Kamala Harris, a Democrat top 2020 contender who just held a CNN town hall earlier this week, has come into the race ready to rebrand herself as a stalwart progressive. She promised Medicare for All (forced Medicare for All, that is. If you like your existing plan, you won’t be able to keep it), action on climate change, and an end to gun violence.
“I think somebody should have required all those members of Congress to go in a room––in a locked room, no press, nobody else––and look at the autopsy photographs of those babies. And then you vote your conscience,” she said, referencing the children murdered at Sandy Hook in 2012. She played the political game beautifully. When asked whether being the first black woman to hold the presidency would be historically significant, Harris quoted her mother, saying “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.” Yeah, yeah, we get it.
She’s branding herself as the far-left woman, one with progressive bona fides, who can take on President Trump. Given that she’s spent so many decades of her career fighting to keep her foot on the necks of needy people, she might just be the type of morally appalling leader who can give Trump a run for his money. But don’t think for a second that would be much of a win for the American people.
Try As She Might, Harris Can’t Escape Her Record
Harris has a nasty record as a prosecutor, and all evidence supports the idea that she hasn’t reformed her old ways. She’s widely hated by people who sell sex due to her pushing FOSTA-SESTA, internet laws designed to crack down on “sex trafficking” (usually more like consensual exchange of sex for money) that really make workers’ lives much more dangerous. Not just that, but she’s also been leading the charge against Backpage, the preferred platform for many adult industry workers up until recently.
As Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in 2018:
Harris’ most prominent crusade in recent years has been against the classified advertising platform Backpage, which inherited much of the digital sex-ad market after the federal government forced MyRedbook.com to close and bullied Craigslist into shuttering its adult-ad section. Sex workers credit online advertising platforms with allowing them greater independence, reducing the need to rely on ‘pimps,’ and significantly curtailing risks to their safety by allowing for better screening of clients. But these platforms have become a big bulls-eye for grandstanding politicians, who have used the new visibility of prostitution ads to peddle sex-trafficking hysteria and make a name for themselves in the process.
In October of 2016, just before she faced voters in her Senate bid, Harris spearheaded the arrest of current and former Backpage executives on charges of pimping and conspiracy, under the (ultimately unsuccessful) theory that providing an open online platform for user-generated content made them responsible for any illegal activity committed by users who connected through the site.
To someone who doesn’t follow these issues, this might not seem like a big deal. But it’s actually a huge one: online marketplaces give sex workers significantly more power to vet who they choose to work with, so outcry against Backpage crackdowns and FOSTA-SESTA has been enormous within these communities. Motherboard’s Samantha Cole reports:
If it comes down to Harris against Trump in 2020, some sex workers say the choice is difficult. ‘I can’t tell people how to vote, but I think there are definitely sex workers who would just sit out the election if the choices were Kamala and Trump,’ sex worker and activist Phoenix Calida told me in a call. ‘Neither of them are going to demilitarize police, neither of them are going to cut back on arrests, neither of them are going to stop locking up sex workers.’
Kamala shows no remorse here, continuing to sell her record as attempting to eradicate––or reduce––sex trafficking, again ignoring the fact that there’s a huge distinction between consensual selling of sex and coercion. But here’s a clue: if many people in the communities you’re allegedly helping vehemently oppose the actions you’re taking to “save” them, consider just for a second that you might need to listen to them and craft a different strategy. But that assumes genuine compassion and self-reflection instead of shrewd law-and-order-focused political hunger.
The Threat Of Fines And Jail Time For Struggling Parents?
Harris has also strengthened truancy laws, making it easier to go after parents and guardians whose children serially or chronically skip school. The thing is, the parents swept up in Harris’s nasty dragnet aren’t typically the ones who have money to pay fines. They’re, you guessed it, disproportionately poor. The very last thing those parents and children need are a prosecutor who thinks government levers are the key to solving all things, unintended consequences be damned.
