Re Kamala vs. Tulsi, Problems Abound

Tulsi Gabbard tore into Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor and attorney general of California during the second Democratic debate. Harris countered by pointing to Gabbard’s low polling numbers and questionable appraisals of world leaders like Bashar al-Assad. They’re both kind of right. (Photo Credit: AFGE/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The second round of Democratic Party presidential debates is behind us, and I think it is safe to say that many of our questions about the field have been answered and a clearer picture of the frontrunner’s identity is emerging.

Kidding! Nothing is certain, everything is chaos, and dark psychic forces threaten to take down the world as we know it. My joking allusion to Marianne Williamson aside (she’s a trip, ain’t she?), things are very much up in the air regarding the path to the Democratic nomination in 2020.

The first night seemed to be a productive one for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, widely acknowledged to be the progressive leaders of the field. On this note, I’m really wondering what the point of CNN trying to showcase the likes of John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, and Tim Ryan was. Were they trying to certify them as mere pretenders? Or was this an attempt to “balance” out the leftists and/or rein them in?

If so, it arguably didn’t work, with Warren and Sanders getting in some of the best lines of the night against their centrist objectors languishing in the lower-polling echelons of the 20+ vying for the party’s presidential nod. Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and even the aforementioned spiritual teacher had their moments. Steve Bullock and his centrist brethren seemingly would be well advised to consider exiting the race as Eric Swalwell has done, but don’t let me, you know, rain on their parades.

The second night I admittedly didn’t watch as closely, but evidently, it had its share of memorable moments, if not more so than the half preceding it. Joe Biden once again seemed underprepared for the event, trying to do a delicate dance with his relationship to Barack Obama’s policies amid attacks from other candidates and apparently short-circuiting when attempting to instruct people to text to a certain number to join his campaign. Cory Booker, in an exchange with Biden on his record as mayor of Newark, accused the elder statesman of “dipping into the Kool-Aid when you don’t even know the flavor.” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, another fringe candidate, faced interruptions from protestors over the city’s handling of Eric Garner’s death, shouting “Fire Pantaleo!” in response to the NYPD’s refusal as of yet to meaningfully hold the officer implicated in that incident accountable for his actions.

Perhaps most notable, however, was Kamala Harris’s disappointing performance in the eyes of her supporters after a triumphant first debate. Much in the way Harris exposed Joe Biden in the first debate on elements of his record, especially his stance on busing, Tulsi Gabbard potentially revealed a crack in her opponent’s façade, assailing her record as a prosecutor and later attorney general of the state of California.

Among Gabbard’s criticisms—which she is not alone in raising, it should be underscored—are accusations that Harris defended the use of the death penalty and brushed off evidence of wrongful convictions, ignored claims from sexual abuse survivors, and laughed off putting people in jail for offenses related to marijuana and truancy in schools. For Harris, trying to paint herself as a progressive leader, the attacks from Gabbard, appeared to broadside her. Cue the umpteen headlines about how Tulsi DESTROYED Harris.

Harris, for her part, fired back at Gabbard following the debate, helping set off a conversation that has spilled over into the days and nights afterward. When prompted by Anderson Cooper about the Hawaiian representative’s withering rebukes, Harris remarked that she doesn’t take the opinions of an “Assad apologist” like Tulsi seriously and demeaned her low polling percentage. Her campaign also invoked the specter of Russian meddling in American elections, suggesting Gabbard’s discourse was emblematic of propaganda from the Putin regime. Gabbard has since derided those comments as “cheap smears” designed to deflect from the real issue at hand concerning the state of criminal justice across the nation today.

It’s easy to take sides and get caught up in the win-or-lose, black-or-white dynamism of today’s political climate; Lord knows plenty of Internet and TV commentators have already taken sides in the war of words between these two women. Not simply to avoid confrontation, however, but there is room to appreciate how we can simultaneously agree and disagree with both candidates.

On Harris’s prosecutorial record, when confronted about it by Gabbard on-stage, she mustered, “I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of the state of 40 million people which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work.”

