How Kamala Harris was shaped by 'the People's Republic of Berkeley'

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent


If you want to understand where Kamala Harris is coming from, listen to her talk about Berkeley, Calif. — the city where she spent the first dozen years of her life. Listen, in particular, to how she talks about Berkeley to black audiences.

Last month, Harris swept onstage at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City in her usual uniform — beige blouse, gold necklace, dark pantsuit — to address members of Omega Psi Phi, one of America’s oldest black fraternities. After a few pleasantries, the California senator and top-tier 2020 presidential candidate launched into a recollection of her youth.

Sen. Kamala Harris at the National Action Network convention in New York in April. (Photo: Kristin Callahan/ACE Pictures/Shutterstock)

“I was born,” she declared, “as a daughter of the civil rights movement.” The year was 1964. Donald Harris, Kamala’s father, had come from Jamaica to pursue a doctorate in economics at the University of California, Berkeley; Shyamala Gopalan, her mother, had come from India to do doctoral work in endocrinology. They met in one of the many small activist study groups then forming off campus, and they kept protesting as Berkeley became ground zero for pretty much every left-wing movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

“My sister, Maya, and I, we joke that we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent full time marching and shouting for this thing called ‘justice,’” Harris said in Atlantic City.

Kamala Harris's parents, Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris, with her as a baby. (Photo: courtesy of Kamala Harris)

It’s a story that Harris has told many times before. The reason she relies on it is to explain, and defend, what happened next. Inspired by the “heroes” of her childhood — from civil rights icons such as Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley to the “first generation of black lawyers” to emerge from her “community” in Berkeley — she decided to become a lawyer too.

But not just any lawyer.

“So my family gathered ’round and said, ‘OK, Kamala, so what are you gonna do in your fight for justice?’” Harris recalled. “And I got all excited and I said to them, ‘Well, I’ve decided to become a prosecutor.’”

At the time, Harris knew that black Americans and their liberal allies, especially in the East Bay, saw prosecutors as the enemy — the courtroom representatives of a racist criminal-justice system. And she is well aware that many progressives and African-American voters still feel the same way today. (In the second round of Democratic primary debates, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard gave voice to these concerns when she said Harris was in “a position to make a difference and an impact in these people's lives” but “did not.”)

Which is why, at events like the Omega Psi Phi gathering, Harris always circles back to Berkeley and to the case she constructed while trying to sway her first skeptics.

“If you have any sense of who my family is, you will know that at best they found it a curious decision — and with some of them, I had to defend this decision like one would a thesis,” Harris said onstage. “But what I said is, ‘Look, do we always and only have to be on the outside, trying to change it from the outside, banging down the door on bended knee? Can’t we always also be thinking about how we can be on the inside, where the decisions are being made?’”

In other words, to understand where Kamala Harris is coming from — to understand the choice that has defined her career and will continue to complicate her presidential campaign — you have to understand what she learned, as a young woman, about the power and limitations of being on “the outside, banging down the door on bended knee.”

You have to understand what she learned in the town once known as “the People’s Republic of Berkeley.”

Despite its revolutionary reputation, Berkeley wasn’t always a radical place. In the 1950s, the city was ruled by Republicans; its population was only 12 percent black. Over the next decade, that changed dramatically because of people like Harris’s parents.

Her mother was the more natural activist. Born in 1938 to a Tamil Brahmin family in the southern Indian city now called Chennai, Shyamala Gopalan had a front-row seat to the final stages of the Indian independence movement. Her father, Shri P.V. Gopalan, was a member of the progressive Congress Party who eventually became a high-ranking civil servant, battling corruption and acting as an adviser to newly independent nations, including Zambia, where he resettled refugees. Her mother, Rajam Gopalan, was a proto-feminist community organizer who would drive around in her Volkswagen with a bullhorn, helping women from lower castes access birth control and escape abusive husbands.

Kamala Harris with her mother, Shyamala, center, her sister, Maya, and her maternal grandparents, P.V. and Rajam Gopalan. (Photo: courtesy of Kamala Harris)

Shyamala, a star student and nationally recognized singer, graduated from the University of Delhi at 19, then left home for California. Diminutive, dark-skinned and attuned to injustice, she “chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in [Berkeley’s] black community” from “almost the moment she arrived,” Harris writes in her 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold.” “It was the foundation of her new American life.”

It was also where she would meet her husband. Unlike Shyamala, Donald Harris didn’t come from a political background. But he too had experienced colonial oppression firsthand — Donald was a young man when Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1962 — and in his academic work he explored how Marxist economics could both explain and revive struggling Third World economies.

