Kamala Harris

My Record As A Prosecutor - June 8, 2019

Kamala Harris
June 08, 2019— Columbia, South Carolina
Print friendly

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Well, I-- my breath has just been taken away, truly. The strength and the power that came from this young leader, my goodness. See, this is the beauty of moments like this evening where we just are inspired by our youngest and those who have been marching and shouting forever and everything in between. Thank you, thank you, thank you South Carolina NAACP for honoring me with this evening and asking me to join you.

Senator Allen you are extraordinary, every time I come to South Carolina I see him leading and speaking and setting the tone and articulating the priorities and I cannot thank you enough for your leadership because you truly are a national leader, as well as a leader in the state, thank you.

And Madam President, I have so enjoyed our time together and all that you are doing I praise and thank you for the theme of this evening: education. We’ve had an extensive conversation about your vision and your leadership and I know you have put so much work into this evening, you make it look easy I know it was not and so I want to thank you and congratulate you on a wonderful and successful evening tonight for the president of the NAACP.

And Pastor Jackson thank you for yet again welcoming us in this beautiful home; I told Pastor Jackson I have decided this is going to be my second church home. It is wonderful to be with you and to all the leaders, elected community leaders, longstanding leaders, I thank you, I thank you.

So, this chapter of the NAACP has had a vision of leadership for more than 100 years and it has been a vision as we all know of what our country can be and what we believe it can be. This chapter of the NAACP of course helped bend the moral arc of the universe. When you and 20 black farmers challenged school segregation in Summerton, South Carolina and, of course, the work that you did and that the ancestors have done, was not without cost or struggle. We all remember and it is in the program for those of us who may not, the work of the petitioners in Briggs v. Elliott and members of this NAACP chapter who were confronted with violence, who lost their homes, who were fired from their jobs because they dared to exercise their right as United States citizens to fight against unjust laws. But, they did not relent because they knew what can be unburdened by what had been and two years later, it was their bravery of course, with so many others, that made the Supreme Court strike down “Separate But Equal”. It was that fight for justice that almost two decades later paved the way for a black child in first grade Berkeley, California to enter only the second class to be integrated in her elementary school. So I thank you, I thank you for paving the path for me then and as I stand before you as the second black woman elected to the United States Senate and a candidate for president of the United States. Because, as is so much about America’s history, the roots can be found here in South Carolina and with this chapter.

I was born out of that Civil Rights movement, I was raised in a community that my sister Maya and I joke, we’re adults spent full time marching and shouting for this thing called justice and the heroes of my youth were of course the lawyers of that Civil Rights movement: Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Constance Baker Motley. Those individuals who understood the skill of this profession of law, to translate the passion from the streets to the courtrooms of our country and to do the work that we know must always be done, of fighting for that promise we articulated in 1776, that we are all and should be treated as equals. So, growing up of course they demonstrated how the law can be a tool for fairness and a weapon in the fight for justice. And in my own life, lawyers like my uncle Sherman were the ones who our family and friends would always call on when there was a problem or something went wrong and when people needed help.

So my uncle Sherman was born in Louisiana; of course at the time the segregated south, legally segregated and he went to law school in California. When I was a child, he taught me how to play chess because he said you need to learn how to think strategically and you need to learn how to think multiple steps before the first step you take. Whenever there was a problem in our community, in the family, among friends, people would say, “call Sherman, call Sherman because he’ll know what to do, he’ll know how to help, he’ll know how to make sense of this”. Being raised in this environment, in this community and with my uncle Sherman as one of my heroes, I decided I wanted to be that person that people would call on, that people would look to for help and to solve their problems. I wanted to be somebody who could have a role that would be about protecting people and fixing what went wrong. So after graduating Howard University, I went back home to California as you heard from Attorney Boykin and when it came time to make my career choice my family gathered round. They said, “Okay Kamala so what are you going to do in your fight for justice?” and I got all excited and I said, “well I’ve decided I’m going to be a prosecutor”. Well now if you have any sense of who my family is, you will know that at best they found it a curious decision and with some of them I had to defend the decision like one would a thesis, but I was clear-eyed and I said you know why is it that we should only be on the outside of systems? Isn’t there a role also for us to play on being on the inside where the decisions are being made? And I said you know look I’m clear-eyed about it, I know and I knew then, prosecutors have not always done the work of justice. There have been prosecutors that have refused to seat black jurors, refused to prosecute lynchings, disproportionately condemned young, black men to death row and looked the other way in the face of police brutality. I was clear eyed that prosecutors were largely not people who looked like me or my uncle Sherman or the people who grew up in our neighborhood. In fact, when I became a prosecutor, I was only one of a handful of black prosecutors in that office, the Alameda County DA’s Office and when I was elected District Attorney of San Francisco in 2003 there were only three black elected DA’s in the entire country. When I was elected Attorney General of the state of California, a state of 40 million people, there was no other black attorney general anywhere else in the country. Yet, I knew the unilateral power prosecutors had with the stroke of a pen to make a decision about someone else’s life or death. Whether someone would be charged or let off, whether someone will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult, whether someone is sent to death row or not. I knew that it made a difference to have the people making those decisions also be the ones who went to our church, had children in our schools, coached our little league teams and knew our neighborhoods. In South Carolina you know this well, which is why you elected prosecutors like Byron Gibson and Chip Finney who, like the South Carolina NAACP, believe in what can be unburdened by what has been. People who bring the context, awareness, and life experience to the job to make the system more just. I’m going to give you just two examples of in my own career, how I’ve seen this play out and there are many but I am going to offer two.

