OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — It was cloudy and brisk on Sunday morning, but it would have felt like a midsummer’s day to Kamala Harris had she been been walking around 16th and Telegraph Avenue. Beaming with radiant smiles and laughter, the multicolored crowd of thousands stretched around the corner of Telegraph and down around San Pablo Avenue. Some chatted about the possibility of the second black president, the first South Asian president, the first woman in the White House, the first Alpha Kappa Alpha soror (skee-wee!), the first HBCU grad, the first one from their hometown. The bootleggers were out in force, with the perhaps too-easily replicated Harris campaign logo already finding its way onto hats and tote bags. One local couple, there with their two young daughters, had printed up their own Harris gear and spoke of a “new beginning.”
It is tempting to judge such an atmosphere as “Yes We Can”-ish, but that would be reductive. Yes, the Senator from California, 54, was first dubbed the “female Obama” in a Daily Beast profile nearly nine years ago. But to presume that she is now running for president because press and politicos alike pushed her to is not only to deny Harris the agency she has in making such a choice, but also to disregard the obvious differences between herself and our previous president. The Harris phenomenon is its own kind of wonder, where a presidential campaign for a woman born from Jamaican and Tamil Indian parents has become possible not merely because Obama opened the door. It isn’t just because Oakland, Howard University and AKAs all love their homegirl, either. Harris got here while exhibiting the kind of femininity that makes men like Jeff Sessions nervous. Obama often shied away from exhibiting the kind of anger for which black men are so often stigmatized, but Harris has provided yet another example of a woman of color rising in politics because of — not despite — her intensity and intelligence. If anything, Harris stands at the end of a road that was last tread by Michelle, not Barack.
The senator needed to use her debut 2020 event — easily the grandest yet staged by any Democratic candidate who has entered the primary race — to prove her star-making qualities also make her a viable presidential candidate. That was difficult enough for anyone, and by any reasonable measure, she nailed it. Speaking to what the campaign estimated to be more than 20,000 people in front of Oakland City Hall, Harris offered a fascinating and layered rationalization for why she chose to do this.
A lot of candidates would have been content to launch their presidential campaigns with platitudes about the American Dream and moral clarity, but the former prosecutor chose to do something a bit more interesting with her time. She used her opening salvo to make an argument for improving the same flawed system in which she has spent her career.
“Who are we? Who are we as Americans?” Harris asked the crowd, which seemed understandably puzzled given what is happening in this country under President Donald Trump. “So, let’s answer that question. To the world. And each other. Right here. And, right now. America, we are better than this.”
Particularly at this moment in America, that is both a compelling and a challenging case to make. The Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency is black voters, who have generations of proof that American exceptionalism is a lie. Harris isn’t arguing that we’re better than everyone else, but it is a tougher sell when our president’s actions and words makes it difficult to believe that America is better than anyone else.
Earlier in her speech, the Senator celebrated her prosecutorial roots. “It was just a couple blocks from this very spot that, nearly 30 years ago, as a young district attorney, I walked into the courtroom for the very first time and said the five words that would guide my life’s work: ‘Kamala Harris, for the people,’” she said, explaining her already ubiquitous campaign slogan, punctuating it a bit later with a line we are sure to hear often: “My whole life, I’ve only had one client: the people.”
This fit the theme of the day. Though Harris did away with the “progressive prosecutor” language that her campaign had been using, she did not shy away from her record as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general that, over the past several weeks, has caused quite a bit of consternation on the political Left. Critics allege that her past support of harsh state truancy laws and prosecution of sex workers means that she has been part of the machine of mass incarceration that disproportionately targets black and Hispanic people — and that she didn’t do enough to reform the system when she had a chance.
In Sunday’s speech, Harris’ response to such charges did not come in the form of an overt rebuttal. Rather, she underscored what may be her credo: we have to work within the system to better the system. That is a quintessential dilemma of African-American life, in particular, and one that I weighed often even as a young boy. What is the best pathway to make a difference in a system built with inherent disadvantages for people with your background? Also, black voters are quite used to politicians disappointing them when it comes to promises of using the system to ameliorate old inequities. If you are Harris and already had years to make such differences in California, how do you persuade folks that you’re capable of making such change on a national level?
Harris said that she was raised to believe in the collective responsibility for public service. “In fact,” the Senator told the crowd, “My mother used to say, ‘Don’t sit around and complain about things; do something.’ Basically, I think she was saying. ‘You’ve got to get up and stand up and don’t give up the fight!’”
Later, Harris spoke up of injustices embedded within the criminal justice system. She also worked in a dig about Trump’s proposed border wall, saying “the president’s medieval vanity project is not going to stop” transnational gangs.”)
The simple fact of Harris’ candidacy demands that a Democratic Party more prominently led by black voters and others of color believe in her ability to shape an America that works for us. That is a tough ask of people who have been most betrayed throughout the centuries by this nation’s structures of government and jurisprudence, especially after two years of the Trump White House have killed the “Hope and Change” era. It is a tough ask of the women who, as Harris noted, continue to suffer pay disparities that grow worse when they aren’t white. While the Trump debacle has boosted political engagement across the board, Harris asked marginalized people to believe in more than her ability to win a historic election. She wants us all to believe in an America that can actually fulfill its promise to all Americans.
This is what civil rights activists, community organizers and other citizens have asked of this nation for generations. Harris does not deserve cookies for demanding the same, but it is a healthy, early sign that she and her campaign have priorities in order. This is essential in a primary in which Harris may not be able to rely on the same electoral coalitions that Obama built 10 years ago. Her viability as a candidate — and even, in the view of some, as the presumptive front-runner for the nomination — may come down to her ability to convince people that her prosecutorial experience will inform how she makes positive reforms in the future.“America’s story has always been written by people who can see what can be unburdened by what has been,” Harris said near the end of her rally, capturing in one sentence what may be the essence of her campaign.
She is an amazingly accomplished woman of color, one who once helped put many people of color in prison and now seeks the chance to champion their cause in the most important election of modern times. In another circumstance, Harris might very well find herself prosecuting a man like the president, and this campaign can be her own personal impeachment trial. If so, her opening argument in Harris v. Trump left a mark. (Her reference to foreign infection of the White House as “malware” was her best body blow of the afternoon.)
Harris also summoned Robert F. Kennedy’s words from his time as an ill-fated presidential candidate, noting that “at stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country; it is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.” This is not impossible. Standing among the cheering throng in Oakland, it was easy to feel that a Harris victory was likely. But getting disillusioned voters to believe in America’s possibility once more will take work, which she acknowledges. If many of those who flocked to City Hall and who watched around the nation don’t yet believe that America can work for them, many of them believe that at least Harris can.