to the moment in its historical context, in its present context, and to be prepared to fight for what is necessary to fix this,” Harris said. “Everybody who wants to lead, or who thinks of themselves as a leader, needs to get out there and lead.”
Simon said the question is: Do we want a Black woman running one of the most important offices that govern justice in this country?
“We should be listening to the pioneers, learning from them,” Simon said, pointing out that Harris was one of only a few Black women elected district attorneys in the country a decade ago. “Twenty years ago, folks weren’t seeing Black women in these spaces.”