A few years after I left Howard University, I started my job in the DA’s office and it was during the crack epidemic in the 1990s and it was also the height of gang violence in Los Angeles. In California then they passed a bunch of laws that were known as gang enhancements, which meant longer sentences if a person was affiliated with a gang and because these laws were new, prosecutors at the time were trying to figure out how to prove the cases in court. So one day I was sitting in my office and at the courthouse and I heard a bunch of my coworkers outside talking and they were talking about how they would try to prove one of these cases to prove that people, that a certain person was gang affiliated. I could hear them talking and they were mentioning, “well look at the neighborhood the person was in”... “well look at the way that they were dressed”... “well look at the music they were listening to”. So overhearing this conversation, I stepped out of my office and I said, “hey guys, how you guys doing?”--“How you doing Kamala?” I said, “I’m doing great, so you know that neighborhood you were talking about? Well I got family members and friends who live in that neighborhood. You know the way that you’re talking about how folks were dressed? Well that’s actually stylish in my community and I’m about to date myself, you know that music you were talking about? Well I got a tape of that music in my car right now.” But the point being, it matters who’s in those rooms where the decisions are being made, it matters. I’ll give you another example. So years later, after I was elected District Attorney as the first woman of that city and the first black woman in the state of California, again of 40 million people, after I was elected District Attorney there, as in a lot of communities, were homicides happening and it was on a regular basis that mothers would come to the front window of the office and they would arrive at the receptionist they would tell her “I want to talk to Kamala, I only want to talk to Kamala, I want to talk to Kamala”. So the receptionist would come and get me out of my office and I would run to go to the front window and of course I knew exactly why those mothers were there, they were the mother of a murdered child. These mothers were there for their babies because their babies were young men who had been killed by gun violence in the streets and it had been months since her son’s death and yet a killer still walked free. I would bring them back to my office and they would collapse in my arms and cry and they would say, “my son is dead but yet they’re not investigating the case, they don’t appear to be putting resources into it, they don’t appear to be taking it seriously, they are not taking my pain seriously, they are not acknowledging my pain and my son is being treated like a statistic. The mothers came I believe because they knew I would see them and I mean literally see them, see their grief, see their anguish, see their pain. So South Carolina I say again, it matters who’s in those rooms and I knew I had to be in those rooms and that we always have to be in those rooms especially and even when there aren’t many like us there. I’ll tell you and you heard it in the introduction, I’ll tell you that in this election, regarding my background as a prosecutor, there have been those who have questioned my motivations, my beliefs and what I have done. But my mother used to say, “you don’t let people tell you who you are you tell them who you are”. So that is what I am going to do, that is what I am going to do because let me be clear, self-appointed political commentators do not get to define who we are and what we believe. And they do not get to define what can be, I take my mother’s advice, that is up to us. So they me start with this: I believe safety is a civil right. A civil right to which all people are entitled regardless of where they live. Let’s talk about a myth, a myth that black people that don’t want public safety, that is simply not true every community wants to be safe, every community wants to know that the police will respond to their home when it gets burglarized, everyone wants to know that there will be accountability when a woman is raped, when a child is molested and when one human being kills another human being. We all want to be safe and what we don’t want--is what we don’t want is racial profiling or chokeholds or mass incarceration, what we don’t want is excessive force or being black to be considered probable cause. What we don’t want is for a parent to have to sit down with their 12 year-old son and have the talk and explain to that child that he may be arrested, he may be stopped, he may be chased or he may be shot because of the color of his skin. What we don’t want is any more cases like Walter Scott.