Later, his leftism would irk more conservative college administrators. After he had a stint as a popular visiting professor at Stanford in the early 1970s, students lobbied the school to “make a firmer commitment to a program in radical political economics” and offer a permanent position to Donald, who was described in the Stanford Daily as “one of two Marxian economists currently in the department.” The chair initially dismissed their demands as “dangerous”; according to one op-ed, Donald’s colleagues saw him as someone who “taught ‘bad’ courses too well” — a “charismatic … pied piper leading students astray from neo-classical economics.” Nonetheless, he continued to go against the grain, developing a graduate program in “alternative approaches to economic analysis” and studying how “uneven development” held back communities of color, both at home and abroad. In 1975, Stanford finally relented and hired him as a full professor.

At the start of the 1960s, however, Donald Harris’s search for “alternative approaches” would bear more fruit off campus than on, where fewer than a hundred of Berkeley’s 20,000 students were black. United by a sense of isolation and displacement, a dozen of them began to gather at the Harmon Street house of Mary Lewis, an undergraduate from Detroit. Shyamala and Donald soon joined the group; Lewis eventually became Shyamala’s “closest confidante” and Kamala’s godmother, according to “The Truths We Hold.”

“I was awed by them,” says early member Aubrey Labrie, whom Kamala eventually came to know as “Uncle Aubrey.” (Lewis was “Aunt Mary.”) “They were intimidatingly smart. They had a determined kind of posture about them.”

Every Sunday, Lewis would host student intellectuals as they “socialized and talked politics incessantly,” writes Donna Jean Murch in “Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California.” “Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were the heroes of some of us,” Labrie recalls. “We would talk about Black Muslims, the liberation movements going on in Africa, everything.”

They would also read. As both Murch and Harris note in their books, the initial syllabus was full of “classic black history texts” such as W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk,” Carter G. Woodson’s “The Miseducation of the Negro” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” But it was the more contentious readings — the ones Harris doesn’t mention — that proved most influential: E. David Cronon’s “Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey,” which celebrated Garvey’s pioneering emphasis on racial pride and self-determination; Melville J. Herskovits’s “The Myth of the Negro Past,” which championed pan-Africanism in culture and religion; E. Franklin Frazier’s “Black Bourgeoisie,” which criticized a compliant black middle class.

Kamala Harris's mother, Shyamala Gopalan, left, and college friend Lenore Pomerance at a protest on the UC Berkeley campus. (Photo: courtesy of Kamala Harris)

As they discussed and debated these books, Murch writes, the study group gradually developed “its own antiassimilationist ideology”: “a reinvigorated, anticolonial Black nationalism,” more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King Jr. By 1963, the organization, now called the Afro-American Association, had quadrupled in size; guest speakers included Fannie Lou Hamer, LeRoi Jones and Maya Angelou. The AAA’s de facto leader, a Berkeley law student named Donald Warden, would go on to mentor Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, two young AAA members from Oakland; Newton and Seale would, in turn, co-found the Black Panther Party in 1966.

The people close to Kamala Harris’s parents were never Black Panthers. But they did embrace an embryonic version of the philosophy that later came to be known as “Black Power”: black pride, black autonomy and the creation of black political and cultural institutions. According to Labrie, Shyamala Gopalan was the original study group’s only non-black member — the exception that proved the rule. “Her inclusion had a lot to do with the fact that we were really supportive of the Third World liberation movement, so we didn’t really get into that whole debate who was ‘black’ or not,” Labrie says. “But I will admit that a white person wouldn’t have been welcome into that kind of setting. It wasn’t because there was hostility towards them. We just felt more confident and comfortable getting our own thoughts and information together as black people.”

In 1964, Gopalan completed her PhD and gave birth to Kamala; her other daughter, Maya, followed two years later. Influenced by the activist community she had chosen, Gopalan made a conscious decision to raise her daughters as black. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls,” Harris explains in her book, “and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women.”

Kamala Harris, left, with her sister, Maya, and mother, Shyamala. Her parents divorced when she was young. (Photo: courtesy of Kamala Harris)

The Harris girls attended nursery school, and later an after-school program, in the home of Labrie’s aunt, a Louisianan named Regina Shelton who papered her walls with posters of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. “The first George Washington Maya and I learned about when we were young was George Washington Carver,” Harris writes. On Thursdays, “Shyamala and the girls” would head to the Rainbow Sign, a black cultural center where visitors could “learn Swahili, attend a book party for Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton, make a batik print, listen to Maya Angelou read from her book of new poems or pull an all-nighter at a jazz festival after-party.”