When asked further about it by Cooper post-debate, meanwhile, she dodged, pivoting to Gabbard’s low polling numbers and record on foreign policy. It suggests Harris is not altogether proud of the work she did or doesn’t want to invite the criticism from progressives. Either way, and regardless of Gabbard’s place among the field, she should have been able to defend herself over the course of the debate rather than after the fact and without her congressional colleague present.

As for Gabbard’s foreign policy stances, it’s, well, complicated. Having served as a medical operations specialist and military police officer in Iraq after enlisting in the Hawaii Army National Guard, she is critical of the policy of American interventionism that has characterized our nation’s foreign policy throughout its history, particularly as it intersects with our involvement in the Middle East. To this effect, she condemns the U.S.’s penchant for insinuating itself in other countries’ affairs in service of regime change and installation of leaders willing to acquiesce to American interests. It’s a position that commentators on both sides of the aisle are wont to defend.

Less defensible, however, is her relationship with autocrats of the Eastern Hemisphere as well as the political right. Gabbard has been adamant about the value of being able to meet with authoritarians like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to further a dialog, and at times has been—how shall we say this?—less than forceful in labeling Assad, for one, a brutal dictator and war criminal. In her own post-debate CNN one-on-one, she had to be pressed by Anderson Cooper on admitting as much. Gabbard has also praised Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Indian People’s Party, a Hindu nationalist party (Gabbard is a practicing Hindu), who has seemingly not done enough to curb sectarian bigotry and violence against Muslims in his country. If we are judging her by the company she keeps/seemingly fails to adequately condemn, Gabbard isn’t above reproach.

On this note, among the Democrats in the field, Gabbard has been a favorite among conservatives ever since her criticism of President Barack Obama for refusing to call jihadists “radical Islamic terrorists,” regularly appearing on FOX News programs like Tucker Carlson’s to discuss her views. Her isolationist worldview and opposition to regime change in Syria appeal to anti-war libertarians and far-right leaders. In the past, she has also opposed civil unions and same-sex marriage, though she has since expressed support for the LGBT community, and voted with Republicans in 2015 to make it harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to immigrate to the United States. When you’re championed by figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke—yes, that David Duke—it raises one’s eyebrows.

One can’t be sure how personally Harris and Gabbard take these matters. At heart, both are still Democrats and after the election, they’ll need to be committed to fighting the GOP’s agenda, whether they serve in Congress or the White House. It’s their supporters and how their relationship is portrayed in the media, on the other hand, about which I tend to worry. It’s one thing for Kamala and her devotees to downplay Gabbard’s charges about her record because the latter is a relative unknown or a supposed stooge of the Kremlin. What if Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg were to offer the same criticisms, though? And what will happen if Harris ultimately wins the nomination? You can be sure Republicans will come at her with this and worse.

As for Gabbard, progressives, some of whom are Bernie supporters who have favorable opinions about her since she became the first congresswoman to support him in his 2016 bid for the presidency, might cheer the notion of Harris being taken down a peg. Even if Gabbard does hold numerous positions agreeable to progressives and regardless of the fact she was the most Googled candidate after either round of debates, the reluctance at points to come down harder on Assad and other despots is problematic. At best, it’s something of a blind spot. At worst, it’s something more sinister, though this is not to accuse her in such a regard or anything. It’s simply troubling.

You can agree with Tulsi Gabbard’s remarks about Kamala Harris while still demanding accountability for her past votes and interactions with various world leaders. You can support Harris and dismiss Gabbard’s claims about her pre-Senate career, but you can also recognize this is a vulnerability of hers. Preferring a candidate doesn’t mean you need to apologize for her or him, nor does it mean you have to feed the media narrative of a “blood feud” or “catfight” by arguing with the other candidate’s backers on Twitter. At a time when social media helps amplify acrimony in political discourse, there’s room for a lot of ugliness in its elaboration. Two debates in, potential bad omens loom in the distance.


For me, the nature of the ad hominem attacks levied by Kamala Harris at Tulsi Gabbard and echoed by supporters of these candidates and those of other political figures is deeply disconcerting. As you’ll recall, Harris’s campaign, in deflecting from the matter of her checkered record within the purview of the California justice system, invoked Russian interference in our elections as a potential reason for why Gabbard might attack her in this way. Even before this, meanwhile, corporate media were making the connection between Tulsi and Russia.

