When former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden selected California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, the pick was lauded as bold, sending a positive message of a party that embraces diversity and inclusion. If elected in November, Harris would be the nation’s first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president.
Harris, whose parents were immigrants from India and Jama
Sen. Harris has faced questions on her current advocacy of criminal justice reform, stemming from her time as a prosecutor, district attorney, and California’s attorney general, where she had a reputation of being tough on crime. Her record is filled with contradictions on issues such as the death penalty, prosecuting police violence targeting communities of color and dismantling the prison industrial complex.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kevin Alexander Gray, an author and activist, who served as Jesse Jackson’s South Carolina presidential campaign manager in 1988. Here he assesses Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate, and the critical need to mobilize progressive activist groups to push for social change both before and after the November election.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: If you look at her history and Joe Biden’s history — his history with the Crime bill, his history with Anita Hill and the Supreme Court, with busing — she is certainly, as it relates to her politics, not as bad as the person at the top of the ticket who vouched for Obama. It’s no question 2020 is a whole new game. But if you look at her history and Biden’s history, well, Biden has worse race history than she does. So, if she is progress for the Democratic party from where Biden was, certainly that’s progress. I don’t know if I would just call that progressive. But certainly she is different.
I think a lot of what has to happen in the future is the pressure that an organized movement — not a narrow movement, but an organized, broad-based movement — can put on the Biden administration to have some kind of progressive change, be it economics and housing and healthcare. But still, all of it takes organizing at the grassroots level. And it certainly doesn’t need to come from the Democratic party level because you know, the art of politics is about compromise. The art of the outside game is to push them to where at least the compromise isn’t as bad as it could be if it was just Democrats compromising with Republicans.
SCOTT HARRIS: Kevin, I wanted to drill down a little bit on your very correct reading of the necessity of mobilizing progressive activist groups not just before the election, which is essential, but after the election. There’s a lot of criticism of progressive activist groups who did not mobilize to pressure President Obama when he took office in 2009 and a lot of the progressive priorities went by the wayside. Of course, we were confronting an economic crisis at that point. But here we are in 2020. And if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win office and enter the White House in January of next year, what is your prescription for mobilizing progressive groups?
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: You mentioned Obama was a lesson to be learned, especially with so-called progressive groups, especially in the black community where people basically stood down. You had black institutions from the NAACP, the Rainbow Coalition, black newspapers, black activists, everybody stood down because they didn’t want to see the first black president be embarrassed. And they were proud of just the achievement of Obama winning the White House. So there weren’t a lot of demands placed on Obama. And a lot of folk like me – there were some folk like me that were very critical of Obama and we caught it during those periods of time. I mean, we were vilified or we were shut out from the community in many respects, and then a lot of folk come back to you and say, man, you know, you are right. But you know, Obama shows what we didn’t do when we should have been mobilizing.
I mean, Obama, it was about doing what neo-liberals do – try to appeal to people that would never be with him. I mean, you appeal to a racist. A racist is never going to be with you. And that led to where we are today with a lack of cohesive social movement organizations and institutional civil rights organizations. So obviously, what we have to do is go back and organize on the local level. You have to do neighborhood organizing. You have to know the people in the neighborhood, know what they need, and you have to stop putting pressure on the local level. There needs to be new organizations in the black community. Maybe Black Lives Matter will be a crucial organization in the black community, but it won’t be crucial unless it does some intergenerational organizing — if it doesn’t become arrogant and self-righteous and think that they can come into communities and tell communities what it is that they need without talking to the people in the communities and involving them. Their structures that have to be democratic. Those are the kinds of things that we have to do – build local-based democratically structured organizations that put pressure from the bottom up.