Harris’s mother and father continued their activism after her birth. “My parents often brought me in a stroller with them to civil rights marches,” she writes. “I have young memories of a sea of legs moving about, of the energy and shouts and chants.”

Harris was too young, of course, to remember precisely which protests her parents attended, but her memoir offers some hints. At one “peaceful” march, she writes, her mom and dad were “attacked by police with hoses”; she’s almost certainly referring to the events of May 14, 1960, the day San Francisco police officers used high-pressure fire hoses to clear out of City Hall’s cavernous rotunda dozens of clean-cut Berkeley students who had come to oppose a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. At another “anti-war protest,” Harris continues, her parents were “confronted by the Hell’s Angels” — a clash that took place days before Kamala’s first birthday, on Oct. 16, 1965, when 16 burly bikers broke through a police line and attacked a Vietnam Day Committee march. Later, Gopalan and her friends were “forced to run for safety, with me in a stroller,” at yet another demonstration that turned violent. “I remember we were boycotting the chain stores — the local branch of Woolworth’s, that sort of thing — in support of the sit-in movement that had started in North Carolina,” says Labrie. “And I remember Kamala was there, her parents pushing her back and forth.”

Police hose demonstrators in San Francisco's City Hall who are protesting against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960. (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Before long, however, the Harrises left Berkeley — first for the University of Illinois in 1966, and then for Northwestern the following year. When Donald Harris took a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin in 1968, he and Gopalan decided to separate. The Harris women returned to California. For Gopalan, now a 30-year-old cancer researcher with two daughters, single parenthood and professional demands took precedence over protesting in the streets.

Yet from their initial residence with Don Harris near campus, and later, from their yellow duplex on Bancroft Way between Browning and Bonar in Berkeley’s multiethnic, working-class flatlands, “Shyamala and the girls” would have absorbed, at close range, some of the most tumultuous events of the 1960s: the Free Speech Movement, the riots on Telegraph Avenue, the Third World Liberation Front. Harris’s childhood was racked by demonstrations, civil disobedience and even violence — much of it unfolding just blocks from her house.

The chaos culminated shortly before Kamala’s fifth birthday with the bloodiest confrontation in Berkeley history. In 1966, conservative Gov. Ronald Reagan had campaigned on a pledge to “clean up the mess in Berkeley”; when a group of radicals sought to establish a “People’s Park” on a patch of university property near campus — then clashed with police, leading to one death and more than 100 injuries — Reagan saw his chance to deliver. Dismissing the city as “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants,” the governor dispatched 2,700 National Guard troops to patrol the Berkeley streets. As many as 6,000 protesters fought back.

In the story that Harris tells about herself, this is the spirit she inherited from Berkeley and carried with her when she left at age 12, bound for Montreal, where her mother had accepted a job teaching at McGill University. Harris often tells a joke about a time she fussed as a toddler. “What do you want?” her mother asked.

“Fweedom!” Baby Kamala yelled back.

The 1969 People's Park riot. (Photo: peoplespark.org)

It’s an effective line — a quick and easy way to assert her street cred and undercut her reputation for caution and calculation. For Harris, “Berkeley” has become shorthand of sorts — a symbol for the idealist she wants the left to see in her.

But if that were the only lesson Harris learned from her hometown, then she might have ended up more like her sister, Maya: a former American Civil Liberties Union director who has long advocated for criminal justice reform — and has never run for office.

The truth is, Berkeley didn’t just teach Harris what outsiders could accomplish. It also taught her what they couldn’t accomplish. In doing so, it inspired her to become the last kind of insider her community could have expected.

Richard Sakai still sounds surprised today. In the 1980s, Sakai was a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and director of the school’s Legal Education Opportunity Program, an affirmative-action initiative for applicants from disadvantaged communities. Harris, who had her undergraduate degree from Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., was part of this program.

Sakai first encountered Harris during LEOP orientation in 1986, where, sitting in the last row of the auditorium, she struck him as a “very quiet individual.” But Harris would soon defy Sakai’s expectations. First, she ran for and won the presidency of the Black Law Students Association in her second year; her initial reserve, Sakai realized, was really just an expression of her “very intense, very inquisitive” personality.

Kamala Harris, right, after graduating from UC Hastings law school in 1989, pictured with her mother Shyamala, center, and her first-grade teacher, Frances Wilson. (Photo: courtesy of Kamala Harris)

Then Harris accepted an externship with the Alameda County DA and decided to become a prosecutor.