It should be no wonder, then, that accusations of Gabbard being an operative of the Kremlin or her defenders being Russian bots were flying around wildly after the debates. To be fair, Russian meddling is a real concern for our country. The U.S. intelligence community has made this abundantly clear. That said, suspicion of criticism levied at an establishment-backed candidate like Kamala, feeding itself like the ouroboros eating its own tail, verges on McCarthyite paranoia. What about Bernie? He went to Russia once. Is he a tool of the Kremlin? How do I know you’re not a Russian bot? Your papers, please!

Even when people aren’t claiming that Vladimir Putin and the Russians are loving the debates for the discord and confusion they’ve supposedly helped sow within the American electorate, Democratic supporters and news outlets are keen to advance the theory that all this in-fighting hurts the Democrats and will only lead to re-electing Donald Trump. By now, Republicans are well practiced at making assertions like “Democrats want open borders” and “they’re trying to turn America into a socialist country” in standing by their man.

Both rank-and-file members and party elites seem to forget, though, that primaries are designed to parse out the differences between candidates in search of a single nominee. This is to say that, for a “big-tent” association like the Democratic Party, disagreements are inevitable, and besides, there is yet ample time to come to a single choice. Moreover, on the subject of GOP talking points, even Pete Buttigieg, backed in part by wealthy donors and Wall Street money, recognizes that these attacks from Trump and Co. are liable to frame the Dems as “socialists” no matter who ultimately gets the party nod.

Such is the nature of the beast in modern politics. Heck, even moderate Democrats might levy the same charges against certain members of the field. When alignments with billion-dollar industries and prevailing opinions about the necessity of hewing toward the center to win elections are at stake, leftists may be assailed by anyone to their right, regardless of party affiliation. Talk about your knock-down, drag-out fights.

November 2020 is coming up soon enough. There are still several debates to be had, however, not to mention elections in 2019 that stand to yet more directly impact our lives. Relatedly, it’s one thing if we use these debates to have an honest conversation about the candidates, their policy positions, and the future of the Democratic Party. It’s quite another if we allow ourselves to be swept up by divisive narratives which border on conspiracy theories and use mudslinging and personal attacks to squelch the kind of open discussions we should be having. Under the latter set of circumstances, it may not matter how active Russian agents are in trying to promote chaos. Not when all we need is the slightest push.

Black Lives Matter, but Personal Histories Don’t

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Say what you want about Alton Sterling’s past, but in the incident that led to his passing, those details don’t matter. (Photo retrieved from Facebook)

For people who don’t favor the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seemingly have a problem with African-Americans existing in some form or another, there are explanations for why blacks in any given situation are wrong. It’s not Black Lives Matter—it’s All Lives Matter. They don’t care about reforming a broken criminal system or ending disproportionate violence towards minoritiesthey only advocate killing cops. That girl in the classroom slammed to the ground for refusing to leave class? She should have listened to the cop! Eric Garner? He shouldn’t have been selling loose cigarettes! Trayvon Martin? He shouldn’t have been wearing that suspicious hoodie! All those black characters dying in The Walking Dead? They should have known what happens to black people in horror movies and TV shows! OK, that last one was meant to be kind of silly. Kind of.

Time and again, in cases in which black suspects are injured or killed at the hands of the police, two major criticisms will be lobbied at the person who is, by many accounts, the victim, but only ostensibly so, as far as others are concerned. As I see it, they are:

1. “They shouldn’t have been resisting.”

OK, let’s deconstruct this idea as viewed through the lens of a recent shooting, of which I’m sure you’ve heard by now. From what we know or have read, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was selling CDs and DVDs outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5. Reportedly, he was approached by a homeless man asking for money in a persistent manner, whereupon Sterling showed him his gun and said something to the effect of “I told you to leave me alone.” Sure, we might have preferred if Alton would have treated his solicitor in a, shall we say, more Christian manner, but who among us hasn’t been abrupt or less than charitable with someone begging for even pocket change? Or called them “bums?” As John Oliver puts it, referencing a quote from Ivanka Trump with respect to her father, Donald Trump, pointing to a homeless person and saying “that bum” had $8 billion more than him, owing to his debt at the time: “That really shows you the indomitable spirit of Donald Trump. To fall to his lowest point, and in that very moment, still find a way to be kind of a dick to a homeless guy.” We may shake our headsand in Trump’s case, start researching the logistics of moving to Canada should he win the presidency—but this is no crime, and certainly not an offense warranting death.

