Kamala Harris
Credit: Richard B. Tui

On Monday morning, Sen. Kamala Harris made the announcement on “Good Morning America” that she will enter the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race. She simultaneously released this video ad:

YouTube video

Because her intentions have been clear for a while now, some discussion has already taken place regarding Harris’s potential candidacy. It has predominately focused on the item included in Chris Hayes’ list about how she’s conducted herself in the past, most notably her time as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general.

There are two ways this discussion has been happening, one that has merit and one that does not. The one that has merit was articulated recently by Lara Bazelon in an opinion piece that criticized Harris’s record as an aggressive prosecutor. She points to some specific cases that the candidate will need to address, along with acknowledging this:

During her tenure as district attorney, Ms. Harris refused to seek the death penalty in a case involving the murder of a police officer. And she started a successful program that offered first-time nonviolent offenders a chance to have their charges dismissed if they completed a rigorous vocational training. As attorney general, she mandated implicit bias training and was awarded for her work in correcting a backlog in the testing of rape kits.

As Democrats evaluate the candidacy of Kamala Harris, both her past as a prosecutor and as a senator will be important to consider.

The discussion about Harris’s past that doesn’t have merit began predominantly on Twitter with statements like, “she’s a cop.” It was recently articulated more fully by Briahna Gray when she asked the question, “can a prosecutor become president in an age when black lives matter?”

The problem isn’t that Harris was an especially bad prosecutor. She made positive contributions as well — encouraging education and reentry programs for ex-offenders, for instance. The problem, more precisely, is that she was ever a prosecutor at all…

…who, especially in the era of Black Lives Matter, would flatly describe the enforcement arm of the criminal enforcement as doing “the work of justice?” What person with any experience in criminal court can claim to be an advocate for the “most vulnerable,” without recognizing that the victim in one case is often the defendant in the next — that the issues at play are systemic, and that the justice meted out by the court system is a rough one at best? Harris has stayed away from engaging with these deeper questions in interviews. Perhaps because, as a prosecutor, she understands that there are no good answers.

That is a dangerous argument to make, and one that goes well beyond a question about Kamala Harris’s candidacy. If no one can claim that it is possible to do “the work of justice” as a prosecutor, and that anyone who has ever held that position is inherently part of the problem, then the alternative is to simply give up on one of the most important reforms to our criminal justice system. That is an assumption that none of us can afford to make, especially in light of Black Lives Matter.

It’s a good thing that the people of St. Louis County didn’t take the argument Gray is making seriously.

The election of people like Bell is part of a much-needed movement.

African-American lawyers, racial justice groups and the liberal hedge fund billionaire George Soros are combining forces to try to elect more black prosecutors in response to what they see as an insufficient response by incumbent district attorneys to the killings of black people by the police.

The effort faces steep demographic and institutional obstacles that have kept the offices of elected prosecutors — those deciding whether to seek criminal charges against the officers responsible — among the whitest reserves in American politics.

If you’d like evidence of the impact progressive prosecutors can have, take a few minutes to listen to Adam Foss.

YouTube video

Bringing all of this back to the presidential race, let me reiterate that it is important to evaluate the history of a candidate like Kamala Harris. But to simply disqualify her because of her experience as a prosecutor is not only an invalid metric, it could set back a very important movement that is currently underway to reform the most powerful position in our criminal justice system.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.