As Kamala Harris made history Wednesday night, she defined the role she hopes to play as Joe Biden’s running mate: the defender of the voiceless, the vilified and the forgotten Americans who have struggled under four years of President Donald Trump.
Introducing herself as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants and someone who embodies the values of a new more inclusive America, Harris – who became the first Black and South Asian woman to accept a major party’s vice presidential nomination – wove together her story. She talked of her upbringing, her decision to become a prosecutor, her career focus on righting injustices and how it informed her approach to the heaviness of this moment, as the nation tries to find its way out of the coronavirus pandemic and an economic collapse while at the same time dealing with the systematic racism that is so ingrained in American culture.
After a nod to the pioneering women who paved the way for her historic moment, Harris spoke poignantly of her own mother, who she said taught her and her sister Maya to “be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people” and to believe that “the fight for justice is a shared responsibility.” It was those values that led her to become a prosecutor who would try to reform the criminal justice system from within, and later a US senator.
During every step of her career, Harris said she has been guided by the words she spoke as a prosecutor “from the first time I stood in a courtroom: Kamala Harris, For the People.”
She noted her work on behalf of children and survivors of sexual assault, and recounted the predators she targeted both as a prosecutor and California’s attorney general, including transnational gangs and the nation’s largest banks in the wake of the 2008 recession.
Clearly aware that many Americans might be hearing her for the first time, Harris at first seemed intent on projecting a sunny demeanor as she talked about her love for her family and her background. But she found her footing, as always, when she turned to prosecuting the case against Trump, whose “failure of leadership,” she said, “has cost lives and livelihoods.”
Now, she said, the nation is engaged in a battle with the coronavirus pandemic, but she noted that the disease has not been an “equal opportunity offender.”
“Black, Latino and Indigenous people are suffering and dying disproportionately. This is not a coincidence,” Harris said. “It is the effect of structural racism; of inequities in education and technology, health care and housing, job security and transportation; the injustice in reproductive and maternal health care; in the excessive use of force by police and in our broader criminal justice system.”
“This virus has no eyes, and yet it knows exactly how we see each other – and how we treat each other,” she said.
Harris – who co-authored the Democratic legislation to address police brutality and excessive force with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker – also invoked the memory of George Floyd, a Black man was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for more than seven minutes this spring.
“There is no vaccine for racism,” she said. “We’ve got to do the work. For George Floyd; for Breonna Taylor; for the lives of too many others to name.”
“We’ve got to do the work to fulfill that promise of equal justice under law,” she continued. “Because, none of us are free, until all of us are free.”
Harris has long argued that Trump’s tactics have torn the nation apart as he has forced the separation of families at the border, vilified immigrants, excoriated his political opponents and urged government officials to “dominate” peaceful demonstrators in the streets after Floyd’s death.
During Trump’s presidency, she argued that many Americans feel adrift in the “constant chaos,” alone because of the President’s “callousness,” and afraid of his “incompetence.”
With those worries in mind, she made the case for electing Biden as a president, someone who she said “will bring all of us together – Black, White, Latino, Asian, Indigenous – to achieve the future we collectively want.”
The California senator argued that Trump turns “our tragedies into political weapons” while she and Biden share “a vision of our nation as a beloved community – where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love.”
During a night when Democrats honored the political activism of women, 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton offered words of encouragement to Harris, noting said that as someone who knows a “thing or two about slings and arrows,” she was sure “Kamala can handle them all.”
The women of the Harris family – Maya, Harris’ niece Meena, and her stepdaughter, Ella Emhoff – officially nominated her as the Democratic nominee for vice president of the United States.
Marking that milestone, Harris said she was thinking of her mother, who she said taught her that “service to others gives life purpose and meaning.”
“Oh, how I wish she were here tonight, but I know she’s looking down on me from above. I keep thinking about that 25-year-old Indian woman – all of five feet tall – who gave birth to me at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California,” Harris said.
“On that day, she probably could have never imagined that I would be standing before you now speaking these words: I accept your nomination for vice president of the United States of America.”