Whether he felt legitimately threatened or not, the fateful events leading to Alton Sterling’s demise, according to a CNN report by Joshua Berlinger, Nick Valencia and Steve Almasy, were precipitated by that homeless man calling 911 on his cell phone (let’s table any sidebars about a homeless person having a cell phone for the moment, shall we?) and reporting a man “brandishing a gun.” This necessitated the intervention of police, though apparently, Sterling was not immediately aware of why he was being confronted by officers. In a video included within the CNN report, a “pop” is heard, and Alton is told to get on the ground, but given little more than a moment to react, he is pulled over the hood of a car by one officer and slammed to the ground, whereupon he is helped by a second officer to keep him down. Seconds later, someone yells that Sterling has a gun, whereupon the two officers frantically pull their weapons. Not soon after, the fatal shots are delivered, with horrified onlookers reacting viscerally to what they witnessed.

Could Alton Sterling have been more physically still in this scenario? Sure, although when you’ve just been body-slammed by a large police officer, and you’re not completely sure why you’re being accosted in the first place, you’re probably not thinking all that rationally. Either way, I don’t know that I would be considering his actions or motions resisting, and moreover, outgunned and outnumbered, even if he were resisting, was he genuinely in a position to react in a way that made the officers’ use of deadly force appropriate? Put another way, is this the only way that scenario could have played out? Could Sterling have been subdued by a Taser or other means of incapacitation rather than bullets being spent?

These questions are, to varying extents, rhetorical ones, but let’s not demean the notion that tough decisions based on judgment have to be made by police in these situations, and that their own personal safety is at risk. Nonetheless, as trained, uniformed defenders of the public’s safety, there is some level of assumption of risk in the line of duty, and I submit, an onus on the officer or officers to act responsibly. That Alton Sterling’s detractors would be so quick to deflect responsibility onto him seems patently unfair, if not understating the capabilities and discretion of the officers. We spend so much time building up the men and women who serve and protect the public interest, and often justifiably so, but let’s put accountability where it belongs all the way around.

2. “Well, he was no saint.”

OK, so this hypothetical argument is at the heart of my post here, and while my concerns are very real with respect to the role of the police in the course of interactions with potential criminal suspects, from an outsider’s perspective, arguments about the background and possible criminal history of someone who dies at the hands of officers, in my view, utilize a fundamentally flawed logic. Not soon after the events leading to Alton Sterling’s death, Jessica McBride of Heavy authored a post advertising his “arrest record, criminal history, and rap sheet,” which may have been phrased in this way for dramatic effect, but is notably redundant; a “criminal record” and “rap sheet” are the same thing, and this appears to serve only to either generate more hits for this article or lead the reader into believing he was some sort of degenerate.

The post, which includes an exhaustive display of the physical documentation of his relationship with the law prior to, as some see it, his “lynching” at the hands of uniformed police, ticks off the evidence which apparently lends itself to portraying Sterling’s troubled history with the boys and girls in blue. As McBride outlines, per an affidavit of probable cause from 2009, Alton Sterling was involved in a “wrestling match” with a police officer after resisting arrest, an event in which he (Sterling) was in the possession of a semi-automatic weapon. Sterling was also a registered sex offender after being convicted of “carnal knowledge of a juvenile”—Louisiana’s seemingly antiquated way of saying “statutory rape”—in 2000 and serving four years in jail. Lest this seem especially egregious, Alton was only 20 at the time of his conviction, so while this is not meant to exonerate him, it does give context to the notion he may not have been all that mature and well-developed with respect to his regard for obeying the law. There are other offenses highlighted in the Heavy piece, too, including Alton Sterling’s conviction in 2011 for “knowingly and intentionally possessing a firearm while in possession of a controlled dangerous substance,” in this case, marijuana, a drug many contend should be legal, and domestic battery in 2008.