So believing safety is a civil right, I have always been motivated by a vision of a criminal justice system that is fair and treats everyone equally because that’s what we do want. What we do want is law enforcement that both protects and respects. What we do want is a justice system where whether you sit in jail before trial is based on the size of your crime and not the size of your bank account. What we do want is to stop criminalizing drug addiction, mental illness and trauma, instead treat them for what they are, a public health issue that deserves the resources that are needed to deal with it. And what we do want is for real second chances for folks who have been involved in the system and we want to honor of the--power of the force of redemption. And what we do want is equal treatment which means not where the kid on the corner becomes a felon for life while the white-collar criminals, be they pharmaceutical companies or executives or bankers get a free pass. What we do want is a justice system where no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States. Not even the President of the United States. So ever since the first day I walked into the courtroom and said the five work--five words that have guided my life’s work: “Kamala Harris for the people” I have fought for a vision, the vision of what we do want as my goal. It was for the people that I took on the banks who defrauded homeowners, oil companies that polluted our state, pharmaceutical companies who scammed seniors. The people deserved justice, for the people--for the people we went over the--and after those who would violently victimize the most vulnerable and yes we prosecuted rapists and murderers and child molesters because those victims deserve justice. And for the people we gave voice to sexually exploited young women that the system only saw as teenage prostitutes, those young women deserved protection. For the people, we cleared a backlog of rape kits in a state of 40 million people because those women deserved justice. For the people, we fought for elementary school students who were missing 50, 60, up to 80 days of 180 day school year because when I learned that those were the statistics; when I learned that 40 percent of those children were missing over 10 percent of the school year and that they were likely to drop out and that they were likely to end up in jail or dead in the streets. Beautiful, smart children who if they had lived in some rich neighborhood, the alarms would have gone off. Well, I refuse to stand there and let the system fail them and so I held the system accountable and got those children back in school, not by sending people to jail, but by getting families the resources they needed because those children deserve justice. And for the people, I demanded that we reject a false choice that suggests our criminal justice policy--you’re either tough on crime or you’re soft on crime and instead I said we need to be smart on crime. We need to recognize it’s smart to understand if you want to deal with something instead of reacting to something after it happens, prevent it from happening in the first place. And that’s why back in the early 2000s I created one of the first reentry initiatives in the nation for young men who had been arrested for dealing drugs and counseling and support--parenting support, because by the way, even though some of those young men weren’t paying child support, they loved their children and needed the skills to be able to embrace their children so that is how we dealt with that. Being smart meant requiring that the state law enforcement agency that was under my supervision, the first in the country, wear body cameras to increase accountability to the community. It meant launching investigations into acts of discrimination by law enforcement agencies, all because the people deserve justice. And so it is for the people that I stand before you today and as I shared with you, my family created the context for all the work I have done. My sister Maya and I were raised by a mother who was all of five feet tall, but if you had ever met her you would have thought she was seven feet tall. And our mother was the kind of parent who if you ever came home complaining about something, she would look at you, often with one hand on her hip and say, “well what are you going to do about it?” So I am running for president of the United States. And I’m going to close it out by saying this, I believe right now we need a leader that restores the importance of truth and justice in our country because, because we’ve got a president of the United States, a man who took an oath to defend the Constitution, who violates that sworn promise and we must hold him accountable by prosecuting the case in front of the American people against four more years of this administration. And I’ve prosecuted a lot of cases but rarely one with this much evidence. Taking healthcare from working families, passing a tax bill that benefitted the biggest corporations in the top one percent, starting a trade war that costs all Americans, ripping babies from their parents, equating neo-nazis with civil rights marchers, not to mention 10 counts of obstruction of justice. So NAACP we have a winning case, we have a winning case and we need a new president. And I thank you for all of the work you do every day and the leadership you provide and I thank you, I thank you, I thank you. Let us march on to victory each and every day in our fight for justice because this is a fight that is worth it and this is a fight we will win."