RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Harris’ new incarnation as cop critic shouldn’t fool anyone
With the vice president, it seems the only version that matters is the one concocted most recently.
February 21, 2023 - 9:00 pm
The 2024 election will mark the first time that my 18-year-old gets to vote.
Here’s what I plan to tell her: Vote for the candidate you believe has the best character, the one you can relate to. But whatever you do, never vote for someone based on what they promise, promote or pretend to be.
Because politicians — especially the ambitious ones — change positions as easily as the rest of us change channels on our television.
Which brings us to the recent antics of an elected official who knows a lot about ambition but even more about changing positions.
Vice President Kamala Harris was in Memphis, Tennessee, recently to attend the memorial service for Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died of injuries suffered in a brutal beating by five police officers — all of them also Black. Harris stood at the lectern at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church and lamented that “this violent act was not in pursuit of public safety.” She talked about Nichols’ parents and siblings and observed “this is a family that lost their son and their brother through an act of violence at the hands and the feet of people who had been charged with keeping them safe.”
According to media reports, Harris had not expected to speak at the service. But the Rev. Al Sharpton, who officiated the proceedings, coaxed her into it. And so Harris spoke.
At least, I think it was Harris. I can’t be sure. You see, I live in California, Harris’ home state. Those of us on the left coast spent more than a decade watching Harris cozy up to, and make excuses for, law enforcement as she was making a name for herself as San Francisco district attorney (from 2004 to 2011) and California attorney general (2011 to 2017). So we have a hard time getting our heads around this new incarnation of Harris as a defender of those victimized by police.
If I were in church, I would ask the congregation for an “amen.”
Harris was inclined to back the blue all those years because that’s what her ambition called her to do.
That earlier version of Harris decided it was in her best political interests to be pro-police. As attorney general in 2015 — as some of her critics in the California criminal justice system have noted — she criticized a bill in the Legislature that would have required her office to investigate shootings involving law enforcement officers. Harris also refused to support statewide standards regulating the use of body cameras by police officers. Back in Harris’ pro-cop days, those political maneuvers enraged Democrats and other advocates of criminal justice reform.
The California media — an unofficial arm of the state Democratic Party — tried to paper over Harris’ rift with the left by anointing her a “progressive prosecutor.”
You’ve got to love journalists. What we lack in truthfulness, we make up for with catchy phrases.
But the new branding didn’t fool the American Civil Liberties Union and public defenders throughout California, who remained critical. They knew who Harris was and what game she was playing.
Harris’ brand was simple but effective: Here was a woman of color who assuaged the concerns of white people by eagerly locking up other people of color. In a country plagued by tribalism, that schtick can get you far. In fact, that song and dance got Harris to the U.S. Senate, and then the vice president’s office.
In July 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit, then-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii claimed Harris had pursued overly aggressive prosecutions. Gabbard accused her of refusing to include, in one case, “evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so” and of keeping people locked up “beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.” Harris had no real response to the charges, other than to dismiss Gabbard as a low-tier candidate.
Now, as we watch Harris heap criticism on police at the Nichols memorial in Memphis, Americans are supposed to forget who she used to be — and maybe still is.
Who knows? With Kamala Harris, it seems the only version that matters is the one concocted most recently.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is email@example.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.