Progressive activists, wary over criminal justice under a Biden-Harris administration, want more than just representation

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris are seen at the stage during a campaign event, their first joint appearance since Biden named Harris as his running mate, at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Delaware, August 12, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

They spent the summer on the frontlines of a historic protest movement against police violence. But many young criminal justice activists leading the charge for police reform won’t be enthusiastically casting their ballots for the Democratic presidential ticket in November.

Nominee Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, his running mate, have clashed with progressives over the years, seeding a distrust that the ongoing campaign is not attuned to their perspective. And though the Democratic ticket is the choice of most activists, Biden and Harris are still regarded warily by those pushing hardest for meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system.

In a series of interviews this summer, organizers told CNN their angst over the records of Biden, who wrote the 1994 crime bill, and Harris, a former prosecutor, along with the pair’s outwardly supportive rhetoric for law enforcement, fuels their concerns about the future. And while Biden choosing Harris, a daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, was in part a nod to influential Black women who wanted to see a reflection of themselves — Black and highly qualified– in the highest office in the land, the young activists said representation alone is not enough.

After a wide open primary that showcased the diversity of the Democratic Party, it ended with the nomination of the 78-year-old Biden, a moderate whose 1994 bill is often cited as one driver of mass incarceration, in part because of the “three strikes” law that ensured mandatory life terms for defendants with at least three federal violent crime or drug convictions.

Yet Democrats of all stripes have largely set aside their misgivings about Biden to focus on ousting Trump. That focus was amplified and sharpened following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Republicans’ rush to fill her seat. It was buoyed further this week by the lack of charges brought against three officers for the killing of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year old woman shot in her own home while Louisville police were executing a search warrant, signaling the limits of this summer’s pressure campaign on legislative and judicial change.

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Young progressive activists are reasoning that they stand a better chance of successfully pressuring Biden into taking up key elements of their cause than Trump, who has lambasted peaceful protesters and refused to condemn all but the most egregious acts of police violence.

“There are a lot of people, including myself, who aren’t excited,” Gicola Lane, a 31-year-old Black woman and criminal justice organizer from Nashville, told CNN in an interview. “Because of what we have seen happen in courtrooms, in our own neighborhood and all over this country. And we know that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have played a part in that system.”

Still, she plans to vote for the Democratic ticket in the fall.

The lack of enthusiasm for Biden and Harris points to deeper concerns over their ability to unite the party absent what many perceive as an existential threat posed by four more years of Trump. Demonstrators on the front line of a wildly invigorated social justice movement see movable objects in Biden and Harris, where the current administration looms like a stone wall blocking their push for change.

“Voting is not an expression of my moral values, it’s a decision to choose the political terrain that we fight on,” Aaron Bryant, a 28-year-old Black man from Durham, North Carolina, told CNN.

Bryant, an organizer and electoral justice fellow with Movement for Black Lives, plans to vote for Biden and Harris, but only as a means to an end.

“Do we want to fight on a political terrain that advantages the worst among the capitalist class and the right wing? Or do we want to fight on the terrain that advantages the middle of the road centrist moderate option? I think one of those options gives us as a movement a better opportunity to strategize and move forward,” Bryant said.

A blueprint

Simran Chowla, a 20-year-old Indian woman whose parents are of Punjabi and Bengali descent, said that she’s never before seen a South Asian woman like Harris reach this level of American politics.

“It’s been pretty monumental for me as a young Indian woman,” Chowla told CNN.

Still, despite their similar backgrounds, Chowla said she does not have full confidence that a Vice President Harris — whom she plans to vote for — would represent her interests if elected.

An organizer with March For Our Lives DC and a lobbying lead for Team ENOUGH, a pair of gun violence prevention organizations, Chowla hopes to bring up her proposals to a Biden-Harris administration. She would like to see a defunding or redistributing of funds within the police, among other initiatives.

Neither Biden nor Harris support defunding the police, contrary to Trump’s insistence otherwise. Biden has voiced support for conditioning federal aid to police based on behavior and Justice Department intervention against departments who violate civil rights standards. Harris has often said the US needs to “reimagine” public safety and how the police and the communities they serve interact but has said violent crime should stay the remit of trained officers.

Biden has also voiced support for a federal ban on police chokeholds, reestablishing a Justice Department oversight panel that investigated police practices established during the Obama administration, and other steps to increase police accountability.

Alongside New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Harris introduced the Justice in Policing Act in June, at the height of a national uprising against racism and the police killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people. The bill would create a National Police Misconduct Registry, provide incentives for local governments to conduct racial bias training for officers, and set caps on the transfer of military-grade equipment to law enforcement, among other initiatives.

And during her primary campaign, Harris released a plan that sought to end mandatory minimum sentences on the federal level, legalize marijuana, end the death penalty, and end the use of private prisons– a far cry from the policies she once enforced as California’s attorney general and the district attorney for San Francisco, positions that led to her being labeled a “cop” by young Black activists.

