Kamala Harris’s new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, reads a lot like the kind of book a person might release while preparing for a presidential run. Like all campaign memoirs, it is equal parts personal and strategic. It tells a story—growing up as the child of immigrant parents in Oakland, scenes from her marriage, and reflections on rising through the ranks to become California attorney general and then a United States senator—that tells a bigger story. In the book’s preface, Harris recalls the sinking feeling she had on Election Day, as returns began to signal Donald Trump’s eventual victory. The work ahead would be “a battle for the soul of our nation,” she writes, and lays out the terms of that struggle through an exchange with her young godson:
“Auntie Kamala, that man can’t win. He’s not going to win, is he?” Alexander’s worry broke my heart. I didn’t want anyone making a child feel that way. Eight years earlier, many of us had cried tears of joy when Barack Obama was elected president. And now, to see Alexander’s fear . . . His father, Reggie, and I took him outside to try to console him. “Alexander, you know how sometimes superheroes are facing a big challenge because a villain is coming for them? What do they do when that happens?”
“They fight back,” he whimpered.
“That’s right. And they fight back with emotion, because all the best superheroes have big emotions just like you. But they always fight back, right? So that’s what we’re going to do.”
The campaign memoir, through a mix of personal anecdote and political vision, is designed to make the case that the author is the right candidate for the right time. For Harris, the argument seems to be a fraught one.
The California Democrat, who served for seven years as San Francisco’s district attorney and six years as California’s attorney general, has faced scrutiny from progressives and activists on the left throughout her career for her record on criminal justice reform. And with the left flank of the Democratic Party building momentum around the vision shared by newly sworn-in lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, the scrutiny will only intensify if Harris runs in 2020. It’s no surprise then that the second chapter of her memoir, entitled “A Voice For Justice,” is dedicated entirely to Harris making the case that she is a “progressive prosecutor,” which she defines in the following way:
The job of a progressive prosecutor is to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard, to see and address the causes of crime, not just their consequences, and to shine a light on the inequality and unfairness that lead to injustice. It is to recognize that not everyone needs punishment, that what many need, quite plainly, is help.
There are certainly aspects of Harris’s career that back up this idealistic vision of what a reform-minded prosecutor can do. She made California the first state to institute state-wide implicit bias training for law enforcement. And she piloted the Back on Track program in the mid-2000s, which put young, first-time non-violent drug offenders in job training and GED courses. The program touted a 10 percent recidivism rate compared to 53 percent for people convicted of similar crimes in the state.
But Harris walks a difficult line in her book, trying to position her record as just the right version of the “smart” on crime story that many liberal moderates think makes for a credible candidate (and which served as the title of her previous book), while also signaling changes in approach that might appease critics on the left who have pointed out, rightly, the harm that her record created in already marginalized communities in California.
As California attorney general, Harris repeatedly sued Backpage, a now defunct website that sex workers often used to get work and that Harris once called an “online brothel.” Harris’s focus on Backpage continued into her time in the Senate, framing the issue, much like other Democrats, as one of justice for trafficking victims. But as Zoé Samudzi explained in Verso, by doing so, Harris bulldozed over the actual needs of sex workers, turning to criminalization rather than listening to the demands of her constituents most impacted by the closure of Backpage:
Despite arguments by sex workers that the closure of online work spaces would be harmful to them, Harris, like many others, claimed to support sex workers while actively making their lives more difficult: her prosecutorial logic deliberately conflated voluntary sex work and sex trafficking in a way that was indistinguishable from the rhetorics of sex work abolitionists and sex work exclusionary feminists (SWERFs). Her carceral justifications for these criminalizations were complementary to the outright anti-poor, anti-Black, anti-queer and trans attacks from the present administration and their material implications for sex workers.
Harris walks a similarly awkward line as she writes about the Movement for Black Lives. She writes that “Police brutality occurs in America and we have to root it out wherever we find it.” She then points to cases like Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Philando Castile, as well as the countless tragedies that are “unfilmed and unseen.” But she quickly follows that with a caveat about the “difficult and dangerous” the job of a police officer, and that most “deserve to be proud of their public service and commended for the way they do their jobs.” Harris’s concludes is that it is a “false choice to suggest that you must either be for the police or for police accountability.”
But what about when the police aren’t for police accountability? Right now, California’s police unions are currently gearing up to fight back a transparency law meant to open to the public “internal investigations of officer shootings and other major uses of force, along with confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying while on duty.” Harris’s stance in her memoir on police accountability seems primarily interested in avoiding offense, rather than articulating a strong vision of how, sometimes, holding law enforcement institutions accountable does mean picking a side.
This same cautious ethos is reflected in Harris’s time as California attorney general, when she opposed legislation that would require her office to independently investigate fatal police shootings. And again, when she was largely absent after 26-year-old Mario Woods was shot and killed by San Francisco police officers, leading to the resignation of the department’s police chief. “How many more people need to die before she steps in?” Phelicia Jones, an organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition, told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. Woods is not mentioned in Harris’s memoir.
A similar hedge can be seen in Harris’s support for marijuana legalization. “We need to legalize marijuana and regulate it,” Harris writes. “And we need to expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.” This full-throated support is a welcome change from Harris’s refusal to support a California ballot measure in 2016 that would have legalized marijuana in the state, or in 2014, when she laughed off a question about legalizing recreational marijuana. (Last year, Harris signed on to Senator Cory Booker’s bill to legalize marijuana at the federal level.) But Harris also makes sure to note in her book that it’s important to “acknowledge what we don’t know about the effects of marijuana” and warns that “we need to understand any risks.”
With every hedge—on police violence to sex work to marijuana policy—one could almost imagine a white suburban middle-class reader breathing a sigh of relief.
Harris’s progressive centrism, if you want to try to give it a name, is also less persuasive when held up against recent examples of what aggressive reform in the prosecutor’s office can look like in 2019. Take Philadelphia’s newly-elected District Attorney Larry Krasner. In his first months in office, Krasner, who campaigned on ending mass incarceration, made waves by firing a slew of prosecutors that he believed would resist his agenda and sent out a memo with a set of progressive directives for his entire staff, which included not prosecuting for marijuana possession without an intent to sell and not charging prostitution cases against sex workers for the first and second offense. (Even here, we see there is still a long way to go.) The memo also directed attorneys to state the projected cost of any prison sentence that they asked for in court. Krasner is new and still testing the limits of his job, but he’s presented a much more robust vision of what a progressive prosecutor should be.
In contrast, Harris’s chapters on her prosecutorial record try to signal her progressivism, while carefully making sure not to alienate liberal and centrist voters—the type who feel might feel more comfortable when Harris describes her Back on Track program as a “boot camp,” noting that it was “not a social welfare program; it was a law enforcement program.”
In her memoir, Harris writes of our country’s system of mass incarceration: “I wanted to tear it down.” But what she describes in the book feels more like a remodel than a revolution. Whether that’s an appealing case in 2019 is a question that will be in answered in time. Until then, she’s clearly trying to thread that needle.