The Power of the People: Kamala Harris Calls Americans to Action

On April 24, Kamala Harris spoke to a large audience of motivated women at Southern Texas University for an event dubbed the “She the People Presidential Forum 2019.” A tapestry of organizers and activists who are reshaping how national candidates prioritize campaigning, She the People, is an organization founded to amplify the voices of and consolidate the electoral power of women of color as a political force. Founder, Aimee Allison and MSNBC’s Joy Reid co-hosted the conference where members of the audience were put face to face with 8 candidates running for president.

Harris was interviewed at the halfway point of the unusual town hall and the crowd greeted her enthusiastically. The questions were asked by both the program’s hosts and members of the audience and though the crowd was large, the stage provided an intimate setting for Harris and 7 of her primary opponents to pitch their candidacy to one of the most energized portions of the electorate: women and especially women of color.

Allison’s first question gave Harris and opportunity to attack one of her own perceived weaknesses within the African American portion of the electorate-her time as a prosecutor in California. Allison asked her about mass incarceration and the drug war. The former prosecutor was unambiguous, “I am in favor of and strongly believe we have got to legalize marijuana.”

She argued, “What essentially is a public health issue became a criminal justice issue.” Harris expressed gratitude at the change in public opinion on the issue but, like many of us, expressed frustration that the “evolved” position on opioid addiction being a public health crisis was far less evolved during the crack cocaine crisis in decades past. “This is a system that we know, especially around the criminalization of drug use and possession, has been infected by racial bias…” After speaking that truth she moved on to the cause, “We need to deal with the real issue which is undiagnosed, untreated trauma- in particular in poor communities and communities of color which leads to predictable behaviors including self medication because of a lack of public health resources in those communities, a lack of mental health resources in those communities.” Harris pledged to pursue “mental healthcare on demand” and “drug treatment on demand.”

Harris called the government’s inability to address the nation’s mental health issues and the trauma in poverty stricken areas, a great failure. She spoke passionately of the trauma experienced by children in these communities and the need to make facing this issue a priority in the next administration. Co-host Joy Reid took Harris’s statement to the next logical place when discussing unfair law enforcement practices with a potential chief executive, “Would you broadly use your pardon power as president on federal prisoners who are in prison merely for drug possession and drug related crimes? Would you use that power on a broader basis than you saw President Obama or previous presidents use?*

“Absolutely,” Harris said taking a swipe at Trump in the process and adding, “And we have to have the courage to recognize there are a lot of folks who have been incarcerated who should not have been incarcerated and are still in prison. Because they were convicted under draconian laws that have incarcerated them, in some cases for a lifetime, based on what is essentially a public health issue. So, yes I would.”

Joy Reid and Aimee Allison (Left), Senator Kamala Harris (Right)

Harris stated clearly that she was in favor of decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level but that wasn’t all. She talked about how the laws are hitting men of color a second time. Once locked up for using or selling marijuana, now that it’s a budding industry, those same men are banned from participating. Harris argued that, “Policies need to be put in place that look into the background and actually do the work of saying that some of those young men [banned for their prior conviction] should be first in line to get the jobs that are available.” Harris explained that young men of color have been disproportionately targeted for incarceration for marijuana use, and added, “Their felony convictions should not be the barrier to them having employment in an industry that they were a part of before it was an industry.”

While the exchange on mass incarceration monopolized much of her time onstage, Harris did have an opportunity to field a question on voting rights and participation from a state senator from GA, where in 2018 voter suppression took center stage. Harris directed the audience’s attention to the Supreme Court, “In 2013, the Supreme Court [decided] in Shelby v. Holder to gut the Voting Rights Act. Immediately thereafter, states put in affect laws to discriminate and to create barriers to [keep] folks from voting. It was targeting people of color. It was targeted at students…at Native Americans and what we saw around this country, there were at least 22 states that immediately after that decision put in discriminating laws that were designed to suppress folks’ right to vote.”

Speaking to her audience, she urged them to make the Supreme Court a voting issue, “Elections matter,” she told them. “Let’s recognize the relationship between elections and this issue. Let’s recognize that until we can correct some of these laws, the way that we are going to get to the goal of ensuring that everyone exercises their right to vote is we are going to have to invest in community. We’re going to have to invest in community leadership. Because we, right now, have a lot of obstacles that until we get done with the legislation that is aimed at fixing the problems, until we get done with the litigation that is aimed at holding people accountable that are suppressing the vote, until we get that done, in the interim, we need to strengthen the community based organizations that are focused on getting folks registered and helping them to the polls.”

Harris explained that aside from tactics that Republicans use and the old Democrat/Dixiecrat Party of the South used to use, “There is a whole new 21st Century version of [voter suppression] that we need be really clear about and that is manipulation by foreign governments in our election.” Harris was able to speak to the suppression of votes by misinformation in ways that other candidates haven’t yet and from her role in the Senate, she spoke authoritatively on the subject.

“The intelligence community came out with a report about what happened in 2016. Now let’s speak truth because some people aren’t clear about this: Russia interfered in the election of the president of the United States. So, the intelligence community has done a report on what happened, included in that analysis was that an adversarial country who was attempting to destabilize our democracy decided that they would try to interfere with our elections and make the American public insecure and suspicious and so they decided to target our vulnerabilities and they exposed America’s Achilles’ Heel; Race. Because they knew it would cause heat and dissension among us. They have taken what we have always seen as a Civil Rights issue and made it a national security issue.” Harris also raised the critical reason why it is so dangerous: it essentially worked and without negative consequences the Russians and other bad actors would do it again.

Harris called Americans to action, “The power of the people is going to be critical to counteracting what will invariably be efforts to manipulate this election for president of the United States.”

The final question from the audience for Harris was about the Trump regime’s Family Separation Policy. The eighteen year old, first-time voter asked Harris what she will do to stop families from being torn apart.

“First, we need a president who understands that we are a nation of immigrants and instead of vilifying folks because he’s trying to scapegoat folks to distract from the fact that he ain’t don nothing. We need a president of the United States who understands that if we’re going to be true the values of who we say we are, if we are going to be true to the actual history of what created us.” She said, “[She] will pass comprehensive immigration reform that will stop allowing the United States government from committing a human rights abuse at the border, which is what this family separation policy has been.” Harris promised, “I will be a president of the United States that keeps our word to those Dreamers that we gave DACA protection instead of pulling it out [from under them]. I will be a president who understands that those young people who are DACA recipients and Dreamers did not just fall out of the sky onto the earth. They have parents who also deserve protection. And we just need a president of the United States who uses her bully pulpit in a way that understands that if we are going to be strong as a country we must be committed to our stated values. That’s part of what’s given us strength on this globe. Now we are ceding that power when we have a [man] using that bully pulpit to divide and to sew hate. We have got to end that.”

Harris is leading the pack of 2020 presidential hopefuls in donations by women of color, her declaration speech drew an audience of 20,000 and she remains one of the strongest candidates that the Democrats have leading into presidential election season.                  

*President Obama granted clemency nearly 2,000 times, a number not seen since Harry Truman. However he granted only 5% of requests which puts him more on par with George H. W. Bush (5%) and Bill Clinton (6%) Every president from McKinley to Carter granted over 20% of requests. It Was Ronald Reagan (12%) who began the steady decline that hit its lowest point in the W. Bush administration with 2% of requests granted. (Source: Pew Research 2017)

Adam James is the editor in chief of Majority60.com, a political scientist and believer in the American Dream. He was an Obama For America fellow in 2012. Follow him at @AdamJamesM60