Among a litany of issues, she was criticized for disagreeing with a bill that would have required her AG office to appoint a special prosecutor to probe all deadly police-involved shootings in 2015, saying that the decision should be kept in the hands of local prosecutors. A year later, she pushed a law to expand the AG’s ability to appoint special prosecutors if district attorneys consented.

Some criminal justice activists say they have been heartened by the Biden campaign’s willingness to take some increasingly progressive positions on climate change — and believe that, with pressure and time, they could push a Biden-Harris administration in the same direction.

Zina Precht-Rodriguez, the deputy creative director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, highlighted Biden’s revamped climate change platform, the product of deep engagement with leading activists and progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who co-chaired a task force on the issue that brought together Biden allies and supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Biden’s climate plan is unrecognizable from the plan he entered the race with, and you could say that extends to his rhetoric and how he speaks to young people,” Precht-Rodriguez said.

But asked if the Biden-Harris ticket is doing enough, she said, “I think the short answer would be, they could always do more.”

“It sort of speaks to the point of, you know, how we will push the ticket to the left,” Precht-Rodriguez said. “Voting is only one basic part of organizing, and we won’t win the Green New Deal just by voting one President or congressperson in.”

‘I don’t have faith that they’re fighting for my revolution’

Organizers have highlighted Biden’s stance that “not all cops are bad cops” as part of their critique that the ticket has not engaged in enough “deep listening” from those who are victimized by the police. It is evidence, they say, that Biden and Harris are more concerned with pushing back on attacks from Trump and the GOP than representing their movement’s priorities.

“It’s very clear that what they’re saying is completely opposite of what the movement is saying right now,” Lane said.

She works for Free Hearts, a Tennessee organization run by formerly incarcerated women that provides support to impacted families. Lane, who supported Sanders during the primary, challenged the pair to be open to a litany of policies produced over the summer to combat the current carceral state, like the BREATHE Act, which would divest federal funds from incarceration and policing and invest in community safety. That legislation is supported by progressive Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

“I would like to see them not talk down on the movement. Instead of making it seem outrageous, actually challenge themselves to listen and adopt them on a federal level to really gain confidence of the people,” Lane said.

Rukia Lumumba, co-director of the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives, credited Harris for meeting with M4BL organizers to hear about the BREATHE Act before her selection as Biden’s running mate. But neither Harris nor Biden has endorsed it.

Ty Hobson Powell, a 25-year-old Black man and founder of Concerned Citizens DC, said Democrats’ current message doesn’t give him “faith that they’re fighting for my revolution in this moment.”

Though Hobson Powell says Biden and Harris have not aligned themselves with his desired policy changes, he acknowledged that the other side is further away from his vision of reform.

“When we talk about voting for anybody, that is understanding, that I will be settling,” he said.

In response to young organizers’ criticism of the lack of policy shaping to match their needs, Harris press secretary Sabrina Singh told CNN the campaign understands “the need to address systemic injustices facing communities of color in criminal justice, housing, health care, and other aspects of society.”

“They’ve held listening sessions and virtual meetings with activists and community leaders to listen and learn and are committed to enacting their concerns into real and meaningful systemic change to achieve racial justice,” she added.

Additionally, both Biden and Harris have visited the battleground state of Wisconsin, speaking with Jacob Blake — a 29-year-old who was shot by police seven times in the back by a Kenosha police officer — over the phone and meeting with his family. Biden held a community meeting on September 3, where he condemned Blake’s shooting, as well as the violence and damage done to the city during subsequent protests.

‘She’s shown up to address these issues’

Jeremiah Wheeler, the 22-year-old Black Student Union President at Wayne State University, asked Harris how she would resolve injustices in the Black community at a recent campaign event in Detroit.

“I’m gonna need your help,” Harris told organizers and participants at the gathering on 7 Mile Road.

Wheeler told CNN that Harris later reiterated the need to work both inside and outside the system to create change, something that Harris has said she’s done throughout her career as a prosecutor. He credited Harris for her engagement, but said this moment is less about the candidates’ individual backgrounds than their policy vision.

Like so many others, Wheeler said he will be voting for Biden and Harris, and encouraging others to do so, but that decision was as much about ousting Trump as an endorsing the Democratic ticket.

“We need to vote,” said Wheeler, who supported Sanders in the primary. “I don’t want to offer any more reasons on why not to vote, whether I feel we’re getting the gourmet meal that we rightfully deserve or we’re getting some fast food. Participation is key.”

Chelsea Miller, a 24-year-old Black woman and co-founder of civil rights organization Freedom March NYC, applauded Harris for convening an “intimate” video conference with racial justice organizations from around the country.

“She asked questions, we asked questions. It came from a place of understanding. I think it’s commendable that [Harris] would step into that space and create this opportunity for activists and organizers,” Miller said. “She’s shown up to address these issues.”

Asked what Biden and Harris could do to prove that they are serious about delivering change, Porche Bennett, an activist, mother and small businesses owner who spoke passionately at the community meeting with Biden in Kenosha, said the nominee’s time there “changed how people view him,” and called on Biden and Harris to hit the streets to make their case.

“Get out here and go through these neighborhoods. Without cameras,” she said. “Treat us like we matter.”