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Sen. Kamala Harris kicks off presidential campaign with Oakland rally

on January 29, 2019

Senator Kamala Harris leaned into her East Bay roots as she held the first official rally of her presidential campaign in Oakland on Sunday. Stepping onto a podium in the shade of a flag-draped Oakland City Hall, Harris waved at the largest crowd ever gathered in her support, unable to contain a broad, excited smile.

An estimated 20,000 people poured into Frank H. Ogawa Plaza and overflowed into the streets surrounding Oakland City Hall. Cheers and chants drawing out the three syllables of the senator’s first name rippled through the city blocks.

Harris introduced herself as a “daughter of Oakland” and daughter of immigrants, raised by a mother from India and a father from Jamaica. In a forceful speech, she sketched out a campaign platform centered on a narrative that connects her record as California’s attorney general — a subject of much contention among some progressive voters—to a tenacious commitment to public service. She described herself as a prosecutor who has fought against banks and transnational drug smugglers and allied herself with criminal justice reform and survivors of sexual assault.

“My whole life, I’ve only had one client: the people,” said Harris.

She skewered the Trump administration’s policies with crowd-rousing one-liners, calling the border wall a “medieval vanity project” and characterizing purported Russian interference in the 2016 election as “foreign powers infecting the White House like malware.”

In a wide-ranging speech centered on the themes of truth and integrity, she spoke about universal pre-kindergarten and debt-free college, preserving reproductive rights, welcoming refugees to the United States and creating pathways to citizenship, solving the opioid crisis, and supporting “Medicare For All,” or single payer universal health insurance.

Knowing that her Oakland speech would also address a national audience of Democrats whom she hopes to coalesce in her support, she positioned herself as a unifier while signaling toward a desire to have tough conversations about the “uncomfortable but honest truth” about “age-old forms of hate with new fuel.”

“I’m not talking about unity for the sake of unity,” said Harris. “I’m not talking about some facade of unity.”

She characterized her campaign’s brand of unity as “equal treatment, collective purpose, freedom from all.”

“I am not perfect,” said Harris, without directly addressing criticisms of her prosecutorial record. “But I will speak with decency, moral clarity, and treat all people with dignity and respect.”

With live music from Samba Funk—an Oakland-based Brazilian dance and music collective—and a performance of the national anthem by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the scene downtown felt like a warm homecoming. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf officially endorsed Harris and introduced her as a champion of “Oakland progressive values.”

Feminist pop hits like “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys and “Run The World (Girls)” by Beyonce blared from the loudspeakers. Merchants lining Broadway sold Kamala Harris t-shirts alongside a slew of resistance-themed buttons and bumper stickers with phrases like “Dump Trump,” “Fight Like a Girl” and “Women’s March.” Text on a large screen in the plaza asked people to text “Fearless” to the Harris campaign to get updates.

Born to immigrant parents who met as graduate students at UC Berkeley during the Civil Rights Movement, Harris often touts her East Bay roots. She grew up in Oakland and Berkeley, and after graduating from Howard University where she earned a degree in political science and economics, she returned to the Bay Area for law school. She began her career as an Alameda County Deputy District Attorney, and then spent six years as San Francisco’s District Attorney.

She was elected as California’s Attorney General in 2010. In that role, she introduced police bias training and increased the transparency of justice data, and advocated for foreclosure relief legislation.

As her profile has risen in recent months, some of Harris’ decisions as a prosecutor have been met with criticism from progressives. Many activists say she did not do enough to investigate cases involving police violence, that she supported policies that led to an increase in California’s prison population, and upheld capital punishment despite her personal opposition to it.

Harris served five years as the attorney general before she was elected to the US Senate in 2016. As a senator, she’s worked on a bail reform bill, supported federal marijuana legalization (after opposing it earlier in her career), and voted to pass a federal criminal justice reform bill that would ease mandatory minimum sentences.

She’s also commanded attention for her tough questioning during the Senate’s investigations into Russia’s alleged interference in US elections, was lauded with viral praise online after she grilled then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

The line of people waiting to hear the speech stretched for several city  blocks. Adam Mathers, who had been standing near the front of the line since 8 a.m., drove 10 hours from Vancouver, Washington to attend the rally. “I like that she takes ownership of things people don’t like about her. She is willing to have a conversation about pretty much anything,” said Mathers.  “And I think it’s time for a woman.”

Mary Rhodes, Larry Shulkin, Dina Asfaha, Brittany Meckelborg share their thoughts, hopes, and criticisms regarding the Kamala Harris campaign at its’ launch rally in Oakland. Audio by Mickey Capper.

“Being from Oakland, I’m proud, I’m excited, I’m about to cry right now. I feel Kamala is my sister in my head,” said 52-year-old Kem Juan Simmons.

“The joy I felt when I saw somebody running who looked like me,” said Simmons. “You know, coming up, you’re a kid, you hear what you can’t do. What society kind of puts on black people in general—‘You can’t do that. You can only stay in this area.’ To see her at this level is amazing.”

Janice Anderson-Santos reclined in a folding chair parked along the line waiting to get into the venue. She described Harris as a “longtime friend” she knew from professional work and said she wasn’t surprised to see her former colleague run for president.

“She’s good people,” said Anderson-Santos. “I know that she fights for vulnerable populations, having worked with her.”

“She’s from where I’m from,” said Jamie Fernane, who attended the rally with her 11-year-old son. “I love the way she questions, and how she’s very much who she is. She has moxie.”

But Fernane said she’s heard growing criticism of the candidate criminal justice record. “I think I need to spend a little more time, investigate that a little bit more.”

Around the corner from the plaza, around a dozen protestors gathered. “We’re trying to bring Kamala’s record to the conversation,” said Shane Ruiz, a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America. “We’re trying to make sure people aren’t just engaging in supporting a candidate that they think has been good for black and brown people, but has actually been oppressive of black and brown people.”

“Kamala Harris was a cop, basically the state’s top cop,” said Al Felix of the Oakland Brown Berets, a Chicano civil rights movement.

At nearby Latham Square, organizers from the Sunrise Movement Bay Area gathered to urge Harris to take a bolder stance in support of the Green New Deal, a resolution put forward by freshman U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that aims to create jobs through ambitious reforms to tackle climate change. The group hung up massive yellow banners in the area in support of a Green New Deal.

“Kamala Harris has said she supports the concept of a Green New Deal but she hasn’t said she supports this vision,” said Zoe-Cina-Sklar, a volunteer with the group. “We want to see her say that she doesn’t only support the concept of a Green New Deal, but she supports and will push forward ambitious legislation and ambitious action if she were to be president.”

Many in the crowd Sunday wanted to learn more about the candidate before committing their votes. One attendee, an entertainer who wanted to be identified as “Supergirl of San Francisco,” said she has long admired Harris’s spirit but wanted to learn more about her policy platform.  “I want to see what she has to say,” she said.

Text by Ravleen Kaur, photos by Yasmin Graeml and audio by Mickey Capper. Julie Chang contributed additional reporting for this story. 


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