“Only a very small percentage of our students went in that direction — less than 10 percent,” explains Sakai, himself a LEOP alumnus. “If you entered into the LEOP program, you were coming from an underrepresented community. The thinking was that it was your obligation, your duty, to go back and represent those communities. I know most of us felt that way. And so to turn around and become a prosecutor, it was like, ‘Wait a minute — whose side are you on?’”

Jeff Adachi felt the same way. The son of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, Adachi had tutored Harris at Hastings; later, when Harris served as San Francisco district attorney, he faced off against her as the city’s elected public defender.

“I recall that she went directly to the DA’s office,” Adachi told radio station KQED earlier this year. (Adachi died of a sudden heart attack in February.) “I was surprised. I was like, ‘You’re gonna be a DA?’

“It wasn’t something you would expect a woman of color to become — a prosecutor,” Adachi explained. He asked Harris why she was doing it.

“That’s how I’m going to change the world,” she said.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Harris had already demonstrated an interest in wielding institutional power. At Howard, she may have occupied the administration building and protested apartheid “almost every weekend,” but she also represented her class on the Liberal Arts Student Council and interned for California Sen. Alan Cranston. And, crucially, she had grown up in pretty much the first American city where activists had done what she was now saying she wanted to do: take over the system and reform it from within.

Kamala Harris, right, protests South African apartheid with classmate Gwen Whitfield on the National Mall in 1982. (Photo: courtesy of Kamala Harris)

While radicals were waging war on the authorities in Oakland, where gun-toting Black Panthers patrolled the streets, “monitoring” the local police, Berkeley chose a different path. There, activists were increasingly becoming the authorities. In 1967, a black antiwar socialist named Ron Dellums was persuaded to run, reluctantly, for the City Council; three years later, Dellums unseated the district’s longtime Democratic congressman. “My seat gave [activists] a voice within ‘the system,’” wrote Dellums, who went on to serve for the next 27 years as one of the most liberal members of Congress.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, other “radicals” followed Dellums’s lead — and in 1971 they won their biggest victory yet. The national headlines told the tale. “The Guard Changes in Berkeley,” declared Ebony magazine. “Radical politicians use novel methods to make ‘System’ work.” Forging an unlikely and unprecedented partnership, young black leftists teamed up with a motley conglomeration of white hippie interest groups to elect the city’s first black mayor, Warren Widener, along with three additional council members.

“That was a really crucial inflection point for Berkeley,” says Scott Saul, a historian and critic at UC Berkeley who has studied how the city changed in the 1970s. “There are always going to be activists feeling the need to be on the outside because they don't want to compromise their vision. But you also start to see a lot of institutions being built with the capacity to change city politics. You see the activists starting to institutionalize their presence.”

The results of this shift were real. Shortly after the new City Council took office, disability activists successfully lobbied their new representatives to launch the world’s first citywide curb-cuts program. In 1973, the city established the Police Review Commission, one of the first civilian police-oversight agencies in the United States. That same year, Berkeley became the first rent-controlled city in California since World War II.

If you had to pinpoint the moment when Harris started to develop an awareness of politics, this would be it: when Berkeley became one of the only places in America where activists had figured out how to elbow their way into “the room where the decisions are being made,” as she likes to put it today.

“It’s a leap that I made, and that a lot of us made,” says Carole Norris, a longtime Berkeley tenants-rights activist who now chairs the city’s Housing Authority. (Norris is also the mother-in-law of Yahoo News Editor in Chief Daniel Klaidman.) “People like me saw that there’s only so much you can do from the outside, and that in order to make real, systemic change, you have to be on the inside.”

The issue for Harris, however, is that the room she decided to elbow her way into — the office of the top prosecutor in San Francisco and, later, the entire state of California — wasn’t the same thing as running for City Council, or mayor, or Congress. Becoming a prosecutor didn’t just mean that Harris would be going inside the system. It meant that she would be leading the very part of the system that progressives and people of color consider most discriminatory and destructive.

Her decision fueled a debate that continues to this day.

Kamala Harris gives her first news conference as California attorney general. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP)

“Among the black law students, there was the feeling that you should do something for social justice — but then it broke down around ‘What is it you do?’” says Keith Wingate, one of Harris’s only black law professors at Hastings. “Now, personally, I didn’t want to be a prosecutor. You go to any major city and look at the criminal docket, it’s overwhelmingly black folks. My sense was that it was a systematic process, and I just wouldn’t have felt comfortable being involved in it.