These violations of the law are all well and good, but any insinuation that Sterling “deserved” his fate suffers from one or more serious errors in logic. Firstly, the bulk of the offenses referenced in Jessica McBride’s piece on happened over five years ago. This is not to excuse Sterling’s behavior, mind you, but it does provide context to his criminal history. Since that time, perhaps Alton Sterling had changed. Perhaps not. Regardless, we’ll never know now, and it’s a little disingenuous to assume he hadn’t. Secondly, as the CNN report above makes explicit, there’s no evidence that the officers who responded to the 911 call knew of Sterling’s criminal history. So, while this may help frame some people’s understanding of the situation better according to the narrative of crime perpetrated by blacks that they would like to believe, this doesn’t necessarily mean Alton Sterling’s past was a factor in this incident. Thirdly, and most importantly, it shouldn’t matter what Sterling did or did not do prior to the events at the convenience store. Whether the suspect is black or white, sex offender or not, protocol should be followed. To stress, I respect that police offenders should be on high alert in the case of a weapon, as their personal safety and life may hang in the balance. All this aside, firing shots should be a last resort, and yet you get the sense in this shooting that the officers at the scene were all too ready to pull the trigger. If a supposed “Ferguson effect” exists, it didn’t appear to manifest itself here.

It seemingly gets worse in consideration of Philando Castile’s track record prior to his being gunned down at what should have been a routine traffic stop. Hmm, who could we trust to provide us with this historical documentation and information? Why, no other than Ms. Jessie-on-the-Spot herself—Jessica McBride! Castile, stopped for a busted taillight and fatally shot after attempting to make it clear to the officer that he had a gun on him (legally) and was trying to get his wallet to produce his identification, had numerous traffic offenses on his record. Aside from these relatively minor infractions, though? Two drug incidents, in which the charges were ultimately dismissed, and no felony or violent criminal record. I don’t care if Philando Castile were green and had tentacles for arms—it’s a hard sell to insist the lethal force used on him was appropriate.


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Philando Castile was murdered at the hands of police. Yes, murdered. You’re not disrespecting police officers by acknowledging this truth. (Photo retrieved from Facebook)

I started planning out and writing this piece after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and before the killing of five officers in Dallas and the injury to more. Suffice it to say, this event in it of itself is a tragedy, and their assassin is not only clearly wrong to bring more death to this world, but a coward on top of it for sniping unsuspecting victims. Certainly, there is a point to be made about the prevalence of guns in America as a factor in all these cases, though I don’t feel the gun control issue should predominate the conversation. I also don’t wish for what happened in Dallas to overshadow what I believe were the wrongs done in Louisiana and Minnesota.

The officers in Texas were killed in cold blood by a madman, recluse or whatever term you feel you want to use; while we’re delving into people’s criminal records, it’s worth noting the shooter had no criminal record and served his country as an Army reservist. This is undeniable. But Castile and Sterling were murdered in their own right, and in their case, it was those with badges who perpetrated it. Because it must apparently continue to be a refrain, this is not a blanket condemnation of all police. Most officers, I believe, do the right thing. Some do not, however, and when the criminal justice system and law enforcement officials conspire to deflect blame and shield those who did wrong from criticism and due consequences, those officials and systems are not above their own criticism and scrutiny. For those who would supplant Black Lives Matter with the insistence “Blue Lives Matter,” I agree those who serve the public interest should be lauded, but not deified. Again, if anything, we should be holding them to higher standards.

I wouldn’t wish what happened to the slain officers and their families on my worst enemy. Theirs is a loss I couldn’t even begin to try to comprehend. That said, if this collective violence of the past few days provides them with a broader perspective on the pain so many Americans feel right now—especially within the larger black community—these killings won’t be for nothing. In 2015, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that black Americans are four times as likely to describe violence against civilians by police officers as an “extremely” or “very” serious problem, and that, while more than 80% of blacks say police are too quick to use deadly force, two-thirds of white respondents label police use of force as necessary, and six out of ten white respondents believe race is not a factor in the use of force. These are huge disparities, and suggest we have a long way to go before we can say we are having an authentic conversation about race in the United States today. If “all lives matter” as much as we might insist, we need to realize the issue of violence related to encounters between civilians and police is a shared human burden. Seven citizens died in much-publicized ways this past week, and that is the essential notion here.