That’s simply not the case, and it’s obvious from sex workers’ reports that where Harris meddles, she fails to grasp the very tangible impact that her patronizing policy stances have on the lives of people she purports to help.
Kamala Harris at an event hosted by the Commonwealth Club in 2010, explaining her decision as San Francisco DA to get tough on truancy.
Critics of truancy crackdowns say such efforts unfairly target poor parents and children without actually helping students. pic.twitter.com/GKkDpayxuv
— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) January 28, 2019
The good news is that post-CNN town hall, although much of the media lauded Harris and posted adoring articles about her acumen and likability, several took it upon themselves to resurface videos of Harris’s recent support for cracking down on truancy violations.
In 2010, for example, video shows Harris saying, “I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime. So I decided I was gonna start prosecuting parents for truancy.”
“Well, this was a little controversial in San Francisco,” Harris noted, with a folksy giggle.
Another video showed Harris bragging about her power: “As a prosecutor in law enforcement, I have huge stick. The school district as a carrot. Let’s work together in tandem…to get those kids in school.”
In her first speech as attorney general, Harris said: “We are putting parents on notice…If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.” What she was referring to, of course, was her push to institute more intense truancy laws and harsh fines for parents whose kids skip school.
The disaster of American social policy is perfectly captured by Harris's story of the mother who she threatened with prosecution before helping with social services. That's the American way: what little help we offer poor people comes under threat of prison. /2
— James Forman, Jr. (@jformanjr) January 29, 2019
Colorlines covered this in 2011 when the California law took effect:
As of the new year, California parents face prosecution, fines up to $2,000, and even jail time if they don’t make sure their kids attend school regularly. The new state law took effect on January 1 and was signed into law last September by former Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s a strict law, which holds three designations for kids who chronically miss school. A truant is any student who is 30 or more minutes late to class on more than three school days, a chronic truant any student who misses more than 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse. A habitual truant is a truant who continues to miss class even after school officials attempt to reach out to the student. Parents of kids who are chronically truant can be found guilty of a misdemeanor and face a series of fines and punishments, starting with a $100 fine for the first conviction and ending with a year of incarceration and up to $2000 for parents of chronic truants.
The issue is, like many other writers have noted, the people hurt by this carceral approach are the very people who are most likely to be financially crippled by a few fines. We’re not talking about wealthy people here, and generally speaking, criminal justice reform advocates fear using punitive means to “help” poor people because it can be so easy for them to get trapped in a cycle of unpaid fines that leads to jail time, which leads to time forcibly taken off of work, which leads to even less money and even less ability to pay outstanding debts.
None of this, you can imagine, helps children get a more stable home life with more attention from parents. An article from The Guardian confirms this:
In almost all cases, elementary school kids love to go to school: it’s where their friends are, the teachers are warm and fuzzy, they do fun things, they have recess. Something’s going on if a parent isn’t getting the child to school, and, likely, it’s not that the parent doesn’t care.
The case is far more likely that there is some real problem in the family that is preventing the parent from getting the child to school. It can be a mental health problem on the part of the parent, or an economic problem. It can be all kinds of things, there are plenty of real barriers. But levying a fine does nothing to remove any of the barriers you can possibly think of that might be preventing a family from getting a kid to school. (Emphasis theirs.)
But this is all irrelevant to Harris, or so it seems.
And this isn't a one-off comment from Harris; this seems to be a huge pattern in her career. A belief that expanding government's ability to lock people up and go after "wrongdoers" necessarily creates better consequences. What a load of crap.
— Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) January 29, 2019
Maybe "load of crap" is too soft. This is the type of belief I find most insidiously awful. She seems free of self-reflection as to unintended consequences/outcomes created by policies she's pursued; the fervor with which she ignores the sex work community is great evidence here.
— Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) January 29, 2019
Don’t let Harris fool you: ignoring unintended consequences while undermining the agency and economic freedom of the people you’re trying to help would be a terrible quality in a president. She should be forced to confront her record whenever possible, even if she decides to pull a conveniently timed about-face here after the fact, the way she did with marijuana.