“So I remember people saying that ‘if you’re a prosecutor, you’re putting black folks in jail,’” Wingate continues. “But others, like Kamala, had a more nuanced view. Their sense was, ‘Wait a minute: If you want to make sure people aren’t processed systematically without any concern for their position or where they came from — if you want a fair process — then you want some black prosecutors.’”

And so, as the Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle recently pointed out, Harris’s “demographic identity has always been radical.” She was the first female, black and Asian-American district attorney in San Francisco and attorney general of California, and only the second black woman ever to be elected to the United States Senate.

But did her radical identity lead to radical reforms? Cottle says no, arguing that Harris has instead avoided saying or doing much that could be held against her. As attorney general, she “declined to support two ballot measures to end the death penalty,” or to support legalizing marijuana or reforming California’s draconian three-strikes law. Harris “had power” but “kept most of it in reserve,” Cottle writes. “More important than fixing the broken criminal-justice system, it seemed, was protecting her status as a rising star.”

Jeff Adachi, the former San Francisco public defender, was equally skeptical of Harris’s “progressive prosecutor” branding — less because of any particular ambition on her part than because the system itself was so powerful.

“You have a person who comes in and says, ‘I can change the system by becoming the system,’” he told KQED. “But it’s a system because the people in power act according to its design. And if you’re a prosecutor, your job is to charge people with crimes and jail them.”

“Progressive prosecutor?” Adachi laughed. “I don’t even recognize that as a term.”

Kamala Harris, then San Francisco County district attorney, at a campaign debate in 2010. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Harris’s defenders disagree, of course. They note that when a gang member killed a cop in her fourth month as San Francisco DA, she refused, as a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, to seek the death penalty, a stance that enraged the police and establishment Democrats. They point out that she pioneered a reentry initiative for young, low-level, first-time drug offenders. They argue that, on her watch, the California Department of Justice became the first statewide law enforcement agency in the country that required officers to wear body cameras. They mention that she implemented a “first of its kind” racial bias training program for police officers. And they say that she did all of this as a black woman at a time when “tough on crime” was the watchword and criminal justice reform had yet to become a mainstream cause.

“The standard prosecutor that black folks were used to was a white man or a white woman who didn't see them or what they had been through,” says Lateefah Simon, a longtime racial justice advocate who went to work with Harris in the DA’s office. “So it took a lot of convincing. I had developed a name for myself as a little radical, and I was like, ‘You want me to leave this thing that I built to, like, work for you in a place that I've been fighting my whole career?’ But Kamala said, ‘You can keep shutting down meetings and cursing and calling everybody pigs. Or you could come into this office and design a program to get people real opportunities and get them out of jail. This is the only carrot and the only stick that we have. Let's be creative. Let's figure it out.’"

For Simon, the experience was a revelation. “It really changed my perspective,” she says. “If you’re going to make institutional change, you have to have folks on the inside working with you to change those things. For me, she was a strategic ally. She, like me, and I, like her, wanted to make some change in a system that had never been run by a person of color, a woman of color. And that’s what we did. Kamala really set the stage for what we now think a progressive prosecutor can do, 15 years later.”

The debate over Harris’s record will go on. But perhaps the most illuminating lens through which to view her career and her candidacy is the one that Simon puts front and center: Make change, yes — but always be “strategic” about it. It’s a lesson that now defines Harris’s narrow, pragmatic campaign proposals, which bypass pie-in-the-sky legislative promises and lean heavily on more achievable executive actions. It’s a lesson that was embodied in the politics of her Berkeley youth, where the children of first-generation activists watched as their parents either succumbed to the system or worked to reshape it from within. And it’s a lesson, Harris recalled at the Omega Psi Phi event last month, that she first learned from her “heroes” back on Bancroft Way — heroes like her “Uncle Sherman,” who was married to Mary Lewis.

Sen. Kamala Harris at a rally in Los Angeles in May. (Photo: Etienne Laurent/EP-EFE/Shutterstock)

“My uncle Sherman, he was an extraordinary community and neighborhood lawyer,” Harris said onstage. “[He] helped raise us in a way that said, ‘Kamala, you can be anything you want to be, but you gotta be smart.’”

“So when I was a young girl,” Harris continued, “Uncle Sherman taught me to play chess. He said, ‘You need to know: Life is like that chessboard. There gonna be all kinds of players on that board. They’ll have all kinds of different moves. You have to think strategically. You have to learn to think about what that tenth move will be before you make that first move.

“‘And if you’re smart,’ he taught me, ‘that pawn can take out that king.’”

Download the Yahoo News app to customize your experience.

Read more from Yahoo News: